There is an old saying among music fans everywhere that you are not really a fan of a band unless you actually know the bass player's name. That is perhaps due to the fact the bassist is the most unsung member of a group, even if s/he provides the backbone to many arrangements and performances of the band's best-known and most-liked songs.
Part of the rhythm section with the usually more-famous drummer, the bass player lays the foundation of a track that most listeners do not notice or recognize: The audience just enjoys the end product and focuses on the more-notable singer, or lead guitar player, or even the drummer. Meanwhile, most bass players toil away in relative anonymity, which may just suit their personalities fine.
However, we know their names, and we admire their necessary work in our enjoyment of classic rock. So here is our list of the Top 13 best classic rock bassists—classic meaning anything over 20 years old at this point. Enjoy!
Honorable Mentions. Mike Dirnt of Green Day and Roger Waters of Pink Floyd have to be mentioned here for individual prowess that cannot be ignored, even if the grand scope of their overall work is less accomplished than others on this list. Just listen to "Longview" and try to get Dirnt's bass track out of your head, and then try absorbing "Money" without walking away humming the underlying rhythm that Waters generates.
13. Greg Lake
Whether as a member of King Crimson or Emerson, Lake, & Palmer, his bass work stands out as a defining sound of progressive rock in the 1970s. From the first notes of "21st Century Schizoid Man" on ELP's first album release, Lake's bass provides something special to the sound of the decade. In typical fashion, the lead guitar and drums dominate a lot of the song, yet without the bass structure, none of it would work right.
12. Donald Dunn
Just listen to "Green Onions" by Booker T. and the MGs, and well ... there you have it. Like most of the songs we sample on this list, the greatest rock instrumental of all time does not happen without Dunn's bass play. Dunn achieved a bit of fame for his bass work, which is nice for a guy most people would not recognize on the street if they had bumped into him. He also delivered one of the best lines in the film The Blues Brothers, playing himself.
11. Chris Squire
Best known for his work with Yes, Squire's contributions to songs like "Heart of the Sunrise" and "Owner of a Lonely Heart" are extremely memorable. These two songs also demonstrate his flexibility in different kinds of artistic compositions. The former highlights his work in a nice early prog-rock solo, while it is Squire's bass that really brings the latter pop song to life beneath the flashier lead-guitar riff.
10. John Paul Jones
Who can forget Led Zeppelin and its signature rock sounds of the 1960s and 1970s? Take songs like "Ramble On" (or "The Lemon Song") and close your eyes while isolating the bass track in your mind. It is an impressive piece of work that shapes the song in ways the average listener just cannot recognize. Other members of the band may have gotten more attention, but Jones was the glue that made the band's songs really work.
9. John Deacon
Even if he had just played the single opening hook from "Another One Bites the Dust" as his entire career in one song, that might have been enough to get Deacon on this list. Throw in the rest of his work with Queen, and it is a no brainer to get him deep in the rankings. Deacon recently got his props in this awesome scene from the Oscar-winning film Bohemian Rhapsody, too.
8. Tina Weymouth
One of the most influential bands of its era, Talking Heads would never have gone as far as it did without Weymouth on bass. Her minimalist bass touch on "Once in a Lifetime" gives the song depth and gravitas in a way that is somewhat beyond description. Oh, and do not forget her work on the eternally awesome Tom Tom Club track "Genius of Love" which provides the catchy pop tune with a bit of soul.
7. Geddy Lee
The deep resonance on songs like "Freewill" is what gets Lee high on this list for his work with Rush over the span of roughly 50 years now. A track like "Red Barchetta" highlights Lee's ability to take over a song's structure early in the composition and performance, while not detracting from his bandmates' contributions at the same time.
Like Lake and Lee above, he is perhaps more well known for his vocal contributions to the band, but the Police would not have been the same without his bass play. An early track like "Walking on the Moon" features a Sting riff on bass that defines the song, and later in the band's career, "Invisible Sun" demonstrates the darker, deeper moods that his bass play brought to certain songs.
5. Peter Hook
Starting with Joy Division, moving through New Order, and now with his own band (Peter Hook and The Light), he has left a long impression on the music industry with his bass guitar. The opening riff of Joy Division's first single ("Transmission") is all Hook, and that helped set the tone for the band's style and sound. With the transition to New Order, tracks like "Ceremony" and "Everything's Gone Green"—our favorite—cemented Hooky's legend.
4. Jack Bruce
He may be the ultimate representation of the bassist-singer role in the power trio of classic rock lore. Perhaps overshadowed by Eric Clapton in Cream, he really should not have been. On "Strange Brew" where Clapton is performing lead vocals, Bruce's bass had more room to shine and hold the pop tune afloat. "Tales of Brave Ulysses" is a great example of Bruce's bass play perfectly supporting his perfect vocal effort. Even on a live track like "Spoonful" where Clapton's guitar gets all the love, it is really the bass track underneath it all that makes the song work. It is an incredible performance.
How could we publish this list without McCartney up on high? The Beatles remain atop our hearts, and it is thanks to McCartney's bass guitar on such favorites as "Something" and "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" that we still love them decades later. On the former, there are moments where no other band member is contributing to the sound, and it is in those spaces the song retains its power. As for the latter, the bass track perfectly matches the vocals for a unique effect that still sounds bold today.
2. John Entwistle
Is there a more unsung bass player in classic rock than he of The Who? Of course, that is not necessarily true. But his name is not as famous as the other on the list, despite a tremendous collection of artistry on vinyl and the utmost respect from almost everyone who knows anything about bass playing. One of the band's early singles—"I Can't Explain"—should have made it clear how necessary Entwistle was to the band as well as just how impressive his work was from the start. While everyone focuses on the organ in "Baba O'Reilly" because they can, it is really Entwistle's bass track that provides the song's memorable backbone and structure. Without him, there is nothing else there.
Yes, you might be shocked: We understand. However, are we wrong? As a founding member of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, he has influenced generations of musicians, just like McCartney and others on this list. Listen to "Johnny, Kick a Hole in the Sky" today, and his opening bass riff makes it sound like it was recorded yesterday—not to mention the extended work he provides on the whole track. "Under the Bridge" may have been the band's breakthrough hit, yet Flea's ability to adapt to a minimalist style for the song makes the ballad work effectively (even as his bass dominates the coda). The flexibility of play to meet the needs of any composition, like "Californication" where he again plays more subtly, is what puts Flea atop this list.