In rock, the lead singer and the lead guitarist are gods. The drummer is automatically cool by virtue of banging the living bejesus out of the skins. However, two positions usually get less respect than they deserve. First is the keyboard player, mainly because just as often as not, they are added to a band as an afterthought. The other is bass.
And screwing with the bass player is the most dangerous thing a band can do. Unless your bass player is an insufferable tyrant (see Floyd, Pink; Waters, Roger), it’s generally a bad idea to boot the man on the four-string guitar. While it may be true that any band with Dave Grohl that doesn’t feature Pat Smear or Taylor Hawkins is not the Foo Fighters, consider that Nate Mendehl has been the Foos bassist almost from the band’s inception.
Part of the problem is the bass’s function. It’s part of the rhythm section. Not as flashy as the drums, nor as melodic as the lead or even rhythm guitar, too often a mediocre bass player stands off to the side and plucks two or three notes. In reality, a bass player can make or break a band. Deep Purple imploded after firing not one (Nick Simper) but two (Roger Glover) bassists, going for a third who was more a vocalist than a bass player. (No one ever accused Ritchie Blackmore of being rational, which is why Steve Morse has had his old job for almost 20 years now.) Yes is nothing without Chris Squire. Rush is nothing without Geddy Lee. The Who didn’t have a lead guitarist while John Entwistle was alive, at least until Roger Daltrey resumed playing again. Pink Floyd hired a jazz bassist to replace Roger Waters. Metallica depended on Jason Newsted to essentially add a third guitar following the death of Cliff Burton, whom the band needed to gel in their early days. Witness the Mighty Met’s 2003 flop St. Anger, which did not have a regular bass player on it, vs. Death Magnetic, where Robert Trujillo balances the band out once again.
It was Paul McCartney who brought the bass front and center. When The Beatles began, bass had evolved from the old days when a guy with a big bass violin stood off to the side and plucked a few notes to fatten up the drums. Not McCartney, who started out as one of three guitarists in The Beatles. When Stuart Sutcliffe left the band, McCartney moved over to bass and decided to treat it like a really loud, deep-voiced second guitar.
At the same time, the Rolling Stones depended on sound-obsessed Keith Richards, a man not afraid of overdubbing as many as eight guitars on a song, to define their sound. That sound would not have existed without Bill Wyman. Wyman and Richards often dispute who wrote what (generally agreeing Mick was always in the equation), but part of that stems from Wyman treating the bass exactly the way McCartney does. Notice how the Stones’ new material suffered for a time after Wyman retired. Jagger famously said, “So what? We lost the bass player.” Richards, on the other hand, saw the loss as damaging to the Stones as when they fired Brian Jones and when Mick Taylor quit. Daryl Jones may be a salaried player, but Richards finds him indispensable, as, I suspect, does Charlie Watts.
So who do I think are the best bass players ever?
- John Entwistle (The Who) – Entwistle didn’t play bass. He played lead guitar on four or five strings. Nowhere is this more apparent than the first few bars of “The Real Me.” It doesn’t even sound like a bass. It sounds like a really throaty lead guitar.
- Chris Squire (Yes) – Like Entwistle, Squire takes the idea of bass as a rhythm instrument as a polite suggestion. Part of Yes’ sound is Squire’s melodic, and sometimes harmonized, bass. His is the Fender that launched a thousand bass players.
- Geddy Lee (Rush) – If anyone picked up Squire’s cues, it’s Lee. While Lee’s style was already noticeable on Rush’s first album, things really amped up a notch when they recruited the acrobatic Neil Peart (Think Keith Moon, only sober, less ADHD addled, and extremely intellectual).
- Tony Levin (John Lennon, King Crimson, Peter Gabriel, Anderson Wakeman Bruford & Howe) – Chris Squire, John Paul Jones, or John Wetton not available? Tony Levin’s your go-to guy. Like Entwistle, Levin doesn’t play bass like a bass. In fact, one of his basses is not really a bass. It’s a Stick. Like Squire and Entwistle, you can pick Levin out on a song without even knowing he’s on it.
- Pete Trewavas (Marillion, Transatlantic) – Underrated, partly because his bands are fairly obscure, Trewavas has what the others have: A loud, melodic style that does far more than keep time. Indeed, if you listen to Marillion’s opening salvo with original lead singer Fish, you’ll notice the bass line is more integral to the songs than in other bands.