First things first: Nearly all bass players are, by definition, underrated and overlooked, since the focal point is usually the lead singer or the guitarist. But even in discussions of great bass guitarists, a select few names get thrown around all the time: Victor Wooten, Flea, Les Claypool, Geddy Lee, etc.. So this week we thought we’d pay tribute to a few of the less-celebrated bass guitarists with fantastic chops from the past several decades of popular music.
20. ROY MITCHELL-CÁRDENAS
Mexican-American bassist Roy Mitchell-Cárdenas has a unique, multi-stylistic approach to the bass that colors Mutemath’s diverse sonic palette. He’s proven himself adept in the rock, jazz, funk and salsa idioms and can play numerous other instruments, including upright bass, guitar, drums and keyboards. In Mutemath, his active bass lines are largely responsible for the band’s distinct Latin flavor. Aside from his main gig, Mitchell-Cárdenas has served as a prolific session bassist and has been performing with bands since the age of 12.
Photo by Sabrina Dietrich
19. ARMISTEAD BURWELL SMITH IV
Notable Band(s): Pinback
Also known as Zach Smith or simply ABSIV, Pinback’s Armistead Burwell Smith IV often plays his bass as a melodic treble instrument, frequently utilizing its upper register and blending it with the obligatory low end to create sharp, melodic lines that intricately weave in and out of fellow bandmate Rob Crow’s guitar parts to the point where it’s hard to tell if it’s a bass being played or two guitars.
18. TOM BLANKENSHIP
My Morning Jacket
Affectionately known as “Two Tone Tommy,” Tom Blankenship is the eye of the psychedelic hurricane that is My Morning Jacket. A traditional bassist in the truest sense of the word, his playing is all about being the backbone in the background: Each note and groove he plays is tasteful, allowing Jim James and Carl Broemel to propel into the ether.
17. ROBERT DeLEO
Notable Band(s): Stone Temple Pilots
A big reason Robert DeLeo is so underrated (along with his guitarist brother Dean DeLeo) is because Stone Temple Pilots get a lot of flack from music critics. But if you can get past Scott Weiland’s ridiculous antics that generally hog the spotlight, STP reveal themselves to be quite a weird band, spinning elements of country and psychedelia and even old ’50s and ’60s melodies into their grungy sound. Robert DeLeo’s bass lines stand at the center of it all, supremely melodious, swift and syncopated, encompassing the whole register of the bass and winding around the straightforward drumbeats and guitar chords like coils.
Notable Band(s): 311
Before 311 became the awful band they are today, they crafted a unique sound, an amalgam of Beastie Boys-inspired rap, heavy punk rock, reggae and funk the likes of which had hardly been explored at the time — and the jaw-dropping technical proficiency of Aaron Wills (a.k.a. P-Nut) helped make them the genre-bending band they once were. Boasting one of the most blistering slap techniques in rock as well as proficiency with melodic hammer-on riffs and a real ear for tasteful grooves, it’s a shame the guy gets so overlooked today due to his band’s recent ultra-lame output — which subsequently restricts how much he’s able to do on his instrument.
15. CHRIS WOLSTENHOLME
Notable Band(s): Muse
To be in a power trio you’ve got to be able to at least hold your own on your instrument, but Muse’s Chris Wolstenholme is a legitimate animal on the bass. Bandmate Matthew Bellamy has a fast, often manic guitar style, and Wolstenholme not only matches his speed and intensity but simultaneously creates a huge, cavernous low end that allows Bellamy to soar. The fuzzed-out, aggressive bassline that drives “Hysteria” is a perfect example of his agility and sheer power.
14. MIKE GORDON
Phil Lesh has received nearly as much credit as Jerry Garcia over the years, since the Dead are the godfathers of the so-called “jam” scene, but Phish’s Mike Gordon often gets overlooked due to the obvious dominance of guitarist Trey Anastasio (and, to a lesser extent, keyboardist Page McConnell). But many musicians who’ve collaborated with Gordon have referred to him as the best bassist they’ve ever heard, and it’s easy to see why. Gordon works his five-string to full effect, playing tasteful pocket grooves that emphasize the bass’s tonal range and distilling unusual elements of calypso, bluegrass and traditional Jewish music into his sound. Coupled with a punchy picked-bass style and an airtight slap technique, Gordon is downright beastly.
13. JOHN DEACON
Notable Band(s): Queen
Beyond the irresistible swagger of his most famous bass riff (“Another One Bites the Dust”), Queen’s John Deacon provided a chameleonic, diverse sound, adapting effortlessly to the unpredictable flamboyance of Freddie Mercury and Brian May. He also proved technically adept with the complex chord changes of much of Queen’s music and contributed swift walking lines, his bass parts often functioning as a co-lead instrument to May’s wailing guitar work. Though renowned for his bass playing, Deacon was a multi-instrumentalist who sometimes contributed synths, guitars and drums to Queen’s albums.
12. TINA WEYMOUTH
One of the first female bassists to play the instrument with her fingers, Tina Weymouth provided an unbelievably funky, exuberant bottom end that could actually keep up with David Byrne’s limitless energy and demonstrated stunning technical chops — and she could dance in perfect synchronicity with the band all the while, no less. On songs like “Heaven,” she could dial the energy down, but the emphasis on unusual beat placement and swagger always remained intact.
11. GEEZER BUTLER
Notable Band(s): Black Sabbath / Heaven and Hell
As a member of heavy metal pioneers Black Sabbath, Geezer Butler took several new approaches to the role of the bass guitar, including detuning the strings to produce abnormally low, thick notes and tones and often using a wah-wah pedal (normally associated with the guitar). These two techniques in particular have influenced a slew of younger alt-metal and heavy metal bassists. Interestingly, Butler was originally a rhythm guitarist, but switched to bass when he joined Black Sabbath and found out Tony Iommi didn’t want a second guitarist on board.
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.)
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.
8. TIM COMMERFORD
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.
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.
6. COLIN GREENWOOD
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”).
5. PAUL McCARTNEY
/ 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.
4. PINO PALLADINO
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.
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.
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.
1. JOHN PAUL JONES
/ 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.