Bass is a very underrated instrument that is critical for forming the sound of a band. Although lead singers and guitarists tend to soak up all of the fame, there are some very influential bass players that deserve the same respect. Bass guitar evolved from the upright bass, one of the most important orchestral and jazz instruments for centuries. Some bass guitarists are known for changing the way bass was used in rock bands, while others are remembered for their technical skills.
In this article, I will go over the 20 best bass guitarists of all time and describe what makes a bassist good.
What makes a bass guitarist good?
A good bassist doesn’t have to be insanely technical. Bass has a different function than guitar in a band. While a bass guitarist can get away with just holding down the root notes of a chord and thumbing along to the rhythm of a song, a good bassist holds down the groove. A good bass player also uses the power of their bass notes to manipulate the chord progression and the overall feel of the song. Despite having fewer strings, there is no argument that bass is an incredibly valuable instrument.
I rated the below 20 bassists based on the following:
- Technical ability
20 best bass guitarists of all time
There are so many amazing bassists out there, making it difficult to compile this list. But in my opinion, these are the best bass guitarists of all time.
20. Sting | The Police
Sting is one of the most famous bass player frontmen of all time. While he is generally recognized for his singing and composing, his bass playing is highly underrated. His bass lines are punchy and unique. While he may not play the most complex parts, his basslines are perfectly manicured to benefit the song.
Best bass line: “Demolition Man”
It is hard to imagine this song without Sting’s deep, punchy P bass hitting the groove just right. This song is a perfect example of why not all bass lines need to be flashy.
19. Geezer Butler | Black Sabbath
Geezer Butler was a revolutionary bass player. He is known to have created the heavy metal genre along side band mates Tony Iommi, Ozzy Osbourne, and Bill Ward. Butler was originally a guitar player who only switched to bass because Tony Iommi wanted to be the bands only guitar player. His unconventional bass playing led to the quintessential sound of Black Sabbath and influenced many metal bassists.
Best bass line: “N.I.B.”
Listening to the bass solo in “N.I.B.” you can definitely tell that Geezer Butler started out as a guitarist. The distorted pentatonic riff perfectly brings in the classic Sabbath song.
18. Jack Bruce | Cream
The basslines Jack Bruce brought to Cream are iconic. He was one of the first rock bassists to stop simply playing the root notes, and like other bassists on this list, he experimented with melodic basslines. His groove with Cream drummer Ginger Baker was so tight that the pair have often been considered one of the best bass-drummer combinations of all time.
Best bass line: “Deserted Cities Of The Heart”
This song is an awesome example of Jack Bruce holding down the groove while following the melody simultaneously. His pulsing roots, funky verse groove, and melodic riffs make this a great bassline.
17. Steve Harris | Iron Maiden
Steve Harris was not the shining star of Iron Maiden, as, with most heavy metal bands, the lead guitarists were the centerpiece. But his rhythm and pulsing basslines served as the band’s backbone, allowing Dave Murray and Adrian Smith to pull off the lead guitar harmonies that are iconic to Iron Maiden.
Best bass line: “Deja Vu”
In this song’s intro, Harris follows along on a walking riff with the rhythm guitar, and then immediately, he kicks into a fast-driving verse that perfectly locks in with the drums. His bass part in this song is incredibly important as it allows the guitarists to play dueling guitar harmonies while he confidently holds down the chord progression.
16. Cliff Burton | Metallica
Cliff Burton was a pioneer in modern metal bass playing. He was heavily influenced by hard rock and progressive bass players such as Geezer Butler and Geddy Lee. He was among the most revolutionary bassists because of his complex melodic bass lines and hard-driving rhythms. He played bass like a lead guitarist and is one of the most technically proficient heavy metal bass players ever.
Best bass line: “Orion”
The bass line in this song is a masterpiece. Burton shows his true colors and gets to show off, from the simple verse bass line in the beginning to the heavily distorted bass fills. You may think you hear a guitar solo at certain points, but it is likely just Cliff Burton doing his thing.
15. Thundercat | Thundercat
Thundercat plays his six-string bass like a lead guitarist, but don’t get me wrong, he is a bassist to his core. His fingers seamlessly flow around the fretboard, letting out booming melodic bass lines. He frequently records with other hip-hop, RNB, and pop artists and has also released many solo albums.
Best bass line: “The Cell”
Thundercat’s jazzy bass parts in “The Cell” almost act as a lead. He follows the chord progression and hits the downbeat, but the entire song is essentially a canvas for Thundercat to show off his technical skills, which I would never complain about!
