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The 50 Greatest Bassists of All Time

From funk masters to prog prodigies and beyond, we count down the players who have shaped our idea of the low-end theory

We count down the 50 greatest bassists of all time, from string-popping virtuosos to steady session heroes.

Photographs used in illustration by AP/Shutterstock; Joseph Okpako/WireImage; Elaine Thompson/AP/Shutterstock

“The bass is the foundation,” session legend Carol Kaye once said, “and with the drummer you create the beat. Whatever you play puts a framework around the rest of the music.”

A great bass line, whether it’s Paul McCartney’s hypnotic “Come Together” riff, Bootsy Collins’ sly vamp from James Brown’s “Sex Machine,” or Tina Weymouth’s minimal throb on Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer,” is like a mantra: It sounds like it could go on forever, and it only feels more profound the more you hear it. Guitarists, singers, and horn players tend to claim the flashiest moments in any given song, while drummers channel most of the kinetic energy, but what the bassist brings is something elemental — the part that loops endlessly in your head long after the music ends.

Bassists are often overlooked and undervalued, even within their own bands. “It wasn’t the number-one job,” McCartney once said, reflecting on the fateful moment when he took over the four-string after Stu Sutcliffe exited the Beatles. “Nobody wanted to play bass, they wanted to be up front.”

And yet the instrument has its own proud tradition in popular music, stretching from the mighty upright work of Jimmy Blanton in Duke Ellington’s orchestra and bebop pioneers like Oscar Pettiford to fellow jazz geniuses like Charles Mingus and Ron Carter; studio champs like Kaye and James Jamerson; rock warriors like Cream’s Jack Bruce and the Who’s John Entwistle; funk masters like Bootsy and Sly and the Family Stone’s Larry Graham; prog prodigies like Yes’ Chris Squire and Rush’s Geddy Lee; fusion gods like Stanley Clarke and Jaco Pastorius; and punk and postpunk masters like Weymouth and the Minutemen’s Mike Watt. The alternative era brought new heroes on the instrument, from Sonic Youth’s intuitive Kim Gordon to Primus’ outlandish Les Claypool, and more recently, a fresh crop of bass icons — including Esperanza Spalding and the ubiquitous Thundercat — have placed the low end at the center of their musical universes.

As with our 100 Greatest Drummers list, this rundown of the 50 greatest bassists of all time celebrates that entire spectrum. It’s emphatically not intended as a ranking of objective skill; nor does it assign any one set of criteria as a measure of greatness. Instead it’s an inventory of the bassists who have had the most direct and visible impact on creating, to borrow Kaye’s term, the very foundation of popular music — from rock to funk to country to R&B to disco to hip-hop, and beyond — during the past half-century or so. You’ll find obvious virtuosos here, but also musicians whose more minimal concept of their instrument’s role elevated everything that was going on around them.

“You grab it, slide around on it, and feel it with your hands,” Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Flea once said of his signature instrument. “You slap, pull, thump, pluck, and pop, and you get yourself into this hypnotic state, if you’re lucky, beyond thought, where you’re not thinking because you’re just a conduit for this rhythm, from wherever it comes from, from God to you and this instrument, through a cord and a speaker.”

Here we pay tribute to 50 musicians who have found that same exalted state via the bass, and changed the world in the process.

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Robbie Shakespeare

Robbie Shakespeare and his rhythm and production partner drummer Sly Dunbar have implanted their immediately recognizable imprint on decades of reggae. “It was the whole body of the bass, the sound and the way it flowed against the drummer,” Dunbar said of first hearing Shakespeare’s playing in the early Seventies. “At a certain part of a tune he’d play like three different lines, change the line on the bridge and the verses after that, and get four different lines.” The two went on to record with every major artist of reggae’s golden era, lending fluidly melodic yet implacably solid underpinning to classics like Culture’s Two Sevens Clash and Peter Tosh’s Equal Rights; they excelled in the rubbery negative space of dub, found a unique way to create an organic feel in a digital context as dancehall emerged in the Eighties, and brightened the grooves on rock and pop albums by Grace Jones, Talking Heads, Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger, and others. No other musical entity in the post-Marley era has been so omnipresent in shaping the sound of Jamaica and bringing it to the world.

