Today’s post is part three of a series that showcases some of the greatest bass players of all time. In part one we wound the clock right back to 1935 to a time where the first 4-string electric bass had only just been invented. In part two we picked things up in the 1970s, and what a decade that was for bass! In part three we’re waving goodbye to the 70s and ushering in a classic mix of slap, fretless and synth bass. Be afraid, be very afraid: the 80s are back!
After rampaging through the 1970s, Queen were already considered British rock royalty. And on June 30th 1980 they unveiled their eighth studio album, The Game, which featured the smash single and bass guitar anthem - Another One Bites The Dust.
It’s a great example of John Deacon’s solid and inspirational bass playing, as well as his awesome song writing. It soon got picked up by some of the soul radio stations in America, but it was Michael Jackson (a big fan of the band) who suggested they release it as a single and the rest is history.
Deacon continued to introduce R&B elements into his bass lines, including this legendary collaboration with David Bowie from their 1982 album, Hot Space - Under Pressure.
Bowie was probably the hippest guys alive at this point and also responsible for several classics during his ‘funk period.’ Ashes To Ashes, the lead single from 1980’s Scary Monster, is one such tune, and features the awesome bass playing of George Murray.
And let’s not forget 1983’s Let’s Dance with Carmine Rojas on bass.
With the clean production, tighter song writing and excellent tunes, 1980’s Moving Pictures is a fast track way of getting your head around Geddy Lee’s awesome bass playing with Rush. The instrumental YYZ is a great place to start, with Geddy and drummer Neil Peart trading solo licks, but the bass tone throughout is amazing too. A longtime user of a Ricky 4001, Geddy was also dabbling with Wal and Steinberger basses by this time, all while singing too! What a guy!
In 1981 the band released Exit Stage Left, a live album recorded on the tour that followed Moving Pictures. Geddy is as prominent as ever punching through the notes at a ridiculous pace – maybe that’s why they’re called Rush?! All the while, Geddy demonstrates just how in control he is, while remaining totally locked in with the drums.
1980 was also a vintage year for hard rock and metal and it doesn’t get much heavier than our next bassist - the famously hard-living lead singer of Motörhead. Lemmy’s legend is somewhat automatic just for sticking it out and rocking so hard for so long – he took copious quantities of LSD as a roadie for Jimi Hendrix in the late 60s and early 70s, and then as a bass player with the band Hawkwind – who actually fired him in 1975 after he was arrested for drug possession on the Canadian border. Lemmy’s response was to form Motörhead.
The band’s golden era was probably around 1979-1983, which peaked with their most successful studio album, Ace of Spades in 1980 and their first live album, No Sleep ‘Til Hammersmith, a year later.
Lemmy’s bass guitar style was also pretty unique, combining chords with a heavily distorted Rickenbacker tone. His amp was a customised 1976 Marshall Super Bass known as ‘Murder One’. Lemmy once said that he set the bass on 0, treble on 0 and the mids on 10. He used Marshall 1979L 4×15 cabinets and had as many as possible on stage. It’s easy to see why Motorhead had the title of ‘Loudest Band in the World’.
For many, thrash metal didn’t exist until the formation of Metallica in 1981. Heavily indebted to Motorhead, a brief shuffling of personnel, produced the first solid line-up of James Hetfield on guitar and vocals, Lars Ulrich on drums, Kirk Hammett on guitar and Cliff Burton on bass.
This period produced some outstanding work, including Kill ‘Em All, Ride the Lightning, and in particular 1986’s Master of Puppets, but ultimately Cliff’s time was cut short when the band’s tour bus crashed in Sweden and he was tragically killed.
Cliff was no easy act to follow, and Jason Newsted was given the job just three weeks after Cliff’s death, but even on the band’s notoriously bass-deprived 1988 album… And Justice for All, Newsted still managed some significant contributions – check out To Live is To Die, which sees Newsted playing assorted bass parts left unfinished by Cliff and sculpting them into this ultra-heavy tribute.
