A Bass Player's Tribute:
Five Influences

by J. M. Pressley
First published: July 24, 2009

My salute to the bass players who have meant the most to me.

Bass players generally fall into one of two categories when they're really good. Either you can't help but notice what they're playing, or you're almost unaware of it. On the one hand, you have players like Stanley Clarke, Victor Wooten, Geddy Lee, or the late Jaco Pastorius; not only are the notes flying fast and furiously, but they often make sounds you just don't expect to hear out of a bass guitar. The flip side of that coin is the groove pocket player, blending seamlessly between melody and rhythm. Both types are fun to hear and play for different reasons.

There's an old joke that the hardest thing for a rock drummer to do is steady, straight-eight time. Sometimes it's hard to appreciate the bassists that manage to mark perfect time with understated lines that complement the other instruments. I've been playing bass for a quarter century now, and I've never lost that appreciation (mainly because I understand from practice just how difficult it is to sound easy).

With that in mind, I'm going to spill a little ink about five players that have strongly influenced my own playing. I'm not about to debate who's the best bass player of all time (too subjective and way too many candidates). I'm not about to argue the merits of one musical genre over another (it tends to upset jazz players when you don't acknowledge their superiority). Heck, I'm not about to proclaim that you even have to listen to any of these guys to get a better appreciation for the instrument (although you could do a lot worse). I will say that all five have solid reputations and distinguished bodies of work that span multiple decades. So, without further ado (and in alphabetical order), I give you....

Raymond "Boz" Burrell (Bad Company)

Boz Burrell first learned to play bass from Robert Fripp when he joined King Crimson. Two years later, he partnered with Paul Rogers, Mick Ralphs, and Simon Kirke to form Bad Company. The group would go multi-platinum between 1973 and 1982. Burrell's fretless bass helps punctuate the drums while providing a melodic counterpoint to the band's bluesy guitar riffs. Just listen to the title cut on the band's debut album, Bad Company, to get a sense of how his restrained playing ties the song together. My other favorites are his grooves on Rock Steady and Deal with the Preacher, and especially the little bass harmonic part he plays just before the chorus on Good Lovin' Gone Bad.

John Deacon (Queen)

Poor John Deacon. Sharing the stage with Freddie Mercury, Brian May, and Roger Taylor, it was impossible to be anything other than "the quiet one." He was the only one who wouldn't sing, but he wrote several of the band's best known hits (Another One Bites the Dust, You're My Best Friend). Playing mostly on Fender Precision basses throughout his career, Deacon's work varies widely—you can pretty much hear the entire range on Bohemian Rhapsody—but centers around technically flawless bass runs and passing notes. My personal favorite examples of his playing are Dragon Attack, You're My Best Friend, and My Melancholy Blues.

Willie Dixon (Chess Records)

Bassist, composer, and producer, Dixon was a defining force in post-war Chicago blues. As part of Chess Records, he worked in some capacity with virtually every "name" blues player in the city through the fifties and sixties (among them: Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Bo Diddley). Just as importantly, his songs were an integral part of the late British invasion as groups like Cream and the Rolling Stones drew on the blues for their inspiration. Dixon's signature double bass playing inspired many imitators, both in blues and mainstream rock. However, the next generation would play the electric bass, not the upright—a shift that would eventually end his time as a session musician. Among my favorite Dixon tunes are I Can't Quit You Baby, I Just Want to Make Love to You, and Bring It On Home. If you are going to be a blues bass player, Dixon is the godfather.

Donald "Duck" Dunn (Booker T & the MGs)

It is nearly impossible to have not heard at least one song with Dunn on bass. The self-taught Memphis native first made his mark with his hometown Stax Records, providing a signature P-bass R&B groove for such hits as Hold On I'm Coming, Respect, In the Midnight Hour, and Sittin' by the Dock of the Bay. He and fellow Stax musicians Steve Cropper and Booker T. Jones formed the nucleus of Booker T & the MGs. Following the collapse of the Stax label in the 1970s, Dunn continued to be a highly sought-after session player for performers such as Eric Clapton, Neil Young, Rod Stewart, and Bob Dylan. He was also the bass player backing John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd in The Blues Brothers.

John McVie (Fleetwood Mac)

McVie earned his stripes playing with John Mayall's Bluesbreakers and learning the blues from old Willie Dixon and B. B. King recordings. Peter Green eventually replaced Eric Clapton as lead guitarist in the Bluesbreakers, and the two of them befriended drummer Mick Fleetwood when he later joined the band. By late 1967, the trio had formed a new band called Fleetwood Mac. Cut forward several years and personnel changes later, and McVie was playing bass on Rumours, among the best pop rock albums of all time. You can take your pick of any of the songs off that album—Dreams, Don't Stop, Go Your Own Way, You Make Loving Fun—but my favorite is actually the bass line from Rhiannon off their prior album.