Treble’s 50 favorite bassists

Treble staff

best bassists Bill Laswell30. Bill Laswell

Laswell may be equally celebrated for his production, itinerant mindset and expanding the pool of avant-garde music, but all those concepts are filtered into his bass playing. Starting out in the kindler’s paradise of the Detroit-Ann Arbor corridor of the late ‘60s, Laswell took his catholic palette to New York and formed the gently outré funk group Material. Laswell’s bass lines adhered to funk, but had a sharp timbre and bend that unmasked an Eastern music influence. From there Laswell has been impossible to graph, living the tenets of his Axiom label and “collision music” to the hilt. His bass has found comfortable housing in musical forms both meditative and abrasive, and at times is a commentary on culture itself. – Paul Pearson

Hear: The Golden Palominos – “Boy (Go)” ; Material – “Don’t Lose Control”

Chris_Squire_Wal_triple-neck_bass_2_-_24-05-1329. Chris Squire

If it wasn’t for Squire’s mighty gallop Yes might have sounded like a bunch of elves having a circle jerk. Sure the synths and drumming are epic, but if you listen closely you can hear his thunder gluing the rest of the band’s angular indulgences together. Even when Yes cheesed out and became owners of lonely hearts, he still got the job done. Jimmy Page approached Squire to form a band called XYZ, after John Bonham’s death. So if Jimmy Page wants to work with you, that says a lot even if your album never sees the light of day. – WL

Watch/listen: Yes – “Close to the Edge” ; Yes – “Roundabout”

James_Jamerson28. James Jamerson

Just because it’s policy doesn’t make it right. One of music’s great injustices was undone when this man’s name finally came to light as the session bassist for much of Motown’s legendary output from the 1960s to the early 1970s. A boatload of upright and electric bass work for some of the greatest names in R&B and soul allowed him to practice and incorporate techniques previously uncommon in pop, from syncopation and double stops to the open strings of jazz. Equally adept at true low-end support and at flying off into his own melodic orbit, Jamerson’s contributions could program entire radio stations and influence myriad bassists after him. – AB

Watch/listen: The Temptations – “My Girl” ; Stevie Wonder – “For Once in My Life” ; The Four Tops – “Bernadette”

John_Entwistle,_The_Who,_1976,_Winterland,_San_Francisco27. John Entwistle

The Ox was The Who’s grounding element in more than just the four-stringed way. As the other three members seemingly acted out as a matter of heredity, Entwistle was known for standing apart from the fray and cultivating as much disinterest as his stance could spare. But Entwistle’s actual playing (and, for that matter, singing) kept up with his bandmate’s immoderation, pushing the beat as feverishly as Keith Moon’s drums, and doubling Pete Townshend’s economic lead guitar in both melody and grace. Entwistle seemed to relish his role of being the one member of British rock aristocracy that almost nobody could identify by sight, but on record his magnitude can’t be argued. – Paul Pearson

Hear: The Who – “My Generation”; The Who – “The Real Me”

Mike_Mills_Manchester_-_200826. Mike Mills

The Athens, Georgia band R.E.M. defined and then transcended “college rock” with a hybrid of dusty, jangly, harmonized folk and weird, edgy post-punk elements. Michael Stipe’s lyrical Rubik’s Cubes and Peter Buck’s Rickenbacker gymnastics are well-known parts of the band’s appeal, and Bill Berry’s drumming helped power the dominant first half of their career. That leaves us to discuss bassist Mike Mills. Quietly, he was a driver of some of Buck’s signature sounds and Stipe’s foggy drama—those are his suspensions creating new phantom chords in work like “Sitting Still” and his notes cutting through the clatter of “Orange Crush.” Not so quietly, he also had moments to earn his keep at the forefront of both arrangement and singing, as in the divebombing country beauty of “Texarkana.” His constance and consistency must be considered R.E.M.’s secret weapons. – Adam Blyweiss

