7 Female Bass Players Who Helped Shape Modern Music: Kim Gordon, Tina Weymouth, Kim Deal & More

If you fol­low music news, you’ll have read of late more than a cou­ple sto­ries about two for­mer mem­bers of two high­ly influ­en­tial bands—Jack­ie Fox of the Run­aways and Kim Gor­don of Son­ic Youth. Fox’s sto­ry of exploita­tion and sex­u­al assault as a six­teen year-old rock star comes with all the usu­al pub­lic doubts about her cred­i­bil­i­ty, and sad­ly rep­re­sents the expe­ri­ence of so many women in the music busi­ness. Gordon’s numer­ous sto­ries in her mem­oir Girl in a Band doc­u­ment her own strug­gles in punk and alt rock scenes that fos­tered hos­til­i­ty to women, in the band or no. The dis­cus­sion of these two musi­cians’ per­son­al nar­ra­tives is com­pelling and nec­es­sary, but we should not lose sight of their sig­nif­i­cant con­tri­bu­tions as musi­cians, play­ing per­haps the least appre­ci­at­ed instru­ment in the rock and roll arsenal—the bass.

Mem­bers of bands that rou­tine­ly become the sub­ject of peti­tions to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Fox and Gor­don rep­re­sent just two of hun­dreds of women bass play­ers, many thump­ing away in obscu­ri­ty and no small num­ber achiev­ing suc­cess in indie, punk, met­al, and jazz bands, as solo artists, or as ses­sions musi­cians. Gordon’s low end helped dri­ve the sound of nineties alt-rock (see her with Son­ic Youth at the top), and Fox’s basslines under­scored sev­en­ties hard rock (with the Run­aways above).

Before either of them picked up the instru­ment, anoth­er huge­ly influ­en­tial bassist, Car­ol Kaye, played on thou­sands of hits as a mem­ber of L.A.’s top flight ses­sion musi­cians, the Wreck­ing Crew. A trained jazz gui­tarist, Kaye’s discog­ra­phy includes Nan­cy Sinatra’s “These Boots Were Made for Walk­ing,” the Beach Boy’s “Cal­i­for­nia Girls,” the Mon­kees “I’m a Believ­er,” Joe Cocker’s “Feel­in’ Alright”… and that’s just a tiny sam­pling. (See Kaye give Kiss’s Gene Sim­mons a bass les­son, above, and don’t miss a lengthy inter­view with her here.)

Kaye could, and did, play almost any­thing; she is an exceptional—and excep­tion­al­ly gracious—musician. And while few bass play­ers can match her when it comes to musi­cal range and abil­i­ty, many share her tal­ent for writ­ing sim­ple, yet unfor­get­table basslines that define gen­res and eras. Along­side Kim Gordon’s aggres­sive­ly melod­ic bass play­ing in Son­ic Youth, Kim Deal of the Pix­ies gave us mas­sive 90s alt-rock hooks and, like Gor­don, shared or took over vocal duties on some of the band’s biggest songs. (See them do “Gigan­tic” live in 1988 above.) Although they may not seem to have much in com­mon, both Deal and Kaye mas­tered the art of sim­plic­i­ty, par­ing down what could have been over­ly busy basslines to only the most essen­tial notes and rhyth­mic accents. (Deal dis­cuss­es her approach in an inter­view here.)

Like Kim Deal’s play­ing in the Pix­ies, Tina Weymouth’s bass in Talk­ing Heads worked as both a rhyth­mic anchor and a propul­sive engine beneath the band’s angu­lar gui­tars and synths. (See her awe­some inter­play above with the band and guest gui­tarist Adri­an Belew dur­ing the Remain in Light tour in Rome.) Wey­mouth not only com­prised one half of the funki­est art rock rhythm sec­tion in exis­tence, but she wrote what is per­haps the funki­est bassline in rock his­to­ry with her own project Tom Tom Club’s “Genius of Love.” It’s almost impos­si­ble to imag­ine what the 80s would have sound­ed like with­out Weymouth’s bass play­ing (though we could have lived with­out her danc­ing).

No list of clas­sic female bass play­ers will ever be complete—there’s always one more name to add, one more bass riff to savor, one more argu­ment to be had over who is over- and under­rat­ed. But it should pro­voke no argu­ment what­so­ev­er to point toward Meshell Nde­geo­cel­lo as not only one of the most tal­ent­ed bass play­ers, but one of the most tal­ent­ed musi­cians peri­od of her gen­er­a­tion. See her and band above play “Dead End” live on KCRW. Unlike most of the play­ers above (except per­haps Car­ol Kaye), Nde­geo­cel­lo is a high­ly tech­ni­cal play­er, but also a very taste­ful one. Much of her music flies under the radar, but most peo­ple will be famil­iar with her cov­er of Van Morrison’s “Wild Nights” with John Cougar Mel­len­camp and her neosoul hit “If That’s Your Boyfriend.”

Again, this is only the briefest, small­est sam­pling of excel­lent female bass players—in rock, jazz, soul, etc. An expand­ed list would include play­ers like Melis­sa Auf der Maur, Esper­an­za Spald­ing, and many more names you may or may not have heard before. One you prob­a­bly haven’t, but should, is the name Tal Wilken­feld, an Aus­tralian prodi­gy who has played with Her­bie Han­cock, Chick Corea, the All­man Broth­ers, and Jeff Beck. (See her absolute­ly kill it in a per­for­mance with Beck above from 2007.) Like Car­ol Kaye many decades before her, Wilken­feld made her name at a very young age, play­ing gui­tar in jazz clubs, and quick­ly became a high­ly in-demand play­er called—at age 21—“the future of bass.” Are there any oth­er women play­ers out there deserv­ing of the title, or of inclu­sion in a bass play­ing Hall of Fame? Let us know in the com­ments, and include a link to your favorite live per­for­mance.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Meet Car­ol Kaye, the Unsung Bassist Behind Your Favorite 60s Hits

Four Female Punk Bands That Changed Women’s Role in Rock

Hear Iso­lat­ed Tracks From Five Great Rock Bassists: McCart­ney, Sting, Dea­con, Jones & Lee

The Sto­ry of the Bass: New Video Gives Us 500 Years of Music His­to­ry in 8 Min­utes

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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