One question comes up in almost every music conversation I have with musicians and nonmusicians – who is the greatest bass player of all time? The question almost always yields a heated debate, as well as a variety of interesting responses. Despite the outliers that may arise during these conversations, many of the same names will always come up and that’s for good reason.
There are many different reasons to label someone “one of the greatest,” whether it’s technical proficiency, phrasing, tone, or fitting perfectly within the context of a song.
Below is my list (in no particular order) of the 10 greatest bass players.
1. Stanley Clarke. Clarke is an American jazz musician and bass playing legend from Philadelphia. Watching Stanley Clarke slapping on a double bass remains one of my all-time influential bass moments. Clarke made a name for himself in the 70’s when he joined legendary jazz and fusion pianist Chick Corea to form the group Return to Forever. As a grammy award winner, composer, conductor, and producer, Clarke has truly established himself as one of the greats.
2. Jaco Pastorious. My introduction to Jaco was by means of bass player folklore. “Ever heard of this guy who removed his frets and refinished the fretboard with marine epoxy?” Once I heard his use of harmonics and chords, I was sold. As a part of the Weather Report rhythmic backbone, Jaco continued to build on his legacy throughout the 70’s and 80’s. Though he passed at the young age of 35, Pastorious’ work would go on to inspire the next generation of greats.
3. Victor Wooten. Wooten is arguably the greatest to ever play the instrument. His technical prowess will simply leave you in disbelief. Raised by a family of musicians, it is easy to see how Victor Wooten was able to reach such heights of virtuosity. The youngest of 5 siblings, all of which were gifted musicians, Wooten began playing bass at the age of two. By the time he was 6, Victor was already playing and touring with the family band, “The Wooten Brothers Band.” Known for impeccable slap and fingerstyle techniques, Wooten has gone on to receive world-wide recognition for his abilities. Accolades include grammy winner, Bass Player of the Year (x3), and voted a Top 10 Bassist of All-Time by Rolling Stone.
4. Bootsy Collins. Few musicians have been able to take their instruments and identity to new heights the way Bootsy did. Quite simply, Bootsy Collins is funk music. Complemented by an out-of-this-world personality and trademark star glasses, Bootsy’s legendary bass lines and humorous vocals have thumped their way into the roots of American music history. We wanted the funk and Bootsy gave it to us.
5. Les Claypool. I had to get another modern and eclectic player on this initial list. Claypool is easily recognized as one of the most proficient and creative bass players in modern music. Listen to any Primus album and you will understand why Les Claypool exploded onto the scene the way he and his fellow bandmates did. Known mostly by his Carl Thompson basses, Claypool plays a variety of fretted, fretless, upright, and electric basses.
This post is in no way a definitive list, but rather my opinion of those who have in some shape or form changed the face of bass playing. Stay tuned for part 2, and most likely an “honorable mentions” post as there are just too many greats to consolidate into a list of 10. Until then, let’s get Victor Wooten’s opinion by listening ever so closely to “Bass Tribute.”