The 10 Greatest Rock Bassists of All Time

Me (right), God help me, and Billy Sheehan circa 1990.
Me (right), God help me, and Billy Sheehan circa 1990.

Last week, Neph Basedow wrote her list of the 11 greatest female rock bass players and she took a little heat for it, including some from me. But, she also got a lot right. At the very least, she highlighted the most under-appreciated musician in rock music, the bassist.

I should know; I started playing the instrument almost 30 years ago. Like many others, I wanted to be really good, but it was tough when everyone thought you were playing the easiest instrument on the planet. As I've answered many times to people who ask if that is true, "It's probably the easiest to learn, but likely the most difficult to be great at." Bassists have limited resources and, especially in rock music, are relegated to holding down the spot between the drummer and the guitarist (unless you're in the Black Keys or the White Stripes).

But anyone who has played with a great bassist and then played with a shitty one knows just how important a distinction it is. So, I thought it might be a good idea to make my own list, but I'll stick with some of Neph's premises; namely, no session musicians (bye bye, Chuck Rainey and Will Lee), only people in bands inarguably playing rock music (see ya, Paul McCartney, James Jamerson and Bootsy Collins) and no one doing a lot of instrumental music (so long, Tony Levin and Victor Wooten). Oh, and I've had enough 11s lately, so I'm sticking with 10.

10. Billy Sheehan (Talas, David Lee Roth, Mr. Big)

Perhaps it's the haze of hairspray in the 80s that causes so many to overlook one of the great innovators of rock bass playing, but there is no denying that Sheehan was shredding with the best of the guitar players (still is) when that meant something in rock music.

9. Christopher Wolstenholme (Muse)

I hesitated to include anyone super recent who wasn't a speed metal guy, but the reality is that Wolstenholme belongs on this list. The guy not only has chops out the ying yang, he can hold down a groove and carve out a spot in a band as layered and tightly packed as you'll find in music.

8. Jack Bruce (Cream)

There are certain guys that precede nearly everyone and form the equivalent of the founding fathers of rock bass and Bruce is one of them. His beefy, blues-based riffs that held down one of the great trios in music history easily earn him a top 10 nod.

7. Les Claypool (Primus)

Normally, the weirdest guy in the building on bass, Claypool is often also the most talented. He transcended traditional rock bass at a time when most everyone played it safe. He went as far out on a limb as you can go and was good enough that everyone went with him.

6. (tie) Cliff Burton (Metallica) and Steve Harris (Iron Maiden)

I put these two giants of metal bass together because they were both innovators who, in many ways, were the true voices of their respective bands. Burton, in look and in sound, was terrifying and original in a way that Metallica could never reclaim after his death. Harris taught a legion of musicians that you could build a damn groovy backbeat underneath a wall of distorted guitars. 

5. John Deacon (Queen)

It's difficult to quantify just how great Deacon was because he was so overshadowed (like most bass players) by his dynamic singer and virtuoso guitarist. But, Deacon brought backbone and muscle to a band that had power to spare and his ability to keep up with the complexity of the talented guys around him was astounding.

4. Flea (Red Hot Chili Peppers)

I was reticent to like Flea when I first heard him, having grown up on Larry Graham and Louis Johnson, the guys from whom Flea pilfered his funk. But, when I began to listen more closely, it was clear that Flea took what his heroes did and not only made it his own, he delivered it to a completely new place that changed a generation of bass players for the better.

3. John Paul Jones (Led Zeppelin)

Honestly, this guy was my hero. No rock bass player has ever been or will ever be as thoroughly nasty and funky at the same time as Jones. He and John Bonham form what must be the greatest rock rhythm section God could invent. His parts weren't just complex and precise, they were the glue that held Zep together.

2. Geddy Lee (Rush)

Perhaps no one has influenced more bass players for the better and for the worse than Lee. His style and his sound -- at least until a change of instruments in the 90s -- were so identifiable, it was almost impossible to learn his bass lines and not sound like him. But what most don't recognize about Lee is that, in a band virtually devoid of funkiness, Lee had a groove which he played with the intensity of a rock musician and the dexterity of jazz sideman.

1. John Entwistle (The Who)

If Entwistle isn't number one on your list of greatest bass players of all time, you probably don't understand the instrument. It's not just that he was a great player (he was) or that he had monumental chops (he did). It was the fact that he delivered them in what must have been one of the most chaotic musical quartets ever. He nimbly played off Keith Moon and thundered beneath Pete Townsend. And in between, he found time to solo in ways that made (and make) musicians gasp with envy.

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