Our Ten Best- Episode 14: Classic Rock Bassists

Thin_lizzy_22041980_01_400Classic rock bassists are usually complementary players that do not get in the way, but solidify a band’s sound as part of a rhythm section. Many bassists stay in the background, but some stand out as brilliant, technically proficient musicians while providing rock solid accompaniment. Here is our list of classic rock’s four string masters.

1-John Entwistle (The Who) – The “Ox” is a virtuoso whose bass playing is revered by every classic rocker who picks up the instrument. His four-finger style, on his picking hand, was lightning fast and melodic, as was his use of a plectrum. Entwistle’s chord playing and rock solid backing was the foundation of The Who’s musical magic (along with his rhythm section partner Keith Moon). His trebly sound, from using Rotosound strings and his lead lines serve as a solo guitar at times on Who classics like “The Punk Meets the Godfather” and “The Real Me” from the “Quadrophenia” album. Recordings or video of his playing are an instructional tool for aspiring bass players. Entwistle, who died at the age of 57 in 2002, used Fender, Alembic, Warwick and Status basses. Entwistle would play off Moon instead of guitarist Pete Townsend, which makes for a unique sound. The 200 basses in his collection, which can be glimpsed at in “The Kids Are Alright” film, show the love this bass technician had for the instrument. We will never see or hear his like again.

2-Jack Bruce (Cream)- This fretless bass genius paid his dues in the Graham Bond  Organization and John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers before teaming up with Eric Clapton (guitar) and Ginger Baker (drums)  to form power trio Cream, one of classic rock’s first super groups. Bruce’s improvisational brilliance and full tone has influenced countless bassists, from Sting to jazz-rock legend Jaco Pastorious, His use of the bass as a solo instrument and his free form musical explorations are legendary. In 2005, he reunited with his Cream band mates for a brief reunion tour and displayed his virtuosity once more on such standouts as “Spoonful,” Politician,” “White Room,” “Stormy Monday” and “Crossroads.” He was a co-writer of many Cream classics (along with lyricist Peter Brown) including “Sunshine of Your Love, “White Room” and “I Feel Free.” After his tenure in Cream, he formed West, Bruce and Laing (1972), another power trio. He then went on to shine on a multitude of projects from Jazz drummer Tony William’s “Lifetime” to teaming with guitar great Robin Trower on “BLT” and “Truce.”

3-Chris Squire (Yes) – Known as “Fish,” this “monster” on the Rickenbacker bass employs a melodic tone and an aggressive playing style at the same time. The sound on his bass allows for lead playing and Baroque style meanderings that serve as counterpoints to the main melody. He is one of a few bassists who complements his band’s sound, but also is out front as a soloist. A fine example of his playing can be heard on “Fish” (1972’s “Fragile”), a song that features only Squire’s bass.  “Fish out of Water,” his 1975 solo album is also worth sampling. In terms of live playing, 1973’s “Yessongs” and 2007’s “Live at Montreaux 2003” are fine examples of Squire’s  bass playing brilliance at different stages in his career.

4 – Paul McCartney (Beatles and Wings) – Most people think of Sir McCartney as a singer/songwriter with the “Fab Four,” “Wings” and as a solo artist. He is also a wonderfully gifted musician as evidenced by his skill on bass, guitar, drums and keyboards. When McCartney first met John Lennon and was a member of the pre-Beatles “Quarrymen,” he was a guitar player. He later switched to the bass after the tragic death of Stu Sutcliffe, the Beatles’ original bass player in Hamburg, Germany. This switch might explain McCartney’s melodic and lead driven approach to bass playing. He primarily used a Hofner violin shaped bass in the early years of the Beatles and later switched to a Rickenbacker for a while. Check out his mind-blowing bass lines on “Rain” and “a Little Help from My Friends” from his Beatles days and on “Rockshow” (live DVD) with Wings. He can rock and be sweet and syrupy, too. His bass playing adds sonic texture to songs and is not merely a “thump, thump, thump” accompaniment. It seems quite strange to say it, but this former Beatle is certainly underrated as a bassist.

5-Phil Lynott (Thin Lizzy) – This bass-playing lead vocalist of the legendary Irish classic rock band was taken away from us much too young (36), but still managed to achieve musical greatness. Lynott’s pulsating, melodic, vibrant bass playing drove Thin Lizzy along with the twin guitar attack of Scott Gorham and Brian Robertson (Eric Bell earlier on). His musical chops are clearly displayed on studio releases like “Jailbreak” and “Johnny the Fox” (1976) and in a live setting on 1978’s “Live and Dangerous.” His work on the Fender Precision bass is a prime example of a player not being merely a background musician, but rather helping to define a band’s sound. His bass playing had finesse and was powerful at the same time.

6- Noel Redding (Jimi Hendrix Experience) – He played on three seminal moments in classic rock history: Hendrix’s “Are You Experienced,” “Axis: Bold as Love” and “Electric Ladyland” albums. These sonic tour-de forces were augmented by Mitch Mitchell’s jazz-rock styled drumming and his steady bass work. He played a Fender Jazz Bass and his style can be described as trebly and spontaneous. The latter fit in well with Hendrix’s free form solo excursions. Redding’s use of effects also complemented the Experience’s sound beautifully. He also played guitar on outtakes of the “Axis: Bold as Love” sessions, which like McCartney, gave Redding (who died in 2003 at age 57) a lead player’s sense on his instrument. Redding is an underrated cog in the Jimi Hendrix Experience’s studio releases and live performances.

