Tim StegallPublished: June 28, 2022
As with all of our other lists quantifying the greatest musicians in punk-rock history, it’s a fairly daunting task. On the surface, this is a back-to-basics musical style. Instrumental flash isn’t a virtue here. And most punk bass players keep things simple, banging out the root notes of the chord progression quickly, eight beats to the bar. The most clever of four-string operators figured out how to stand out and become indispensable, either through their tone, their attack or how to cram articulate bass parts into such a simple form. This is what separated these exemplary players from the faceless spiky hordes.
Read more: 20 greatest punk-rock drummers of all time
With this in mind, these are the 20 greatest punk-rock bass players of all time. As always, please enjoy our custom playlist as you peruse our picks.
CLAIM TO FAME: Iggy And The Stooges
SIGNATURE MOVE: Our first entrant, Ron Asheton, was initially the band’s guitarist when they were billed as the Stooges. Once singer/spectacle Iggy Pop received top billing and new guitarist James Williamson demanded six-string exclusivity, Asheton moved to bass. He always saw it as a demotion, though he began as a bassist in pre-Stooges garage outfit the Prime Movers. As a guitarist, he emphasized lower string drones. Ultimately, he was the Stooges’ best bass player, locking in with brother Scott Asheton’s primal drumming as only family can. They created monumental grooves that resembled primordial Motown, a sort of neanderthal funk no future punk outfit would ever enjoy.
BEST HEARD ON: Raw Power
Dee Dee Ramone
CLAIM TO FAME: Ramones
SIGNATURE MOVE: If Asheton offered a sort of negationist funk as punk’s initial bass guitar signature, Dee Dee Ramone and his white Fender Precision stripped it back to basics. He offered a barrage of downstroked eight notes, locked in with Johnny Ramone’s blur-action chords. And he stuck strictly to the root notes of those chords, rarely walking or playing runs. The effect was that of the entire band functioning as a huge, monolithic rhythm instrument. It certainly served as inspiration for the bass parts Steve Jones cut in Sid Vicious’ stead for Never Mind The Bollocks, Here’s The Sex Pistols, and for virtually every punk bassist thereafter.
BEST HEARD ON: Rocket To Russia
CLAIM TO FAME: Sex Pistols
SIGNATURE MOVE: “Sid was nothing more than a coat hanger to fill an empty space on the stage,” Pistols singer Johnny Rotten said, uncharitably, in 1996 of the friend he brought into the band. The same couldn’t be said of the man the iconic Vicious replaced, Glen Matlock. He was initially the Pistols’ best musician, in addition to being the one writing the musical beds for the originals they began stockpiling in early 1976. But in contrast to Jones’ thumping root notes on Bollocks, Matlock employed a fat tone and a nimble R&B-based style derived from definite forebears such as Faces’ Ronnie Lane and Paul McCartney. His melodic rumble can be heard on “Anarchy In The U.K.,” or in the funky intro he provides for their cover of obscure English R&B number “Don’t Give Me No Lip, Child.”
CLAIM TO FAME: The Clash
SIGNATURE MOVE: The coolest-looking guy to ever strap on a bass guitar is also better known for smashing one in Pennie Smith’s iconic photo on the London Calling sleeve than for his actual playing. In fact, when he began with the Clash, Paul Simonon couldn’t even play. Guitarist Mick Jones wrote his basslines for the first three years of the band, teaching them to Simonon via the use of stickers on the side of his neck indicating where the notes were on the fretboard. By the time of 1979’s London Calling, Simonon’s skills and imagination had grown considerably, especially by practicing along with the reggae records he loved dearly. The third Clash studio album was a testimonial to Simonon’s growth, be it the title track’s blown-out basslines or the nimble reggae part he thumps on his own composition, “The Guns Of Brixton.” Simonon proves that punk’s on-the-job-training ethic works.
BEST HEARD ON: London Calling
CLAIM TO FAME: The Stranglers
SIGNATURE MOVE: In a band filled with skilled instrumentalists, which made the Stranglers a rarity among early punk bands, bassist Jean-Jacques Burnel especially stood out. Like Matlock, he was the rare crafter of melodic basslines. But the sheer aggression and violence with which he delivered them, as well as his distinctive, barking tone, truly elevated him above the rest. According to the Stranglers’ official biography, he achieved that distorted sound via picking Rotosound roundwound strings close to his Fender Precision’s bridge, then running it through a Hiwatt tube head into a Marshall 4×12 cabinet with ripped speaker cones. That sonic attack and those tuneful parts are best showcased on 1978’s Black And White, featuring such bass-heavy workouts as “Nice ‘N Sleazy” and “Toiler On The Sea.”
