Bass guitars aren’t usually at the forefront of heavy metal, with guitarists usually dominating the sound of most metal songs. Famously, Jason Newsted’s bass sound was entirely absent from Metallica’s album …And Justice For All, yet the album still sold 8 million copies in the United States alone without any bass whatsoever.
The bass guitar isn’t the first instrument you think of when you think of heavy metal. The sometimes background sound that bass guitars have in heavy metal music makes it a difficult position for bass players: heavy metal isn’t known for its bass. Despite this, some bassists have risen above the pack to create their own signature sound that can be heard loud and clear above the guitars, vocals, and heavy drumwork. When a great bassist comes along that has a signature sound in the world of heavy metal, it’s noticeable right away. To be noticed, they have to really stand out from the pack.
Before we count down the top ten, we’d like to emphasize that this is NOT a “best heavy metal bassists” article, this is an article featuring the most recognizable metal bassists by sound. While proficiency and originality are key, the standout sound that makes these metal bassists easy to spot are what put them here on this list.
10. Lemmy Kilmister (Motörhead)
Lemmy is one of the few bassists who has a sound that is just as prominent as the guitar in the song. The bass in Motörhead songs has more of a punk rock feel than heavy metal, which make the bass lines that much more distinguishable. While other bands may turn the bass down and the guitars up, Motorhead is proud to crank up everything to the loudest volume.
9. Ryan Martinie (Mudvayne)
The most intriguing part of the band Mudvayne is the sound of bass player Ryan Martinie, who carries influences from classical training and flamenco style playing. Bass was an important part of nu metal, but it offered a low range in differences of tonality and often little precision. In contrast, Martinie is the opposite, having a wide range of tone and being very precise. Like many bassists of the era, Martinie sometimes has a clicking sound from the bass strings, which produce a separate percussion in their own right. Martinie, however, is very versatile with his playing style, and his bass lines often carry the song instead of the guitar.
8. Tim Commerford (Rage Against the Machine, Audioslave)
In both Audioslave and Rage Against the Machine, bassist Tim Commerford produces some attention grabbing bass riffs that take a song from average to superb. When Zach De La Rocha speaks during the mid-song breakdowns of many Rage songs, the familiar, exuberant bass riffs from Commerford provide the musical backdrop, accented by Morello. That bass line keeps the flow of the song chugging, and also introduces many of Rage’s most well known songs, like “Killing in the Name,” “People of the Sun,” “No Shelter,” and “Bullet in Your Head.” When you hear a Rage Against the Machine bass riff, it’s as recognizable as the guitar and vocals, making it an indispensable part of the chemistry.
7. Peter Steele (Type O Negative)
Peter Steele began his career in hardcore bands like Carnivore and Fallout, but it wasn’t until his turn toward gothic metal with Type O’ Negative that his bass play really began to shine. Steele’s slow, dirge like style and technical precision mixed perfectly to give him one of the most recognizable bass sounds in heavy metal. “Songs like Black No. 1”, “Everyone I Love Is Dead” and the band’s cover of “Summer Breeze” really show off his slow and methodical bass sound. Tracks like “Unsuccessfully Coping with The Natural Beauty of Infidelity” also feature Steele’s unique ability to play both recognizable speedy and slow bass lines. The pacing and sound of all Type O’ Negative songs fed directly off of the bass of Peter Steele.
6. Steve Harris (Iron Maiden)
It’s hard to imagine songs like “Run to the Hills” or “The Trooper” without their signature galloping bass rhythms. It’s safe to say that Steve Harris adds a large element to the sound of Iron Maiden that gave them their often copied New Wave of British Heavy Metal sound. The inventive, frenzied bass guitar gallop songs became a staple part of many of Iron Maiden’s concerts. Harris hasn’t rested on his laurels, however, as his playing continues to progress and change with each album.