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Charlie Haden

The first thing you hear in the opening seconds of “Lonely Woman” — Ornette Coleman’s 1959 out-jazz masterwork that captivated a young Lou Reed along with an entire generation of open-minded listeners — is Charlie Haden strumming a yearning, pulsing bass melody over Billy Higgins’ double-time ride cymbal. His intro makes the tune feel ancient and sturdily grounded, like it’s growing up out of the earth. That was Haden’s great gift as a bassist, to give even the most contemporary of styles — from Coleman’s joyously unfettered excursions to the outsider folk of Beck — a feeling of the eternal. Haden grew up in Iowa, yodeling country songs on his family’s radio show. Seeing Charlie Parker play sparked a love of jazz, and after moving to L.A. for college in the late Fifties, he met Coleman, the saxophonist who would spearhead the genre’s next radical breakthrough. Haden was an integral part of Ornette’s core concept, adding muscle and lift to live and studio bands for decades to come (including at a 1968 gig where they backed Yoko Ono) and carrying the Coleman torch in satellite projects like Old and New Dreams. Elsewhere, he could be found just about anywhere forward-thinking, openhearted jazz was being made, whether with Pat Metheny, Keith Jarrett, or Alice Coltrane, in his own politically driven Liberation Music Orchestra, or in a warm, empathic trio with Ginger Baker and Bill Frisell. He also fit in seamlessly working alongside Ringo Starr, K.D. Lang, or his son and triplet daughters. “Charlie Haden plays for the existence of the listener,” Coleman once wrote. “This reason alone makes him a musical guru.”

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Donald “Duck” Dunn

Memphis native Donald Dunn — whose father gave him his lifelong nickname “Duck” while the two watched Disney cartoons together — wasn’t an original member of the influential Stax house band Booker T. and the M.G.’s. But when he took over bass duties from Lewie Steinberg in 1964, the group hit its stride. Dunn’s tenure with the band coincided with their creation of foundational Southern soul records by Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, and Sam and Dave. “When it got more aggressive and syncopated … my style was more appropriate,” Dunn would later say. He anchored a dextrous, versatile rhythm section alongside drummer Al Jackson, mastering urbane pop balladry, country-soul shuffles, and uptempo gospel-infused soul all the same. Listen to his quietly descending bass line on the M.G.’s’ instrumental rendering of Sam and Dave’s “When Something Is Wrong With My Baby,” or the loping strut that opens Redding’s “(Sittin’ on) the Dock of the Bay.” Dunn, who Bootsy Collins once called a “brick in our musical foundation,” would go on to play with a who’s who of rock and pop legends — Eric Clapton, Stevie Nicks, Bill Withers, Neil Young — but it was his influential work with Booker T., Steve Cropper, and Al Jackson that redefined popular music. As Peter Frampton once said, Dunn “wrote the book on R&B bass playing.”

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John Paul Jones

Although Led Zeppelin seemed to come out of nowhere, fully formed, in the late Sixties, both guitarist Jimmy Page and bassist-keyboardist John Paul Jones had years of session playing behind them. Drawing inspiration from Motown records and jazz bassists like Charles Mingus, Jones played on recordings by Donovan, Jeff Beck, and Dusty Springfield, among others, and he arranged the strings for the Rolling Stones’ “She’s a Rainbow.” So when the time came for him to play the slow-stepping lead lines on “Dazed and Confused” and “What Is and What Should Never Be” or the charging rhythms of “Immigrant Song” and “The Song Remains the Same” — in harmony with Page — it was a cinch. His sense of musicality would guide him well past his time in Led Zeppelin, too. “John silently challenges everyone,” Dave Grohl said around the time he was playing with Jones in Them Crooked Vultures. “His presence makes you play the best you can possibly play, because you don’t want to let him down. And if you can keep up, you’re doing OK.”

