Few artists are as intrinsically connected with their instrument as Geddy Lee is with the bass guitar. The Rush man, as well as being a part of perhaps the ultimate prog-rock group, has carved out his path in rock and roll using the instrument as a carefully sharpened and cultured tool. It’s not an everyday occurrence either, while lead guitarists are always attached to their music and their instrument, bassist aren’t often given the praise and limelight they deserve. Lee, however, has made sure that his bass lines are front and centre.
It feels only right then that when Rolling Stone spoke with the bassist they asked him for 10 of his favourite bassists of all time he gave them a comprehensive answer and highlighted that he isn’t the only master of the bass guitar. Across ten different choices, Lee offers up a crystalline view of the beauty of bass guitar as well as sharing some of the best players around. While many of the names will be familiar to you, the way Lee speaks about them is purely brilliant.
Geddy Lee may well have become the ultimate bassist with his noodling hands and impressive ability to improvise lines on the spot but even he can admit that the instrument doesn’t have the greatest image. “Back in my day, nobody chose to be the bass player,” Geddy Lee says, reflecting on his own decision to pick up the bass guitar ahead of the other, perhaps more impressive instruments afforded to rock bands.
“You were always a guitarist, and somebody said, ‘Well, we need a bass player,’ so they had a vote and you became the bass player. That’s how I became a bass player: I was voted in,” recalls Lee, negating any ideas of a love story with his instrument. “I think that was pretty common for the period, because everybody wanted to be Jimi Hendrix; everybody wanted to be Eric Clapton; everybody wanted to be Jimmy Page.”
Perhaps by way of inspiring the new generation to pick up the bass, Lee then picks his 10 favourite bassist of all time and though there are some famous names in the list, it still offers a chance of discovery, including one of the more obscure names, James Jamerson.
“I was exposed to a lot of Motown music,” recalls Lee when thinking back to his childhood. “And that really dominated the airwaves in those days. And there were all these great songs that were subconsciously influencing me, in a strange way. If you listen to the music of Rush, where do you come to James Jamerson and Motown music? [Laughs] But nonetheless, all the early bands I played in, we played all these great Motown songs, because that’s what was going on.” The common factor in all of these songs was the bass work of the iconic James Jamerson.
For Lee, one factor always confirmed whether he loved a bassist or not—the melody. “One common denominator for me was always the ability to play melodically, and to enhance the song on a subterranean level,” he says. Usually, the bass guitar is best used when providing steady ground for the other instruments to build off of, but Lee cherishes those players who take things up a notch and become a part of, if not lead, the melody.
“So I’ve always gravitated towards bass players that not only locked in with the rhythm section and helped moved the song, but also added some other level of musical interest that may not be as obvious. Usually, that comes out on secondary, tertiary and repeated listenings.” It could be a large reason why he picked perhaps the most famous bassist of all, Paul McCartney.
Not often picked up for his impressive bass work, Lee suggests he “gets overlooked as a bassist, but as a pop bassist goes, he’s such a melodic player. And you’re talking about a guy who wasn’t originally the bass player for the band. He adapted, of course, and he picked it up. I just find his story really interesting, as a bass player. So he comes at the instrument from a much more melodic place, and you really hear that in a lot of Beatle music.”
As well as The Beatles and McCartney, Lee also paid tribute to Cream’s Jack Bruce whom he called “far and away my favourite band,” and also Red Hot Chili Peppers’ great, Flea. The maniacal player as Lee puts it, “blows my mind.” Also included in the list were Chris Squire of Yes and The Who’s behemoth bass player John Entwistle. About the latter’s song with The Who, ‘My Generation’, Lee once said: “Seriously? A Pop song with bass solos? John ‘The Ox’ Entwistle was arguably the greatest rock bassist of them all, daring to take the role and sound of the bass guitar and push it out of the murky depths while strutting those amazing chops with his own kind of ‘Twang!’”
Led Zeppelin’s mercurial performer, and arguably the glue that holds them all together, John Paul Jones. During another interview, where Lee was picking his favourite bass songs, he said: “There are so many songs I could choose from Zep that feature profound but understated bass playing,” and admits, “This one is my fave.” The band’s bassist is too often overlooked, fairly reasonable considering the band contained Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, and John Bonham but on ‘What Is and What Should Never Be’, JPJ shines. Lee is here to appreciate the bassist: “The way John Paul Jones changes gear, holds down the heavy bottom and adds terrific melody throughout the song. He is such a fluid player and all-round musical talent.”
You can find the full interview here and catch up with the entire list, below.
Geddy Lee’s 10 favourite bassists of all time:
- James Jamerson
- John Entwistle
- Jack Bruce
- Chris Squire
- John Paul Jones
- Jaco Pastorious
- Paul McCartney
- Les Claypool
- Jeff Berlin