Roger Waters is a divisive character. Aside from his staunch politics and steadfast ethics, the musician has often split the vote on deciding whether he is, in fact, a good bassist. Waters began his musical career in earnest when he picked up the bass guitar and began strumming out some acid rock alongside Syd Barrett, Nick Mason and Rick Wright in Pink Floyd.
Over 50 years later and Waters is regarded as so much more than just a cog in the Floyd machine, for most of his career with the band he was largely considered the driver of whatever vehicle the prog-rock behemoths most closely resembled. This is why, as a bassist, Waters is largely overlooked in his contention for the accolade of ‘best bassist’. While we’re certain it’s not a title Waters would ever care to win, it is a shame that some of his finest work within Floyd isn’t regarded as it should be.
Starting out with thoughts of becoming an architect, he met Barrett in sixth form schooling before connecting with the entire band when they met at Regent Street Polytechnic. As well as having an eye on becoming a civil engineer, Waters also became fascinated with music, quickly ditching his studies for the artistic pursuit. At the time, London was swinging and the entire city was a buzz. Everybody wanted to be in a band any way they could. It meant Waters started out as a rhythm guitarist.
Waters switched to bass in 1964 and began playing the instrument in earnest. With Syd Barrett largely taking over the lyrics and the artistic direction of the band, Waters picked up the instrument quickly and began to work on his singular craft. Of course, Barrett’s mental health would deteriorate as his drug abuse spiralled out of control, a factor which would later force the band to replace him with David Gilmour. It was at this moment that we think the overlooking of Waters’ bass skills began.
After Barrett left the band, Waters assumed control of Pink Floyd’s musical creation and artistic direction. While of course each member of the band contributed a great deal to each one of the songs they made, Waters was certainly in charge, a domination which continued into the eighties and up until he left the group. In fairness to Waters, while that sounds harsh and uncompromising, he had an incredible songwriting vision. It left most of his fine work was done in the studio.
In comparison to the rest of the band, especially when performing live, Waters’ contribution appears minimal. His basslines are far away from the type a technician like The Who’s John Entwistle may create or the melodic allure of Rush’s Geddy Lee or pop bliss of Paul McCartney—but what Waters really does have is ‘feel’.
Perhaps because in his mind he is happy for the complete song to be lauded rather than any individual praise or perhaps because he thinks he may already be getting some—it is usually a song he wrote, after all—but Waters is always happy for his basslines to be the bridesmaid at this particular wedding.
That doesn’t mean that some of his work with the bass for Pink Floyd isn’t still remarkable or worthy of consideration when gleaning the essential players of the instrument. Much like his previous passion, while Waters’ bass notes may not be the ornate fixings, the shining windows or the welcoming hearth of the Pink Floyd house, his basslines are the beams that hold the whole thing together.
5 of Roger Waters’ best basslines for Pink Floyd:
Of course, one of Floyd’s most iconic songs happens to be one of Waters’ shining moments on the bass. One of the few Floyd tracks where the general public is more likely to know the bass melody than the guitar, there’s something particularly attention-grabbing about this track. Coupled with the clever samples, Waters creates a cinematic moment that can transport you away.
Known for commanding the studio when he has a song written, when the band came to record ‘Money’, Waters was once again on hand to dish out some advice outside of his bass too. Gilmour was asked in 1983 where the song’s famous time signature had come from and he duly replied: “It’s Roger’s riff. Roger came in with the verses and lyrics for ‘Money’ more or less completed. And we just made up middle sections, guitar solos and all that stuff.” For a while, it really was Waters’ show.
‘Have a Cigar’
What better way to follow-up ‘Money’ than the song Waters considers its successor, ‘Have a Cigar’. The track, featuring on Wish You Were Here, one of the band’s best albums, was written largely by Waters and was offered as a critique od the greedy characters within the music industry.
The lyrics represent the demands of a record executive which landed heavily on the band’s head after The Dark Side of the Moon became a huge hit. The song begins with a driving riff that feels as smokey as you’d hope. While Guilmour’s guitar and later the electric piano are the standout moments of the song, Waters’ bassline is undeniably the driving force of this track.
‘Shine on You Crazy Diamond’
If you wanted an introduction to the man Roger Waters would become then we should direct you to Wish You Were Here, the album which saw Waters lay down his disinterest with fame, once and for all. Perhaps working as a fable for the pitfalls of fame, ‘Shine On You Crazy Diamond’ sees Waters discuss his friend Syd Barrett.
The album itself is a tribute to Barrett but this song, in particular, brings the story of Barrett to the fore. A nine-part epic it not only looked at the band’s past but offered a vision of their future: Roger Waters commanding searing songs and creating gigantic musical landscapes while simultaneously playing neat and supportive basslines. It doesn’t grab the attention but it underpins the multitude of landscapes and imagery that the band create.
There isn’t much about ‘Echoes’ that hasn’t already been said. Pink Floyd’s Meddle is the lucky album to include the 23-minute track and while it is chock full of instrumental joys, Wright takes the lead with a simply breathtaking organ solo. It’s a solo allegedly inspired by The Beach Boys track ‘Good Vibration’ but Waters’ contribution to the song cannot be undervalued.
One of the main reasons that Waters’ role in songs isn’t as technically enabled as say John Entwistle’s or Geddy Lee’s, is because they go on for so long. To have a bassline noodling around the fretboard for 23 minutes would be almost unbearable. Instead, on this song, Waters uses his unwavering timing and feel to provide the backbone of the song only choosing flourishes when perfectly necessary. There’s nobody who could have played his line like Waters.
Often seen as one of the first times the band broke into their ‘space rock’ outfits, the song has been widely adored by Floyd fans since it was first shared. Opening their debut album The Piper at the Gates of Dawn with their manager reading the names of planets, stars and galaxies were always going to set an intention for the album and ‘Astronomy Domine’ sets the pace of the album and quite possibly the band.
There’s something about the song’s intention that makes sure it will resonate. Written by Barrett, and largely composed by him too, the track does offer Waters, then a still growing bassist, the chance to go up and down the fretboard like a whizz with the run down the neck being particularly infectious. With it, the song offers an escape to all those who hear it and provides a crystal clear image of the worlds Pink Floyd were about to create.