Top 5 Best Bass Players You Need To Know If You Love Bass

Although countless musicians have contributed to the development of electric bass styles, here we’ll look at 5 of the best bass players in the history of the instrument.

Photo montage of bassists James Jamerson, Jaco Pastorius, Carol Kaye, Paul McCartney, and John Entwistle

The electric bass guitar is a vital instrument in modern music, and over the years many bass players have made their mark on the industry with their unique styles and techniques. In this article, we will take a look at the 5 best bass players who have left a lasting impact on the music world.

1. John Entwistle

Bassist for English rock band The Who, John Entwistle was renowned for his technical skill and musicality, and he influenced a multitude of rock bassists. He used a variety of techniques including fingerstyle, plectrum, and an early tapping style which he developed and called his “typewriter” approach. Predating modern slapping and tapping techniques, he used all 4 fingers from both hands to tap the strings into the fretboard, creating a distinctive twang.

Even when plucking normally, his aggressive finger technique and equipment settings emphasized the high frequency twang of his bass, and this tone, along with his musical style, went on to influence many players.

Like the other greats, he pushed the boundaries of the bassist’s role in a band by contributing more than simple root-based parts. Many bassists - especially in the genres of hard rock and progressive rock - credit him as an inspiration, including Geddy Lee, Chris Squire, Geezer Butler, and others. You can hear his iconic approach on The Who tracks such as “My Wife,” “My Generation,” and “The Real Me.”

2. Paul McCartney

Known for his work as a member of The Beatles, McCartney is considered to be one of the best bass players in rock music. He began his career as a singer and guitarist, but took over on bass after the previous bassist left the band. Despite his initial hesitation to play bass, shortly thereafter The Beatles would release their first hit, “Love Me Do,” and his playing style - especially the use of countermelodies and his ability to play both melodic and rhythmically interesting parts – would go on to shape the sound of The Beatles and set a new standard for bass playing in rock music.

As a singer, guitarist, and songwriter as well as a bassist, he maintained an important sensibility to his role on each instrument respectively. Although we don’t all have that multi-instrument perspective, understanding the importance of supporting your bandmates is critical to writing and performing complex and melodic bass parts as successfully as McCartney did.

Pay attention to McCartney’s playing on Beatles classics such as “Something” and “Dear Prudence” to hear his characteristic use of countermelody and rhythmic complexity while still leaving space for his bandmates to shine. As an icon of popular music for almost 60 years, Paul McCartney is one of the most influential bass players in the history of the instrument.

3. Carol Kaye

Carol Kaye is widely considered to be one of the best female bass players in the history of popular music, but remains unknown to many, even lovers of her music. She was a member of a loosely organized group of talented studio musicians, who played on countless hits in the 60’s and 70’s. She played bass on songs by The Beach Boys, The Monkees, Stevie Wonder, and Frank Sinatra, to name only a few.

Kaye began her career on guitar, playing jazz and R&B, but quickly learned bass and expanded her skills to encompass a wide range of genres including rock, pop, and even film scores. This versatility allowed her to work with a wide range of artists. Over the course of her long career, she has been recorded on thousands of songs and albums, becoming one of the most recorded bass players of all time.

Her skill and versatility as a bassist made her a sought-after session player, and she was able to work with some of the biggest names in the music industry. She was also a pioneering female musician, breaking down barriers for women in the male-dominated field of session work.

4. Jaco Pastorius

A virtuosic jazz bass player, Jaco Pastorius revolutionized the role of the electric bass in jazz music with his use of harmonics, chords, and intricate solos. His debut solo album in 1976 was a departure from anything that had been heard previously, and he gained even more notoriety playing for the jazz fusion band Weather Report as well as collaborating with artists like Pat Metheny and Joni Mitchell. Unparalleled technical skill combined with a unique artistic vision and eclectic personality allowed him to transform the role of the bass.

In addition to performing staggeringly fast and precise basslines, he drew credibility to the instrument as a genuine melodic voice and solo instrument. Listen to his version of “Donna Lee,” his song “Portrait of Tracy,” and the Weather Report track “Teen Town” to hear some samples of his playing. He struggled with drug addiction and mental health issues in his later years, but was a pioneer of the electric bass and is one of the most important bass players to know.

5. James Jamerson

Although he was uncredited for nearly all of his work, as the studio bassist for Motown Records, Jamerson played on many of the label's most recognizable hits. His sound and virtuosic style on the electric bass are iconic, and his skill and sensitivity as a player allowed him to utilize incredible rhythmic and harmonic vocabulary in his parts.

Jamerson’s style shaped many modern players, and his influence can be seen across the entire world of bass. He can be heard on tracks such as the Jackson 5’s “Darling Dear,” Marvin Gaye’s “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” Stevie Wonder’s “For Once In My Life,” and countless others. Undoubtedly one of the best bass players to know, his grooving, melodic bass lines defined the sound of Motown and inspired countless other bassists.

These bassists are just a small sample of the countless talented musicians who have made their mark on the electric bass guitar. Each one has contributed to the development of the instrument and has helped to shape the sound of modern music. Whether you're a fan of rock, jazz, or funk, there is no denying the importance of these musicians and the impact they have had on the world of music.

Joseph Cudahy

A bass student at Berklee College of Music, Joseph has been playing music since he was 8 years old, and has nearly a decade of experience on Electric Bass. He grew up playing folk music, but was also influenced by his classical and jazz training. Now specializing in fretless bass and indie rock, he’s passionate about both the history and development of the relatively young instrument. Aside from music, he’s an avid hiker, photographer and visual artist.

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