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Stanley Clarke

A whole generation of bassists — from Dave Holland with Miles Davis to Miroslav Vitous and Jaco Pastorius with Weather Report and Rick Laird with the Mahavishnu Orchestra — helped to wed the sophistication of Sixties postbop with the power of arena-scale rock. But it was Stanley Clarke who truly defined the role of the fusion bass god. Clarke started on double bass and wanted to pursue a life in classical music; meeting Chick Corea on a gig set him on a different path. The two formed Return to Forever, one of the Seventies’ premier plugged-in jazz groups, and a band in which Clarke could both hold down the low end and have his say as a star soloist. Early solo LPs — and future bass-repertoire staples — like School Days found him moving further into funk, and showcasing his astonishing technique while always minding the groove. More recently, he’s moved into film and TV scoring, turned up on Beck’s understated Grammy winner Morning Phase, and inspired new-school luminaries like Thundercat (who recently said, “I thank God that there was a Stanley Clarke as a frame of reference to what is possible with the bass”). “Before I came along a lot of bass players stood in the back,” Clarke once said. “They were very quiet kind of guys who didn’t appear to write music. But many of those bass players were serious musicians. All that I did was just take the step and create my own band.”

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Willie Dixon

Although Willie Dixon is best remembered as one of history’s most influential bluesmen, whose songs were sung by Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters, that’s just a portion of his legacy. He played bass on early rock recordings by Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley, and tunes he wrote like “I Can’t Quit You Baby” and “I Ain’t Superstitious” have been covered by everyone from Led Zeppelin to Megadeth. Dixon’s first bass was a “tin-can bass,” and eventually he was able to save up $200 or so to buy an upright. Around 1939, he was “boxin’, workin’, and playin’, trying’ to learn how to play the bass,” by his own account, learning from locals Baby Doo Caston and Hog Mason, until he developed his own undulating, genre-defining style. “After two or three weeks, why, heck, I could play just about as good as I can now,” he said in 1980. When Berry first played him the song that would become “Maybellene,” Dixon thought it was too country & western, so “I felt that some kind of bluesy idea or feeling that wasn’t in there would make it a better song,” giving the tune a bit of rock & roll attitude. “Willie Dixon is the principal [influence on me]” the Rolling Stones’ Bill Wyman once said. “I always idolized Willie Dixon, particularly, because he was on [records] with Chuck Berry and Little Walter, Howlin’ Wolf, and many others at Chess.”

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Phil Lesh

In the same way that the Grateful Dead reconfigured how a rock band should sound — looser and jammier, incorporating equal parts jazz and country — Phil Lesh made us hear the bass in a new way. The Dead’s founding and longtime bassist grew up on experimental and classical music and played trumpet and violin in high school. He only took up his signature instrument when he was asked to join the Warlocks, the first version of the Dead. As a result, Lesh ignored standard walking-bass clichés: “I didn’t think that would be suitable for the music I would make with Jerry, just to do something somebody else had done,” he said in 2014. His idea — “play bass and lead at the same time,” his notes darting in and around the melody — became as recognizable a part of the Dead’s sound as Garcia’s guitar. His unconventional sound can be heard in studio recordings like “Truckin’,” “Shakedown Street,” and “Cumberland Blues,” the live version of “Scarlet Begonias” from the legendary Cornell 1977 show, and many live versions of “Eyes of the World” (start with 1975’s One From the Vault).

