The Most Influential Blues Bassists: Part 2

After reading the previous column in this two-part series, I’m hoping you’ve had a chance to check out some music featuring the playing of Willie Dixon and Duck Dunn. Their old school approaches to playing blues compliments the players they accompanied and reflects how novel full-band blues recordings were in the 1950’s and ’60’s.

Early on, blues recordings typically only featured a chord instrument (guitar or piano), vocals and possibly a lead instrument (harmonica). As blues recordings evolved and certain artists began playing with larger ensembles, Dixon and Dunn were two of the cutting edge bassists in the genre.

To continue our discussion of great blues bass players, we’ll zip ahead to more modern styles of blues. First up: Tommy Shannon of Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble!

Tommy ShannonWith a few hundred blues gigs under my belt, I can safely say that SRV’s “Pride and Joy” is one of the top five all time requested blues songs. Aside from the beginning guitar hook, the shuffle feel can bring people on the dance floor or at least pique the interest of listeners at the bar. Shannon’s groove in “Pride and Joy” combines a driving walking line with prominent dead notes and hammer ons. It‘s not just a shuffle, it’s a Texas shuffle… it’s more aggressive and percussive compared so some of the other shuffles we’ve discussed in previous columns and Shannon’s intense groove works well to balance out the Double Trouble trio. Before working with SRV, Shannon backed up Johnny Winter in the late 1960’s, and continued to work with him and other artists including Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Buddy Guy and W.C. Clark throughout his career.

Johnny B. GaydenAnother great bass player known for his work with one of the “blues legends” is Johnny B. Gayden, bassist with Albert Collins. Collins, AKA the “Ice Man” is another Texas native and took blues guitar playing to a new level in the late ’70’s and early ’80’s. Although bassist Aron Burton played with Collins in the early days, you’ll most likely hear Gayden’s playing on many of the live recordings or videos with Collins and on some of his later albums such as Don’t Lose Your Cool and Frostbite. Gayden’s bass playing is distinctive in two ways: note choice and tone. While Collins began breaking away from some of the traditional 12-bar forms, introducing funkier blues elements on his records, he had a band that took some of the same strides in blues playing. Gayden’s note choice in a walking-style shuffle is far more daring and varied; he rarely plays the same exact line all the way through. Also, unlike the “low down and dirty” tone that earlier bass players had, Gayden’s tone jumps out in the mix and shares a similar “listen to this” quality as Collins’ guitar playing. He also goes where few early blues bass players had gone before by busting out a killer slap groove on some of the funkier numbers.

Nathan EastAlthough Nathan East has quite the resume and has played almost every style imaginable, he’s got a great blues feel and knows when to take either a traditional “this is the bass line” approach or go for something more eclectic.

East has had a long stint with Eric Clapton, both live and in the studio, and played on the record Riding With The King with Clapton and B.B. King. Check out this album to hear some classic blues and R&B tunes revamped and Nathan’s grooves on “Marry You” or “Hold On I’m Comin’”.

I could go on and on about other great blues bass players, but I decided to highlight these because they each have unique qualities to their playing, whether it is tone, groove, or versatility. A few other guys to check out are Russell Jackson (B.B. King), Bill Rich (Taj Mahal), Willie Weeks (Clapton, Junior Wells, Buddy Guy, etc.), Oteil Burbridge (The Allman Brothers Band, Derek Trucks) and Hutch Hutchinson (Bonnie Raitt, Boz Scaggs, Delbert McClinton, etc).

Please comment on this column and list some of your favorite blues bass players! Let us know why you like their playing or how they’ve influenced your style.

I’ll go first: Shortly after I picked up a bass for the first time, I became obsessed with Blues Brothers and Blues Brothers 2000 movies. Duck Dunn was by far the coolest person in that band and was one of the first bass players to inspire me to buy a record, simply for the bass parts. My favorite scene in Blues Brothers 2000 is at the very end, where there’s a battle between the “Louisiana Gator Boys” and the Blues Brothers. I’m pretty sure the director of the film said “let’s get as many living blues legends on stage at once, give ’em a line of the lyrics, and have a jam party afterwards!” And there, on bass, was Willie Weeks. He was one bad mamajama… he was the glue of the whole band and while the other players each got their moment in the spotlight, he was the one in the back, doing the bass player head bop, and simply grooving.

Your turn! Tell us about your favorite blues bassists.

Ryan Madora is a professional bass player, author, and educator living in Nashville, TN. In addition to touring and session work, she teaches private lessons and masterclasses to students of all levels. Visit her website to learn more!

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  1. Jason Strotheide

    You’re forgetting Preston Hubbard of T-Birds and others and Larry Taylor from Canned Heat and many others.

