Greatest Rock Bassists of All Time

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Recently, I ran across a website with lists of the greatest BLANK of all time with BLANK equalling everything from Rock Guitar Solo to Jazz Drummer. Interesting site though the lists seem to be skewed by the site owners’ personal preferences.

As a bass player, I thought I should, at the very least, critique their top 10 and give my own in contrast.

Their top 10 is as follows:

1. John Entwistle (The Who)
2. Chris Squire (Yes)
3. Larry Graham (Sly & The Family Stone)
4. Jack Bruce (Cream)
5. James Jamerson (session man)
6. Tony Levin (King Crimson)
7. Paul McCartney (The Beatles)
8. Flea (Red Hot Chili Peppers)
9. Geddy Lee (Rush)
10. Les Claypool (Primus)

My first complaint would be that they included guys like James Jamerson and Larry Graham. I am a fan of both to be sure, but neither played rock music. Jamerson provided some of the most well-known basslines in the history of music for Motown and Graham is the father of funk bass performing with Sly and the Family Stone and Graham Central Station. But, neither are rock musicians.

My other beef would be that great rock players should be measured as much by their influence on playing as on their overall skill level. In this regard, players like Carol Kaye and Paul Samuel Smith (Yardbirds – someone who didn’t make the list at all) should be higher up on the list than players like John Myung – a great player, but not someone shaping rock music.

As for my top 10, they are as follows:

1. John Entwistle

At least on this one, we agree. I was never a huge fan of either Entwistle or the Who but he unquestionably changed the way bass players play and how bass was regarded in rock music.

2. Geddy Lee

Part of this is preference being that I grew up with him as such a big influence, but, like Entwistle, he re-shaped the landscape of bass playing with Rush.

3. Paul McCartney

No band was ever more influential or important to popular music than the Beatles and McCartney’s bass lines would influence an entire generation of players.

4. Flea

This is tough for me simply because I’ve never been a big fan of his. What he does was done by numerous funk players before him and, in some cases, done better. But, he brought funk bass to the masses and influenced countless players.

5. Billy Sheehan

Much like Entwistle brought the concept of solo bass to rock, Sheehan took it to new heights. Any rock bassist of the 80’s who didn’t pay at least passing attention to Sheehan’s innovations on the instrument wasn’t stretching.

6. Jack Bruce

Maybe the first real hard rock bass player and a guy that created countless memorable basslines.

7. John Paul Jones

To me, Jones was the first rock player to really bring groovin’, funk-influenced lines to rock and do it in a setting (Led Zeppelin) that often owed more to hard rock than it did to jazz or r&b. Despite Jimmy Page getting credit for many of the great riffs Zep recorded (as he should have been), it was Jones who penned classic riffs like the one from Black Dog.

8. Les Claypool

Again, I’m not a big fan, but the guy was hugely influential in his playing and altered the way a lot of us think of the bass.

9. Victor Wooten

An argument could be made that he isn’t really a rock player, but, in truth, Bela Fleck and the Flecktones are as close to rock as they are to jazz or country. The only reason he fell this far is simply because he isn’t what I would consider traditionally a rock bassist, but he is unquestionably one of the most important players of the past 30 years and probably the greatest player currently living.

10. Jaco Pastorius

In the same way Wooten dropped because of his association with more intrumental music, so must Jaco. But, he did play with Joni Mitchell among others and it is hard to deny the fact that he is one of the 4 or 5 most important bass guitarists in the history of recorded music.

I didn’t think their list was horrible, but I did think they gave a little too much creedence to prog rock and jam band music. Other than that, nothing wrong with debating how great bass players were and where they belong in the history of music.

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