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Ron Carter

“On the bass, that’s my man, Ron Carter,” Q-Tip says proudly on the outro to A Tribe Called Quest’s super-funky Low End Theory track “Verses From the Abstract.” A milestone for the intersection of jazz and hip-hop, the track was just another day at the office for the great Ron Carter, who’s been turning up on history-making sessions for 60 years and counting. With more than 2,200 credits to his name as of fall 2015, he earned a Guinness World Record a year later for the most recorded bassist in jazz history. Beyond the raw numbers, the range of Carter’s CV is astounding, from anchoring the Sixties Miles Davis quintet that reshaped jazz on a molecular level to bringing an unshakable drive to classic Roberta Flack and Aretha Franklin sides, providing a plush rhythmic bed for bossa nova pioneer Antônio Carlos Jobim, and finding the swing in Bach. Whether in a low-key duo or buoyant big band, Carter always adds a touch of pure class. “I think Mr. Carter is one of the consummate listening musicians ever,” said collaborator and lifelong fan Pat Metheny in 2016. “He has played in literally thousands of unique settings and is always able to find something that brings out the best in his associates, while always remaining true to his own very strong sense of identity.”

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Paul McCartney

It’s hard to think of Paul McCartney as being underrated in any category. But for all the praise he’s earned as a singer, songwriter, and live performer, it’s quite possible he hasn’t gotten enough for his low-key low-end verve. He first took up the bass as a matter of necessity, after Stu Sutcliffe quit the Beatles in Hamburg in 1961. “There’s a theory that I maliciously worked Stu out of the group in order to get the prize chair of bass,” McCartney told biographer Barry Miles. “Forget it! Nobody wants to play bass, or nobody did in those days.” But he made the instrument his own, particularly as the Beatles’ studio adventures took off in the second half of the Sixties and he switched out his Hofner for a Rickenbacker. McCartney’s bass could be a cool, steady support, as on “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” and “Dear Prudence,” or a colorful lead character in its own right — see “Paperback Writer,” “Rain,” and “A Day in the Life,” all songs where his playing conveys the yearning for a freer or more exciting life behind everyday lyrics. His playful, melodic style in that era owed much to Motown’s James Jamerson, whom he’s often credited as his biggest influence on the instrument; after 1970, McCartney kept up with the times, grooving regally into the disco era with “Silly Love Songs” and “Goodnight Tonight.” And while his interest in the four-string has waned and waxed over the years, he’s never stopped inspiring generations of kids to see the expressive potential of a great bass line.

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Jaco Pastorius

“My name is John Francis Pastorius III, and I’m the greatest bass player in the world.” That was Jaco Pastorius’ opening line to Joe Zawinul when he met the Weather Report keyboardist backstage at a 1974 Miami show. Zawinul scoffed at the time, but he wasn’t laughing a few years later, once Pastorius had joined the group and helped turn them into bona fide fusion superstars. Jaco’s 1976 self-titled debut, where he played high-speed bebop with ease and dazzled with chiming harmonics, set a new standard for electric-bass virtuosity; joining Weather Report the same year, he thrilled audiences with his signature fretless sound and cocky flair, and forever banished the notion that bass was a background instrument. As flashy a player as he was, he was also a stellar collaborator: From the mid-Seventies through the Eighties — preceding his tragic death at age 35 — Pastorius’ revolutionary four-string approach was a perfect match for everyone from Pat Metheny to Jimmy Cliff, and especially Joni Mitchell’s increasingly adventurous songwriting on albums like Hejira. “[I]t was as if I dreamed him, because I didn’t have to give him any instruction,” Mitchell once said of Jaco. “I could just kind of cut him loose and stand back and celebrate his choices.”

