Few instrumentalists are more overlooked than bassists. Their low range often relegates them to near-subliminal contributions to songs. Its limited number of strings has led to the ubiquitous assumption that it’s easy to play. Legions of bassists have started playing the instrument simply because the band didn’t need another guitarist, so why don’t you just buy a bass at the pawn shop? (see: Paul McCartney, Mark Hoppus, Krist Novoselic…should I go on?). Sid Vicious, one of the most famous bass players ever, couldn’t even play, and was often unplugged during Sex Pistols’ live shows.
But despite how dispensible the office of Bassist may seem, there are a number of bassists who made far more indelible impressions on their respective bands than they might get credit for. Well, it’s time to give them a salute.
Simon Gallup – The Cure
Bassists are often considered the most replaceable member of a band. And sure, the style of a lead guitarist might be more immediately recognizable than whatever idiosyncracies a bassist might bring to the table.
But every once in a while, a bassist joins a band and completely changes the band’s style.
I’m not saying that Simon Gallup’s entrance into the Cure is entirely to thank for the huge difference in sound between the Cure’s spry, often silly debut record and their brooding sophomore disk, Seventeen Seconds (their 1979 tour with Siouxsie and the Banshees deserves a lot of credit too), but when you listen to the bass lines on that record compared to its predecessor, it’s clear that Gallup is playing for keeps.
Gallup would go on to provide some of the best bass lines in rock and roll history, from the bouncing glee of “Just Like Heaven” to the elegant sweetness of “Lovesong” to the thunderous power of “Fascination Street” and more.
It also says a lot that their worst record was written during his brief absence from the band.
Colin Greenwood – Radiohead
Is there anyone more overshadowed in their band than Colin Greenwood is in Radiohead? Frontman Thom Yorke and multi-instrumentalist Jonny Greenwood (Colin’s little brother) usually get most of the attention. Phil Selway is often cited as one of the best drummers in modern rock. Even Ed O’Brien has gotten his due thanks to a wonderful solo record. Colin is just kind of…Colin.
But the Elder Greenwood is responsible for many of the best bass lines ever written. He approaches his instrument with the opposite approach of most bassists. He refuses to stay put in the low end, meandering up the scale to add countermelodies that no one else would think of. Just look at the loping off-time figure in “How to Disappear Completely” or the start-and-stop dubbiness of “Airbag” or just about any bass line on The King of Limbs. Heck, you could probably select any Radiohead track at random and find Colin doing something interesting (except “Creep”).
D’arcy Wretzky – The Smashing Pumpkins
When you’re playing in a band with a personality as big as Billy Corgan, it can be difficult to avoid being overshadowed. And unfortunately, D’arcy Wretzky has been largely dismissed by revisionist history as a replaceable founding member—likely due to the fact that James Iha and Jimmy Chamberlin have both found their way back to the fold.
And true, D’arcy’s bass work might not have set the world on fire the same way as Billy and James’ guitar playing (high bar, that). But I’d suggest that it’s no accident that her tenure with the band yielded their best work. While Billy Corgan has made some big claims about D’arcy spiraling out of control before being fired from the band, she was a constant in their first four records (Corgan claims he played most of the bass on both Machina albums). While fans often consider Iha and Chamberlin Corgan’s most essential partners, it’s worth mentioning that D’arcy was on the massively underrated Adore and Jimmy was not.
GREG JEHANIAN (and Daniel Pishock) – MEWITHOUTYOU
This one is a little tricky. Here I am talking about the impact a single bassist has on the sound of a band, and now I’m talking about two bassists. Well, dear reader, that’s because both of these bassists played a huge part in their respective tenures with the iconic post-hardcore outfit.
With the possible exception of the stripped-down it’s all crazy, mewithoutYou’s sound owes a lot to the bass lines. The huge gap between the early EPs and [A–>B] Life was spanned largely due to the unique bass contributions (and clean vocals) of Daniel Pishock (that’s him on the hidden track, not Aaron). On Catch For Us the Foxes, he left an even bigger impact, laying heavy reggae and hip-hop influenced bass lines against the spidery guitar work, angular drumming, and Aaron’s trademark shout.
When Dan left, mewithoutYou called on Greg Jehanian, formerly of the Operation, of which most of the band was in previously. Greg slipped into the big shoes Dan left to fill, laced them up, and found very little room to wiggle his toes. His own bass work was just as inspired. Drummer Rickie Mazzotta is famously hyperactive, but Greg had no problem keeping up, and the two would often merge into a single monstrous beast of a rhythm section.
Peter Hook – Joy Division/New Order
Perhaps no bassist had a larger impact on alternative music than Peter Hook. As a young man, he accidentally invented post punk with his unique bass playing which had a couple of less-than-impressive reasons behind it. He didn’t follow the root notes like most bassists, because he didn’t even know what that meant. He also couldn’t hear Bernard Sumner’s guitar or Ian Curtis’s vocals in their practice space, so he tried to fill up all of the space he could.
As the years went on, he figured out what he was doing a bit more, but his style remained rooted in the commanding, free-ranging style he forged in his ignorance. Decades later, his influence is stamped across teenage DIY punks and major artists alike. Listen close to the bass lines of bands like Interpol, the Killers, the Strokes, and Idles and you’ll hear Hook’s trademark style leaking through.
