Any article with a title like this is going to be somewhat clickbaity simply because it’s SO subjective. There have been tons of amazing, talented, creative women owning the job of bassist in many great bands over the years. So how do we decide who gets on a “best female bass players” list like this? Let’s take a look.
Obviously, a part of it is going to be, “what do we like?” This is the unavoidable part. We like what we like. But, we can also look at the influence a bassist has had on their genre, their fans, and music in general. How were they influential with their own style? How did they influence other bassists, female or otherwise, that came after them. We can look at how they pushed limits.
So, we tried to put together a list of the best female bass players (in our opinion). We based this list on their contributions to music, their popularity in general, and our own biased feelings. It is what it is…enjoy!
Female Bass Players and Their Influence on Music
At first glance, female bass players might be a rare breed. But, once you scratch the surface you’ll find that a lot of popular songs were recorded with female bassists in the studio!
Writing articles like this is very often eye-opening. Delving deeper and finding out that so many of my favorite songs were played by female bassists was like uncovering treasure after treasure. Not to mention it’s a great inspiration to keep practicing the bass at home.
It’s also notable that the reason a list like this is even necessary is that bass guitar at the higher levels is often dominated by male players. When you have talented female bass players breaking through that barrier, it’s nice to pay attention and celebrate those accomplishments.
So here are just a few of the most influential female bass players that you should know!
Carol Kaye: Session Bass Legend
We’ve got to start with Carol Kaye. She’s had her hands on a staggeringly vast number of very popular songs. Also, the diversity of styles she’s played is beyond impressive.
Here are just a few of the many well-known tunes that Carol has played bass on:
- I’m A Believer, Last Train To Clarksville & others – Monkees
- Homeward Bound, I Am A Rock, Scarborough Fair – Simon & Garfunkle
- Light My Fire – Doors
- Love Child, Baby Love, Stop In The Name Of Love, You Can’t Hurry Love, etc – Supremes
- Get Ready, I Second That Emotion – Temptations
- Good Vibrations, Help Me Rhonda, Sloop John B, I Get Around, God Only Knows, Pet Sounds lp, Smile lp, I Was Made To Love Her – Beach Boys
You can check her very, very extensive list of credits on her website.
The Wrecking Crew
If you’re not aware of the Wrecking Crew, then definitely watch the 2008 documentary about them under the same name. The Wrecking Crew was a group of LA-based session musicians during the 60s and 70s. They’ve played on some of the most famous and influential albums of all time.
The Wrecking Crew played for the Beach Boys, Sonny and Cher, the Temptations, Frank Sinatra, Stevie Wonder, Simon and Garfunkel, and Dean Martin, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. One of the bass players for this tight-knit group of rotating musicians was Carol Kaye.
Originally a guitar player, Kaye grew up in southern California. One of her early breaks was playing for Phil Spector in the 50s. And, after a bassist failed to show up to a studio session in the early 60s, she switched from guitar to bass. She then quickly rose the ranks as a go-to bassist among session musicians.
Because she was a session bassist for so many different groups and performers, the range of what she played was incredibly wide and varied, making her a multi-faceted and flexible player. Carol Kaye is a truly talented bass player who has slipped under the radar for decades.
Carol uses a pick while playing bass. She started as a guitarist, so this carried over for her. She’s also very melodic in her bass line choices. Rather than the obvious notes a bass player might fall into playing, she often looks for something to both hold down the low end and support the melody.
- Fender Precision Bass
- Danelectro basses
- Gibson Ripper
- Ibanez SRX700
Kim Deal: Post Punk Powerhouse
The original bassist for the band Pixies, as well as one of the creators of the Breeders, Kim Deal grew up in Dayton, Ohio alongside her twin sister Kelley. She started playing music at a young age and wrote an impressive amount of songs while in high school in their makeshift studio at home.
After moving to Boston in the mid-80s, she answered an ad for a bassist, and thus the post-punk legends Pixies were formed in 1986. One funny note is that apparently, Kim was the only person to answer the ad at the time.
Until 1993, they pumped out alternative albums that sometimes bordered on grunge, sometimes on psychedelic rock. Pixies were instrumental in developing that “loud quiet loud” emotional post-punk aesthetic. In fact, there’s a documentary you might want to catch called, fittingly enough, LoudQUIETloud.
Trouble for “The” Pixies
The Pixies had their troubles as a band, as did many creative groups pushing the envelope. There were tensions specifically between Deal and Francis (frontman of the band), that eventually led to the breakup of the band.
The Pixies went on hiatus until their reunion in 2004, but after nine more years of touring and playing, Deal left the Pixies permanently and was replaced by Paz Lenchantin.
Meanwhile, Deal had started the Breeders along with Tanya Donelly and Carrie Bradley, and later her twin sister Kelley. The Breeders allowed Deal to fully step into the role of songwriter, something she wasn’t able to do while in the Pixies. She was also able to play guitar, which was her main instrument outside of the Pixies.
