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The 30 greatest bassists of all time - ranked

Geddy Lee
Congratulations to Geddy Lee, your bass GOAT! (Image credit: Ebet Roberts / Getty)

GOAT Hunt: Over the last few weeks, we’ve been on a mission to assemble a fantasy band line-up featuring the greatest musicians of all time, and we’ve been asking you to choose them. 

Our hunt for a band of GOATS now moves to the bass player, and you’ve whittled down a long list of hundreds of low-frequency legends to arrive at our final round. Below are the 30 bassists you chose as the best to ever deliver the bottom end. 

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30. Shavo Odadjian (System Of A Down)

Those golden SOAD hits – ‘Chop Suey!’, ‘Toxicity’ and the rest – may be 20 years and counting in the rear-view mirror, but Shavo’s slinky, heavy bass parts still hit the spot every time. A DJ and guitar player as well as bassist extraordinaire, he remains one of modern metal’s most underrated assets. Now, if only his band would get their act together long enough to record an album, we’d actually get to see him doing his earth-shaking thing.

29. Guy Pratt (Madonna, David Gilmour)

As Guy himself told us a while back, he is the only musician ever to play with both Whitesnake and The Smiths. While that contrast is startling enough, you could add a range of artists as wide as Madonna, Pink Floyd and Jimmy Nail to that statement for a real reflection of the sheer breadth of sonic territory that this self-confessed ‘punk kid who got lucky’ has covered over the decades.

28. Tim Commerford (Rage Against The Machine, Audioslave)

If your band has anything to do with heavy rock or funk, you’d definitely benefit from Tim Commerford coming on board as a bass player. His pocket is incredible – listen to the machine-perfect final two minutes of RATM’s classic ‘Bullet In The Head’ if you want evidence – and as for tones, he’s a self-described obsessive, working his way through a range of sounds from the thud to the crunch.

27. Robert Trujillo (Metallica)

We’d expected the great Robert Trujillo to come higher on this list, not just because Metallica are such a popular brand but because his playing skills are second to none. While his groove and triple-picking abilities are finely honed – as they’d better be, given his day job – what many of us fail to appreciate is that Trujillo is also a slap and funk player to die for. Check out his occasional side project Infectious Grooves if you don’t believe us. 

26. Thundercat (solo)

Difficult to pin down and impossible to categorise, the music of Stephen ‘Thundercat’ Bruner is often a blend of electronica and funk, with urban elements and progressive features, but wherever he goes with his songwriting, it’s always accompanied by effortlessly cool bass. He doesn’t talk much, and when he does his meaning is often opaque, but his bass does the talking for him.

25. Joe Dart (Vulfpeck)

With their modern, switched-on funk and amped-up energy levels, Vulfpeck are the nearest we have to a brand-new Tower Of Power. The analogy definitely applies to wunderkind bassist Joe Dart, a man whose skills are so advanced that a kind of bass cult of adoration has grown up around him. It’s entirely deserved, if you ask us.

24. Chris Wolstenholme (Muse)

English proggers Muse may no longer occupy the rarefied position that they enjoyed in the Noughties, when you couldn’t escape their amazing, symphonic hits, but there’s still a lifetime of bass education to be had if you take a deep dive into the work of their bassist Chris Wolstenholme. A master of tone and technique, Wolstenholme is rather like Thundercat in that you learn more about him from his bass-playing than his actual words.

23. Justin Chancellor (Tool)

It’s been noted before, but every time we interview Justin Chancellor we laugh our heads off thanks to his dry humour, but at the same time every time we listen to his band Tool we’re intimidated by their threatening textures and huge artistic vision. Perhaps we shouldn’t take it all so seriously, but then again that’s a big ask when you appreciate the bloke’s phenomenal musicianship.

22. Marcus Miller (Miles Davis, solo)

The name of the fusion specialist Marcus Miller is often mentioned alongside that of the TV series Seinfeld thanks to the taut slap tone of the latter theme tune, but that’s doing the great man a disservice. Dig into his immense solo and collaborative discography and you’ll find more or less everything in there, going back to his early days as a highly creative sideman with the late Miles Davis. 