Note: This video isn’t Steve Harris playing, but it is a great medley showcasing some of his finest riffs:
5. Duff McKagan (Guns N’ Roses, Velvet Revolver, Loaded)
Guns N’ Roses songs had an all-around unique rock vibe that all band members contributed to, including the bass hooks provided by Duff McKagan. Like Lemmy of Motorhead, Duff’s bass guitar sounded more punk influenced than metal influenced, which helped shape the sound of GN’R. Duff also uses a pick. Some songs with great, distinct bass are “Ain’t It Fun,” “It’s So Easy,” “Rocket Queen.” “Slither” by Velvet Revolver also has a prominent McKagan led bass line from the beginning of the song. Other songs prominently featuring McKagan are “Pretty Tied Up,” “Right Next Door to Hell,” and “Down on the Farm.”
4. Geezer Butler (Black Sabbath, Heaven and Hell, Ozzy Osbourne)
On Black Sabbath’s album, 13, Butler plays an important role in creating an ominous, textured second guitar sound (the first being Tony Iommi) with his bass. At times, Geezer switches roles with Iommi, providing some experimental and varied bass sounds while Iommi stays on a single riff. In the world of heavy metal, Geezer’s sound isn’t just recognizable, but also influential. Sabbath’s “Faeries Wear Boots,” “N.I.B.,” and “Children of the Grave” are some of Geezer’s finer moments that have been ingrained into the psyche of headbangers around the world.
3. Fieldy (Korn).
Love Fieldy or hate his sound, his bass lines are incredibly recognizable. The downtuned, loose sounding clicks of Fieldy’s hand picking make each note loud, distinct, and funky. Fieldy’s sound is part of what made Korn sound so innovative in the world of heavy metal when they debuted in the mid 90’s. Songs like “Freak on a Leash,” “Got the Life” and “Right Now” added some interesting out of key, punchy in-between notes that vibrated many speakers to extinction in 1999. His bass is so crunchy, low, and percussive that is often mistaken for part of the drum sound.
2. Justin Chancellor (Tool)
Some of Tool’s most famous songs, including “Schism,” have such strong, robust bass lines that they drive the song more than the actual guitar. This is virtually unheard of in heavy metal, yet Tool relies on this in a major way. Many of the hooks in Tool songs sound like they could be a guitar, but they are actually a bass. “The Pot” is a great example of a song that has a guitar-like sound with a bass that sounds really full, heavy, and distinctive enough to propel the whole song on its own, with little help from the guitar. Like “Schism,” the song “Forty-Six and 2” has an incredible hook that contains much of the entire rhythm of the song. Chancellor’s bass is seemingly more important than the guitar in shaping the band’s sound, while in the world of heavy metal, no one sounds like him.
1. Cliff Burton (Metallica)
Few bass players in the world of rock or heavy metal have achieved the legendary status that Cliff Burton has. Sadly, his career was cut short in 1986, yet his contributions to Metallica have put his work with the band at cult status worship level. His instrumental “Orion” on Master of Puppets stands to be the best bass solo on any heavy metal album, and uses the bass in ways that had previously not been heard. The soaring intro peels into more innovative rhythm patterns, making the song almost progressive more than thrash.
Cliff also played a shredding solo at the beginning of “For Whom the Bell Tolls” on live shows that sounded like he combined Eddie Van Halen’s “Eruption” with thrash bass elements.
Some of the finer moments from the first three Metallica albums were the standout instrumentals, all of which were dominated by Cliff. “Anasthesia (Pulling Teeth),” “The Call of the Ktulu,” and “Orion” are masterpiece instrumentals that center around haunting bass sounds, riffs, and solos.
There are plenty of Cliff Burton era Metallica songs fronted by Burton’s bass riffs that not only sound like no other bands today, but are hard to believe they are a bass guitar at all. Burton’s creativity and sheer talent make him a rarity in metal and among bass players of any genre, putting him at the top of our most recognizable bassists list.
Be sure to also check out our other top metal lists:
- Top Recognizable Heavy Metal Vocalists
- Top Ten Most Recognizable Metal Guitarists of All Time
- The Best Heavy Metal Albums of 2013