The Essential Bassists


I’ve been playing bass guitar since I was 8 years old. That means I’ve been playing for 30 years now! Wow…time sure flies. I began playing with my dad’s traveling gospel group that year. My dad was a guitarist, and knew enough to show me where the notes were and how to get started. I began playing with my thumb until I got a little older and switched to standard finger-style. I was completely absorbed in southern gospel music until I got to middle and high school. Then I began to see what else was out there and slowly began to get into the history of the instrument and seek out all the treasure trove of bass masters. So I’ve decided, in this post, to share some of what I’ve found. These are the bassists that, in my opinion, are essential study in becoming a well-rounded bassist. Every list will have people arguing over who should be listed above who, and in what order, and who’s been left off or shouldn’t be there…but hey – that’s what makes music so fun – It’s all subjective and conditional to your experiences. So have some fun with the following list. Hopefully, if I’ve done my job well, you’ll see some new names and faces and get exposed to some new music!

  1. James Jamerson (1936 – 1983)
    The pulse of Motown. Modern bass guitar owes more to this man than you can imagine. He invented so many conventions that we take for granted today: Taking the electric bass into mainstream, syncopated lines under straight arrangements, dissonant leading tones being used to create momentum, etc. His masterpieces include: “What’s Going On”, “Bernadette”, “Reach Out (I’ll Be There)”, “For Once In My Life”, “Dancing In The Street”, “I Was Made To Love Her”, etc.
  2. Paul McCartney (1942 – )
    One of the greatest melodic minds of the 20th century brought that same sensibility to the bass guitar. Originally a 6-string man, Paul’s bass lines created lots of movement and interest in otherwise straight-ahead songs, such as, “All My Loving”, “Eight Days A Week”, “Tell Me Why”, “Drive My Car”, “Nowhere Man”, and “Hello Goodbye”. Not only that, but the man was an awesome lead vocalist while simultaneously playing these gems!
  3. Jaco Pastorius (1951 – 1987)
    In the late 70’s and early 80’s this man totally blew past the expectations of what the bass guitar instrument could be. No longer a background instrument, it could be an instrument that was Front And Center! Jaco’s soloing was groundbreaking – and he definitely had his own distinctive tone (favoring the treble/bridge pickup of the Fender Jazz bass for clarity rather than the bassier/boomier neck pickup as was common with the Fender Precision bass. He also often added a little chorus effect to his solo sounds and was equally at home on the fretless bass as well as the fretted.)
  4. Victor Wooten (1964 – )
    Virtuoso. Technical Mastery. Slap-Bass Legend. Rhythmic Genius. Banjo-style Flailing Technique. Whatever words you choose, they simply aren’t descriptive enough for Victor Wooten of Bela Fleck and the Flecktones.
  5. Rocco Prestia (1951 – )
    The funkiest white boy ever! Rocco is the long-time bassist of the funk band, Tower of Power. In the following clip, you get to hear the same song 3 different ways; first, with just solo bass; second as a demo; and third you get to see him play live with Tower of Power. Stick with it till you get to part 3 to see how Rocco’s intricate lines play off of the other instruments and establish the funk pocket.
  6. Tom Kennedy (1960 – )
    Dave Weckl Band, Randy Brecker, Al Di Meola
    An extremely under-rated player! (I’ve never seen him on any best-of list that I know of.) But HOLY COW can this dude play. Perhaps one of the reasons people don’t gravitate toward him is because he comes from that intellectual Chick Corea-style school of jazz that a small sliver of the population are aware of, let alone enjoy. But you cannot dis this guy’s playing. He’s one of the very best finger-style players out there (you rarely see him slap.) Check him out playing on Weckl’s version of “The Chicken” below. Dave Weckl is a master at beat displacement on the drums, and watch for Tom to school you how beat displacement is done on the bass at time index 2:28. He starts a bass solo at 6:05, and he displays blinding speed at 7:40.
  7. Roscoe Beck ( – )
    A crossover player equally at home with jazz and blues, he is the perfect compliment to guitarists Robben Ford and Eric Johnson. In the clip below, listen for Roscoe playing an intricate walking bass line, while simultaneously playing jazz chords over the top! (beginning at time index 1:44)
  8. Ray Brown (1926 – 2002)
    This dude is a jazz legend! Dizzy Gillespie, Art Tatum, Charlie Parker, Ella Fitzgerald, Oscar Peterson, Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Nancy Wilson, Sara Vaughan, and Quncy Jones. Ray played with them all. No single clip could ever capture his full range, but here is one piece of his musical legacy:
  9. Oteil Burbridge (1967 – )
    Who? You’ve never heard of him? Shame on you. The bassist for Aquarium Rescue Unit, the tour bassist for the Allman Brothers, and bandleader of The Peacemakers. They even made a documentary about him:
  10. Geddy Lee (1953 – )
    Three-piece bands always put an extra bit of pressure on the bass player. When the guitarist goes to solo, there’s nobody playing chords anymore – so the bass part becomes very important as the only accompaniment. Geddy Lee not only was the master of covering the solos, but did so while being the band’s lead singer! His playing influenced a whole generation of rock and metal bassists. The following clip is of “Freewill” – check out the guitar solo section just after the 3:00 mark.

