Sunday, July 25, 2010

June 20, 2009: The 10 Grooviest Bass Guitarists

The stereotype is that bass players are the quiet, personality-devoid anchors that cower in the shadows while the guitarist noodles away and the lead singer does everything in his power to draw attention to the sock stuffed down his trousers. The bass guitar was often barely discernable on the earliest Rock & Roll recordings, but that changed in the mid-‘60s when certain pioneering musicians took this relatively new instrument (the Fender Precision Bass, the first mass-produced electric bass, premiered in 1951) and forced it into areas previous bassists had not yet imagined. Here are ten of the most innovative, most talented, grooviest musicians ever to pluck four strings strapped to a hunk of wood.

10. Sting (The Police)

Sting tended to keep his lines simple, but they were consistently memorable, melodic, and way up front (bass players in trios have a lot more slack to pick up than ones in larger ensembles). But what really kills me about him is his stamina (insert dumb Tantric sex joke here). He could play the same few notes over and over with unflagging precision and energy, which can be tougher to do than playing more varied lines, which allow the player to pause and recoup. Sting’s method of playing the instrument with his forefinger and thumb, as if he was finger-picking a classical guitar, may be the secret to the endurance he displays on number like “Canary in a Coal Mine”.

9. Keith Richards (The Rolling Stones)

Sure Bill Wyman was the Stones’ official bass player, but take a closer look at the liner notes anytime you hear a great bass line on a Rolling Stones album. Never one to worry he might be tromping on a band mates’ feelings, Keith Richards stepped in any time a little extra low-end sass was required. Wyman went through a pretty interesting period in 1966 when he added some snaky slides to tracks such as “Paint it Black”, “Mother’s Little Helper”, and “19th Nervous Breakdown”, but his lines tended to be pretty non-descript. However, the lines Keef lent to “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”, “Sympathy for the Devil”, “Street Fighting Man”, “Jigsaw Puzzle”, and (especially) “Live With Me” leap off the vinyl.

8. James Jamerson (Motown house band The Funk Brothers)

James Jamerson pretty much set the pace for rock-solid yet swinging bass playing during his days as Motown’s stalwart session man. Every bass player wanted to do what he did, but none quite captured his tone or fluidly pumping panache. The fact that he played the nimble lines to the Supremes’ “Reflections”, Stevie Wonder’s “I Was Made to Love Her”, and the Four Tops’ “Reach Out, I’ll Be There” with a single finger (and often stinking drunk) blows my fucking mind.

7. Jack Bruce (Cream)

Gnarled, fuzzy, and bracingly restless, Jack Bruce’s bass work makes me wonder why everyone fussed so much about Eric Clapton’s guitar playing when an unquestionably superior musician (and singer—that tenor!) was standing at his side. I’m not going to start graffitiing “Bruce is God” all over my neighborhood, but I will contend that Bruce was the real cream of Cream. Just listen to the crazy shit he lays down in the mid-section of “Passing the Time”:

6. Graham Maby (The Joe Jackson Band)

“That’s Joe Jackson! His bass player is unbelievable!” Nick Andopolis of “Freaks and Geeks” shouted upon hearing “I’m the Man” burst onto the car radio. That bass player the fictional freak was referring to is Graham Maby, and he certainly is unbelievable. While I’m anti the mesh tank top he wore on the inner sleeve of the I’m the Man album, I’m pro every note he played on the vinyl. He’s one of those cats who make the simplest lines sound complex and the most complex lines sound effortless.

5. John Paul Jones (Led Zeppelin)

Before joining Led Zeppelin, John Paul Jones was among Rock’s most versatile and professional session men, but he was rarely afforded the opportunity to cut loose the way he did in his own band. Jonesy’s lines bound all over the place with mouth-gaping precision, whether he’s getting funky, heavy, or bluesy. Listen to what he does on “Good Times, Bad Times” from Zeppelin’s debut record. He sounds like a man reveling in his first day of freedom after a twenty-year prison stint.

4. Jack Casady (Jefferson Airplane)

Jefferson Airplane may be best known for the vocal triple-team of Grace Slick, Marty Balin, and Paul Kantner, but that trio might as well be three chickens clucking when Jack Casady starts clawing at the strings. His winding, growly work is the magnet to which all of the Airplane’s other elements clung. No other bassist combined jazzy virtuosity with an innate Rock heaviness the way Jack Casady did.

3. Paul McCartney (The Beatles)

On the Beatles’ earliest records, Paul McCartney’s bass lines were perfectly appropriate, but they didn’t exactly throb with personality. Such was the case until he switched from his famous Hofner violin-shaped bass to a Rickenbacker on Rubber Soul. Suddenly, Paul’s bass was more up front than ever, especially on “Think For Yourself” on which he plugged into a fuzz box and practically invented a new instrument (and it is credited as “fuzz bass” on the album’s cover, as if he had done just that). Totally dazzled by the lines he heard on the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds (composed by Brian Wilson but played by Wrecking Crew bassist Carol Kaye), McCartney continued to craft intricate and supremely musical bass lines throughout the rest of his career. His bass was so active and upfront on the “Paperback Writer”/”Rain” single that engineers feared they would not be able to keep the needle from jumping off the record.

2. Bruce Thomas (Elvis Costello and the Attractions)

Are you a bass player? Do you think you’re pretty good? Well, try reproducing Bruce Thomas’s bass line on “Lipstick Vogue” and get back to me. How the fuck does that guy do what he does? His lines can be blindingly fast and he still finds a way to finesse each note as if he’s taking all the time he needs. Thomas’s combination of stamina, intricacy, speed, and melodiousness is absurd. Costello hates his guts and fired him way back in 1987 (although they reunited briefly on All This Useless Beauty in 1996), but he has never and will never find a bassist that matches Bruce Thomas.

1. John Entwistle (The Who)

“He realized he had the power to change the fucking instrument!” Pete Townshend marveled in An Ox’s Tale, a documentary about late band mate and bass-innovator John Entwistle. Townshend was not joking. Had any rock bassist played a full-fledged solo before Entwistle did on “My Generation”? Had any used every finger on his/her right hand to pluck the strings? Had any sent every budding bassist who heard him/her scrambling to relearn the instrument? Hell no. Perhaps Entwistle was compensating for the Who’s sparse lineup; perhaps he was just looking for a way to compete with Townshend’s guitar smashing, Daltrey’s mic swinging, and Keith Moon’s looning. Whatever drove him to do it, John Entwistle utterly revolutionized the bass guitar, and unlike a lot of subsequent master-bassists who play with speed and precision but lack soul, his playing oozed with all the emotion his persona suggested he lacked. Just listen to John Entwistle’s annihilating runs on “Dreaming From the Waist”. Unbelievable.

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