Four legendary session bassists you need to know
07.04.2021

Four legendary session bassists you need to know

Words by Nick Brown

Dissecting the influence of four legendary low-end forces in the studio.

Keeping in line with this month’s studio special I thought we’d look at some truly elite bass players in the studio/session world.

The abilities of these players to turn it on when recording shouldn’t be overlooked. Feel, tone, poise, intonation and excitement are just some of the traits bundled into those precise moments to create a sound and feeling that works for the song. These skills, plus a verified track record, make them in-demand musicians.

Summary

  • A bassist with an expert understanding of rhythm, feel and melody is a crucial asset in any studio setting.
  • Players such as Pino Palladino, Carol Kaye, Justin Meldal-Johnsen and James Jamerson have solidified themselves as legendary session bassists.
  • Each bassist on this list can tap into a totally different style and musical skillset when working with differing artists.

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With than in mind, here a few names to get us started.

Pino Palladino

Playing a huge range of material (both live and in the studio) from rock to pop to blues to funk, Pino’s upbringing was very rooted in the Motown, funk, jazz and soul genres. 

Possessing a supreme pocket and ear for creating parts he has been a first call bass player since the early 1970s. Pino often wields a P Bass but has also recorded many classic bass lines on a fretless Music Man Stingray.

With a resume including D’Angelo, Phil Collins, John Mayer, Paul Simon, The Who, Adele and Erykah Badu (plus many more) he is still hugely in demand today thanks to his ability to play a range of styles. 

Carol Kaye

One of the most prolific bass players of all time, Kaye was an absolute force in the rock, pop, soul, rhythm and blues world for most of her career.

Starting her career as a guitarist, the story is told that during a session the bass player didn’t show up and Kaye offered to jump on bass and play the parts.

Already with plenty of work as a studio guitarist, Kaye then added the bass to her arsenal which led to even more dates with the likes of The Beach Boys, Frank Sinatra, Simon and Garfunkel, Barbara Streisand, The Supremes, Phil Spector and Quincy Jones.

A core part of the heralded Wrecking Crew, Kaye has deservedly received much added recognition in later life and her bass lines, technique and instructional texts are still studied today. 

Justin Meldal-Johnsen

Active on both the live and studio fronts Justin Medal-Johnsen combines feel and chops with writing and arranging nous.

Gig wise, he’s probably best known for his work with Beck, Nine Inch Nails and Air but in the studio (in both musician and production roles) he’s worked with Jimmy Eat World, Paramore, Jason Mraz, Sara Bareilles, Dixie Chicks, Tori Amos and more.

Not afraid to experiment JMJ can keep it simple or add/layer effects, and uses a range of classic and slightly lesser known basses as well as having his own Signature Fender Mustang to boot. 

James Jamerson

His influence is undeniable. Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On credited him as ‘the incomparable James Jamerson’, and there’d be few to argue that point.

Syncopation, chromaticism, ghost notes and a combination of chops, a strong understanding of melody and harmony and a serious groove helped define the Motown sound.

Part of session legends the ‘Funk Brothers’ Jamerson can be heard on tracks by Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder, The Supremes, John Lee Hooker and The Four Tops. 

Looking to speed up your progress on bass? Check out our top tips for streamlining your practise sessions in our bass lesson from Mixdown #314 here.