When music lovers everywhere think of the punk movement, they think of pioneering ‘70s bands and artists like the Ramones, the Sex Pistols, The Clash, The Misfits, Patti Smith, and more. These early punk rockers helped define the sound that would evolve across multiple decades, helping to usher in new wave and alternative bands. They also inspired ‘80s and ‘90s punk arrivals like blink-182, Green Day, and so many more.
Bass players may arguably be unsung heroes in any rock band. They are essential to keeping key elements of a song on track like tempo, rhythm, and melody. They sync tightly with the drummer and drive the beat forward. Many bass legends think outside the box and add innovative twists to their sound.
Fans and critics alike have debated rankings of the best of the best. Assembling this kind of list is never easy – especially when there are so many talented candidates in any category. Our picks for the Top 13 best punk bassists are listed below.
Scott Shiflett has played bass for multiple bands and is best known for his work with Face to Face on bass, songwriting, and producing. He helped launch side project Viva Death and plays multiple instruments there. Part of Shiflett’s charm is his ability to play his full-bodied fills with such ease.
British punk rocker Bruce Foxton has been laying down slick bass lines for over four decades. He rose to fame as the bass player, backing vocalist and occasional lead vocalist for The Jam. His strong bass lines brought resonating rhythmic color to tracks like “Down In The Tube Station at Midnight,” “Going Underground,” and many more.
The late, great Steve Soto was a founding member for Agent Orange and Adolescents – emerging punk bands out of California in 1979-1980. The latter band’s eponymous debut album (aka The Blue Album), is widely considered to be one of the best-selling hardcore punk albums of its generation. Soto played on all of Adolescents’ eight albums. Soto’s passing in 2018 shocked and saddened his band mates and peers across the music landscape.
The multi-talented bassist, songwriter, and co-lead vocalist for blink-182 Mark Hoppus is another California native punk sensation. Hoppus has remained the only constant member of the group since its 1992 formation. Fans love the fast-paced, high energy of the band and Hoppus’ pulsing bass lines are a driving force. The bass line from “Carousel” on blink-182’s 1995 album Cheshire Cat remains a Hoppus bass-playing favorite.
There are too many cool things to name about Sting. The British native artist has won a slew of Grammys. He’s been nominated for multiple Oscar and Golden Globe Awards. He’s penned a Broadway musical and he’s successfully fused punk, pop, and reggae. Sting’s highly decorated musical journey began as the bassist and lead vocalist of British punk band The Police.
During his tenure with the band, he churned out some memorable basslines – the spacy one for “Walking on the Moon” marks a stellar example.
The Dead Kennedys pushed the envelope right out of the gate as one of hardcore punk’s pioneering bands. The San Francisco native group caught a lot of attention with their politically charged songs and provocative artwork. Flouride played with the Dead Kennedys from their formation in 1978 until their split in 1986. He’s known for innovation, having once said in a MusicRadar interview, “If you want to make the stuff that you play stand out, you need to leave a lot around it.”
Flouride’s powerful lead on “Riot” from the band’s second album Plastic Surgery Disasters and his deft delivery on their single “Holiday in Cambodia” are brilliant examples.
Matt Freeman has played in multiple bands including Operation Ivy, Rancid, and a brief stint with Social Distortion. He sets himself apart from other punk bass players with his heavy use of scales and arpeggios. Many Freeman fans name “Maxwell Murder” from Rancid’s third album …And Out Come the Wolves as one of his best bass lines. He drives his way through it during live performances with incredible speed, stamina, and power.
The Clash is one of the most influential punk bands because they were pioneers of the British punk, post-punk, and new wave movements. Emerging out of London, the group turned out a stream of hit singles across six studio albums from 1977 to 1985.
Paul Simonon served as the bassist throughout the group’s storied run. He’ll go down in punk rock history for smashing his Fender bass against the stage at the Palladium in New York in 1979. The moment is frozen in time on the band’s London Calling album cover. Simonon’s pronounced style is influenced by reggae. Fan-favorite bass lines include “Guns of Brixton” (which Simonon wrote and sang on), “Magnificent Seven,” “Rock the Casbah” and more.
Karl Alvarez rose to bass playing fame when he joined Descendents in 1986 when the band began to record their fourth studio album All. Alvarez continued with the band over many hiatuses and reunions. Chief among his contributions is the song “I’m the One” from Descendents’ fifth studio album Everything Sucks. Alvarez is the sole writer on the track and its bass parts are intricate and complex – stretching beyond a typical three-chord punk song. Overall, it’s a melodically varied, aggressive bass line that drives the song and colors the performance.
Virginia native bass legend Mike Watt has played in a lot of bands across his 40-year-plus career including Minutemen, Firehose, and Iggy and The Stooges. He’s easily graced many Best Bassists lists, including an NME readers’ poll and LA Weekly ranking. What makes him special? For starters, he repeatedly proves that a bass player is so much more than a rhythm keeper who fades into the background of a song. Instead, Watt pushes genre boundaries and infuses funk into hardcore punk to craft his own unique sound.
Watt co-wrote many songs on Minutemen’s critically acclaimed double-length album, Double Nickels on the Dime. The album is widely considered the band’s best – and Mike Watt’s quirky songwriting and indelible bass grooves shine throughout. Fans mourned co-founder and lead vocalist D. Boon’s tragic death in 1985, which also ended the band. Watt eventually pursued many other musical endeavors. However, his work with Minutemen will always be counted as some of his best.
Aussie native musician and actor Flea is known for having his iconic bass playing fingers in a lot of different creative pies. Among his many accolades, the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer and founding member of Red Hot Chili Peppers was named No. 2 on Rolling Stone’s list of reader-picked Top Ten Bassists of All Time. Flea has influenced scores of artists across multiple generations, probably because his powerhouse playing is so creatively unpredictable. “Get Up and Jump,” “Aeroplane” and “Around the World” are just three in a treasure trove of stellar examples.
Green Day’s enduring punk rock power is undeniable. The four-time Grammy-winning band blazed a bright trail in the evolving ‘90s punk landscape. The trio currently consists of Billie Joe Armstrong, Mike Dirnt, and Tré Cool. Fans will likely attest that Dirnt is bass playing beast that can carry a song in overdrive or dial it back with sweet, slow restraint. He blends showmanship and rhythmic sensibility because he ultimately understands what beats make a song tick best. His work on Dookie tracks “Longview,” Welcome to Paradise,” and “She,” and almost everything on Insomniac mark some of his best efforts.
The late, great Dee Dee Ramone reigns supreme atop this list as The Ramones are widely considered to be the first true punk rock band. The New York native group formed in Queens, New York in 1974. The multitalented artist sang lead vocals for a brief time before he transitioned to chief songwriter and bassist. He was known for his incredible charisma, his unbridled energy and unparalleled speed, raising the bar for all punk bassists who followed.