In the world of musical instruments, the electric bass guitar is still kinda one of the new kids on the block. And yes, we know that statement sounds weird.
But think about it more closely; Fender only introduced the Precision Bass in 1951. And this was truly Genesis – the world’s first commercially successful, mass produced bass guitar, which became the blueprint for pretty much every other bass since. So, at the tender age of only 69 years old, this instrument is actually younger than many of the people still playing it!
The relative youth of the electric bass guitar also means that it’s particularly easy, from a musicological perspective, to chart the history of the way people have been using and playing the thing from day one. There are hundreds of superb bassists that could justly be referred to as pioneers, and we’re going to focus on a few that have truly helped shape the technique, culture and music through the power of the 4-string...
Carol Kaye & James Jamerson
Ok, so we’ve started with two names rather than one. And there’s a good reason why. Many of the greatest and most influential hits of the 1960’s (by which time the bass had ONLY JUST established itself as the lead low-end instrument in popular music) were recorded either by Motown in Detroit, or by various studios/labels in LA, all of which relied primarily on session musicians to back up the principal artists.
Carol Kaye was probably the foremost session bassist working on the LA scene throughout this period, whilst James Jamerson held this crown for Motown on the East Coast. Their combined output literally runs into tens of thousands of recordings – everyone from The Beach Boys and Cher to Stevie Wonder and Diana Ross. Which means that between them, they have consciously or unconsciously influenced just about every other bassist in the world since. A truly incredible feat.
Paul McCartney – Pop Pioneer
Probably the first superstar pop bassist, and that’s understandable given that he played in the most influential band of all time. McCartney was certainly the most highly-experienced musician in the Beatles back in 1961, meaning that when existing bassist Stuart Sutcliffe left the group to pursue his love of art in Hamburg, he was reluctantly able to switch from guitar to that iconic Hofner 500 Violin bass with relative ease. Especially since it didn’t look too weird when played left-handed!
Larry Graham – Funk Foreman
Out of all the contenders for most influential funk bassist ever, we have to give the crown to Larry Graham. His work with Sly and the Family Stone between 1966-72 was pivotal to the development of funk, soul and psychedelic music. This also led to Graham’s pioneering of slap bass playing – a truly unique technique at the time, and one that has become a cornerstone of funk to this day.
John Entwhistle – Rock Ringleader
Aka “The Ox”, and the only member of The Who to have received any formal music education. Entwhistle is usually regarded as the original virtuoso in rock bass playing – his solo on “My Generation” was the first ever on a rock song. But his impact on the instrument went beyond what happened on stage and in the studio. Entwhistle also originally persuaded Rotosound to produce their Swing Bass 66 roundwound string set, which has pretty much defined modern bass guitar tone ever since.
Aston Barrett – Reggae Radical
Think “Reggae” and most of us immediately think “Bob Marley and the Wailers”, who were easily the greatest international ambassadors for Jamaica’s most incredible musical export. And it was multi-instrumentalist Aston “Family Man” Barrett holding down the low end of the band’s sound, not to mention acting as arranger and co-producer. The daddy of modern reggae basslines has certainly earned his nickname – he’s also a proud father of 41 children, grandfather of 23, and great-grandfather to 2!
Geezer Butler - Metal Master
The father of modern heavy metal bass, and THE #1 influence cited by players such as Cliff Burton (Metallica), Les Claypool (Primus), Billy Sheehan (Mr Big), Steve Harris (Iron Maiden) and many other low-frequency thrash megastars. Butler’s use of lowered tuning, wah-wah pedals and distortion were ground-breaking, although he’s admitted that the distortion was originally a result of playing through semi-wrecked speakers. But hey, whatever works!
Jaco – Unmistakable Ultra-Virtuoso
No article of this kind would be complete without including the l’enfant terrible of bass guitar. Jaco Pastorius is without doubt one of the single craziest people ever to wield a fretless Fender Jazz – and it was him that removed the frets, allegedly with a butter knife, before lacquering the fretboard with epoxy resin! He’s also without doubt the single greatest virtuoso ever to play the instrument, whether by himself, with Weather Report, or alongside any of the many jazz legends he collaborated with.
Listen to his funk lines, his phenomenal solos, the incredible use of harmonics or the seemingly impossible chords. Or just listen to his bass solo track Portrait of Tracy, the opening to his eponymous solo album, where you’ll hear most of these feats combined in just one tune. Truly extraordinary.
Flea – Funky Monk
We’ll end with the pint-sized musical rocket that is Mr Michael Peter Balzary, aka ‘Flea’, responsible for the stunningly outrageous low-end noises produced by the Red Hot Chili Peppers since 1984. Flea is possibly the best example of epic contemporary bass guitar skill, both from a technical and melodic standpoint. But his importance goes beyond his playing, since it was this man that single-handedly made the bass genuinely cool.
Other players could play killer runs and epic slap lines, usually in the context of extreme funk or progressive genres, and always with the bass strapped high on their bodies – looking almost like they were firing a gun. Then along came Flea, who threw all these skills into the Chili’s epic brand of funk rock, but managed to do so whilst jumping all over the stage with the bass slung REALLY low down. What a guy!
Wrapping it up
And there you have it – just nine names, out of a possible list that runs into the hundreds, of people that have either used the bass to change music, or perhaps even used music to change the bass. If you’re not familiar with the work of any of these pioneers then we seriously recommend you get busy on Spotify right now! We’ll be touching on the wonderful world of bass guitar a little more in future articles, so until then...