Bass Players to Know: Phil Lynott

Phil Lynott

Jumping back into the world of rock and roll, I can’t help but appreciate the bass players that infuse a band with their energy, musicality, and personality, making us fall in love with both the person and the music. Providing far more than just a bass line, players like Jack Bruce, Rick Danko, and the latest bass player to know, Phil Lynott, each bring the “trifecta” to the table: playing, singing, and writing. They support the band with just the right feel, while writing hit songs and singing lead. Not too shabby, eh? If you happen to be unfamiliar with Thin Lizzy, or need a good reason to revisit their catalogue, take another listen to the rocker, the boy that’s back in town, Phil Lynott.

So Who Is Phil Lynott?

Lynott was born in England in 1949, though he moved to Dublin at the age of four and considered himself an Irishman. During his teens, Lynott began singing lead and joined the Black Eagles, his first band, in 1965. A few years later, he formed the band Skid Row with bassist Brendan Shiels and later, guitarist Gary Moore. Lynott found some success with Skid Row, though he took a leave of absence from the band due to a tonsil issue. During this time, Shiels began teaching Lynott how to play bass and by 1969, Phil was ready to start a new band as both the bass player and lead vocalist. Forming Thin Lizzy with Eric Bell, Eric Wrixon, and Brian Downey, the band released its first single in 1970. After touring, a few line up changes, and their first top ten hit, “Whiskey In The Jar,” the band reached greater success in 1976 with the album Jailbreak featuring the single, “The Boys Are Back In Town.”

Thin Lizzy toured heavily and released a number of live and studio albums in the subsequent years, though the band wasn’t able to copy the success of Jailbreak. Unfortunately, Lynott began struggling with substance abuse and the band officially broke up in 1983. During the early 1980s, Phil released a few solo records, including Solo in Soho, sparking two singles, and The Philip Lynott Album, which sadly didn’t perform well on the charts. Lynott also published a book of poetry, “Songs for While I’m Away,” which featured many of the lyrics from Thin Lizzy’s catalogue. On Christmas day in 1985, Lynott collapsed in his home. After being diagnosed with pneumonia and septicaemia, his conditioned worsened and Lynott passed away at the age of 36 on January 4th, 1986.

Let’s Talk Style

Beginning his musical journey as a vocalist and lyricist, it’s no doubt that Lynott’s bass playing is considerably more “in the spotlight” when compared to other players. An eccentric and bold performer, his bass lines act as an extension of his personality, standing out with an assertive tone and a fairly busy rhythmic approach. He relies heavily on driving eighth notes or triplets strummed with a pick, providing a crisp and hard-hitting attack. His style is anything but laid back, as he often plays “on top” of the beat and particularly signals pushed chords. “Don’t Believe A Word” is a great example of his forceful and defined pick playing that provides support and a rock and roll edge.

As with any great 70’s rock band, Thin Lizzy’s songs feature unison and harmony lines played by both the bass and the guitar. Lynott fits in by either mimicking the riffs or by creating a contrasting part to provide a foundation for harmonizing guitars. His unique bass line for “Waiting For An Alibi” not only supports the lead guitar lines, but features a chorusing effect while solidly locking in the with the drummer. An early adopter of sound effects, he tends to manipulate his tone more on the solo records while keeping his trademark pick attack.

Where Can I Hear Him?

“The Boys Are Back In Town” (Thin Lizzy: Live and Dangerous)

Thin Lizzy: Live and DangerousThis live version of Thin Lizzy’s biggest hit features Lynott’s aggressive, pick-driven bass line. He propels the band by constantly moving, with an emphasis on pushing the chords, playing quick octave-fifth-root fills, and using short melodic lines to connect the chords. Lynott creates a perfectly crafted bass line to compliment the harmonized lead guitars and simultaneously builds the song by playing with range and dynamic control.

Listen: iTunes | Amazon MP3

“Showdown” (Thin Lizzy: Nightlife)

Thin Lizzy: NightlifeKicking off with a ’70s funk-style groove, the band creates the sonic landscape for the scene of a “Showdown,” or a brawl between characters in the song. The first of many mimicking themes, Lynott also creates a bass part that reiterates the rhythm of the lyric “gonna be a little” to act as a call-and-response between the vocals and bass. During the final section of the song, he brings the Thin Lizzy “signature” of instrumental unison and harmony parts by doubling a lick during the guitar solo.

Listen: iTunes | Amazon MP3

“Gino” (Phil Lynott: The Phil Lynott Album)

The Phil Lynott AlbumAlthough this album never achieved much success, it features Phil playing with new sounds, such as synthesizers and vocal effects, as well as new techniques (slap bass!). This particular song is set up with a simple, yet groovy bass line that gets doubled to create a slight out-of-sync but mysteriously attractive groundwork for the thought provoking lyrics.

Listen: iTunes | Amazon MP3

How about you? What’s your favorite tune or album with Phil Lynott? Please share with us in the comments.

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. Gary M

    The slap bass on The Phil Lynott album was played by Jerome Rimson and not Phil. The toon is called Together and it’s pretty cool. I don’t think there’s a recorded example of Lynott playing slap bass.

  2. SubSonicGroove

    Thin Lizzy are one of the greatest rock acts of the 70’s. Favorite track would have to be the very heavy “Creep up on ya” with “Bad Reputation” a close second…

  3. AirGuitar Hero

    Then TL was a live band hence the excellent live album.. I enjoyed seeing them in the Thunder & Lightning Tour… Snowy white, Gary More, Eric Bell and Downey… I can still feel the vibe from it… 84 I believe…

  4. pbass5501

    Thanks for covering Phil in this series, he truly was one of the great classic rock bassists. Over the years his style really developed. He was a rocker for sure, but he did many styles well. Too bad he is only know for a couple of “hit” songs.

  5. Tom

    Glad to see Phil getting some love. I’ve always been a huge fan of his playing on showdown. Memory pain and still in love with you are also great performances!

  6. Song on the Renegade album called “Fats” is well worth listening to. Features 2 bass lines and shows how Lizzy could lay down a groove as well as rocking out. Also, check out the live version of “Renegade” on the Life/Live album, lovely Bass intro. Thanks for featuring Phil he is a legend. Let’s not forget “Whiskey in the Jar” was 1970! Lizzy covered a very broad spectrum of music. Actually come to think of it, give a listen to Opium Trail……Serious riffing going on!!

  7. Cody

    I can’t think of just one Phil bass line to suggest. I’m ridiculously obsessed with Thin Lizzy. Everything on Black Rose: A Rock Legend is great. I’ve always loved his tone on that album.

  8. gordon patriarca

    Some of Phil’s more adventurous playing is on the first LP. Listen to the series of rhythmic variation he and Brian Downy lay down here starting at 2 :18

  9. Tommy Thomas

    One thing not mentioned, he plays on top of the beat, and drags the beat with his vocals. Really tough to duplicate.

    • Syd

      I know Tommy, I’m trying in an effort to get a tribute band going! Not as easy as it sounds, that’s for sure, but love playing it :)

      • Tommy Thomas

        Go for it brother! I’d love to see you make it happen! I did 3 years in a Maiden trib. Best education I’ve had in years… Didn’t have to sing, but had to learn to mouth the words and play that… What a journey.

  10. poop

    Poop on my shoe, turd in my heart

  11. Chopper J.

    I gotta go with the bassline on Mama Nature Said. Some wonderful slidemguitar from the uber talented Eric Bell is underpinned by a funky but driving bass that seems to suck the air out of the low tones and spit them out as a wonderfully complimentary rhythm.