The bass is the instrument that creates a foundation that frames a song and adds cohesion. It is hard to pin down the greatest bass players ever because this is largely a subjective choice. However, we feel confident that the following list is comprised of the greatest bass players ever, without a doubt.
While they are not presented in any particular order, we feel that the list includes the best of the best bassists of all time.
1. Kim Gordon
Kim Gordon is considered to be one of the best bassists of all time, not because she was a virtuoso of the instrument, but because, as a co-founder of Sonic Youth, she introduced modern culture to the experimental fusion of noise rock and alternative rock which changed the course of rock and roll as the world knew it. Her style was primitive and was perfect for the genre. Her unconventional choices of reconstructed and broken guitars helped her make the languid statements for which the band was famous.
She began her professional career as a visual artist and strived to integrate her love for visual art into her bass playing as a manifestation of performance art. In addition to her work as a musician, she also designed fashion, stage acted, and produced records.
2. Bill Black
Originally from Memphis, Bill Black was the youngest of nine children. He was best known for his then-unique slap bass style that helped cement Elvis Presley’s place in the history of revolutionary rock and roll. He hailed from a musical family and had a natural inclination for playing music by ear. Not only did he play with Elvis regularly. He also successfully led his own band. Black was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2009, and during his career as a band leader, made the top 100 charts twenty different times.
Stephen Bruner, AKA “Thundercat” has won two Grammys over the course of his career. While widely recognized for his work in collaboration with such artists as Erykah Badu and Kendrick Lamar, his easily identifiable funky sound has now been added to a Disney series called “The Book of Boba Felt.” He hails from a musical family and learned to play bass from renowned musician and songwriter, Reggie Andrews.
4. Kim Deal
Kim Deal’s throbbing punk rock style characterizes her unique quality of easily-recognizable bass playing beginning with the band, The Breeders. During her time with the band, she starred with her twin sister, Kelley Deal until she crossed over to The Pixies, one of the most influential alternative bands in America. After seven years and a series of mishaps, Kim regenerated the Breeders and has been enjoying their revitalized success since then.
5. Peter Hook
Peter Hook, recognized in Far Out Magazine as one of the most “accomplished bassists of his generation, commands center stage alongside any lead player with whom he performs. His playing style has been described as dangerous, with an irreverent demeanor, contrast, and character. His most notable contribution was to New Order’s “Blue Monday” album. More recently he has been involved in playing and singing lead for Peter Hook and The Light.
6. Duff McKagan
Duff McKagan was a drummer who had little experience playing bass when he joined the legendary band, Guns ‘n Roses, in his hometown of Seattle. His raw sound gave the band their famous edgy vibe, and propelled McKagan to superstardom in a nascent grunge music scene of the early 90s. Rolling Stone compared his playing to that of U2’s Slash and revered him highly as one of the greatest bass players ever. McKagan has subbed for a number of bands since his Guns N’ Roses days and has since enjoyed a successful solo career.
7. Esperanza Spalding
Portland native, Esperanza Spalding was inspired to become a musician after seeing cellist, YoYo Ma on Sesame Street when she was four years old. By age five, she had a position with the Chamber Music Society of Oregon. In addition to her Grammy-winning bass prowess, she is also proficient at piano, cello, oboe, and clarinet – making her quite the multifaceted talent indeed.
8. Tony Levin
Known for his musical stints with John Lennon, Paul Simon, David Bowie, Peter Gabriel, and Lou Reed, to name a few of the dozens of artists with whom he has played, Tony Levin has been highly revered since the 1970s. His solo albums include Stick Man, Pieces of the Sun, World Diary, Resonator, and Waters of Eden.
9. George Porter, Jr.
George Porter, Jr. hails from New Orleans and approaches each note of his music with a heavily punctuated and staccato style that is unmistakably his own. He began jamming in local NOLA clubs as a teenager, and eventually formed the band, The Meters with Art Neville. Porter can be heard playing on albums by Robbie Robertson, Taj Mahal, David Byrne, Warren Haynes, John Scoffield, Albert King and Patti LaBelle, and is listed as one of the premier bass players of his generation, making it hard for us to not include him on this list.
10. Lemmy Kilmister
Motorhead’s bassist, Lemmy Kilmister, began his musical career as a roadie for Jimi Hendrix. His professional debut was as a songwriter for Ozzy Osborne’s 1991 “No More Tears” album. By the time 1993 rolled around, he had not so much as picked up a bass guitar, but when he did, he soared to fame. So impressive was his playing that the makers of the Rickenbacker guitar manufactured 60 specialty guitars in his honor and called them the “LKs”. Kilmister died in 2015, but his memory will continue to live on.
11. Tina Weymouth
Talking Heads’ bassist, Tina Weymouth, was one of the first bass players to merge punk and alternative music with funk to create a unique sound that became an identifiable characteristic of her playing.
A classmate of the Talking Head’s leader, David Byrne, Weymouth became the bassist for the group when they were unable to find another suitable player. After she left the Talking Heads, she went on to form the TomTom Club, the Heads, and played as a guest on recordings by the Soup Dragons, Nona Hendryx, Ian Dury, and the Rosenbergs. She was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002.