BEST HEARD ON: Black And White
CLAIM TO FAME: The Damned
SIGNATURE MOVE: Musical demolition unit the Damned have had a number of four-stringers pass through, beginning with Captain Sensible, who eventually moved to lead guitar after founder Brian James’ exit. The best of the lot, Paul Gray, had just left pub-rock/punk crossover outfit Eddie And The Hot Rods’ rhythm section when Sensible and drummer Rat Scabies recruited him for the Damned. Gray brought a John Entwistle-esque style of lead bass playing to their psychedelia/prog-inspired LPs, The Black Album and Strawberries, before he left in 1983 for UFO. He rejoined the Damned in 2017 and remains to this day.
BEST HEARD ON: The Black Album
SIGNATURE MOVE: Patricia Morrison established her heavy, nimble and tuneful bass playing with early Los Angeles punk hellions the Bags in the late ‘70s before an argument with singer Alice Bag led to an exit for death rockers Castration Squad and blues-punks Legal Weapon. She’s elevated every band she’s been with since, be it the Gun Club, with whom she cut their third LP The Las Vegas Story, or Sisters Of Mercy. Currently retired and married to Dave Vanian, with whom she toured as one of the Damned’s many bassists from 1996-2004.
BEST HEARD ON: The Las Vegas Story
CLAIM TO FAME: The Adverts
SIGNATURE MOVE: With her heavily mascaraed good looks and English Joan Jett image, record labels such as Stiff lapsed into an unfortunate tendency to market Gaye Advert as a “punk pinup.” It’s unfortunate, as the distinguishing hallmarks of the Adverts were her driving, catchy bass work and singer T.V. Smith’s exceptional songwriting. Listen to the way Advert’s low-end figures propel “No Time To Be 21.” She was the best musician in the Adverts.
BEST HEARD ON: Crossing The Red Sea With The Adverts
CLAIM TO FAME: The Jam
SIGNATURE MOVE: Yet another of early Brtipunk’s lead bass players in hard pub/mod revivalists the Jam, Bruce Foxton and his high-flying mullet were always mixed high on such death-defying cuts as “That’s Entertainment.” The debt he owed to Motown’s low-end specialist James Jamerson was obvious, especially on the “You Can’t Hurry Love”-ish “Town Called Malice.” Even on their most punk-rock anthem, “Going Underground,” Foxton’s part is mixed above Paul Weller’s crashing, slashing guitars. He was the Jam’s secret weapon.
BEST HEARD ON: Sound Affects
CLAIM TO FAME: Joy Division
SIGNATURE MOVE: Back when they were post-Pistols punks Warsaw, bassist Peter Hook discovered he needed to emphasize the high end to stand out from their din. He began specializing in repetitive melodic figures, played on his instrument’s top two strings in the upper bout of the fretboard. This became a crucial element when they morphed into post-punk pioneers Joy Division. Listen to the eight notes serving as the hook for their crucial final single “Love Will Tear Us Apart.” Hook’s the one playing it.
BEST HEARD ON: Substance
CLAIM TO FAME: Bad Brains
SIGNATURE MOVE: The bassist for D.C. Rastacore pioneers Bad Brains, Darryl Jenifer’s contributions were subtle. He seemed to prefer a more supportive role, leaving the instrumental pyrotechnics to guitarist Dr. Know, almost acting like a rhythm guitarist as Doc let his fingers fly like hyperactive spiders up and down the fretboard. You really hear what Jenifer’s capable of on Bad Brains’ reggae tracks, a medium with so much space, every musician is required to fill it. It’s then you not only grasp his deep understanding of Jamaican rhythms but what he learned from Bad Brains’ earliest incarnation as a jazz/funk outfit.
BEST HEARD ON: Rock For Light
CLAIM TO FAME: Black Flag
SIGNATURE MOVE: For all of their precision and machine-like tightness, hardcore progenitors Black Flag seemed more chaotic than any band before or since. There was seething violence and instability driving them at all times. And though the bassist’s traditional job has always been to hold things down, founding Flag-bearer Chuck Dukowski seemingly saw his task as unmooring the band and pushing the recklessness even harder. His tone was dirtier and grimier than anyone else in the band, and his style was a constant battering ram of notes, as on 1982 B-side “I’ve Got To Run.” Dukowski was truly Black Flag’s malignant heartbeat.
BEST HEARD ON: Damaged
CLAIM TO FAME: Minutemen, fIREHOSE, The Stooges
SIGNATURE MOVE: An American punk-funk pioneer, Mike Watt is the bass virtuoso everyone thinks Flea is. Every member of Minutemen could play their asses off. But Watt’s hyperactive note bursts were mixed front and center, the framework the one-minute haikus they called “songs” were built upon. Everything else — D. Boon’s scratchy guitar and articulate howl, George Hurley’s Keith-Moon-plays-jazz drumming — was hung on the skeletons Watt built. Twenty-some-odd years later, Watt joined the reconstituted Stooges, proving he could also lay back and play fundamental fatback bass.