21. Doug Wimbish (Living Colour)

Like the other ‘rock Douglas’ – Dug Pinnick of King’s X – Mr Wimbish is one of the most accomplished inhabitants of Planet Bass. Look at his sessions list for evidence: not for nothing have Annie Lennox, Mick Jagger, Seal and a host of other artists taken advantage of his skills. His CV goes back to the Sugar Hill hip-hop days, and he missed the post-Bill Wyman Rolling Stones gig by a whisker. Check out the mighty Living Colour for many, many essential Wimbish lines.

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20. John Myung (Dream Theater)

Commercially successful though they obviously are, it’s a shame that Dream Theater have never gained a fanbase outside metal and prog circles, because there is an enormous amount of great music to enjoy in their catalogue. Because each of the musicians is ridiculously talented, and fond of showing off those talents, the band is sometimes dismissed as a mere showcase for shredding. We suggest you investigate John Myung’s playing if you haven’t already done so: he plays with expert feel and groove, as well as ear-bleeding speed and complexity.

19. Stanley Clarke (Return To Forever, solo)

Most world-class bass players of Stanley Clarke’s vintage – he’s nearing 70 as we write this – are retired, jamming away in Valhalla or playing at a fraction of their former powers. Not so Stan, whose creative drive and technical wizardry have, if anything, increased as the decades have passed. The man is a solo and band musician, a film soundtrack composer, and a visionary: see his new Spellcaster bass for an example of risk-taking that is uncommon in creatives of any vintage. 

18. Bootsy Collins (James Brown, Parliament-Funkadelic)

A kind of one-man explosion of acid-drenched pacifism and funk, bassist William ‘Bootsy’ Collins came up in the chaotic Sixties and Seventies under the tutelage of the late James Brown and then in Parliament-Funkadelic. He’s currently enjoying a long and prolific solo career and spends a lot of time delivering the message that ‘The One’ will unite us all. Live, the man cooks up the coolest spectacle you will ever see.

17. Pino Palladino (sessions)

It’s great to see the Welsh bassist Pino Palladino this high up the list of GOAT bassists. As everyone knows, he made his bones in 1983 with Paul Young’s famous cover of Marvin Gaye’s ‘Wherever I Lay My Hat’ – a rendition that did more for the commercial profile of the fretless bass than any other song in pop history. He also stepped into the immense shoes of the departed John Entwistle when The Who needed him, and he’s amassed a series of sessions that make him among the most influential bass players in the world. 

16. Davie504 (Youtuber)

It was something of a shock to us ‘more mature’ bassists when the Italian YouTuber Davie Biale, aka Davie504, effortlessly won our earlier poll of GOAT Bassist, 2000-2020. But perhaps we should have seen it coming. The fellow has over nine million subscribers to his YouTube channel, which is understandable given how funny his film clips are. Fortunately, he’s a genuine monster of a bass player, so he fully deserves his spot on this list. 

15. Carol Kaye (sessions)

Along with James Jamerson and arguably Paul McCartney, Carol Kaye represents the DNA of the electric bass. Best known for her work with the Los Angeles-based Wrecking Crew, a group of elite studio musicians, Kaye recorded with Quincy Jones, Brian Wilson, Lalo Schifrin and hundreds of other movers and shakers of the day. Now 86 and retired, although she does continue to teach bass and write books, she enjoys a kind of Godmother Of Bass status among cognoscenti, and quite right too.

14. Tony Levin (Peter Gabriel)

There’s no pinning Tony Levin down. Best known for his playing with Peter Gabriel, but also a hugely talented solo and group artist in multiple formats and genres, Levin is also an author and photographer. His public image is one of a progressive shredder, thanks to his tireless work on the fearsome Chapman Stick, and he is also often mentioned as the guy who attached drum sticks to his fingers and played the bass in a percussive style. These don’t sum him up, though: he’s a vastly accomplished electric and upright player in supportive as well as extravagant styles, and like everyone on this list, can’t be summed up in a paragraph like this one. 

13. Les Claypool (Primus)

“I could have played any instrument,” Primus frontman Les Claypool told us a while back. “Bass just happened to be the crayon I pulled out of the box.” What the great man means by this is that his playing is an expression of his personality: you could say the same about Jimi Hendrix, who would have been a firebrand musician whether he played guitar or harpsichord. In fact, the Hendrix comparison is especially appropriate, because Claypool’s bass playing is a synthesis of established techniques (Larry Graham’s thumping and plucking, or ‘slapping’ as we now know it) and a pure, frenzied vision that combines energy with chaos.