Kim Deal was one of the leading musicians during the height of the “alternative rock boom” of the 90s. With both the Pixies and the Breeders being so popular at the time, they became an influence for many bands later down the line.
- Like Carol Kaye, Kim played bass with a pick too as she says she was used to it from playing guitar. There are some really nice melodic moments playing with the Pixies where Kim stood out during the quiet spots, and I think that’s one of the ways she stands out.
- Aria Pro II
- 1962 Fender Precision Reissue
- Music Man StingRay
- Steinberger headless bass (for a very short time)
Gail Ann Dorsey: Philly Low-end Legend
Similar to the session bassist Carol Kaye, Gail Ann Dorsey has played on many different famous tracks throughout her career. She’s played with Tears for Fears, Gwen Stefani, Lenny Kravitz, and Gang of Four. However, she’s probably most known for her time playing with David Bowie.
Born and raised in Philadelphia, Dorsey started playing guitar at a young age and didn’t become serious about the bass until her early adulthood. She grew up listening to a lot of funk and rock, which can be heard in her solo albums which she released throughout her life.
After moving to London, Dorsey dipped her toe into the theater and played music for the Theatre of Black Women, and produced the music for Chiaroscuro. After bouncing around playing with Donny Osmond and Boy George among others, she began to do voice work for various groups such as Rolling Stone’s Charlie Watts’ jazz band. While in the UK, she also worked a lot within the community, teaching music at community centers.
It has to be pointed out here how incredible Dorsey’s voice is. Her tone and expression can fit into almost any musical genre. Her vocal talent is at least equal to what she can do on bass. If you haven’t heard her sing, have a listen.
Her duet with Bowie on “Under Pressure” is incredible as well.
When Dorsey moved back to the States, she got connected with David Bowie and joined his band while they were on the Outside Tour. She was supposed to fill in for several weeks; she stayed with the band for two decades. After David Bowie’s passing, Dorsey began playing with Lenny Kravitz.
Dorsey’s playing spans many different genres including jazz, funk, rock, and classical, which just showcases how talented she is.
Definitely a blend of “modern rock” and pop with jazz and funk influences. She has fantastic control over her tone. She played with a pick or even her fingernails in the 80s but plays with her fingers and very little treble in later years.
- Fender Jazz
- Fender Precision
- Music Man Stingray
Suzi Quatro: Detroit Rule Breaker
Suzi Quatro is notable for many things in her long career. Among them, not only is she a female bass player in a male-dominated field, but she’s also a bass-playing singer and frontwoman. Singing bass players are rare on their own, but Suzi never seemed to consider anything she did odd. It was just how she wanted to be.
Suzi Quatro grew up in Detroit, and her entire presence is one of rebellion and individuality. Small in stature, loud, brash, and often offensive for some, she wielded a bass like it was nothing. She played in bands with her sisters until she was “discovered” in the early 70s and launched into a solo career.
Suzi Quatro has had a pretty profound influence on music and culture in America. She’s known for her own loud brand of hard rock that very often bled into glam rock in the 1970s and 80s. She even had a small character on the TV show “Happy Days” called Leather Tuscadero.
Loud and rocking.
LOTS of them apparently. She’s tried many different models over the years, but here are a few we know of. She’s mentioned that the P Bass is the only model that you can just plug in and it’s perfect.
- 1957 Fender Precision Bass (a gift from her father that she reportedly still uses in the studio occasionally)
- Fender Jazz Bass
- Les Paul Professional Recording Bass
- Gibson EB-0
- Gibson L9-S Ripper
- BC Rich basses (she was sponsored by them)
Esperanza Spalding: Jazz Phenom
One of the best stand-up jazz bassists around, Esperanza Spalding is a multi-Grammy-winning musician. Known for her incredible voice as well as her skill at other instruments, Spalding fine-tuned her craft at the Berklee College of Music, which later gifted her an honorary doctorate in music years later.
Spalding has released eight studio albums which have gained her Best New Artist, two Best Jazz Vocal Albums, and Best Instrumental Arrangement, among other awards. While her music is heavily tied to jazz, she has said that she is influenced by fusion as well as language. She has used the melody of the Portuguese and Spanish language in her music, as well as the bossa nova style.
If you need more reason to be blow away by her, just know that she started teaching music at Berklee at the age of 20 and has also taught at Harvard as a professor of the Practice of Music. Her music paired with her angelic voice can leave one in a trance throughout the whole album.
We listen to a lot of Esperanza these days. Here’s one that will absolutely get stuck in your head…thankfully. It also shows her prowess on both electric bass and stand-up.
She has an extremely round, creamy jazz sound to her playing that complements her voice incredibly well. She switches between double bass and electric regularly, but doesn’t appear to like frets either way.