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Larry Graham

As a member of Sly and the Family Stone, Larry Graham helped popularize the slap-bass technique with hits like “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)” and “Dance to the Music.” He developed the unmissable, percussive approach — Graham calls it “thumpin’ and pluckin’” — while playing in a trio with his mother in San Francisco. When the drummer quit, “I would thump the strings with my thumb to make up for the bass drum, and pluck the strings with my fingers to make up for the backbeat snare drum,” Graham remembered. These lines erupted in Sly and the Family Stone songs, inverting the traditional roles of instruments in popular music and making an indelible impression on future icons like Prince, a friend and frequent collaborator of Graham’s who once called Graham “my teacher.” “If you listen to records from the Fifties, you’ll find that all the melodic information is mixed very loud … and the rhythmic information is mixed rather quietly,” Brian Eno explained in 1983. “From the time of Sly and the Family Stone’s Fresh album, there’s a flip over, where the rhythm instruments, particularly the bass drum and bass, suddenly become the important instruments in the mix.” Graham had a simple explanation for it all: Playing with that much force ensures that “the dancers just won’t hide.”

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Jack Bruce

Eric Clapton and Ginger Baker got much of the attention in Cream, but Jack Bruce gave the group the thrust to make them a true power trio. When Clapton would play his soaring blues licks and Baker explored jazzy new strata behind his drum kit, Bruce, also the group’s lead vocalist, kept the band together with heavy bass lines that always seemed to be moving. “Jack Bruce definitely opened my eyes as to what a bass player could do live,” Black Sabbath bassist Geezer Butler once said. “I went to see Cream mainly because of Clapton … and I was mesmerized at Jack Bruce’s playing. I didn’t know a bass player could do those things, filling in where the rhythm guitar would normally be.” Bruce played jittery, tumbling lines under the trio’s group vocals on “I Feel Free,” smart harmonies on “Sunshine of Your Love,” and basically his own riff under Clapton’s on “Strange Brew.” “He was a small guy, but his playing was monstrous,” Mountain guitarist Leslie West, who played with Bruce later, once said. “He made his bass bark, and everything he did was so melodic.”

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Carol Kaye

Cutting her teeth in Fifties jazz clubs and breaking out as a studio guitarist for hitmakers like Sam Cooke, Kaye went on to become the most recorded bassist of all time — with more than 10,000 tracks under her belt. From the sunny swing of the Beach Boys’ 1965 track “Help Me, Rhonda” to Richie Valens’ now-classic 1958 version of “La Bamba” to Frank and Nancy Sinatra’s romantic 1967 rendition of “Somethin’ Stupid,” Kaye’s fingerprints are all over the history of modern pop. And that’s not even including her myriad movie and TV show themes — she gave the title songs for everything from Batman to Mission Impossible their uniquely groovy backbone. “I was a guitar player, and I thought, ‘God, that’s kind of a simple bass line,’” she told For Bass Players Only of the intuition that helped guide her playing. “I thought the bass could be moving around more and the music would sound better.” Her star collaborators evidently agreed. “He would keep my bass sound way up in the mixes,” she said of Brian Wilson in 2011. “On a song like ‘California Girls,’ at times you can hardly hear anything else. He just liked my sound and the way I moved around the fretboard.”

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Bootsy Collins

Bootsy Collins — or “Bootzilla,” “Casper the Friendly Ghost,” or “The World’s Only Rhinestone Rock Star Doll, Baba,” depending on the song — redefined soul and funk bass playing in the Seventies and, by proxy, rap and pop in the Eighties and Nineties. Collins joined James Brown’s backing group, the J.B.’s, in 1970 and immediately latched on to Soul Brother No. 1’s concept of “The One,” hitting the first beat of a musical measure as hard as possible and filling the rest of it with funkiness. Later, he stretched out that concept into a trippy wonderland when he joined George Clinton’s cabal, playing mushy, wah-wah bass in Parliament and Funkadelic before becoming a solo star, fronting his own Rubber Band, wearing star-shaped sunglasses, playing a star-shaped bass, and singing cartoonish love songs with comic-book enthusiasm. You can hear his influence in practically every bass player to come since, from the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Flea to the records Dr. Dre liberally sampled to create the G-Funk sound. “Bootsy came along and all he added … was the emphasis on the one,” George Clinton once said. “You could add that to ‘The ABC’s,’ and it would be funk in two seconds. And from then on, everything we did was funky for real, no matter how pop we tried to be.”