14. Carol Kaye | Various
Carol Kaye has been featured on an astonishing 10,000 recordings, making her one of the most recorded bassists of all time. She has played with many famous artists, including Stevie Wonder, The Beach Boys, Simon And Garfunkle, The Supremes, and Frank Sinatra. She is the “queen of fills,” and listening to any songs in her vast library of recordings will show you her skill. She incorporates subtle but well-thought-out licks and walks into her bass lines.
Best bass line: “Good Vibrations”
Most people don’t know that this iconic bass line was actually written and originally recorded by Kaye. It is pretty hard to imagine this classic Beach Boys song without this bass line.
13. Paul Mccartney | The Beatles
Paul Mccartney may not be a shredder like others on this list, but he is a revolutionary in every sense. Mccartney was one of the first bassists to actually write complex bass lines for rock songs rather than simply follow along with the root note. Not only was he an incredible bassist and musician, but he is also considered one of the best songwriters in modern music. His Hofner 500/1 Violin is one of the most recognizable basses out there.
Best bass line: “Something”
Mccartney’s bass line in this song perfectly fits in with the other instruments and vocals. It is the perfect blend of harmony, melody, and rhythm. The exceptional creativity of this bassline is the standout for me. His note choice greatly impacts the overall tone of the chord progression.
12. John Paul Jones | Led Zeppelin
Led Zeppelin is a stacked band. Their initial lineup included 4 of the best musicians of all time, who were all masters at their instruments. John Paul Jones may not be the band’s most regarded name, but he deserves the same respect as Jimmy Page and Robert Plant. He is a creative bassist who incorporates low harmonies and melodic bass lines that complement the lead and vocals. He was inspired by blues and Motown, making his bass lines unique to a heavy metal band.
Best bass line: “Ramble On”
John Paul Jones’s bass line from “Ramble On” is one of the most recognizable classic rock bass lines. While he holds down the lead part during the verse, the funky chorus is my favorite bass part of this song. This is definitely one of the coolest bass lines ever written.
11. John Entwistle | The Who
Like many other bassists on this list, John Entwistle played bass like a guitarist. His creative technical basslines, improvisation, and ability to groove like no other made him a Hall of Fame bass player. He used techniques like slides, drones, and alternate picking. A standard John Entwistle bass line includes trebly bass fills, low walking riffs, and fast-paced driving progressions.
Best bass line: “The Real Me”
This song is already one of the best rock songs ever written, but Entwistle’s bass line in “The Real Me” is truly legendary. He gives the world a masterclass in bass playing and performs a true masterpiece in this song. What I love the most is that this insanely complex and forward bassline is not too “show-offy” and still leaves room for the rest of the band to do their jobs.
10. Marcus Miller | Various
Marcus Miller is an insanely versatile session bassist that has recorded with artists such as Herbie Hancock, Eric Clapton, Aretha Franklin, Jay Z, and more. He is an amazing classically-trained musician that is exceptionally technically proficient. His musical knowledge has also led him to help compose many songs, including film scores.
Best bass line: “Spinnin’”
This album by Bernard Wright is where you start to see Marcus Miller develop his iconic sound. His popping bass lines are melodic and rhythmic and give us everything we need in a great bass player.
9. Flea | Red Hot Chili Peppers
Flea is one of the most famous and influential bass players of all time. Although the Red Hot Chili Peppers are a popular rock band, he never “sold out” when it came to his bass lines. His bass lines are well thought out, funky, and innovative. He has a unique playing style that blends pure 70s funk with punk. He is essentially the leading instrumentalist of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and their music would not be the same without him.
Best bass line: “Aeroplane”
From the offbeat walking bass line in the chorus to the funktastic slap bass line in the verse, Flea’s bassline in “Aeroplane is iconic.”
8. Justin Chancellor | Tool
Justin Chancellor is a great example of why bass is important in a band. He has a very unique progressive sound that is pivotal for Tool’s tone. He plays driving bass lines that are often times distorted and is a rhythmic genius. Him and Tool drummer Daniel Edwin Carey are famous for holding down obscure time signatures such as 7/8, 9,8, and 12/8.
Best bass line: “Forty Six & 2”
This is a great bassline that is a classic representation of Justin Chancellors playing style. The drop tuned low E creates a unique droning effect as the bass leads the main riff of the song.
7. Les Claypool | Primus
If you haven’t listened to any songs by Primus (Claypool’s main project), you may still recognize them from the theme song of “Southpark.” Les Claypool is an extremely technical bassist who is most famous for his use of “slap” bass. He is an innovator in the progressive genre and has written some of the most difficult basslines I have ever heard. Primus gained significant attention over the years despittheirre unconventional sound. This is partly thanks to Les Claypool’s bass-playing and creative songwriting abilities.
