How Many of These 6 Best Classic Rock Bassists Would It Take to Change a Light Bulb?

Sure, you could say none since the keyboard player could just do it with his left hand. But in this special case, you’d want to forgo the ivories-tickler for any one of these classic rock bass maestros.

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The bass guitar is probably the most underrated instrument in the annals of rock and roll. It’s not showy like the electric guitar or organ, and it doesn’t stand out in the same way as the drums. Imagine a house with a shaky foundation, and you get the idea of what happens to a rock song that doesn’t have the bass delivering what’s necessary—which is, to provide the sonic connective tissue between the non-melodic drums and the melodic instruments so the lyrics and melodies can do their thing.

The six bass players on this list stand out from the hundreds of other wonderful high-profile rock bass players who we could’ve mentioned in ways both subtle and obvious. But they all share in an uncanny ability to lay down a steady rhythm with their partners in crime, the drummers, to deftly enable some of the great popular music in history.

1. Paul McCartney

McCartney only started playing bass with The Beatles because nobody else in the band wanted to do it (a typical path to ending up with the instrument). Playing southpaw and usually using the violin-shaped Hofner bass, Macca followed the lead of James Jamerson, whose bottom end could be heard on so many Motown hits, in making his bass part an extra source of melody. As if he and John Lennon weren’t tuneful enough with their songwriting efforts, these bass lines pushed Beatles songs over the edge to a level of catchiness that no music has matched since. It’s no surprise that the tunefulness continued throughout his work with Wings and into his solo career.

2. Jack Bruce

The idea of a power trio was only in its nascent form when Bruce hooked up with drummer Ginger Baker and guitarist Eric Clapton to form Cream. This format requires that the bass be a little bit more upfront in the mix, which would mean trouble if the bassist couldn’t get the job done. Bruce accepted that challenge and ran with it, often playing a bold part that would provide the song’s musical hook, which in turn allowed Clapton and Baker to indulge in whatever flights of fancy they wished. Cream was a bit too explosive, both musically and personally, to last too long, but the work Bruce delivered with the band influenced countless players who came after him.

3. John Entwistle

Three of The Who’s classic four-piece lineup had outsized personalities, which made it somewhat easy to overlook Entwistle. At least until you heard him play. This was a quartet who played what they deemed “maximum R&B,” the “maximum” referring in no small part to the volume with which they played. Yet Entwistle was able to combine his throbbing bottom end with the ability to take off on melodic runs when need be. And that need ultimately arose on the regular, resulting in a playing style that could essentially be consider “lead bass.”

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Entwistle’s contribution was an indispensable part of every era of the band, from their earliest high-energy singles, through the period of concept albums like Tommy, all the way to the late ‘70s and early ‘80s when they settled into a more streamlined approach.

4. Rick Danko

Focus on Rick Danko during The Last Waltz, the movie made of The Band’s legendary final concert, and you’ll see what appears to be a man possessed by the groove he’s helping create, his head bobbing and his body shaking in ecstatic herky-jerky time. When you listen to their studio music, you might find your own body parts doing the same, as Danko’s loose-limbed work, in conjunction with Levon Helm’s drumming, gave the quintet a rhythmic bed that was playful and unpredictable in all the best ways. Listen to the dip he provides in “Up on Cripple Creek” for just one example. Danko joined the other members of The Band in being absolute aces as individual players who could nonetheless somehow subdue their egos (in a musical setting, at least) for the sake of the songs.

5. Tina Weymouth

Weymouth learned to play bass on the fly when she, her eventual husband (and rhythm section partner) Chris Frantz, and David Byrne formed Talking Heads (soon to be joined by Jerry Harrison). Yet she quickly developed a style that made them the most danceable rock band of their time. When Talking Heads began working with producer Brian Eno, Weymouth’s individual parts proved an essential part of the way the songs on classic albums like Remain in Light were constructed from the ground up before eventually reaching glorious heights. 

6. Geddy Lee

The compositions of Rush were so inventive and potentially unwieldy that it wouldn’t have taken much for them to go wildly off track. Yet through all the complex time signatures and sudden thematic shifts, Lee was the guy who kept things rolling inexorably forward. Rush never let the fact that they only had three members stop them from going for the gusto on every single track. Lee could be the driving force in that quest, or the bedrock. He could dive down into the depths, or soar with shockingly mellifluous runs. Along with Alex Lifeson on guitar and the late Neil Peart on drums, Lee helped to take prog rock into a new era that embraced technology without sacrificing the chemistry of a tight trio.

Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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