While Metallica were on their way to becoming one of the biggest acts in the world, Iron Maiden’s first full-length live album, 1985’s Live After Death, captured the band at their globe-spanning peak. Some might say that Maiden’s entire career has been built around the galloping style of bassist Steve Harris – the man has a right forearm made of iron! Anyone who’s tried this technique for any length of time will testify to how difficult it actually is. Not only that, but Steve Harris also showed everyone that bass playing for a heavy metal outfit can be innovative and not just boring root note stuff. Check out Rime of the Ancient Mariner, which has to be the pinnacle of this album.
At a time when synth bass ruled, Duran Duran were describing themselves as a cross between the Sex Pistols and Chic, and playing rock music with a very groovy low end thanks to bassist John Taylor and his Aria Pro. Their 1982 album Rio featured some huge hits – Hungry Like The Wolf, Save A Prayer – and some great basslines, not least the title track, Rio.
To be fair, there was an enormous variety for any music fan in the 1980s. Remember, this was a time when synth keyboards ruled, when computerised sequencers were rapidly making ground, and bass players feared for their jobs! Retaliation came mainly in the form of the 5-string bass; a low B on the bass guitar allowed bassists to match a synth’s low C, which previously went right under the low E on a 4-string.
Jimmy Johnson was among the first to use a 5-string with a low B on the Los Angeles session scene, popularizing the instrument with his forward-leaning fusion on Allan Holdsworth’s 1984 album, Tokyo Dream.
While the ‘golden age’ of the session scene may have come and gone by the mid-80s, there was still a select group of studio bassists who were advancing the tradition of their predecessors. Donald Fagan’s 1982 album, The Nightfly, is a classic example. This was Donald Fagan’s solo debut following his split from Steely Dan partner Walter Becker and brought together a collection of musicians that read like the who’s who of top session players of the time. Anthony Jackson shared bass duties with Abe Laboriel, Will Lee, Marcus Miller and Chuck Rainey - all giving a masterclass in bass playing. There’s some tasty synth bass from Greg Philinganes, too. The songs are great, and every track is a pure joy to listen to.
Another landmark studio album from the early 80s is Toto IV, which was released in the spring of 1982 and received six Grammy Awards a year later.
With bassist David Hungate moving to Nashville during the recording to spend more time with his family, this was the final album with the original Toto lineup – all these guys were regular session greats, and the band actually delayed touring the album to help in the production of Michael Jackson’s Thriller, which brings me on nicely to my next pick.. thunder thumbs himself, Louis Johnson.
Having found fame in the 1970s with The Brothers Johnson, Louis Johnson left an imprint on the bass world that’s impossible to ignore. The most enduring hit was probably Stomp! from The Brothers 1980 album, Light Up the Night.
But Quincy Jones, who became their manager, also collaborated with them on several key recordings – including The Dude in 1981 – before laying the foundation for what would become the biggest selling album of all time, Michael Jackson’s Thriller in 1982.
After Thriller, Johnson was constantly in demand as a session musician and his slap bass lines can be heard on Time Exposure by Stanley Clarke, Hydra by Grover Washington Jr and Thief in the Night by George Duke. Also check out his bass line for Michael McDonald's hit I Keep Forgettin’ (Everytime You’re Near).
Johnson played with such power that he regularly blew his bass amplifier’s speakers and alongside Larry Graham, he remains the godfather of slap bass.
Meanwhile, a giant of British bass playing, Mark King, was also paving the way for slap-bass in mainstream 80s pop (listen to Level 42 tracks like ‘Hot Water’ and ‘Love Games’,).
The group notched up 20 UK Top 40 hits throughout the 80s, but it was an appearance on Top of the Pops, playing The Chinese Way from their 1982 album Pursuit of Accidents, that really sparked an interest in Mark King.
His slap technique is phenomenal, but, whether playing slap or fingerstyle, everyone wanted to capture a little of that Mark King magic. Over the years, he's also been responsible for the sale of lorry loads of JayDee, Alembic and Status Graphite headless basses.
Now synthesizers and drum machines might have dominated pop music of the early Eighties, but in Jaco Pastorius’ wake came some brilliant fretless bass players too.Pino Palladino’s breathtaking counterpoint on Paul Young's No Parlez album has kept tracks like ‘Every Time You Go Away' oozing out of radio speakers ever since 1984.