12. Jack Bruce (Cream, solo)

The career of the late Jack Bruce may have peaked early in commercial terms, with his matchless playing alongside Eric Clapton and Ginger Baker in the supergroup Cream, but his work after that short-lived band only got deeper and more thoughtful as the decades passed. A master of classical and jazz theory and a devotee of world music, Bruce didn’t make music that was easily digestible, but it was both profound and powerful. He had something of a chaotic life, narrowly surviving a liver transplant in 2003, but he transcended all that with this music, even delivering a long-awaited Cream reunion tour in his last decade. There will never be another bass player quite like him.

11. Cliff Burton (Metallica)

Some musicians are beloved not because their work was particularly good, but because they died young, deprived of the chance to deliver their full potential. In the case of Cliff Burton, who died at the age of 24 when Metallica’s coach crashed in 1986, it’s true that he is worshipped by a whole demographic of music fans simply because he represents the most exciting period in his band’s history. However, we bassists know that his playing on the three albums he recorded with Metallica between 1983 and ’86 is world-class. The songs ‘Orion’ and ‘For Whom The Bell Tolls’ are the most obvious examples of his genius, but check out the intro to ‘Damage, Inc’ for a vision of bass that has rarely been equalled.

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10. Flea (Red Hot Chili Peppers)

The Australia-born, Hollywood-raised Michael ‘Flea’ Balzary, so nicknamed for his diminutive stature and on-stage leaps, is one of the finest funk bassists ever to stalk the earth. Bred on a diet of cool jazz and trumpet lessons, Flea only took up the bass after the prompting of his high-school classmate Hillel Slovak, who – along with singer Anthony Kiedis and drummer Jack Irons – formed the first line-up of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, then essentially a band of funky punks. From these humble beginnings Flea evolved a frighteningly fast slap-and-pop style, influenced by Larry Graham and Bootsy Collins, but spiced up with the energy of his beloved hardcore punk scene. After applying scintillating bursts of notes to four Eighties albums – check ‘Nobody Weird Like Me’ on 1989’s Mother’s Milk, but be warned, you may pass out – he toned down for 1991’s landmark Blood Sugar Sex Magik album. 

9. John Paul Jones (Led Zeppelin)

By the time John Paul Jones joined Led Zep in 1968 at the age of 22, he had been a choirmaster, a member of his father's dance band and the bassist on chart-topping hits with Jet Harris and Tony Meehan. As an arranger or musical director, he had already worked with the Rolling Stones, Burt Bacharach. Nico and The Walker Brothers. What were you doing at the age of 22? After Zeppelin, JPJ worked with Brian Eno and Peter Gabriel, produced the Butthole Surfers, and wrote movie soundtracks. He has written solo and collaborative music with the early music vocal group Red Byrd, Diamanda Galas and others, and has been seen in outfits such as Supersilent and Them Crooked Vultures, the latter the closest he has come to the blustering power of Zeppelin. Not a bad work ethic...

8. James Jamerson (Motown)

One finger – ‘The Hook’. One set of strings – never changed. One single player who changed pretty much everything from our perspective – James Jamerson, who died in 1983, relatively young and relatively unappreciated. It’s been the job of magazines such as Bass Player and polls such as this to ensure that Jamerson’s legacy is rightly celebrated, keeping the beautifully melodic lines he created for a huge list of Motown hits in the public eye. We all owe him a debt of some kind.

7. Mark King (Level 42)

Mark King of Level 42 owned our GOAT Bassists 1980-1999 poll a while back, and for good reason. His grasp of the slap bass technique is ridiculously advanced, augmented by ghost notes from both fretting and picking hands, and he was also a master songwriter, with hits pouring out of his band in the Eighties. As we’ve pointed out before, though, King is no one-slap pony: check out his solo and collaborative work for his sleek fingerstyle lines. 

6. Chris Squire (Yes)

What’s so great about Chris Squire being this high on this list is that there’s no real reason he should be up there, aside from his bass skills. It’s not like his band Yes made commercial music. It’s not as if he was a particularly pretty fellow. It’s certainly not the case that he played catchy, easy-to-digest bass parts. No, the late genius played complex, often treble-heavy lines with a particularly crunchy tone that defied emulation – and yet here he is. We salute his greatness, and also your excellent taste in putting him here. 

