As is the case in my guitarists page, I make no claims here that these are the best bass players who ever were, just a few I think the world of. It is difficult to dispute any of these choices in my mind as I am fairly familiar with much of their work. They have accomplished great thing and have allowed others to do the same.
One of the most stylish and oft-heard bass players of the progressive scene since the late '70s, his work can be heard on every solo Peter Gabriel album, Pink Floyd's Momentary Lapse of Reason, a capable stand-in for Chris Squire on Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe, and on every King Crimson album since 1981s Discipline. He has also done a great deal of session work during his career and plays on far more albums than I care to mention.
Perhaps most appealing about Levin's playing is his versatility. Not only does he play the bass, but also Chapman stick and touch guitars, upright bass, and bass synths. He is probably the most visible user of the Chapman Stick, a 10 to 12 string instrument (depending on the model) vaguely similar to the bass guitar. It is played strapped diagonally across the body with both hands used to finger notes... this ain't no strummin' thang. He also has pioneered a technique of playing the bass with sticks (known as Funk Fingers...check out his site for info) attached to the index and middle fingers of his right hand. This style also prompted him to order his first and only custom bass, a 3 string bass manufactured by Ernie Ball/Music Man. The strings are spaced slightly further apart than a normal bass to more easily facilitate this sort of playing.
Levin has a strong grasp of music and feel along with an inate ability to know when to play solid and when to cut loose. His style is extremely fluid at times, especially on the stick, with bass lines that dance and slide about in a fashion that is 100% Levin. It's difficult to miss his playing.
fine examples: King Crimson - Discipline, Three of a Perfect Pair, Thrak; Peter Gabriel - So
notable songs: Peter Gabriel - Big Time, Shock the Monkey; King Crimson - Sleepless, Elephant Talk, Thrak, People
Certainly Johnny Marr is responsible for the music and sound of the Smiths, but the music would not have been anywhere near as strong or interesting without the abilities of Rourke. His funk-inspired and loose playing proved a strong counterpart to Marr's intricate web of guitars. Often his bass stands out and is responsible for moving the song along, as is the case in Rusholme Ruffians where the guitar stays fairly static throughout.
Although he was on the verge of being kicked out of the band several times for his drug use, they realized more of less that the band would not be the same without him. After Marr left the group, Morrissey retained both Rourke and drummer Mike Joyce in his band for a while to maintain the sound that people had become accustomed to hearing behind his vocals.
fine examples: the Smiths - Meat is Murder, the Queen is Dead
notable songs: the Smiths - Rusholme Ruffians, Barbarism Begins at Home, the Queen is Dead
One of the busiest bass players of the 70s, he played with groups like Family, Uriah Heep, U.K., and Bryan Ferry. Most notably in my mind is that he was the final bassist for the first incarnation of King Crimson. He appears on four albums from 1973-75 (Larks' Tongues in Aspic, Starless and Bible Black, Red, and U.S.A.) His playing is very similar to Levin's in many ways, which is one reason why Fripp may have chosen Levin as his replacement when Crimso moved on to its second incarnation in the early 80s.
He is responsible for forming the 80s pop-progressive group Asia with Carl Palmer of ELP and Steve Howe and Geoff Downes of Yes. Personally I don't care as much for his playing during the 80s. He lost his personality in playing and became too much of a rock star. But listen to his playing from Crimso and on Eno's Here Come the Warm Jets and you'll understand where I'm coming from.
fine examples: King Crimson - Larks' Tongues in Aspic, Starless and Bible Black
notable songs: King Crimson - Easy Money, Larks' Tongues in Aspic Part I, the Mincer, Fracture
She (yup! SHE) was probably the finest bass player to play in Black Flag. She appears on five Flag studio albums, including both of their instrumental releases. Her standard bass lines fit into the scheme of their music extremely well, but she also had an ability to play horrifyingly complex and fast bass parts that she'd be able to repeat for the duration of the song. Two examples of this are "Account for What?" off of Family Man and "Your Last Affront" (in 7/8 time? But...that's not PUNK!) from the Process of Weeding Out. She also works with husband Mike Watt of the Minutemen and fIREHOSE in the group Dos. Add to that the fact that she played a Rickenbacker and you've got a mean bassist.
fine examples: Black Flag - Slip It In, Family Man, the Process of Weeding Out
notable songs: Black Flag - Your Last Affront, Account for What?, Slip It In
The thunder that is behind Primus, he is as unlikely a frontman for a group that is unlikely as any to make it in music. His heavy, percussive bass drove the sound of the group...one of the few in today's music that allowed itself to be rythmically driven, stealing the fire away from the role of the guitarist as the 'rock god'. One of the first bassists to bring the power of the 6-string bass to prominence in rock, not to mention the fact that it's a fretless. One of the true individualists of the bass guitar.
fine examples: Primus - Suck on This, Sailing the Seas of Cheese; Sausage - Riddles are Abound Tonight
notable songs: Primus - Tommy the Cat, To Defy the Laws of Tradition, the Ol' Diamondback Sturgeon
Squire is the only consistent member of the group Yes throughout their near thirty year career. He is also one of the bass players that first brought that Rickenbacker bass sound to the ears of the public. His abilities should never be underestimated considering that this is a man who has been able to keep up with guitarists Steve Howe and Trevor Rabin and keyboardists Rick Wakeman and Patrick Moraz. Some might find it ironic that after Led Zeppelin disbanded due to John Bonham's death, Jimmy Page began working with Squire and Yes drummer Alan White. They never released an album due to disagreements between the individuals' management; but, when Page went on to form the Firm, Tony Franklin was heard playing some of Squire's bass lines... though Squire's not to this day received a royalty check.
fine examples: Yes - Fragile, Close to the Edge, Yessongs
notable songs: Yes - the Fish, Heart of the Sunrise, Does it Really Happen?
The bass player on King Crimson's first album. Yes, yes, I know, I've already put up two here, but I swear that he's the last one! Though not as technically proficient at the time as their later bassists would be, he proved himself beyond any shadow of a doubt during his term in ELP (uh, he's the "L" if you're wondering.) Ironically, Lake took over the position of another former Crimso bassist for a spell: he played in Asia for several shows when John Wetton bowed out for some reason or another. One of these performances is captured on video (although I've no idea whether this is available anymore.) A very solid and strong bass player who is also a fairly decent guitarist.
fine examples: ELP - Trilogy, Brain Salad Surgery
notable songs: ELP - Karn Evil 9, Toccata