The band Japan were another a breath of fresh air, and a lot of credit for their distinct sound should definitely go to bassist Mick Karn. He was completely original in his approach and his sound, thanks to the trademark tone of his fretless Wal bass. Tin Drum from 1981 is probably the band’s finest hour, featuring some classic bass parts on songs like Cantonese Boy and Sons of Pioneers, as well as the haunting hit single Ghosts.
Elsewhere Tony Levin’s innovations with King Crimson and Peter Gabriel resulted in sounds never heard before on the bass. Take his fretless work on Peter Gabriel’s Sledgehammer, or his wooden “funk fingers,” on the smash hit Big Time in 1986.
And then there’s his playing on King Crimson’s Discipline album in 1981. That album opened my eyes and ears to a whole new world of bass playing.
While we’re on the subject of fretless bass, I should also mention Paul Simon’s 1986 album, Graceland, which featured a fantastic bass line up, including Paul Simon himself on 6-string bass. There are so many great tracks to talk about here, Boy in the Bubble, Diamonds On The Soles Of Her shoes, Graceland, and of course the fretless extravaganza on You Can Call Me Al.
The amazing bass break played by Bakithi Kumalo stunned everyone, although there was more than a little manipulation in the production, being heavily compressed and played backwards in parts. They actually recorded that track on Bakithi’s birthday and as a little gift Paul gave him free reign to play what he liked in that section. He came up with that part and they took it down in one take. BUT the gag is in the second bar of the solo, which is actually the first part played backwards. Engineer Roy Halee simply flipped the tape over and spliced the two parts together. It’s physically impossible to play otherwise!
Probably best known for his work with the band Living Colour, Doug Wimbish can also look back on an esteemed career that began with Sugar Hill Records in the early 80s. Along with guitarist Skip McDonald and drummer Keith LeBlanc, Wimbish went on to play on some of the biggest hip hop anthems of the time, including ‘White Lines (Don’t Do It)’, ‘That’s The Joint’ and ‘Apache’.
A master of bass effects, Doug has also enjoyed an impressive career as a sideman for the likes of Jeff Beck, Mick Jagger, Mos Def, Carly Simon, Seal and Madonna. You should also check out Doug’s work with Living Colour drummer Will Calhoun as drum and bass act Jungle Funk.
Along with drummer Sly Dunbar, Robbie Shakespeare transformed funk reggae bass into an art form and proved just how energising reggae bass could be, even in the digital era. Together, Sly and Robbie have played on thousands of recordings. And not just with reggae artists: His Fender, Höfner, Steinberger, and Paul Reed Smith basses, always strung with flats, have done wonders for Grace Jones, Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, and Sinead O’Connor, too. Grab Nightclubbing by Grace Jones or the Black Uhuru Anthology by Island Records.
Now, to wrap up the 1980s, I want to pay tribute to three bass players who I actually remember seeing onstage together as the bass supergroup Bx3 back in 2006 or 2007. I'm, of course, talking about Stu Hamm, Jeff Berlin and Billy Sheehan.
Billy's in-your-face bass style has been forged over a lifetime spent redefining heavy rock. From his early band Talas, to stints with Steve Vai, David Lee Roth and Niacin, to several years on top of the world with Mr Big.
But it’s his bass work on David Lee Roth’s 1986 solo album Eat Em and Smile that first got my attention. Stop what you’re doing and go check it out!
Also in 1986, Jeff Berlin released an amazing solo album called Pump It, which showcased his melodic support-and-solo style that he's now renowned for. Boasting some of the most virtuosic bass chops on the planet, Jeff is a bass player with plenty to say about life at the low end.
His career covers some 40 years of music making including top sideman jobs with the likes of Bill Bruford and Scott Henderson, as well as his solo albums.
Last, but by no means least, Stu Hamm has enjoyed a lengthy career as a sideman with guitarists Joe Satriani and Steve Vai, as well as a string of bass-intensive solo albums. His second solo album, Kings of Sleep, released in 1989, is a great place to check out his mesmerising fretwork, which is largely responsible for bringing tapping into the bass world.