Watch/listen: R.E.M. – “Harborcoat” ; R.E.M. – “Life and How to Live It” ; R.E.M. – “Orange Crush”

maxresdefault25. Mark Sandman

Even the smallest changes to common things can help concoct unique and inventive unknowns. Morphine might have been some anonymous trio lost to 1990s alt-rock history were it not for Mark Sandman’s happy creative accidents. He gave their “low rock” subtle power with a gravelly, despairing drawl even in their most aggro moments and, more importantly, by focusing their sound on the two-string bass he would play with a slide. Its rubberband twang could have felt childish in the wrong hands but instead felt sprung from an old soul, giving space and contrast to Dana Colley’s measured saxophone skronk. Sandman led the creation of some of rock’s most distinctive sounds at the end of the 20th century, able to simultaneously suggest film noir, honkytonks and jazz clubs. – Adam Blyweiss

Watch/listen: Morphine – “Thursday” ; Morphine – “Candy” ; Morphine – “Top Floor, Bottom Buzzer”

geddy24. Geddy Lee

It might come as a little bit of a surprise that Lee isn’t further up the list. When it comes to Rush’s brand of radio-friendly prog-rock, though, Lee is untouchable. His most impressive work can be found on the band’s earlier albums, such as Caress of Steel and 2112. While the band would record songs that were more dazzling displays than what is on those two albums, they don’t necessarily rock as hard. All the noodling in the world doesn’t matter if you can’t give a rock song the balls it needs. That is the bass player’s job, and while Lee gets accolades all the time for his ability to multitask on stage, it’s his earlier work that is the most underrated. – Wil Lewellyn

Watch/listen: Rush – “YYZ” ; Rush – “New World Man” ; Rush – “Cygnus X-1 Book II: Hemispheres”

best bassists John Taylor23. John Taylor

Duran Duran achieved an enviable level of fame in the ’80s due to their frequent rotation on MTV—it was the 1980s, and their music videos ruled. But while so much of the attention was paid to their visual presence and vocalist Simon LeBon’s dramatic presence as frontman, the band had some underrated chops, particularly the the nimble playing of bassist John Taylor. Since Duran Duran lined up so much with disco and funk style, Taylor’s bass lines stood out on sexy, sinewy grooves such as those on early singles “Girls on Film” and “Planet Earth.” Though he got his moment in the sun for other reasons as well: In the early 1980s, he made an appearance on People magazine’s annual “Sexiest People” list. – Virginia Croft

Watch/listen: Duran Duran – “Rio” ; Duran Duran – “Planet Earth”

best bassists Geezer Butler22. Geezer Butler

The closest thing to having a religious experience in my life has been hearing Geezer Butler’s bass on a vinyl copy of Black Sabbath’s self-titled debut record. Hyperbole? (Sacrilege?) Yes and yes, perhaps, but only by a matter of degrees. Black Sabbath’s status as the fathers of heavy metal endows them with the honor of being the Creators, and Butler’s seat at Valhalla was reserved based on that first record alone, his wah-wah jam sessions a psychedelic experience unto themselves—no extra chemical additive necessary. As much as metal is music based around the guitar, however, Butler proved that bass is essential to making any guitar sound any heavier. That being said, Butler’s role in Black Sabbath is far from a supporting one, his low-end magic its own special sort of mystical wizardry. – Jeff Terich

Watch/listen: Black Sabbath – “Black Sabbath”

Bernard Edwards21. Bernard Edwards

Name one more famous or influential bassline in popular music than Chic’s “Good Times.” Whether being sampled by The Sugar Hill Gang or Grandmaster Flash or being “borrowed” by Queen or The Cure, it feels like it’s never out of the charts for more than a year or so. You begin to feel sorry for the countless other Bernard Edwards parts, so many of them as capable of accessing your spinal cortex as “Good Times,” masters of a borderline sadistic convulsion to make body parts move through space irrespective of rational social conscience or acceptability. “Le Freak,” “I Want Your Love,” “My Forbidden Lover,” “Everybody Dance,” so much to answer for. – Max Pilley

Watch/listen: Chic – “Good Times” ; Chic – “I Want Your Love”

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