    • Corey Brown

      Don’t think Ryan is forgetting anyone. Just starting the list for others to add. Thanks for doing that, Jason.

  2. Eric Beaule

    I agree with all of the above, however I believe that Jerry Jemmott is missing from this influential bunch…some of the B.B. King tracks he played on are, in my humble opinion, outstanding…

  3. Greg Rhodus

    my top favorite and the one responsible for me playing bass is Dusty Hill of ZZ Top.

  4. How can Jack Myers not be on anyone’s list?

  5. Keith Ferguson and a second on Larry Taylor.

  6. Thanks for everyone’s comments so far! Just so you know, I wasn’t trying to write a list of the greatest blues bass players and I don’t mean to be “forgetting” anybody. I picked these players in particular to highlight the differences in their playing styles and to demonstrate how their playing supports the artists that they are with. Please keep adding to the list and tell us why you like their playing!

  7. Gus thornton for sure! He did the live recording with SRV and Albert king in the studio on DVD And CD. Definitely a groovy player.

  8. Absolutely Larry Taylor of canned heat, barrey oakley of allman bros and the best Tommy Shannon is on ” second winter’s. Nice column and thanks for introducing me to others.

  9. Great article Ryan! I hear you’re moving to Tennessee! Congratulations! I will try to get out to the Nail to say good-bye properly!

  10. Deep groove with Roscoe Beck on Robben Ford’s Blue Line. And Pino Palladino in John Mayer’s trio!

  11. You have named a lot of my favorite and/or most-influential blues bassists, beginning with Willie Dixon, whom I was listening to in the 1950s and early 60s (yes, I know, I AM “old”), and of course “Uncle” Tommy Shannon and Berry Oakley. A couple of others that have not been mentioned here (at least, not that I have seen) include Chicago-based bassist Greg Rzab and the bassist who played with Derek Trucks prior to the founding of the Tedeschi Trucks Band… namely, Todd Smallie (although Todd can do so much more than play “blues bass”…. just listen to “Afro Blue” on Trucks’ “Roadsongs” CD!). I also love Oteil Burbridge and George Porter, Jr. who have both done their share of blues playing, but again they both do so much more on bass! Why do I like their playing? Well, to begin with, each of these bassists hold down the groove and compliment whomever they are playing with, whatever the style!

  12. PS — Ryan, that scene at the end of Blues Brothers 2000, with Willie Weeks on bass is just an all-time classic. Although I loved the original Blues Brothers movie, including but not limited to the soundtrack — the only thing that draws me back to Blues Brothers 2000 again-and-again is the music!

  13. Jaco changed the way bass is played and Leland Sklar is incredible!

  14. I am very fortunate to call Johnny B. Gayden a close friend. I first me him when I was being initiated into the Mid-Atlantic Blues scene, and he took me under his wing. He’s been a major influence and strong supporter throughout my career. Obviously, I’m pleased to see him included in your list. I would like to mention that he also has recorded more than 70 albums for Alligator Records, and has played with dozens of their artists. If you want to hear more of Johnny B’s playing, check the liner notes of any Alligator Records disc, and grab all you can that feature him.

    Lane on Bass –

  15. Roberto

    All you mentioned above plus Roscoe Beck

  16. rick dowd

    I remember seeing the blues brothers band with eddie floyd et al at the enmore theatre in sydney in the late 90’s.the old theatre has those great timber floor boards and duck dunn and steve cropper made my hair stand up doing green onions . Ill never forget it

  17. J.R

    You cannot talk most influential blues bass players without the mention of Kieth Ferguson ..

  18. Bret Coats

    For me my most influential Blues Bass players guys are Jack Myers (Chess), Leo Lauchie (BB King) , Larry Taylor (Hollywood Fats), Keith Ferguson (T Birds), Larry Fulcher (Taj Mahal), Calvin Fuzz Jones (Muddy Waters), Willie Kent, Bill Campbell at Antone’s, Al Garret (Smokey Wilson), Hamp Simmons (Bobby Blue Bland & BB King) Jerry Jermont (BB King) George Porter Jr. (Snooks Eaglin) And for a different bass style while playing the guitar= Brewer Phillips (Hound Dog Taylor) & Eddie Taylor (Jimmy Reed) and a lot of Hammond B3 players play the heck out the blues.

  19. Jim "Griz" Elwyn

    Thanks for this discussion. As a lifetime bassist and long time blues fan I have to give Barry Oakley thumbs up. His gift of orchestrating bass lines that were perfect for the piece with knowledge of what sounds and feels right was insperational! RIP.

  20. Gerry McAvoy. Boz Burrell. Ronnie Lane.