10 Greatest-Ever Singing Bass Players
Ten of the finest ever bass player-singers who we think are deserving of recognition.
10. Phil Lynott
As the creative force behind Thin Lizzy, Phil Lynott’s vocals, bass playing and songwriting were prime ingredients in such classic hits as “Jailbreak” and “The Boys are Back in Town.” A charismatic frontman, Lynott gave voice to working-class sentiments in a manner similar to that of Bruce Springsteen and Lynott’s Irish literary heroes. His death, at age 36, constituted a grievous loss for rock and roll.
9. Kim Gordon
The twin-guitar interplay of Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo gets all the attention, but Kim Gordon’s bass playing and vocals are crucial to Sonic Youth’s sound as well. Often playing a Gibson Thunderbird or an EB-3, Gordon readily admits that playing bass and singing at the same time can be a challenge. “Unless you’re singing something that’s kind of in rhythm with the bass, the melodies, it’s just difficult,” she told Popmatters.com, in 2006. With a laugh, she then added, “I think … playing punk-rock bass with a pick wasn’t meant to be done for 25 years.”
8. Troy Sanders
More than a decade into their career, Mastodon are now regarded as one of America’s premier metal bands. Much of the group’s power derives from singer-bassist Troy Sanders, whose vocal style ranges from clean and crisp to a low, menacing growl. Metallica’s Cliff Burton, KISS’s Gene Simmons and Thin Lizzy’s Phil Lynott are among the bass players Sanders cites as influences.
7. Benjamin Orr
As The Cars’ bass player, and as singer of such hits as “Just What I Needed, “Let’s Go” and “Drive,” Benjamin Orr tempered the band’s jittery New Wave pop style with a large dose of heart. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine that Ric Ocasek, whose singing was laced with irony, could have plausibly conveyed the poignancy at the center of “Drive.” The outpouring of fond remembrances that came in the wake of Orr’s death – he succumbed to pancreatic cancer, at age 53 – attest to the mark Orr left on fans and peers.
Sting’s celebrity status, coupled with his distinctive talents as a singer, often overshadow the fact that he’s a terrific bass player as well. Favoring economy over virtuosity, Sting once said that a chord lacks dynamics until “the bass player has put his note in it.” He cites Motown music, Stax recordings, and Paul McCartney as prime inspirations. “As a child, I would play my Beatles albums at 45 rpm’s, so I could hear the bass better,” he once said. “[McCartney] is the Guv’nor.”
5. Lemmy Kilmister
Lemmy Kilmister’s guttural voice and distinctive bass playing – which derives from his early experiences as a rhythm guitarist – helped shape the direction of both thrash-metal and punk rock. Often modifying his bass with Gibson Thunderbird pickups, the veteran Motorhead leader embraces volume (as in “loud”) as his primary sonic doctrine. Expressing his admiration for Kilmister, Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl once said, “Lemmy’s the king of rock and roll. He’s a living, breathing … legend. No one else comes close.”
4. Roger Waters
At times it seems Pink Floyd fans fall squarely into either the David Gilmour camp or the Roger Waters camp, but there’s no denying that, following the sad disintegration of founding frontman Syd Barrett, Waters became the band’s conceptual leader. It’s also true that Waters’ vocals and his approach to bass were integral parts of the group’s distinctive sound. At times riff-based (“Money”), other times textured and ambient (“Us and Them”), Waters’ stylistic versatility fit snugly into the group’s varied compositional approach.
3. Geddy Lee
From Iron Maiden’s Steve Harris to Primus’ Les Claypool, countless bass players have been inspired by Geddy Lee’s style and technique on the instrument. Moreover, Lee’s trademark tenor is a prime factor in what has made Rush one of rock’s most instantly recognizable bands. “There was a time when fast playing and fretboard pyrotechnics were important to me …,” Geddy once said, in an interview with GlobalBass.com. “[But now] I am moved more by melodies, song structure and evocative textures.”
2. Jack Bruce
Even if Jack Bruce’s career had begun and ended with his tenure in Cream, his stature as one of rock’s most formidable vocalists and bass players would be assured. Decades after they were recorded, classics such as “White Room,” “I Feel Free” and “Sunshine of Your Love” remain essential listening for any player making his way in the blues-rock genre. Often playing an EB-3, Bruce has been cited by the likes of Geddy Lee and Sting as a major influence.
1. Paul McCartney
What can be said about Paul McCartney’s extraordinary musical gifts that hasn’t already been said? Simply put, any rock or pop musician who’s strapped on a bass in the past 40 years owes an incalculable debt to McCartney’s approach to the instrument. No player has ever been more adept at serving the composition at hand with fluid, melodic lines. Did we mention that he’s a pretty fine songwriter as well?