Musically, the ‘80s aren’t really known for churning out bass players. The decade is remembered more as the era where synthesizers and flashy gimmicks took over from the good old simple music of years gone by—not to mention the crazy fashions. And yet some superstars were able to cut through the noise and bring their bass playing into the spotlight, where they not only inspired kids on the dance floors but also musicians of the future.
5 Sting from The Police
Sting is better known as a singer than a bass player, but the early Police lineup was a classic three-piece rock band: drums, guitar and a combination singer/bassist, just like Rush. Sting’s bass lines were simple, based on triads, but contained some pretty catchy riffs. His style was to pluck the strings with his fingers, and the music video for “Every Breath You Take” made the bass one of the stars, since Sting showed it off with closeups played on an upright bass. In fact, his background was playing double bass in jazz bands, and The Police was his first rock band, so this was a big genre-bending move. When you can take an instrument that’s usually in the background and bring it seamlessly into the forefront, that’s a great bass player.
4 Ben Orr from The Cars
While many people think of guitarist and vocalist Ric Ocasek first when hearing the Cars, it was actually bassist Benjamin Orr who was the front man on hits like “Drive,” “Let’s Go” and “Just What I Needed.” Beyond that, his power pop bass playing formed the backbone of their songs, even while blending in to the melody due to his guitar-like classic rock tone. That unique effect, which is similar to Paul McCartney’s style, comes from playing high on the neck, aggressively using a pick rather than plucking and selectively palm muting. All this helped The Cars become one of the most successful American new wave bands at a time when Brit pop was all the rage.
3 John Taylor from Duran Duran
Of all the boys in Duran Duran, John Taylor probably made the most girls scream while his pictures earned the most bedroom wall space. But he was more than just a pretty face. Musicians touted his driving force, groove and slap tone on hits like “Rio” and “Hungry Like the Wolf,” and he “nailed technical runs while always serving the song,” says MusicRadar.com, where Taylor earned 30 percent of the vote for greatest bassist of all time. And those of us who swooned over him as teenagers in the ‘80s are happy to see that even 30 years later he is just as cute (or rather, his bass playing chops have only gotten better!).
2 Brian Ritchie from the Violent Femmes
Bassist Brian Ritchie founded the Milwaukee-based Violent Femmes, which had its heyday from 1981 to 1987, and their first album sold millions of copies. Call them punk or call them alternative rock, their style wasn’t known for being complicated; it was known for catchy licks, repetitive progressions, raw edge and a uniquely hard-rocking acoustic sound. Ritchie’s bass riffs form the backbone of some of their melodies, and like Geddy Lee, he impresses their audience with bass solos—in fact, at a Femmes show you’ll probably hear more bass solos than guitar solos. As for his personality, reviews are mixed; England’s NME magazine said Ritchie was “Technically the most advanced bassist of his generation, the pretentious conch blowing dork.”
1 Geddy Lee from Rush
Rush is a band idolized by musicians, and Geddy Lee is praised not only for his unique voice but also for his awe-inspiring bass solos and featured musical licks. Granted, Rush formed in 1968, but some of their biggest iconic hits were released in the ‘80s, such as “Tom Sawyer,” “The Spirit of Radio,” “Subdivisions” and “New World Man.” These guys are deeply loved in their home town of Toronto, Canada, but their sound and longevity crosses boundaries and they’re just as revered in the U.S. You’d be hard pressed to find a music lover, Rush fan or not, who didn’t think Lee deserved to be on this list.