- Double bass
- Fender Fretless Jaco Pastorius Jazz bass
- South Paw Fretless 5 String
- Godin A5
Tina Weymouth: Art School Influencer
One of the most influential and critically acclaimed bands of the 70s and 80s, the Talking Heads featured Tina Weymouth on the bass. Weymouth’s bass playing seems to ground the sound of a band that often borders on rambling and psychedelic.
While at the Rhode Island School of Design, she met David Byrne and Chris Frantz. They all moved to New York together after graduation, and when Byrne and Frantz failed to find a bassist, she offered to learn and join them.
The Talking Heads found immediate success with their first album, Talking Heads: 77, which had “Psycho Killer” on it, their first single to chart. A year after, the Talking Heads began collaborating with producer and musician Brian Eno. Meanwhile, Weymouth and Frantz started a side project, Tom Tom Club, which was also somewhat commercially successful.
The fact that Weymouth played in such an influential band is impressive enough, but the fact that she had learned how to play the bass just months before is mind-blowing.
Because she was on a bit of a time crunch to learn bass, she ended up developing a very minimalistic style that lent itself well to art-pop, funk, reggae, and dub. She’s also great at coming up with very catchy lines.
Tina used different basses over the years, but the following two are the most commonly seen.
- Hofner Club
- Fender Mustang bass
Kim Gordon: Punk Art Icon
Most known for her band Sonic Youth, Gordon is seen as a leading lady in the feminist punk and grunge movements of the 90s. Said by many to be one of the coolest people in art, she’s had an influence on music, fashion, and film.
Gordon was born in New York but grew up in southern California. Going back to New York after college, she was influenced by the no-wave music movement and created Sonic Youth in the early 80s. No wave music can best be described as a discordant, jazzy, rock genre, a style that works its way into the sound of Sonic Youth.
While touring after the album Goo was released, Gordon produced Courtney Love’s first album from her band Hole around 1991. Meanwhile, she had also started numerous side projects such as the band Free Kitten and the clothing line X-Girl. She also directed the Breeders’ “Cannonball” music video.
Life after Sonic Youth
Though Sonic Youth disbanded after 30 years in 2011, Gordon has kept busy with other projects like Body/Head and Glitterbust. She’s also written a memoir, Girl in a Band, and has focused more of her time on visual art, which is what she studied in college.
Gordon has stated that she doesn’t even really consider herself a bassist, or even a musician sometimes. She definitely doesn’t play like a traditional bass player. In fact, Mike Watt reportedly has said that she, “paints with sound and emotion to make music — she doesn’t execute riffs or exhibit motifs.”
Whether she’s a “real” bass player or not, Kim Gordon’s influence on punk and art has spanned decades, and her fusion of art and music will continue to inspire artists for decades to come.
Gordon has a very distinct painterly style that doesn’t rely so much on traditional rhythms as it does on moods and almost thoughts. This carries over into her tone.
- Ovation Magnum I
- BC Rich Bass
- Gibson Thunderbird IV
Tal Wilkenfeld: Fearless Fusion Explorer
To round out our list of most influential female bass players, we have Tal Wilkenfeld. Wilkenfeld is the youngest of this group at just 35, although Spalding isn’t too far behind her at 37. Born in Sydney, Australia, but now LA-based, she started off playing music with the guitar. However, very quickly after packing up and moving to the States, she switched to bass.
After graduating from the LA College of Music, Wilkenfeld moved to New York and frequented jazz clubs to learn and play. There she met members of The Allman Brothers Band who later invited her to jam with them at the Beacon Theater.
Just a few months after playing with the Allman Brothers, she arranged and recorded her first album, Transformation. After that, she toured with Chick Corea in Australia, and then with Jeff Beck in Europe, who she then performed with for years. While performing with Beck in 2007, she performed for an A&E series where she played alongside Herbie Hancock.
In 2008, Wilkenfeld began playing with Prince after he reached out to her. Together, along with Chris Coleman, they created an album, Welcome 2 America, which wasn’t released until after Prince’s death.
Recently she’s focused on songwriting, something she wasn’t able to do while touring. And just like with her new music, her entire career of touring seems to lack hesitation or fear. That bravery and curiosity is what got her to where she is now.
Tal has a very round and pleasing fusion sound in our opinion. Her tone is very often compared to Jaco, although she’s said that she didn’t even know who he was when she started playing and developing her sound.
- Sadowsky 5 String
- Fender Precision
- Harmony H22
Female bass players: Final thoughts
It’s a pleasure to write and publish an article like this where we get to focus on incredible musicians, bass players, and trendsetters. It’s even more fulfilling when we’re able to learn more about what these incredible women have given to our musical culture as well.
This list is most definitely not complete or exhaustive. We will work on it from time to time, and if there’s someone you’d really love to see on here, let us know in the comments.