12. David Hood
David Hood rose to fame as one of the best bassists of all time during the 1960s and 70s while playing for the Staple Singers, Linda Ronstadt, Aretha Franklin, Wilson Picket, Delbert McClinton, Boz Skaggs, Traffic, Rod Stewart, Joe Cocker, and the Drive-By Truckers. He is noted for his refined musical approach and one-of-a-kind feel. His soulful, memorable grooves are his signature style.
13. Cliff Burton
Cliff Burton, best known for his jaw-dropping bass performances, was recruited from a rival band to play with Metallica after the band relocated from L.A. to San Francisco just to have easy access to him, at his request.
He introduced the band to Bach, R.E.M., and The Misfits, and taught them a new musicality that included bass virtuosity, unlike anything they had heard before. The addition of Cliff Burton to the band helped them sail to fame shortly thereafter.
14. Bill Wyman
Bill Wyman, the bassist for the iconic Rolling Stones, tended to underplay his bass playing ability, but was strongly endorsed by fellow band members as being “an incredible bass player.”
During his three decades with the band, he managed to establish himself as one of the greatest bass players ever. He was recruited to play with the Stones during a stint with his former band, The Cliftons. He eventually left the Rolling Stones to start a band called, “The Rhythm Kings,” which was successful in its own right. Chances are if you’re a successful cog in one of the top bands of your era, you’re going to make it on this list!
Best known as the bass player for the sensational Red Hot Chili Peppers for three decades, Michael Peter Balzary, better known as “Flea,” has just finished his memoir, called “Acid for the Children.”
His playing style combines both funk and punk which combines Larry Graham’s slapping techniques with the fast and aggressive punk and psychedelia forms to come up with the playing method that made him famous throughout his career. Probably one of the most noteworthy additions to this list, Flea is a legend on the bass for sure.
16. Chris Squire
Christ Squire died from leukemia in 2015 after spending years as bassist for the progressive rock band, Yes. The band had a number of bass players through the years, but Squire lasted longer than anyone else and was most closely associated with the group as its bedrock. He was inspired by Jack Bruce, Paul McCartney, and John Entwistle, and played a melodic powerful tone that powered everything the band played. He has been missed by the musical community and his bass playing will continue to live on.
17. Stanley Clarke
Stanley Clarke is best known for having defined fusion bass. He began his musical career with a double bass with the goal of becoming a classical musician, but meeting Chick Corea changed all that. He joined forces with Corea to form a band called, “Return to Forever,” which went on to become one of the seventies best known plugged-in jazz groups. He also started a band in which he was the star soloist as he repeatedly toured America. More recently, Clarke has moved into writing scores for film and television.
18. Paul McCartney
As one of the most popular solo bassists of our times, Paul McCartney rose to fame as the bass player for Liverpool’s legendary Beatles. He began playing bass in the early sixties when Stu Sutcliff dropped out of the band. He characterized it as “a talent of necessity,” as the band was in a jam and needed a new player as quickly as possible. He went on to form a name for himself with his steady and cohesive style that is credited as the foundation of the Beatle’s music. After the Beatles broke up, he joined forces with his late wife, Linda McCartney to form the group, “Wings.”
Of course, he is not only one of the best bassists ever, but also one of the best musicians of all time and we’re all thankful for his contributions to music as a whole.
19. Jack Bruce
World-renowned as the bass player for Cream, Jack Bruce enjoyed an illustrious musical career until his death at 71 from liver disease. He is credited for giving the band its power thrust, as both lead vocalist and essential bassist providing moving bass lines. He would often play fills with his bass that were normally played by a rhythm guitar. Small in stature yet giant in music, Bruce was known for his room-filling sound.
20. Carol Kaye
Carol Kaye is one of the most frequently heard, but least-known bass players of our time. She spent years performing as a session musician behind some of the best-known acts of the sixties, such as The Beach Boys, Cher, Richie Valens, and Nancy Sinatra. Her fingerprints as both a bass player and a lead guitarist are everywhere on the surface of modern pop music. Her style had a light, rollicking touch that was adored by popular music fans across the world.
She’s one of the greatest bass players of all time, for sure, even if she’s not the most popular.
21. John Entwistle
John Entwistle is best known for being the original bass player for The Who. He was noted for his powerful playing style that stood in contrast to his quiet demeanor and was said to play his bass as though it were a lead instrument. He hailed from a musical family and began his musicianship on the French horn. Entwistle died of a heart attack in Las Vegas in 2002 the night before one of The Who’s North American tours, unfortunately.
22. Charles Mingus
American virtuoso, Charles Mingus, is recognized as having been an outstanding composer, bandleader, pianist, and one of the most influential musicians in the history of the country. He was a political presence, making bold social commentaries during his musical performances. He was classically trained on the cello and played upright bass. Mingus was noted for his magically rhythmic drive. Not only was he proficient in jazz. He also collaborated with Joni Mitchell and influenced such contemporary greats as Charlie Watts and Jack Bruce.