CHAD NEPTUNE – FURTHER SEEMS FOREVER
The instrumental members of Further Seems Forever were often overshadowed by the revolving door of frontmen. But while the vocalist changed between each album, the identity of the band was rooted in the instrumental work behind him.
Much has been said about the spiraling double-lead guitars of the Florida emo heroes, but I’d argue that the larger cornerstone of their sound was the acrobatic bass lines of Chad Neptune. Where most of his contemporaries were copying punk bassists and hammering on the root notes, Neptune’s style was much closer to jazz, dancing across the scale with the same athleticism as the guitarists (with the exception of Penny Black, which is why I don’t like that album too much).
Joe Lally – Fugazi
Yeah, yeah, yeah, we all know “Waiting Room” has a great bass part. But Joe Lally’s inventiveness on the four-string is consistent throughout Fugazi’s entire catalog. And it kind of had to be. Both Ian McKaye and Guy Picciotto’s guitar work was often untethered, eschewing rhythm parts for noisy scraping or spidering lead lines. This left Joe to bridge the gap between the two frontmen and drummer Brendan Canty.
And boy, did he. His bass lines feel more jazz than punk, commanding the presence of the song with an energy more like Charles Mingus than Paul Simonen. Often, he would play a repeating melody instead of following the chord progressions—if Fugazi even had chord progressions. And while his mastery of the instrument is constantly on display, “By You” is perhaps the best example of his ability to keep the song from spinning out of control despite Ian and Guy’s sprawling.
Robert Smith – The Cure
“Hold on,” I hear you saying, “didn’t we already talk about the bassist of the Cure?” Well, yes. But one of the understated hallmarks of the 80’s goth icons’ sound is Robert Smith’s use of a Fender Bass VI—a unique instrument that is tuned an octave below standard—instead of a standard electric guitar.
While the Bass VI makes at least one appearance on every Cure record from Faith onward, Smith almost exclusively used the higher range of the unique instrument on their landmark album Disintegration. The cascading layers of lead guitar lines that make up tracks like “Plainsong,” “Pictures of You,” “Lullaby,” and more were actually played on a Bass VI, causing frustration for guitarists trying to match his tone.
Eddie Breckenridge – Thrice
As a general (and unfortunate) rule, the vocalist and lead guitarist of any band gets most of the attention. Just look at Mick and Keith, Bono and the Edge, Steve Tyler and Joe Perry, Fred Durst and Wes Borland…
Thrice is no exception, with Dustin Kensrue and Teppei Teranishi getting most of the credit for the band’s talent. The Breckenridge brothers might get more love from Thrice fans than other rhythm sections do from theirs, but much of that love is for Riley, on the drums.
Eddie more than holds his own on the bass though. He does his fair share of punk driving when he needs to, but he also breaks away into off-time figures and inventive counter melodies. Just listen to him adding another lead line to “Daedalus,” or his thunderous riffage on “Hold Fast Hope.” But the lightning-fast arpeggios on the verse of “Stare at the Sun” should convince anyone of his prowess.
Debbie Googe – My Bloody Valentine
Okay, let’s address the elephant in the room. Debbie Googe herself has said that vocalist/guitarist/bandleader/mad scientist Kevin Shields wrote and recorded all of the bass lines on My Bloody Valentine’s records since Loveless. Does that disqualify her from being included in this list?
Not by my standards. Because if you’ve ever seen My Bloody Valentine live, you’ll see that Debbie Googe is positively commanding. She anchors herself in center stage in front of the drum set and rages against the walls of guitar noise at either side of her like an oak tree in a hurricane that refuses to bend.
While MBV is mostly celebrated for their lush washes of guitar noise, the bass lines aren’t an afterthought by any stretch. They are spry and melodic, asserting themselves in spite of the amorphous dreaminess around them. The bass line on “Soon” is the most immediately noticeable, but they’re littered through just about every song in their catalog—especially on Isn’t Anything, written before Shields’ total takeover of the band.
Georg Hólm – Sigur Rós
The bass guitar is first and foremost a rhythm instrument. And I’ll admit—when you think about Sigur Rós, rhythm might not be the first thing you think about. Their glacial post rock is built on long billows of atmosphere, mostly courtesy of Jonsi’s ethereal voice and propensity for playing his guitar with a cello bow.
But somehow, Georg Hólm manages to lay down assertive bass lines without breaking the spell. While he’s most notable on Kveikur, that record was a distinct departure from their usual sound. Besides, it’s not like he was hiding on their earlier stuff. “Ny Batteri” from Agaetis Byrjun is built on top of a dark bass line that is both moody and dreamy. On tracks like “Saeglopur” and “Festival,” he uses the full power of the lower range to steer the song in a different direction. It’s not all booming parts though—he gets ambient on “Untitled 6” from ( ), nicknamed “E-Bow” by the band because of his use of an E-bow on his bass to create a lush atmosphere of his own.
Who did I miss? What bassists do you think get overshadowed by the rest of their band? Let me know in the comments.