Some of the world’s noted “best bass players” work in genres of music that are not always listened to (Marcus Miller) or not always enjoyed (Les Claypool). And, as with any list of “best” or “favourite” instrumentalists there is a divide between choosing the entertainers and the technicians; between opting for flashy showmanship or head-down dynamics/mechanics.
Tal Wilkenfeld playing is pretty terrific. Yes she’s a young woman, was discovered at a very young age, yes she has chops galore. Yes, it’s pretty incredible that she started playing the guitar at 14, then moved to bass after making the decision to dip out of school and be a professional musician; she’d only been on that instrument for five or six years. And yes it is also amazing to think she has already played with Chick Corea, Jeff Beck, Herbie Hancock and many others. But the thing I like about her playing is she can play the melodic lines, lead bass if you like – see here where Jeff Beck gives her one of his signature solos – but she also has a mean groove; she can swing and sway and strut playing solo bass and she can lock down a groove with the drummer.
There was a time when I was very interested in the lead-style of bass playing. From the probing, driving search of Jack Bruce in Cream through to “The Ox”, John Entwistle in The Who and of course the master – and clear influence on Wilkenfeld and so many others – Jaco Pastorious (watch this).
This took me down the path of finding players like Jamaladeen Tacuma – an extraordinary talent. But that busy style of bass playing doesn’t always do it for me. You can appreciate the talent and technique but you don’t always need a sledgehammer to crack a nut, right?
I love the bass playing of John McVie from Fleetwood Mac. As his long-time crony Mick Fleetwood said, “John tends to play in front of the beat, I tend to play slightly behind and we meet somewhere in the middle”. It’s a style you cannot teach – and maybe some would never want to learn it – but it has served the pair well, working with Peter Green to present a direct descendent of the Chicago blues, taking on soft-rock with Bob Welch and supporting the million-selling break-up pop and rock of Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham.
Like McVie, Roger Glover of Deep Purple knows how to drive, playing thick chunks of sound, doubling the guitar when required, offering a standalone bass motif now and then. Neither McVie nor Glover have the harmonic grace of Pastorious but both were just right (and continue to be) for the bands they play in. You would not want Jaco (if he were still alive) working in and around Fleetwood or Iain Paice.
Larry Graham deserves a mention from me – for his work with Sly & The Family Stone and for being one of the pioneers of the slap sound in bass playing. It can be ghastly but Graham, who apparently came up with the idea because he was playing in a band without a drummer and wanted to try to replicate a snare sound, had the Midas touch.
Obviously Bootsy Collins is one of the showman-style bass players – doesn’t mean he couldn’t play well in his own right.
He would be one of the inspirations for Flea and even people who now hate the Red Hot Chilli Peppers love to talk about Flea being a virtuoso bass player. I am not so sure about that now but back when I was a fan of the band I did like his sound on some of the band’s songs, other times I found his overplaying rather annoying.
Give me someone like Donald “Duck” Dunn instead. When I played in a blues band years back the bass player used to always talk about Dunn, calling him the world’s greatest bass player. At the time I knew the name from The Blues Brothers movie – and knew he was good, but as he was one of the workhorses of the Stax label I later heard him in his role with Booker T & The MG’s and then on some of my favourite recordings – including Albert King’s Born Under A Bad Sign (love that album!) and the brilliant Hold On (I’m Coming) by Sam & Dave.
From that school too – James Jamerson needs mentioning. He played on so many of the Motown classics.
Paul McCartney is definitely one of my favourite bass players – his work on Something is just one, obvious, example. Here’s a songwriter and guitarist approaching the bass as a melodic instrument at times, but still using it to convey the rhythmic line and playing for the song, always.
To talk about the compositional aspect of being a bass player leads to Charles Mingus – his ferocious personality, musical dexterity, beehive mind of ideas and all-around hugeness hung within and outside of so much that he played and created. I could dive off in to a separate post about Mingus – so many of his albums are essential but I love the raw edges that are heard on Money Jungle – a Duke Ellington album featuring the all-star trio of Ellington on piano, drummer Max Roach, with Mingus sawing, plucking, pulling, bowing, prodding, poking and yanking at the bass.
There are so many bass virtuosos of course – many not named here – but I’ll try to get to a few more that have meant something to me, in the listening I have done. The first one is Pino Palladino. You really have to take the bad with the good with this guy. He’s currently doing the near-impossible, subbing for the late-Entwistle in the band that should be called The Two (but is still called The Who). But he was also a member of The John Mayer Trio – so a point off Pino there! I loved his work before I knew it was even him – that warm, wonderful fretless sound on this – not only a great 80s pop song from my childhood, but a cover that manages to be far better than the original.
Tony Levin is another – best known perhaps for long-running work with Peter Gabriel and King Crimson but he has also racked up credits with Lou Reed, Buddy Rich, Pink Floyd and so many more. (See here, for my recently republished interview with him).
I discovered Rob Wasserman playing on a Lou Reed concert video. I checked out his superb solo albums (Solo, Duets, Trios). It was a sad day, hearing of his recent passing.
John Paul Jones played in one of my favourite bands ever – so deserves a mention just for that. But also he was the “quiet” one in a band of egos and musical extroverts. He had also (along with Jimmy Page) made something of a name for himself playing on all sorts of session well before the formation of Led Zeppelin.
Well – as with any list of favourites the ones I have named here remain relevant today and could probably change tomorrow.
But now I want to know about your favourites? What do you look for in great bass playing? Do you like the showy stuff or the rock-solid – never step out of line – approach? Are you a rock fan so you only listen to rock bass players? Do you notice the bass playing more in certain genres? Or does it always depend on the player? And most importantly who are your favourite bass players? And why?