Best bass line: “Jerry Was A Race Car Driver”
This is no easy bass line to play. Les Claypool incorporates tapping, harmonics, slapping, and multi-string bass chords in his bass part, which is a tribute to his insane bass skills.
6. Bootsy Collins | Parliament/James Brown
Bootsy Collins is a very influential bass player and RnB/Funk musician who has played with countless artists, including James Brown, Buckethead, Silk Sonic, Snoop Dogg (who also happens to be his nephew). Bootsy Collings pioneered slap bass and was a master of funky bass grooves. Despite his eccentric physique, he plays bass with discipline.
Best bass line: Give Up The Funk (Tear The Roof Off The Sucker)
Bootsy Collins showcases his groove and bass skills in this song without taking away from the rest of the song. After hitting the root perfectly in time, Collins follows the “We need the funk, give up that funk” melody while adding iconic funky bass-heavy fills.
5. Victor Wooten | Victor Wooten
If anyone ever says that bass doesn’t sound good as a lead instrument, show them Victor Wooten. He transformed the way modern bass playing is looked at and has innovated a lot with his playing style. Wooten is a very versatile bass player that primarily records his solo work but has also featured on other artists’ records. His style is best described as a mix between funk and progressive.
Best bass line: U Can’t Hold No Groove (If You Ain’t Got No Pocket)
The dynamics and technicality of this song are impressive, to say the least. Although the entire song is essentially a bass solo, Victor Wooten doesn’t play notes for the sake of playing them. He holds the melody, rhythm, and lead in this song all at once. He also plays some very unique bass chords and riffs in this song. At certain points, you may think you hear a guitar solo, but in fact, it is Wooten soloing high on the fret.
4. Larry Graham | Sly and the Family Stone
Larry Graham is another iconic funk bassist on my list of best bass guitarists. He holds the groove and delivers deep thumping bass lines that will definitely make you want to get up and dance. Larry Graham was oe of the first bass players to use the “slap and pop” technique that was later used by countless bass legends.
Best bass line: “Sly & The Family Stone – Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)”
The punchy funk bassline in this classic song is very catchy. Graham shows off his “slap and pop” style and stays perfectly in synch with the drummer, this riff tics all the boxes for a great bassline.
3. Geddy Lee | Rush
Geddy Lee is another amazing bassist who was also the lead singer of the band Rush. However, some of the band’s most popular songs were instrumentals. Each member of Rush was an amazing instrumentalist, and Geddy Lee is no exception. He plays loudly and has an intense punch to his tone. His melodic and technical bass playing makes up for the fact that Rush is a 3-piece band.
Best bass line: “YYZ”
“YYZ” is one of Rush’s masterpieces and a piece of music that allows all 3 members of the band to show off. Everything from Lee’s unison riffs with Alex Lifeson to the melodic bassline is incredible.
2. James Jamerson
James Jamerson has played on an unbelievable amount of number-one hits. He was an uncredited bass player for essentially every Motown record between 1960-1971, and recorded with artists like Stevie Wonder, The Supremes, Marvin Gaye, The Four Tops, Gladys Knight, and many more. He was an integral part of the Motown genre and has influenced countless rock, funk, jazz, and soul bassists.
Best bass line: “For Once In My Life”
This melodic bass line walks around the fretboard, complimenting Stevie Wonders’s vocal part and locks in perfectly with the drums. This is a perfect example of Jamerson’s pivotal bass playing style.
And the best bass player of all time is drum roll (bass roll?) please….
1. Jaco Pastorius | Jaco Pastorius
Jaco Pastorius was a true explorer. In my opinion, he is the best bass player of all time because of his creativity, technical ability, and groove. He ticks all the boxes when it comes to being a great bass player. Jaco Pastorius and his iconic fretless Fender Jazz bass (“bass of doom”) brought us a unique blend of jazz and funk. He was a true musical genius that constantly experimented with sound and almost always served as the centerpiece melodic instrument in his projects.
Best bass line: “Come On, Come Over”
This is by no means the most technically impressive bass line by Jaco Pastorius, but the groove and precision is unbeatable. The main 16th-note riff is simple yet catchy and compliments the song well. Yet, the bass solo is a fast-paced, complex gem that shows off Jaco Pastorius’s insane playing ability.
If you think there is a bassist I am missing or have any questions about your bass playing career, feel free to reach out, I am always happy to help!