5. Paul McCartney (Beatles, solo)

Where the hell do we even begin with Paul McCartney? Perhaps with the simple fact that the biggest rock star in the world will always be best known as a bass player. He was a pioneer on the instrument: there is no other accurate way to describe him. No-one cared about bass when he started playing it in 1960, but rather than settle for boring parts, Macca knuckled down to the task of making the bass sound interesting. If you want evidence, head straight for ‘I Saw Her Standing There’ (1963), on which he delivered a speedy rock’n’roll line ‘borrowed’ from Chuck Berry, as he later acknowledged. By Revolver (1966), he was all over songs like ‘She Said She Said’, ‘And Your Bird Can Sing’ and ‘Taxman’, and by ’67’s Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the die was cast. And that’s when he was still in his twenties... don’t you wish you had a tenth of this talent?

4. Victor Wooten (Bela Fleck, solo)

The top 10 bassists on this list are mostly old or no longer with us, which makes Victor Wooten’s appearance near the top all the more amazing. He’s an anomaly in our world: a fantastically talented deviation from this poll’s norm of mostly old, mostly white, mostly rock-based bass players. You really have to see him play in order to grasp the extent of his talents, and you really need to hear him talk philosophy at one of his Bass Camps to understand his worldview. The man is unique, not an adjective you can really apply to many musicians.

3. John Entwistle (The Who)

The Ox, as the stoic John Entwistle was labelled by his more extrovert bandmates in The Who, was a man whose influence on the bass world is difficult to exaggerate. He was that rare musician – a bassist whose status as a pioneer matched his technical ability – and first made bass history at 21 when he added a solo to his band’s 1965 single ‘My Generation’. 

Still a tricky exercise four decades later, the solo opened the eyes of bassists and producers to the possibility of the ol’ four-string actually being playable above the seventh fret. Entwistle was just getting started, though, and spent the next few years honing an unbelievably fast, accurate playing style that was way ahead of its time. By the Eighties he had designed and commissioned his instantly recognisable ‘Buzzard’ basses, firstly from Status and then from Warwick, playing them with a fully bizarre ‘typewriter’ tapping/plucking style that was entirely his own. 

By the '90s Entwistle was taking a step off the gas a little, semi-retiring to his country manor and coming out to record solo albums and tour with The Who. He lived a quiet but creative life until 2004, when he succumbed to a heart attack. What a man. 

2. Jaco Pastorius (Weather Report, solo)

It’s arguable that the greatest bass player who has ever lived was the late Jaco Pastorius, whose breathtaking technique, coupled with searing innovation, inexhaustible creativity and a charismatic personality, has made him a bass legend like none other before or since. It’s a sign of this unique status that we in the bass-playing community only need to use his first name when referring to him, like Elvis, Madonna, Prince and, er, Britney. 

His ascent was swift and prolific: early sessions with Blood, Sweat & Tears and then Weather Report gained him fame, and his 1976 solo album – recorded on his defretted 1962 Fender Jazz, the so-called ‘Bass Of Doom’ – made him a star. Sadly, his early death at the bands of an angry bouncer in 1987 cemented his legacy at the age of only 35. Was he the greatest of all time? He certainly thought so, and we find it difficult to disagree.

1. Geddy Lee (Rush)

Blessed with an incredibly versatile vocal style in addition to his superlative bass skills, Gary Lee Weinrib – nicknamed Geddy Lee after the way his grandmother used to pronounce his name – tops this list for a variety of reasons. For starters, there is nothing he can’t do, with his bass playing veering from the subtle, via the atmospheric, to an all-out riff storm. That doesn’t mean that he shows off, though: his playing is often a masterclass in economy and restraint. Even his bass gear is relatively reductive these days, with a signature Fender Jazz and a Tech21 SansAmp with this name on it going into an Orange amp.

Technically and creatively, Lee has earned this slot – there’s no disagreement from us there. However, the number one slot could arguably have gone to any of the top 10 bass players on this list, and no-one would have batted an eyelid – so why has it gone to Mr Weinrib? Well, note that our recent GOAT Drummers poll was won by his late bandmate Neil Peart. Is there a certain nostalgia among MusicRadar visitors for the ethos of Rush, now gone forever in Peart’s absence? Is there a feeling that Rush represents a more innocent time, before the music world went to reality-TV stars and TikTok? 

You tell us... but we wouldn’t be surprised if that’s the case. Anyway – raise a glass to Geddy Lee. Long may he reign!

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