Music  |  Lists

The 20 Most Underrated Bass Guitarists

October 12, 2011  |  9:42am
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10. DONALD “DUCK” DUNN
Notable Band(s):
Booker T. & the M.G.s / session bassist

Donald “Duck” Dunn is the white guy who made Motown funky, becoming one of the most crucial session players for Stax Records where he laid down countless memorable soul-, blues- and gospel-oriented basslines. He went on to anchor the talents of artists such as Jerry Lee Lewis, Eric Clapton, Neil Young, Bob Dylan and Creedence Clearwater Revival, to name just a few. Perhaps his most famous role, though, is as a longtime member of instrumental soul group Booker T. & the M.G.s, who have influenced every generation of soul and R&B players with their pioneering style. (Side note: He was also an original member of the legendary Blues Brothers.)



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9. ROCCO PRESTIA
Notable Band(s):
Tower of Power

Without the lightning-fast fingerstyle technique of Francis Prestia, better known as “Rocco,” Jaco Pastorius may never have become the legend he was. But in the eye of the public, the Tower of Power bassist doesn’t get enough credit outside of his role in the band. Inside the groundbreaking funk group, Prestia held down a relentlessly funky low end, demonstrating a high level of tone precision, often lightly muting the strings to acheive a specific clipped, propulsive sound.



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8. TIM COMMERFORD
Notable Band(s):
Rage Against the Machine

Beneath the wildly inventive guitar wizardry of Tom Morello, Rage’s Tim Commerford lays down straightforward, no-frills riffs that are as sparse as they are meaty and full. One of the best examples of restraint in bass playing, especially on the heavier side of music, he doesn’t waste a single note in any of his grooves, and embellishments are kept to a bare minimum so when they leap out of his locked-in, machine-like grooves like they do from time to time, the result is nothing short of thrilling.



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7. STING
Notable Band(s):
The Police / solo artist

Gordon Sumner, better known as Sting, has become a huge star in his own right, a persona as much as a musician, but people seem to forget how phenomenal his bass work with The Police truly was. Sporting a lively, vibrant technique that served to complement drummer Stewart Copeland’s skittering hi-hat beats, Sting incorporated flashes of everything from punk rock to jazz to reggae to world music to art-pop into his playing to produce a seamless, energy-filled and ultimately stylish end result.



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6. COLIN GREENWOOD
Notable Band(s):
Radiohead

It’s understandable that Colin Greenwood gets overlooked as a bass player — his style is super-minimal and always buried within the multilayered sonic depths of Radiohead’s sound. But Greenwood never forgets about the overall song, often giving the band’s airy, avant-garde textures direction and definition that propel them along. Greenwood is also a master of refined note placement, often playing very sporadic, simple lines (as in “15 Step”) or parts that irregularly chop up the beat in dizzying fashion (“Airbag”).



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5. PAUL McCARTNEY
Notable Band(s):
The Beatles / Wings / solo artist

Before everyone starts flaming me for putting a high-profile dude like Sir Paul on the list, let me clarify: Paul McCartney is not an underrated artist, songwriter or vocalist. But when people mention the former Beatle, his bass playing is seldom part of the discussion. In reality, McCartney was a highly capable, dexterous multi-instrumentalist, but the groundwork of his strong knack for melody was laid out on the bass guitar. In The Beatles and Wings, Paul contributed well-rounded, perfectly crafted basslines with smooth, effortless and singable melodic movement.



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4. PINO PALLADINO
Notable Band(s):
John Mayer Trio / session bassist

Mostly a behind-the-scenes figure, Welsh native Pino Palladino has built a career on understated playing and a firm grasp of multiple genres. Over the course of over 30 years he’s become one of the most high-demand session bassists in music, lending his consistently solid sense of groove to the likes of Paul Young, Don Henley, Phil Collins, David Gilmour, Tears for Fears and, most prominently, John Mayer as a member of his short-lived Trio. Palladino also became renowned for his fluid fretless bass work.



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3. JAMES JAMERSON
Notable Band(s):
session bassist

Known as the man behind the classic Motown music, James Jamerson was the uncredited session bassist on most of Motown Records’ ’60s recordings. He contributed the distinct, memorable lines to an abundance of hits, which include “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” and “You Can’t Hurry Love,” introducing a bass-playing style rooted in improvisation, syncopation and a prominent sense of melody that changed the restricted way bass had previously functioned in popular music.



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2. TONY LEVIN
Notable Band(s):
King Crimson / Peter Gabriel / Liquid Tension Experiment / session bassist

There is nobody quite like Tony Levin, one of the most criminally underappreciated bassists in progressive rock. For one, he’s contributed his brain-warping, technically stunning low end to Peter Gabriel and the second incarnation of King Crimson (not easy feats), but even more unusual is his approach to playing. He is credited with inventing “funk fingers,” which are a shortened, modified kind of drumsticks he wears on his index and middle fingers to produce an ultra-springy, otherworldly funk sound. He was also one of the first people to regularly use the Chapman stick, a 12-string polyphonic instrument that covers multiple registers of different instruments.



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1. JOHN PAUL JONES
Notable Band(s):
Led Zeppelin / Them Crooked Vultures

For the amount of adulation placed upon Robert Plant, Jimmy Page and John Bonham, the name “John Paul Jones” certainly turns less heads, but the former Led Zeppelin bassist has long been dubbed the band’s “secret weapon” by hardcore fans. A proficient multi-instrumentalist, doubling on keyboards but also skilled at instruments like mandolin, flute and recorder, Jones’ bass playing was, though technically top-notch, consistently understated and intricate, providing the crucial bedrock for Page’s bold guitar riffs. His basslines often start out barely detectable before rising slowly from underneath the drum and guitar work, serving as subtle but effective counterpoint. What’s more, J.P.J. has always played with a keen eye for the tune’s overall arrangement.

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