I've always had an affinity for the rhythm section of any band. As a youngster I played drums in a few bands, and earned drinks money as a session drummer at university. My son Corin and his little sister Melisande are both accomplished percussionists. My particular passion, however, is for the bass. For me it's the perfect instrument - bridging the melodically driven world of the guitar and the rhythmically driven world of the drum kit- the bass has soul, it's an instrument of the heart. A great bass line brings a smile to the face and makes people feel like dancing.
Of course there are many great bassists and styles, across all genres of music, but today I want to focus attention on the genre broadly referred to as "funk", spanning, roughly, the period between the late 1970s and mid 1980s.
In this era, the bass is a stupendous instrument - it underpins almost every song, sometimes leading the way, and sometimes understated, unassuming, lacking in arrogance. However, listen carefully and you will hear great skills. In this article I want to share a few particularly exceptional songs, and bassists, to give you a place to start exploring more. The bass players featured here are technically outstanding, and display meticulous timing and finesse.
Here then are six unmissable funk bass tracks (and their players):
Funkin' for Jamaica, Tom Browne, 1980, Bassist: Marcus Miller
Tom Browne was a jazz trumpeter from New York City. The Jamaica from the title is actually a district in Queens, NYC, and the track is “a musical thank you to my home town”, in Browne’s own words. Popular in Europe, the single did well in the US R&B chart, but not so well in the pop charts. The album from which the track is taken is “The Love Approach” - curiously this, the most famous track from the album (and arguably from the band) was a last minute addition! The bassist is the legendary Marcus Miller - who has played for such greats as Frank Sinatra, Miles Davis, Luther Vandross, Michael Jackson, and Elton John. One of the most influential bass players of all time, this particular track is notable for the use of an ocatver pedal to give that gloriously fat synthy sound.
This is such a funky song, and on a good system the mix really comes through, with piano in the background, but the bass line really forward.
Heart's Desire, Don Blackman, 1982, Bassist: Barry Johnson
Another Queens jazz man, Don Blackman was a pianist, singer, and songwriter who toured with Parliament-Funkadelic in the 1970s, as well as releasing his solo album Don Blackman, from which this track is taken.
Barry Johnson is the bassist on the record, putting down what is probably the most difficult to play bass line in this collection. It’s a compelling listen - although the bass is not leading driver of this funk track, this is absolutely one of the most iconic sounds and riffs in the world of funk.
This is a super live version from 2009 (although Barry Johnson is not the bassist, you still get a feel for the music):
I shoulda loved ya, Narada Michael Walde, 1982, Bassist: T. M. Stevens
Taken from The Dance of Life - the second 1979 studio disc from R&B singer-songwriter/drummer/producer Narada Michael Waldem, this is a perfect introduction to the funk genre. The bassist is T. M. Stevens - a superb session bassist, who has worked Tina Turner, Cyndi Lauper, Billy Joel, and Steve Vai. I love the basic riff it's super-catchy and makes wonderful use of ghost notes. Absolutely brilliant. There's a section of the song from about 2:48 mins onwards which focusses on the bass line, and it's just fabulous. If this doesn't make you swing a little bit, you have no soul!
Act like you know, Fat Larry's Band, 1982, Bassist: Larry Labes
Fat Larry's Band were a funk band from Philadelphia - signed to wmot (We Men Of Talent - yes really..) records. They achieved a certain vogue in Europe, and this particular track reached no.2 in the UK charts. The Fat Farry of the band’s name was, in fact, the drummer, but the bassist is also a Larry - Larry LaBes. I adore this groove - it's such a catchy and rhythmic line. It's simple, but so effective! The sound is classic picked bass, and is actually pretty simple to learn, but is still very impressive, if you can nail it.
The song also appears in Grand Theft Auto, Vice City, on Fever 105!
Bernard Wright, Haboglabotribin’, 1981, Bassist: Marcus Miller
The second track to feature the the superb Marcus Miller - sometimes nick-named “thumbslinger”, he is one of the definitive slap bass players of the era. This is also another song featured in Grand Theft Auto - this time on Space 103.2. The riff is built on the F minor scale, which shows how great bass lines don’t need to be complicated. The vocals on this track come from none other than Don Blackman.
Here’s the 12” enchanted version:
And here's the amazing Divinity Roxx (solo musician and bassist and musical director for Beyoncé) playing it - this is just such fun music.
Glide, Pleasure, 1979, Bassist: Nate Phillips
So far our funk musicians and bands have been very much East Coast denizens. The band behind this track - Pleasure - are from Oregon. Taken from Pleasure’s fifth album, Glide features pretty much every technique in the book - triplets, hammer-ins, double-stops, and double thumbing. The bassist is Portlander Nate Philips - another hugely influential player, working with Steve Wonder, Swing out Sister, Art Blakey and Toni Braxton to name just a few. Beginning with octaves on C , G, B, F, and built around a pentatonic scale, this is such a feel-good track.
Here’s the original album version:
And here again is Divinity Roxx showing us how it’s done:
Huge thanks must go to Scott Devine from the brilliant Scott’s Bass Lessons platform - his original video titled 'The 10 greatest funk bass lines (that you’ve probably never heard)' introduced me to all of these tracks, and got me started researching the bassists and the bands. If you’re a bass player and want to improve, definitely check him out.