Bass Players To Know: Colin Greenwood

Colin Greenwood

I must admit, writing the “Bass Player To Know” series can be somewhat self indulgent… I selfishly spend hours listening to and researching some of my favorite players, expanding both my knowledge base and musical collection. Every column rekindles my fascination with a particular player and sparks the desire to investigate others of a similar style or musical era. I often find myself in the position of you, the reader, where I’ve listened to this player thousands of times without knowing much about their identity.

That happens to be the case with the latest “BPTK.” Thanks to the Robert DeLeo column, I’ve revisited some of my other favorite 90’s bands, including Radiohead. The beautifully produced, trance-like music is supported by the bass lines of Colin Greenwood, his careful execution putting “Everything in its Right Place.”

So Who Is Colin Greenwood?

Colin Greenwood was introduced to music at a young age, thanks to his family members, his older sister’s taste in bands, and the influence of his teachers. As a teenager, he attended the Abingdon School where he met Thom Yorke, vocalist for Radiohead, at the age of twelve. Coincidentally, other soon-to-be members of Radiohead also attended this school and all studied under music teacher Terence Gilmore-James. Colin began studying classical guitar with him at the age of fifteen and, after leaving Abingdon School, studied English at Cambridge University.

The early days of Radiohead began with Colin and Thom York’s project “On A Friday,” formed in 1986. Ed O’Brien, Phil Selway, and Johnny Greenwood (Colin’s younger brother) eventually joined the band and they began writing music and playing local shows. Colin picked up the bass, inspired by old soul records and the necessity for it in the newly formed group. The band had been in talks with representatives from EMI and Colin, working at a music store, got a demo into their hands. EMI ended up signing the band, which had just changed their name to Radiohead, and they released their first signal “Creep” in 1992. Between the release of Pablo Honey in 1993 and The King of Limbs in 2011, Radiohead has received many nominations for BRIT awards, multiple nominations for Grammy Awards, including three Grammy’s for Best Alternative Music Album (Ok Computer, Amnesiac, In Rainbows), and three singles on the Billboard Hot 100. While various members work on side projects and music for film, the band continues to record and tour.

Let’s Talk Style

We all learn that patience is a virtue, and while this rings true in most aspects of life, it’s particularly valuable in the world of music. Knowing when to play becomes as important as knowing what to play. Space, arrangement, and anticipation are the cornerstones of Radiohead’s music, and Greenwood’s ability to play exactly the right thing at the right time makes him an essential element to the band. Whether he comes in with a bass line at the beginning of the song, enters halfway through, or remains absent entirely, he is playing (or not playing) what is most appropriate for the composition. In doing so, the bass becomes a very important “moment” in many of Radiohead’s songs. Its entrance becomes a focal point of the song and the bass introduces a new theme that has greater impact on the listener.

Another attribute Greenwood brings to Radiohead is his notion of bass as a function without the limitations of bass as an instrument. He’s a multi-instrumentalist, sometimes picking up the double bass, stepping behind the keyboard, or generating luscious sounds on a synth. This gives him the ability to develop textures and parts that fulfill the sonic spectrum of bass without necessarily playing a bass guitar. He maintains the bottom end by sticking to the lower frequencies but his synth and keyboard parts give him the opportunity to play with the envelope of the note. He manipulates the attack, sustain, and decay of the notes to create pads or unique sounding lines that may not work otherwise. When he does stick with the bass guitar, he adopts a similar approach and uses a variety of pedals to augment the sound of the instrument.

Where Can I Hear Him?

“Airbag” (Radiohead: OK Computer)

Radiohead: OK ComputerDuring the first half of this song, Greenwood’s bass part is simple and sporadic, acting like the tasty, yet sparse candied pecans scattered in a salad. This part is characterized by silence and restraint rather than continuity and drive. As the song continues, Greenwood’s bass line adopts a more traditional and “present” approach, still toggling between just a few notes, but developing the percussive theme introduced earlier on.

Listen: iTunes | Amazon MP3

“Climbing Up The Walls” (Radiohead: OK Computer)

Radiohead: OK ComputerGreenwood puts the guitar down and steps behind the synth for this song, providing the perfect sonic backdrop for spacey guitars and atmospheric vocals. He still fulfills the role of the bass player, though the synth allows him to play with the envelope, character and sustain of the note. The tone evolves and blossoms with a rich and distorted texture instead of simply decaying as it would on a bass guitar. The part is simple, yet the sound is complex.

Listen: iTunes | Amazon MP3

“15 Step” (Radiohead: In Rainbows)

Radiohead: In RainbowsIt takes a while for the bass to make an appearance, but when it does, it delivers a solid groove that compliments the odd-meter of the song. Colored by fierce fills and an intricate descending line, the bass part weaves in and out of the song, leaving plenty of space for reverb drenched vocals, miscellaneous shouts, and complex percussive sounds.

Listen: iTunes | Amazon MP3

How about you? What’s your favorite tune or album with Colin Greenwood? 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. Vincent soleil

    Colin Greenwood is essential for who loves the bass in a rock Band. Song like 15 steps us so inspiring. Big IDeas (don’t get any) is one of my favourite bass line ever… It creates such an a atmosphere, while it seems simple to play.
    Songs on “hail to the thiefs” are also impressive of style and feeling on bass.
    Love this guy, gentle, human, and talented.

  2. Greenwood has some really nice basslines with Radiohead. Two of my favorites are in “Bodysnatchers” and “Optimistic”. Both are brisk lines that fit in great in their songs (more of that playing the right thing at the right time). The “Paranoid Android” bassline is fun at the beginning and end of the song. On “My Iron Lung”, Greenwood even gets some slap bass in there which goes perfectly with the song changes.

    Two of my other favorites are both on slow songs. “In Limbo” is interesting to me because it is in 6/4 time and while the line itself is simple, it does add so much to the song (the 6/4 triplets played by the guitar are also interesting rhythmically). On the album version of “In Bloom”, at least, the bass is the only instrument I can recognize and, although it is a simple line, it does pop out against all the ambient music playing around it. It gives the song form and makes it worth listening to. Even in the live version when you get to see all the instruments playing and it sounds more rock and less ambient, the bass is prominent and drives the song.

    I have to agree with Vincent soleil, Greenwood is a great bass player to know about for lovers of Rock bass.

  3. Marcel primes

    A very slept on bassists at the top of my lit

  4. Greenwood definitely has a style all his own. Great bass player.

  5. Andrés

    The Exit Music (For A Film) Bassline. It has such a force.