10 of the Best Rock ‘n’ Roll Bassists: From Paul McCartney to Flea

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

It’s hard to ignore an incredible wailing guitar solo or poignant lyrics accompanied by a heartbreaking vocal, but one aspect of music that is deeply integral to the makings of a great song and yet is often underappreciated is the bass.

Whether it’s Paul McCartney’s hypnotic riff on “Come Together” or Bootsy Collins’ grooving line from James Brown’s “Sex Machine,” a great bass line can not only ground the song but make it rise to new heights. Below, in no particular order, we’re going through 10 bassists that excelled way beyond their rhythm section duties and become icons right alongside the flashy frontman or enigmatic drummers of their bands.

1. Jack Bruce – Cream

Eric Clapton and Ginger Baker often get the brunt of the attention when it comes to Cream, but it was Jack Bruce’s bass riffs that gave the group enough power to round out the power trio. While Clapton was moving wildly up and down the fretboard and Baker was undergoing jazzy exploration on the drums, Bruce was grounding the band with heavy bass lines that kept things on track.

2. Paul McCartney – The Beatles

Paul McCartney gets so much attention (and rightfully so) for his songwriting in The Beatles, that his prowess on the bass can often be overlooked. But if you listen to any Beatles record, you’ll be hard-pressed to dismiss the melodic bass parts McCartney was delivering.

He took on the role somewhat reluctantly after the band’s original bassist, Stuart Sutcliffe, left the group and no one was quick to raise their hand. Despite any reservations, he quickly mastered it adding yet another instrument to his repertoire.

3. Tina Weymouth – The Talking Heads

The Talking Heads’ breakthrough single “Psycho Killer” sets an ominous mood before frontman David Byrne even gets to the lyric. It’s Tina Weymouth’s haunting bass line that first introduced one of the most experimental and influential rock bands in history.

Along with bass duties, Weymouth took on a critical role in the band’s songwriting. According to drummer and Weymouth’s husband, Chris Frantz, “Had there been no Tina Weymouth in Talking Heads, we would be just another band.”

4. Bootsy Collins – James Brown, Parliament, Funkadelic

Bootsy Collins has gone by many names—namely, “Bootzilla,” “Casper the Friendly Ghost” or “The World’s Only Rhinestone Rock Star Doll, Baba” (quite the mouth full). All of the monikers add up to one notion: bass playing that redefined soul and funk for an entire era.

Collins first made waves as part of James Brown’s backing group. Later he stretched his legs playing trippy wah-wah bass in Parliament and Funkadelic before becoming a solo star in his own Rubber Band. His star playing was coupled with star-shaped sunglasses and a matching bass further emblematizing this iconic musician.

5. Carole Kaye – Sam Cooke, The Beach Boys, The Wrecking Crew

Carole Kaye cut her teeth in ’50s jazz clubs, breaking out as a studio guitarist for hitmakers like Sam Cooke. After finding her footing in the music scene, she went on to become one of the most recorded bassists of all time—with more than 10,000 tracks to her name.

From the glittering swing of the Beach Boys’ “Help Me, Rhonda” to Richie Valens’ classic version of “La Bamba to Frank and Nancy Sinatra’s 1967 rendition of “Somethin’ Stupid,” Kaye has made her mark across a wide breadth of music.

6. John Entwistle – The Who

John Entwistle was trained on the piano and French horn before he found his way to the bass. He played it like a lead instrument, often matching Pete Townshend’s guitar playing in intensity. His solo on “My Generation” is arguably one of the most iconic bass solos in all of rock history. Though The Who carried on in his absence after his death in 2002, the lack of Entwistle’s contribution is felt.

7. Cliff Burton – Metallica

Metallica’s early albums have gone on to inspire legions of metal bands, with Cliff Burton’s bass parts being taken as scripture. Though his catalog with the band is slim – Kill ‘Em AllRide the Lightning, and Master of Puppets – it is influential enough to secure his place in the annals of rock history.

Burton tragically died in 1986 when the band’s tour bus flipped over in Sweden. The band has carried on to great success but their still many Burton stalwarts out there.

8. John Paul Jones – Led Zeppelin

Before John Paul Jones even joined the ranks of Led Zeppelin he was garnering a reputation as one of the best session bassists in England. He played on tracks by Jeff Beck, Cat Stevens, and many other staples of the era.

When he formed Zeppelin with frontman Robert Plant, drummer John Bonham, and guitarist Jimmy Page, they went on to be one of the most powerful rock outfits in history. Though Jones often stuck to the background (like many a bassist had) he was undoubtedly the backbone of their sound.

9. Geddy Lee – Rush

Geddy Lee is a one-man rhythm section. Playing the bass, keyboards, and taking on lead vocal duties (sometimes all at once with foot pedals), you can’t ignore Lee’s contribution to Rush.

He rails on the strings of the bass and focuses on the high treble. His playing eventually inspired Fender to release the Geddy Lee Jazz Bass signature model in 1988.

10. Flea – Red Hot Chili Peppers

While many bass players are often the reserved, quiet ones of the group, Flea takes that stereotype, runs it over, and keeps on trekking.

The mononym bassist was originally inspired by bassists in the early ’80s Los Angeles punk scene, but it was Bootsy Collins’ playing that really led Flea to find his signature “slap” style. It’s hard to take your eyes off him as he bounds around the stage, rivaling frontman Anthony Kiedis for command of the stage.

Paul McCartney Photo: MJ Kim / Nasty Little Man

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