BEST HEARD ON: Introducing The Minutemen
CLAIM TO FAME: Black Flag
SIGNATURE MOVE: Dukowski’s replacement in Black Flag, Kira Roessler, seemingly positioned herself as providing the support Dukowski’s anarchic approach could not. From her entrance on 1984’s Slip It In, her tone was cleaner, fatter, her lines less cluttered. By streamlining the bottom end and locking in with drummer Bill Stevenson, Black Flag had a more solid foundation for guitarist Greg Ginn‘s atonal avant-metal explorations and Henry Rollins’ howling angst.
BEST HEARD ON: Slip It In
CLAIM TO FAME: L7
SIGNATURE MOVE: L7 were grunge before it had a name. Everything about them was heavy — this was 20 megaton rock ‘n’ roll, with more fuzz and distortion. And the heaviest element was Jennifer Finch’s bass guitar. She stuck to locking in with not just drummer Dee Plakas but the entire band. This made every song one giant, monolithic beast of a riff. And she left the distortion to guitarists Donita Sparks and Suzi Gardner, enabling her to cut through their thick mixes.
BEST HEARD ON: Bricks Are Heavy
CLAIM TO FAME: Hard-Ons
SIGNATURE MOVE: Formed in high school in 1982, Hard-Ons were among the finest exemplars of the Australian punk tradition that began in the ‘70s with the Saints and Radio Birdman. They were young, multicultural (guitarist Peter „Blackie“ Black’s extraction is Yugoslavian, drummer/vocalist Keish De Silva is Sri Lankan and bassist Ray Ahn was Korean) and enamored with both the most tuneful punk and kitsch metal of the KISS/Mötley Crüe variety. This resulted in a fast, aggressive, noisy skate-pop sound filled with catchy gems such as “All Set To Go.” Ahn’s heavy bass tone and ability to stay right on top of Black’s rampaging guitar figures is a primary element in Hard-Ons becoming Australia’s most commercially successful indie band.
BEST HEARD ON: Suck And Swallow: 25 Years 25 Songs
CLAIM TO FAME: Dead Moon
SIGNATURE MOVE: Garage-punk standard-bearers Dead Moon felt as much a cult or occult enclave as a rock band. Death, mysticism and dark rituals dogged leader Fred Cole’s lyrics like the mythic hellhound on bluesman Robert Johnson’s trail. The singer/guitarist was a direct link to the original ‘60s garage era, having a minor hit with “You Must Be A Witch” by the Lollipop Shoppe. Twenty years later, the cumulative weight of all those years on rock’s margins exploded with a vengeance in Dead Moon. They gained a deadly international underground following through 10 studio albums and a seemingly endless tour schedule. Throbbing thick and heavy at the other side of the stage: bassist/spouse Toody Cole, quietly feminist in her ferocity, thick tone and moving, relentless four-string work. She was the sonic glue holding Dead Moon together.
BEST HEARD ON: Echoes Of The Past
CLAIM TO FAME: Manic Street Preachers
SIGNATURE MOVE: From their Situationist glam-punk beginnings to their dad-rock present, Manic Street Preachers bassist Nicky Wire hardly seemed essential to the Welsh outfit’s widescreen rock epics. True, he’s continued the dense lyricism he and Richey Edwards established early on. But Wire has disguised his cruciality with outrageous interviews and a cartoonish stage presence. Truth be told, his musicianship is clever and stealthy, such as the “You Can’t Hurry Love” quote at the heart of “Motown Junk.” James Dean Bradfield’s guitar work may be the flashy front of Manic Street Preachers, grabbing the headlines and glory. But Wire gives him a platform to flex.
BEST HEARD ON: Forever Delayed
CLAIM TO FAME: Green Day
SIGNATURE MOVE: Mike Dirnt isn’t the first thing coming to mind when considering Green Day. After all, the band have a drum dynamo in Tré Cool, and Billie Joe Armstrong is an exceptional songwriter and guitarist. But think about the grace notes Dirnt sneaks in 45 seconds into “Basket Case,” a hook in and of itself. And what about the walking bassline so prominent on breakout hit “Longview”? Dirnt (his stage name an onomatopoeia for the sound a bass guitar makes) may be Green Day’s quiet one, but his musical contributions are crucial.
BEST HEARD ON: Dookie
CLAIM TO FAME: Rancid
SIGNATURE MOVE: As steeped as they are in everything Clash, it’d be easy to characterize Matt Freeman as Rancid’s Simonon. But that’s lazy and inaccurate. He’s the rare punk virtuoso, bordering on Jaco Pastorius levels of bass mastery. Think of the Motown catchiness at the heart of “Fall Back Down,” the swinging walks he takes through “Time Bomb,” the tuneful yet stoic support he offers on “Ruby Soho.” There’s a reason Freeman is mixed prominently at the center of every Rancid track, and given as much midrange as the guitars, which are panned hard left and right. It emphasizes his attack so you really hear the wonderful things he does with his bass. Freeman is Rancid’s strongest musician, and their musical heart and soul.
BEST HEARD ON: …And Out Come The Wolves