14 Legendary Female Bass Players

14 Legendary Female Bass Players

Posted 23 Nov 2021
kim gordon
Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth. Photo by Mick Hutson/Redferns/Getty Images.

During the alt-rock boom of the late '80s, early '90s acts such as Sonic Youth, Pixies, Smashing Pumpkins, Hole and My Bloody Valentine turned the ‘female rock bassist’ into a legitimate cultural phenomenon; but that's certainly not where the story begins or ends.

From Carol Kaye, who literally played on thousands of hit records over five-decades, to Emma Richardson from modern blues-rockers Band of Skulls, there are an overwhelming number of chicks who have established themselves as permanent pop-culture icons ruling the bass.

Here's just a small selection of so many women who qualify for this list! Across genres and generations, these artists have shattered taboos and stereotypes, propelled equality by being great players who have left their mark on the history of the instrument.

1. Carol Kaye

Carol Kaye’s career on bass is legendary. She could, and did, play almost anything. As a member of LA’s top session group, the Wrecking Crew she has literally played on over 10,000 songs since the 1950s. Not only is Kaye is one of the most-recorded bassists in history, but the real story is in the scope of her recordings. Her discography includes Nancy Sinatra’s These Boots Were Made for Walking, the Beach Boys' California Girls, the MonkeesI’m a Believer, and Joe Cocker’s Feelin’ Alright … and that’s just a tiny sampling.

She played funk, rock, acoustic and lush, orchestrated pop. Carol Kaye isn’t just a great female bass player; she is simply one of the most prolific musicians of all time.

2. Tina Weymouth

With her husband Chris Frantz (the two have never worked separately), Tina Weymouth comprised one half of the funkiest art rock rhythm section in existence, introducing groove into the new wave movement emerging from the underground of 1970s NY. Punk and intellectual ideologies were mashed together into art-rock, simultaneously minimalist and weirdly complex. Talking Heads' signature song. Psycho Killer is menacing in its restraint, with every note hanging on the rhythmic anchor that is Tina Weymouth’s bass, propelling the angular guitars and synths with the surety of a steam train. 

3. Kim Gordon 

The 'Godmother of Grunge', Kim Gordon’s ability to harness and propel dissonant energy during her 30 years with Sonic Youth smashed the token 'female player...' anything stereotype. She held her own in the fray of discordant rock and proved herself a genuinely innovative player in an anything but 'token' or straight forward way. Listen to Sonic Youth’s 20-minute The Diamond Sea to hear how threatening a bass can sound in Kim Gordon’s hands. 

4. Kim Deal

Kim Deal’s hold on the bass is so natural it steals the show. There is a sense of genuine joy in her bouncy, prominent bass lines that provided the perfect balance to Black Francis’ angst in the Pixies. They were the band that inspired Kurt Cobain and got that whole grunge party started and there’s no denying that Kim’s sound, vocals and presence were key to the band’s original sonic chemistry. 

Alongside her identical twin sister, Kelly Deal, Kim also fronted The Breeders who produced the 1993 indie smash, Cannonball and even did a pretty fine job of being the entire band on her pseudonymous solo album, Pacer By The Amps in 1995.

5. Jackie Fuchs (Jackie Fox)

Jackie Fuchs' bass playing career might have been short, but as an original member of The Runaways, it’s infamous, inspiring and surely responsible for a lot of girls picking up the instrument in the years to come. At only 16, alongside Joan Jett, she was a key member of THE pioneering all-girl teenage rock band who became a global phenomenon, almost overnight. 

A Merit Scholar, Fuchs had gained early admission to the University of California to study mathematics when the opportunity to join the Runaways presented itself. She followed up her short-lived stint on the world stage with law school, going on to become an attorney and, in recent years, has had a rather competitive presence on general knowledge game shows like The Chase and Jeopardy

6. Gail Ann Dorsey

Gail Ann Dorsey has a stacked resume that is arguably almost as prolific and beyond comprehension as Carol Kaye's. Armed with formidable technique and nonchalant stylistic flexibility, the list of bands she has played for includes Tears For Fears, Gwen Stefani, Lenny Kravitz, Bryan Ferry, Indigo Girls, Susan Werner and many more. But, perhaps her most notable posting was with David Bowie, who she worked with from 1995 until his death in 2016. Dorsey recorded on four of his studio albums and was frequently showcased as a singer during his concerts where they would regularly perform Under Pressure as a duet.  