7-Andy Fraser (Free)- A classically trained pianist who switched to guitar, Fraser was  employed as a bass player for Alexis Korner at age 15.He joined the highly influential “Free” and was an integral part of their amazing blues based sound. He cites McCartney, Entwistle and Jack Bruce as major influences and it shows in his brilliant improvisational style. The bass lines on rock anthem “All Right Now,” “Mr. Big” and “I’m a Mover” are clinics for novice and proficient bass players alike. His breathtaking runs up and down the neck of his instrument are awe-inspiring. Any bassist must check out the “Free Forever” double DVD set to see a master at work.

8-Felix Papilardi (Mountain)-
He studied classical music at the University of Michigan and later produced records by Joan Baez, the Youngbloods and most notably Cream (he wrote “Strange Brew” with his wife Gail Collins). Papilardi’s sense of melody and song construction helped define the sound of his next project, the formation of power trio Mountain. “Nantucket Sleigh Ride,” “Crossroader” and “Never in My Life” are prominent examples of his virtuosity as he “navigates” around the whirlwind of Leslie West (guitar) and Corky Laing (drums) while adding his own individual stamp. His violin shaped Gibson EB-1 Sunn amplifiers and wool cap are etched in the memory of Woodstock era fans. Sadly, Papilardi was shot to death in 1983 at age 43 by his wife, Gail. The music world lost a composer, a brilliant vocalist and supremely talented bassist.

9- John Paul Jones (Led Zeppelin)- A forgotten member of this iconic band, Jones was a session player and arranger who worked with the Rolling Stones( “She’s a Rainbow”), Donovan (“Mellow Yellow”), Jeff Beck, Rod Stewart and a host of others. If that isn’t impressive enough, he then joined Jimmy Page’s (another session player he had crossed paths with) fledgling Led Zeppelin and complemented their amorous, sexually tinged, blues derived musical brilliance with bass lines that helped make songs like “The Lemon Song,” “Heartbreaker,” Dazed and Confused” and “Whole Lotta Love” landmark moments in rock history. His shifting time signatures on “Black Dog” alone underscore the fact that he might be the most underrated bass player ever. His reappearance with Page and Robert Plant in the reunion show at the O2 arena in England showed that his playing had lost none of its luster.

10-Pete Way (UFO, Fastway and Ozzy Osbourne)-
Renowned as a master bass player by musicians and fans alike, this Englishman first appeared on UFO’s 1970 release “UFO 1” and last played on their 2006 release, “The Monkey Puzzle.” When the band’s sound started becoming too melodic for his taste in the ‘80s, he joined Fastway. He later joined Osbourne’s touring band and shone once again. Way utilized a Gibson Thunderbird bass to get his hard-edged sound and later switched to an Epiphone Thunderbird. He alternated between using a pick and fingers, which produces a unique sound. His tone on “Lights Out” is legendary. Way is a rock and roll treasure and any aspiring bassist’s inspiration.

Honorable Mention:
Roger Glover (Deep Purple and Rainbow), Geezer Butler (Black Sabbath, Heaven and Hell), Cliff Williams (ACDC) and Dusty Hill (ZZ Top).

About Steve Janowsky 88 Articles
Steve Janowsky is a former co-host of the Rocktologists theme based classic rock show radio show on WKRB 90.3 fm, which was voted the best classic rock podcast in the country by Dave White of About.com. Some of the interview guests on the show were Simon Kirke ( Free and Bad Company), Carl Palmer (ELP), Vince Martell (Vanilla Fudge), Randy Jackson (Zebra) and Frank Marino of Mahogany Rush. Janowsky is also an English and Journalism instructor at Kingsborough Community College in Brooklyn, NY and is an avid guitar player and songwriter.


  1. A great read, Steve. Bass players don’t get written up in “Best Of” lists to the same degree as Guitarists, Drummers or Vocalists. I heartily agree with most of these choices, but leaving out Geddy Lee is a crime worthy of 40 lashes. I’d also like to cast my vote for Dee Murray. An oft-overlooked bassist, he WAS the Elton John sound. Just take a listen to the sound of the albums released after he left the band (Rock of The Westies & Blue Moves) and compare to the sound on those that came before to see what I mean. I’m also a sucker forTiran Porter ….

  2. Although not around as long as these other classic bassists, I cast my vote for Oteil Burbridge. He’s worked with the Allman bros, Govt Mule,Trey Anastasio, and the Derek Trucks band with whom his brother is the keyboardist.Still love the website, and have been passing it on to my friends. Keep up the good work.

  3. I love this list the only thing I don’t agree with is 4 – Paul McCartney (Beatles and Wings) I think he dosen’t even should be on the list. All on the HM list are all much better I personal think he dosent even should be on the HM list!!

  4. Andy Fraser ? Felix Pappalardi ? they made this list ?? wow !! ok , they’re good bassists, but nowhere near the sheer brilliance of GEDDY LEE and STEVE HARRIS, who are not on the list…………. and while we’re at it , how about MEL SCHACHER of GRAND FUNK RAILROAD ? listen to GRAND FUNK LIVE ALBUM ( from 1970) and you’ll realize how awesome this guy really was , and deserved a lot more recognition ……..

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