  11. Bootsy Collins (1951 – )
    In the following clip, Bootsy gives the “formula for funk”. This formula was invented by James Brown, and performed by Bootsy and the rest of the band. With Parliament Funkadelic, they took funk to its further extreme.
  12. Marcus Miller (1959 – )
    Miles Davis, Luther Vandross, David Sanborn
  13. Charles Mingus (1922 – 1979)
  14. Stanley Clarke (1951 – )
  15. Larry Graham (1946 – )
    Sly & The Family Stone
  16. Flea (1962 – )
    Red Hot Chili Peppers
  17. Les Claypool (1963 – )
  18. John Paul Jones (1946 – )
    Led Zeppelin
  19. Stu Hamm (1960 – )
    Steve Vai, Frank Gambale, Joe Satriani
  20. John Clayton (1953 – )
    Count Basie Orchestra, Clayton Brothers Jazz Quintet, Diana Krall
  21. John Entwistle (1944 – 2002)
    The Who
  22. Lee Sklar (1947 – )
    Studio session player, Phil Collins, James Taylor, Lyle Lovett, Vince Gill, Richard Marx, Steve Lukather, Rod Stewart, Warren Zevon
  23. John Patitucci (1959 – )
    B.B. King, Chick Corea, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Michael Brecker, Dave Grusin, Natalie Cole, Bon Jovi, Queen Latifah, Sting
  24. Nathan East (1955 – )
    Anita Baker, Babyface, Eric Clapton, George Harrison, Elton John, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Sting, Al Jarreau, Kenny Loggins, Fourplay
  25. Ron Carter (1937 – )
    Miles Davis, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock
  26. Abe Laboriel (1947 – )
    Henry mancini, Donald Fagen, Larry Carlton, Dave Grusin, Stevie Wonder, Barbara Streisand, Michael Jackson, Madonna, Paul Simon)
  27. Kim Stone ( – )
    The Rippingtons, Spyrogyra, David Benoit, Larry Carlton, B.B. King
  28. Carol Kaye (1935 – )
    Best known as one of the most prolific and widely heard bass guitarists in history, playing on an estimated 10,000 recording sessions. Kaye was the bassist on several Phil Spector, Brian Wilson and David Axelrod productions in the 1960s and 1970s. She played guitar on Ritchie Valens’ “La Bamba” and is credited with the bass tracks on several Simon & Garfunkel hits and many film scores by Quincy Jones and Lalo Schifrin. Among her most often cited work Kaye anchored the Beach Boys’ album Pet Sounds.
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15 Comments on “The Essential Bassists”

  1. I can’t believe you forgot _Cliff_Burton_ you moron. EPIC FAIL.

    🙂 not that I know anything about bass guitar.

  2. jermtech Says:

    Wow…uh…I guess you can sell anything if you’ve got that much hair and can headbang like that.

  3. C Dub Says:

    Uhmm ,,Willie Weeks ??? The list is incomplete without him,

    • jermtech Says:

      That’s why I love you, C-Dub. You always teach me something new. I love Donny Hathaway, but haven’t been very aware of his individual musicians or production people.

      I love having something new to absorb!

      All over the net, bassists are talking about Willie’s solo on “Voices Inside”. I need to get a copy of that.

  4. morgan Says:

    Nice post. I’d have to suggest Carol Kaye as one of the most influential/recorded bassists in history. (The Wrecking Crew) And she’s a chick to boot! More people probably know more songs she’s played on than any other bassist. Then I’d throw in Phil Lesh for fun 😉

    • jermtech Says:

      I’ll grudgingly add her (I knew someone would bring her up). I’m really ticked about her trying to steal Jamerson’s legacy, which really makes me resent her – even though I admit she’s done some amazing work.

      Info at this link:

      Scroll down to where it says “May 1995”. There is a report there from Allan Slutsky (author of “Standing In The Shadows of Motown”) on the Carol Kaye vs. James Jamerson story.

  5. C Dub Says:

    You have Mingus and Ray Brown, but you forgot about Oscar Pettiford and Paul Chambers,, (pray to the Upright Gods for forgiveness}
    How can you leave out Will Lee , I know you used to watch Letterman?
    How about Christian McBride ? Probably the top upright player (along with Patitucci) of the last 20 years.
    Alphonso Johnson ? Weather Report Baby !!!
    This is fun

  6. C Dub Says:

    Oh yeah,,,, and Bill Dickens ain’t no punk either !

    • jermtech Says:

      LOL Chris…Not only did I have Mingus and Brown, but Ron Carter and John Clayton. If you include Patitucci, then I’ve got 5 Upright masters in a list of 27 people. (nearly 20%). That seems about right to me!

      PLUS, I’ve never heard of any of your guys (except Will Lee).

      There’s always more to learn about and absorb, isn’t there?

      I still think you need your own blog site instead of waiting for every music post of mine to come talking your smack. Ha!

  7. C Dub Says:

    No, No, Jerm,, mistaken my tone. I really wasn’t talkin smack,,, didn’t mean the guys you included didn’t belong,,,your list is quite accurate, in my humble opinion,,,, I was just saying if you include Mingus and Ray Brown, Petiford and Chambers should be there too. Petitford was actually considered to be THE top jazz bassist before he died because of his ability to solo. He played with Duke, Monk and Bud Powell, nuff said. Chambers was more of a contemporary of Ron Carter,,playing on most of Miles’ best stuff in the 60’s.
    I can understand you’ve never heard of Bill Dickens,,, I know him from listening to Black gospel and Ramsey Lewis,,look him up on YouTube,,,,,,,Now,,,,you mean to tell me you’ve never heard of Christian McBride ?????? Like I said before,,THE top upright jazz guy of the last 15 – 20 years,, check him out

  8. C Dub Says:

    Plus I don’t enough about stuff to have a blogg,,,,,ya see I can’t even spell it correctly

  9. C Dub Says:

    Oh my Gosh !!!! I want to kick myself,,,,I forgot about Dave Holland,,,,and one of my favorites bassists,,Brian Bromberg

  10. John C Says:

    Kim Stone but not James Genus?

  11. John C Says:

    James Genus is the bass player on SNL these days and a fusion/jazz/studio monster. he’s on an old VHS I have of the Brecker Brother’s reunion tour and is just amazing. huge guy in NYC.

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