Our picks of the top heavy metal bassists of all time
By Gary Graff
August 17, 2017
When you’re talking heavy metal, the spotlight tends to shine brighter on the guitar players — understandably, of course as the genre is built on power chords and shredding six- (and seven-) string heroics, along with the Valhalla wails of its best lead singers. But the bottom is no mere afterthought in the metal world. It’s as much a foundation for the sound there as in any other genre, and metal’s ranks are swelling with notable bassists who have established their own schools of playing to support their mates, and occasionally step out of the fray for their own moments of greatness. As with any list there are too many to give all their just due, but here’s the 10 bass players we pick, in alphabetical order, as most deserving of devil’s horns of honor…
Tom Araya (Slayer)
Slayer’s Chilean-born frontman could be the poster child for thrash metal, period, not just bass playing. An imposing figure even if he can no longer headbang like he used to, due to back surgeries, Araya lays down an instrumental undercarriage that’s thick and solid, propelling Slayer’s songs with muscular, high-octane authority. If the group is really on its last go-round, as Araya and his bandmates claim, he’ll be sorely missed — and certainly never forgotten.
Key Moment: “Raining Blood,” Slayer
Cliff Burton (Metallica, Trauma, EZ Street)
Burton’s life was short — he was just 24 when he died in a tour bus crash in Sweden — but his influence and legacy are immense. Over the course of his three albums with Metallica, he established a new standard for metal playing, incorporating chordings and effects that both complemented and accented the thrash going on above. Even now, 32 years since his death, Burton’s name is spoken in deservedly reverent terms.
Key Moment: “(Anesthesia) — Pulling Teeth,” Metallica
Geezer Butler (Black Sabbath, Heaven & Hell, G/Z/R, Device)
The Originator moved from rhythm guitar to bass when Sabbath formed circa 1968, laying down a thick bottom that added bruising layers of darkness underneath Tony Iommi’s doomy chordings. Butler was one of the first bassists to apply a wah-wah pedal and downward tunings to his playing, and he moonlighted as Sabbath’s chief lyricist and, in its early days, accountant, and frontman Ozzy Osbourne later recruited him to play on his 1995 album Ozzmosis.
Key Moment: “Iron Man,” Black Sabbath
Reginald “Fieldy” Arvizu (Korn, Fieldy’s Dreams, L.A.P.D.)
A versatile player who plucks, slaps, mutes and chords, Fieldy incorporates punk, funk, hip-hop and jazz influences into a style that made him the defining touchstone of ‘90s Nu Metal. He’s been with Korn since its formation during 1993, venturing outside the group for his rap side project Fieldy’s Dreams and with the all-star funk troupe L.A.P.D. He also shows off his guitar chops in another side project, StillWell.
Key Moment: “Freak On a Leash,” Korn
Steve Harris (Iron Maiden, British Lions)
Harris deserves all respect just for founding Iron Maiden back in 1975; That he plays so well is just the gravy. Brandishing a Fender Precision and synthesizing influences from old school metal and prog rock, Harris is a nimble quick-draw whose trademark triplets gallop and propel Maiden’s songs like a whipmaster. And he’s a pretty fair songwriter, as 16 Maiden studio albums attest.
Key Moment: “Run to the Hills,” Iron Maiden
Lemmy Kilmister (Motörhead, Hawkwind, the Head Cat)
The late Lemmy’s iconic appearance and drinking habits often obscured his musical talents — including as a bassist. He studied at the feet of Jimi Hendrix as a roadie and played space rock, briefly, with Hawkwind, but his great expression came during his 40 years in Motörhead, which he led with his distinctive distorted, overdriven Rickenbacker sound with chords and double-stops that established a template for the New Wave of British Heavy Metal and the thrash movement that followed in its wake. Lemmy also loved the Beatles and rockabilly, the latter exhibited in his side band the Head Cat, and his discography includes guest appearances with the likes of Ramones, Slash, Shonen Knife, Ugly Kid Joe, Girlschool and many more.
Key Moment: “Silver Machine,” Hawkwind.
Geddy Lee (Rush)
A tough choice here, as Lee, and Rush, are not strictly heavy metal. But there’s enough metal in the group’s repertoire, especially early on, and enough acknowledged influence — including on Metallica’s Cliff Burton and Iron Maiden’s Steve Harris — to merit his inclusion. Even in the Rickenbacker days of Rush’s first albums, however, it was clear Lee brought something more to the party, skillful chops whose sophisticated, melodic sensibilities had as much in common with Paul McCartney and Yes’ Chris Squire as they did with the headbanging sector. He only got better as time went on, and Rush’s absence has deprived us of an exceptional talent.
Key Moment: “By-Tor and the Snow Dog,” Rush
Jason Newsted (Flotsam and Jetsam, Metallica, Voivod, Echobrain, Ozzy Osbourne, Echobrain)
Newsted was a known quantity with Flotsam and Jetsam before he accepted the unenviable task of replacing the late Cliff Burton in Metallica during 1986, and though his playing was famously buried in the mix on …And Justice For All he established himself as a force during the group’s commercial glory days. Strong-willed and guided by an equally forceful muse, Newsted left Metallica during 2001 and has gone on to a full, varied and sometimes experimental career that most recently included the acoustic, folk-flavored Chophouse Band.
Key Moment: “My Friend of Misery,” Metallica
Shavo Odadjian (System of a Down)
System of a Down’s ferocious, frenetic attack is not easy on a bass player, but Odajian has been up to the task since joining the group full-time in 1995. Using his fingers as well as picks and letting his signature braided beard fly from side to side, Odajian manages to achieve nimble-fingered virtuosity within System’s trademark speed. Over the years he’s stretched in a variety of other directions, working with Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA in AcHoZeN and helping to score the film Babylon A.D. He can also be found behind the DJ decks on occasion.
Key Moment: “Toxicity,” System of a Down
Rudy Sarzo (Quiet Riot, Ozzy Osbourne, Whitesnake, Dio, the Guess Who)
It may be easier to list the bands the Cuban-born Sarzo hasn’t played with than the ones he has. That’s an exaggeration, of course, but the guy has gotten around, and for good reason; he’s an adaptable quick-study whose versatility has allowed him to fit into a variety of high-profile situations. He also has a platinum pedigree that includes Quiet Riot’s Metal Health, Ozzy Osbourne’s Speak of the Devil and Whitesnake’s Slip of the Tongue. He also works in the visual arts and has created an extensive series of instructional videos.
Key Moment: “Metal Health (Bang Your Heat),” Quiet Riot
FBPO interview with Geezer Butler
FBPO interview with Reginald “Fieldy” Arvizu
FBPO interview with Lemmy Kilmister
FBPO interview with Jason Newsted
FBPO interview with Shavo Odadjian
FBPO interview with Rudy Sarzo