Just to be clear, covering Freddy Mercury’s vocals while holding down one of the most famous bass lines of all time is a feat of no mere mortal!

7. D’arcy Wretzky

Original  Smashing Pumpkins bassist, D'arcy Wretzky played with the band for eleven years before parting ways in 1999. With a rare balance of vulnerability and strength, D’arcy’ was an alluring mystery in the grunge scene. Most girls were screaming about something but, despite rumours that her relationship with Pumpkins frontman, Billy Corgan was strained, her steely composure remained unbroken while her bass relentlessly drove one of the heaviest rhythm sections of the era.

8. Melissa Auf Der Maur 

A rock-solid bassist with flawless harmonies, Melissa Auf Der Maur has specialised in stepping into some rather volatile situations, first joining Hole in the dark days after Kristen Pfaff’s death, then Smashing Pumpkins following their split with D’arcy Wretzky. She showed her versatility by joining the former band at its most pop (Celebrity Skin) and the latter at its heaviest (Machina) and has managed not to fall out with two of the most notoriously difficult-to-navigate personalities in rock and roll - an altogether separate and necessary skill of a consummate professional.

9. Kathy Valentine

With very little experience playing bass, Kathy Valentine was asked to fill in for the Go-Go’s bass player. Four days and two rehearsals later, she hit the stage with them for the first time. After her second show with them, they asked her to stay on as a permanent member with the band and went on to make music history soon after when the Go-Go's, became the first all-female band to have a #1 album in the US. 

10. Debbie Googe

Debbie Googe played bass in one of the most sonically progressive new wave bands of all time. My Bloody Valentine’s music is a complex tapestry of sound that bursts into moments of pure, joyful pop, in a perfect balance of mess and perfection. Debbie also formed Snowpony with Katharine Gifford of Stereolab before joining Primal Scream in 2012. 

11. Jennifer Finch

Jennifer Finch played bass for the all-female metal-punk group L7 for ten years, before leaving to pursue other projects in 1995. She and her L7 bandmates were key players of the '90s riot grrrl movement that saw an explosion of female fronted bands take centre stage, speak their minds and turn the world's expectation of girls upside down. 

12. Gail Greenwood

As far as bass players go, when it comes to Gail Greenwood, she’s anything but the quiet one. Plucked from punk band, Providence to join the much softer Belly on their second album, she contributed an energised presence (and ever-changing hair colour) to the bands live show. Greenwood later brought her raucousness to riot grrrl's,  L7 who she played with for a few years from 1999.

13. Johnette Napolitano

Frontwomen who play bass are severely under-rated. Trust me, it’s really hard! Johnette Napolitano may have switched it up, moving too and from guitar over the years, but her place on the list is solid thanks to the early-90s line-up of Concrete Blonde (with her on bass, Roxy Music's Paul Thompson on drums and Jim Mankey on guitar) who were one hell of a power trio, pulling off ominous goth grooves with Napolitano's seamless bass and lush raspy vocals. 

14. Suzi Quatro

Last, but far from least, when it comes to front women playing the bass we cannot, should not, and never could go past Suzi Quatro. Generally considered to be the first female ‘Rockstar’, Quatro was a pocket-rocket, powerhouse frontwoman, even by today's standards, with Can The Can in 1973, and Devil Gate Drive in 1974. Her wardrobe of leather jumpsuits was made famous during her run as Leather Tuscadero on Happy Days, she is an icon of rock who still tours the world with no end to her formidable energy. 

Suzi’s image is so, iconic in and so out of step with her contemporaries that it overshadows one thing about her – she’s an incredibly talented bass player! Going back, even to her teen years, her ability to perform complex bass lines at odds with her powerful rock vocals is a force of nature, especially considering the instrument practically dwarves her. But, if anyone knows where power comes from, it's Suzi Quatro. It's no accident she chose the instrument with the ability to drive the rhythm and propel her relentlessly high-octane presence.  

This really is just the very top of a deep pool of talented players who have not only influenced other girls to join bands or other musicians with their style; as a collective team of trailblazers, they've inspired girls to step up in all walks of life, to do the unexpected and do it damned well. 

READ MORE: 9 OF THE GREATEST FEMALE GUITARISTS

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