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John Entwistle

The Who’s John Entwistle had a lot of nicknames, including the Ox, due to his imposing build and endless appetites, and the Quiet One, because of his stoic demeanor. But the most apt was one Thunderfingers, a name bestowed upon him because every time he played a note on the bass it sounded like a vicious storm coming over the horizon. It was a style he developed to be heard while playing on the same stage as flamboyant showboats Keith Moon and Pete Townshend, but he brought a remarkable fluidity and grace to his role that was unlike anything anyone had ever heard before. Simply put, he treated the bass like a lead instrument and made it stand out as much as any guitar. And his chunky solo on “My Generation” inspired countless teenagers to pick up the bass, though emulating his playing was a near-impossible task. “Entwistle was arguably the greatest rock bassist of them all,” said Rush’s Geddy Lee, “daring to take the role and sound of the bass guitar and push it out of the murky depths while strutting those amazing chops.”

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Charles Mingus

Charles Mingus was so much more than a bass player — composer, conceptualist, classically trained cellist, social critic — that it’s sometimes easy to forget how much of a force he was on his instrument. But at the heart of his lush, kaleidoscopic pieces was a relentless rhythmic drive that flowed from his fingers through the strings and directly into his bands, making it sound as though the soloists were jumping on a giant trampoline. Listen to him chugging away on classic compositions like “II B.S.” and “Better Get Hit in Your Soul,” aligning with drummer and musical soulmate Dannie Richmond, and you’ll get a sense of the strength and grace of his playing, the way he could make a walking line sound both hulking and nimble. Mingus’ career spanned multiple eras of jazz, and his command on the instrument made stylistic divisions seem irrelevant: That’s why he sounds equally at home swinging with Lionel Hampton’s big band in the late Forties (on his own “Mingus Fingers”), jamming with fellow bebop royalty in the Fifties (on the famed Jazz at Massey Hall album, which featured bass parts overdubbed in the studio by the famously exacting Mingus), and carrying on a lively, percussive conversation with his musical idol Duke Ellington in the Sixties (on the immortal Money Jungle). Though he was known mainly for his contribution to jazz, he was never bound by it, as shown by his collaboration with Joni Mitchell and his influence on Sixties rock greats like Jack Bruce and Charlie Watts. Throughout his life, Mingus constantly spoke out against those would tried to limit or underestimate his artistry. Commenting on the unfairness of jazz critics’ polls, he once said, “I don’t want none of them damn polls. I know what kind of bass player I am.”

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James Jamerson

James Jamerson anchored the Motown rhythm section, expanding the possibilities for bass players with hit after hit after hit, all while remaining mostly anonymous, because session players were rarely credited on Sixties Motown recordings. “James Jamerson became my hero,” Paul McCartney once said, “although I didn’t actually know his name until quite recently.” When Jamerson started his career, the bass was largely seen as a utilitarian support instrument; most players stuck to “stagnant two beat, root-fifth patterns and post–’Under the Boardwalk’ clichéd bass lines,” according to Standing in the Shadows of Motown: The Life and Music of Legendary Bassist James Jamerson. Jamerson helped revolutionize the field, jolting his parts with extra syncopation, additional chords that added melodic depth and complexity, and tonal choices that evoked gospel harmony. His list of contributions to iconic records is impossible to sum up quickly, but his key Motown recordings include the Temptations’ “My Girl,” which surely has one of the most recognizable, instantly gratifying bass parts in all of pop; Gladys Knight’s “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” where he plays a suave, bubbly counter to the jittery piano; and Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” which finds Jamerson at his hyper-melodic best. “James went a step beyond what bassists normally do,” explained Bob Babbitt, who also played bass on several What’s Going On tracks. “At first he took chances and let himself go, and then it just became natural for him, and in the process he changed the course of bass playing.”