Next: Top pianists of all time
23. James Jamerson
Nicknamed the “king of Motown jazz” James Jamerson became a key player for the Motown record label working as an anonymous session player. His work achieved multiple hits for which he was never recognized. Jamerson shed new light on the bass playing of the day when he electrified his parts with additional syncopation and extra chords which provided the complexity and melodic depth that made his music soar. He died at 45 in 1983 of liver and heart diseases.
24. Bootsy Collins
Bootsy Collins got his first musical break when he went on the road as a teenager with James Brown and climbed the ranks until reaching the pinnacle of funk bass players in America’s black community. He redefined this type of bass playing. Regardless of his attempts to play pop music, it could not escape the funk genre. Today he is a political activist against police brutality and an advocate for COVID health care. He still performs, often for the benefit of like-minded organizations. His audiences range in ethnicity.
25. Larry Graham
Founder of Graham Central Station, Larry Graham‘s versatility as a record producer, songwriter, musician, baritone singer, and bass player has provided a wide array of influential music. His bass playing encompasses psychedelic funk and soul. He played with Sly and the Family Stone on their “Fresh” album, and still performs today. He was born in Texas. but was raised om Oakland, California. He started tap dancing and playing piano at age five and began performing in nightclubs by the time he was fifteen. In 1979, he gained success as a solo player before founding Graham Central Station and going to work for Sly and the Family Stone.
26. Jaco Pastorius
Characterized by many as the greatest bass player ever, Jaco Pastorius changed the way bass guitars played music. He began his musical career as a singer and drum player for his father’s big band. Later in life, he was credited for turning the band, “Weather Report,” into a major fusion entity. His charming harmonics and fast-paced bebop thrilled his audiences and helped him reach legendary status. His improvisational style often entails his making choices about how to play while he is actually in the midst of playing a song.
27. Ron Carter
As one of the most influential and prolific bass players in the world, Ron Carter, has no intention of slowing down, even though he is no spring chicken at this point. His style was influential in affecting a fusion between jazz and hip hop. Carter’s most notable accomplishments were made during the 1960s, as the Miles Davis Quintet’s bass player.
28. Phil Lesh
As a founding member of The Grateful Dead, Phil Lesh hails from Berkeley California where he studied how to play the trumpet and violin in high school. While with the Grateful Dead, he delved into classical and experimental jazz to reinvent the way the bass guitar sounded in a rock and roll environment.
His bass playing was his own attempt at playing bass and lead guitar at the same time and resulted in a reinvention of the norms that usually accompanied rock and roll music and transformed songs into international hits. His playing became as easily recognizable as lead guitarist, Jerry Garcia’s. Deadheads rest assured, we’ve got you covered on this one!
29. Willie Dixon
Sometimes referred to as the “Father of Modern Chicago Blues,” Willie Dixon was the foremost blues songwriter of his generation with over five hundred original songs to his credit by the end of his life. He was a founder of the original Chicago blues scene, and a force to be reckoned with at Chess Records, where he played bass, produced and arranged session music for Sonny Boy Williamson II, Litter Walter, and Muddy Waters. Chuck Berry and Howlin’ Wolf, and many other popular musicians of that time.
Willie settled into his own groove with Chess Records and was allowed to blossom as a true recording artist, which led to his stint as a session musician. He also was assigned the job of house songwriter and staff musician in the early fifties.
30. John Paul Jones
Session guitarist for Led Zepplin, John Paul Jones’ iconic bass playing is easily recognizable in the song “Dazed and Confused”. He is credited with propelling Led Zepplin in a direction that made them greater than anyone had originally imagined by imparting his own original sound. In the many decade spanning of his career, he made a reputation for himself as one of the most advanced musical masterminds of the times. His unparalleled and eclectic contribution to a mixture of genres, from country to heavy metal, engaged the true mastery of his instrument.
Jones was the inventor of the technique known as the fast octive plectrum, which he played on Zepplin’s “Immigrant Song,” alongside Jimmy Page’s matching lead part.
31. Donald “Duck” Dunn
Bassist, Donald “Duck” Dunn was the ultimate pioneering musician that drove the bass groove for Booker T and the MGs and Otis Redding. His was a driving force behind one of Redding’s biggest hits, “Respect.” The Memphis native was born in 1941 and grew up to perform on recordings with Neil Young, Eric Clapton, and many other US musicians. His specialties were soul, gospel, and blues. He played the role of himself in the hit 1989 film, “The Blues Brothers.” Dunn died while on tour in Tokyo at age 70, and he will forever live on.
That’s a wrap on our list of the greatest bassists of all time. Did we miss any of your favorite bass players in history? Let us know by contacting us today and we’ll be sure to review your suggestions and add them to this list, if appropriate!
As the Head Editor at Music Grotto, Liam edits content produced from over 30 professional music/media journalists and contributing writers. He works closely with journalists and other staff to format and publish music content for the Music Grotto website. Liam is also the founding member of Music Grotto and is passionate in disseminating editorial content to its readers.