After dedicating a post to The 10 Most Influential Guitar Players Of The Modern Era of Heavy Metal, we hereby dedicate a post to The 10 Most Influential Bass Players Of Rock and Heavy Metal. I can imagine that some might disagree with my choice of these bass players. However, I hope that my explanation of why I consider these 10 bassists to be worth of the Top 10 will make sense to you.
Cliff Burton (February 10, 1962 – September 27, 1986) can easily be defined the most revolutionising virtuoso bass player in heavy metal, even if other were virtuosos before him. His 1983 bass-solo track on Metallica’s debut album, Kill’Em All, is the recorded prove that he single-handedly revolutionised heavy metal bass playing. When my friends and I started playing in bands in the 1990s, everyone – not only bass players – learned his Anesthasia (Pulling Teeth) bass solo to improve our understanding of instrumentalism. Songs such as For Whom The Bell Tolls or Orion are further classics that include Cliff’s phenomenal bass creativity.
Billy Sheehan is known for his bass playing work with international acts such as Talas, Steve Vai, David Lee Roth, Mr. Big, Niacin, and The Winery Dogs; and he has been awarded the “Best Rock Bass Player” award from Guitar Player Magazine five times because of his virtuoso bass playing style. I have seen Billy play live with different acts and his presence on stage always stood out. What always impresses me is that he can play the fanciest bass lines but integrate them perfectly within the song, without ripping the song apart. Especially his work with David Lee Roth and Mr. Big, where the instrumentalists need to be careful not to overload the songs with virtuosity, Billy finds the perfect balance between musical sugar and spice. My favourites include Shyboy, Mr. Big’s Take Cover, and Niacin’s No Man’s Land.
Iron Maiden mastermind Steve Harris has been able to create a distinctive and recognisable bass playing style with his fast bass lines that cut through the wall of sound of three heavy guitars and a virtuoso drummer. He’s not necessarily a virtuoso, but his bass playing radiates fantastic creativity and finger workout. You can check out basically any Iron Maiden record to discover Steve Harris; my favourites are songs such as Fear of the Dark, Run to the Hills, or The Clairvoyant.
During his time with Guns N Roses, in the late 1980 and 1990s, Duff McKagan became the poster-boy of the hard n’ heavy bass player. Cool was his middle name and his bass lines for classics such as Sweet Child O’ Mine, Welcome to the Jungle, or You Could Be Mine, were among the first lines aspiring young bassists wanted to learn in those days. Also, considering that Duff’s musical background wasn’t necessarily based on complex music theory, his bass lines were much more creative and inserting than the average ones.
Geddy Lee of Rush has been a virtuoso bass player ever since Rush laid their first foot on a stage. Given that he is not only a bassists but is also the lead singer of the band, he has influenced musicians in different ways. A number of musicians state they were influenced by Rush, among them, Cliff Burton of Metallica, Steve Harris of Iron Maiden, John Myung of Dream Theater, and Les Claypool of Primus (Wikipedia, retrieved August 20, 2015). Listen to his work in Rush’s Tom Sawyer, YYZ, or Dreamline and get inspired.
Markus Grosskopf of German heavy metal veterans Helloween has been a silent but important bass influence in the heavy metal genre. His style can be described as a mix between Dave Ellefson’s melodic fills, Steve Harris’ fast finger-style and Geezer Butler’s creativity. Check out Helloween’s Eagle Fly Free, Future World, or the brand-new My God-Given Right.
Of all the mentioned bass players in this top 10, Alex Webster of death metal icons Cannibal Corpse plays the most brachial bass lines. According to Wikipedia, “Webster is recognized as an extremely experienced and talented metal bass player. He can play at exceptionally fast speeds, and does a signature 3-finger walk (a “galloping” finger motion). He revealed in a making-of DVD for Cannibal Corpse’s album The Wretched Spawn, where he initially started playing guitar but changed to bass because he felt he could master the instrument more quickly. Unlike usual heavy metal bassists that play at high speeds, Webster is able to play his instrument without the use of a pick, while still retaining a clean clear tone, which helps maintain clarity in the complex and very fast lines he plays in conjunction with the heavily distorted guitars of Cannibal Corpse. (retrieved 20 August 2015)”
Geezer Butler is best known for his work with Black Sabbath and later with Heaven and Hell. He is also known to have written many lyrics for Black Sabbath when Ozzy Osbourne was part of the band. Besides having been a great contributor to Black Sabbath’s music, he has played bass on Ozzy’s 1995 studio album Ozzmosis. Geezer shows in all his bass playing work how to be a subtle bassists, who underlines a heavy metal guitarist’s riffs with astute bass lines; and that is true for all his bass lines throughout his career. Check out Black Sabbath’s Symptoms of the Universe and TV Crimes, as well as Ozzy’s Ozzmosis album.
Primus frontman Les Claypool has been known for his colourful 6-string fretless bass playing and stage presence. He definitely pushed metal bass plying to its limits including techniques such as flamenco-like strumming, whammy bar bends, slapping, tapping, and fretless chords. In addition, playing as a trio, Les has lots of room to make his bass playing heard. Take a listen at Primus’ Jerry Was a Race Car Driver, My Name Is Mud, and at the band’s cover of Metallica’s Master of Puppets.
Dave Ellefson might have been influenced by hard rock and heavy metal bassists such as Cliff Williams of AC/DC or Ian Hill of Judas Priest, who are famous for their straight 8th-note stomping bass lines. Nevertheless, Dave’s elegant sound and melodic fills throughout the Megadeth catalogue and other projects make his bass playing a real treat to listen to and has inspired many upcoming bass players. Take a listen to Megadeth’s Symphony of Destruction or Peace Sells, and to his project with Anthrax’s Frank Bello Altitudes & Attitude for some interesting examples.