"I don’t buy into the idea that the bass player is the quiet one,” said New Order and Joy Division bassist Peter Hook in an interview for MusicRadar. “I’ve never liked to be hidden and I don’t like to be patronised.”
Frequently viewed as the quietest member of any band, bass players have historically been pigeon-holed as reluctant rock stars. “This is an important thing to remember,” said Duff McKagan. “If you are a bass player and you want to be the front-centre guy… Well, let’s just say that usually won’t happen for you. Unless you’re Lemmy! If you want to do that, use him as your guy.”
While many bass players choose to blend into the background rather than take center stage, there are some with a hard-earned reputation for going overboard. From Gene Simmons, to Nikki Sixx, to Duff McKagan. In their prime, this elite group became icons of spectacularly bad behavior. Luckily their bass playing was always a thing to behold. You can make your own mind up as you peruse this list of the 5 most notorious bass guitarists in rock and metal.
1. Nikki Sixx – Mötley Crüe
Never has one man left such a slipstream of carnage in his wake as Nikki Sixx, bassist for metal icons Mötley Crue. Reflecting in Neil Strauss’s book The Dirt, Sixx recalls swallowing light bulbs, biting Eddie Van Halen on the stomach and nailing someone’s head to a table. The band were thrown off a KISS tour, and banned from drinking by Sharon Osbourne while playing alongside Ozzy.
Finally after one titanic hit, Sixx’s heart stopped. Pronounced medically dead, he was shocked back to life by doctors. His reaction to his near-death experience was to slip on a pair of leather trousers and discharge himself from hospital.
Heroin made Sixx a somewhat patchy songwriter, but his bass playing was always tight and in the pocket. “I get grief sometimes,” he told BP. “Some people say, ‘Oh you’re not a real bass player because you’re not all over the place’, but my job is to support the song.” He might be humble in his outlook, but Sixx still rates himself highly as a bass player. Back in 2020, in response to a tweet asking who the most underrated bass guitar player ever is, he replied, “Me”.
2. Duff McKagan – Guns N’ Roses
Nicknamed the ‘King of Beers’ by his bandmates, Duff McKagan moved to Hollywood in the mid 80s, joined Guns N’ Roses and became a huge rock star. As the band’s success snowballed into the '90s, Duff claims he was drinking a gallon of vodka a day. Something had to give, of course, and it turned out to be Duff’s pancreas, which burst in 1994 due to the abuse.
“The amount of alcohol that I drank wasn’t just a nice go-to-the-pub-for-a-couple-of-pints type of thing,” said Duff. “It was full-on. A gallon of vodka a day, plus whatever drugs I could ingest. That will take its toll on your body pretty quick.”
Fortunately, Duff was in control of his intake during the band’s glory years, resulting in Appetite For Destruction and Use Your Illusion double albums, on which the bass playing always stood out among the layers of screaming guitars. “My drinking somehow never got in the way of writing bass parts. I was writing with other drunks at the time, ha ha! So we were all on the same playing field.”
3. Lemmy – Motörhead
“Many of us play rock ‘n’ roll, but a rare few among us are rock ‘n’ roll,” said Dave Grohl when asked about the contributions of Ian ‘Lemmy’ Kilminster. “His bass playing was just so insane,” added Duff McKagan. “You can’t talk about distorted bass guitar without mentioning Lemmy.”
After his spell with psychedelic rock group Hawkwind ended in Canadian jail, Lemmy returned to England to form Motörhead in 1975. Describing his new band as ‘the kind of band that if we moved in next door to you, your lawn would die,’ Lemmy began a heady program of alcohol abuse, running up a bar tab that could be seen from space.
The crunch came in 1980. Having applied for a blood transfusion, Lemmy was told by doctors that he couldn't. Lemmy recounted the story in his autobiography, White Line Fever. "Pure blood will kill you," the doctor said. "You don't have human blood anymore. And you can't give blood either. Forget it, you'd kill the average person, you're blood is so toxic." While others may take this as their cue to hit the treadmill, Lemmy merely saw it as confirmation of his immortality. He remained the yardstick for anyone who thought they could handle their drink until his death in 2015.
4. Sid Vicious – Sex Pistols
Without question, Sid Vicious is the worst technical bassist on this list. Generally regarded as the worst bassist of his generation, even Lemmy couldn’t teach him to play. "I tried to teach him to play bass one time," he told Classic Rock, "it was fucking hopeless. We did two days and I said, ‘Sid, you can’t play bass,’ so he said, ‘I know,’ and he went off all sad. The next thing I know, I was in The Speak[easy], and he comes up to me and says, ‘Hey Lemmy, guess what? I’m in the Pistols.’"
Drafted into the Sex Pistols to replace Glenn Matlock, Vicious reputedly learned his instrument by playing along to Ramones records on speed. While gigs would often find him playing the wrong song, in the wrong key, often with his amp turned off.
Lemmy recalled Vicious squaring up to The Jam bassist Bruce Foxton at the Marquee club, an encounter that ended with Vicious picking shards of pint glass out of his face, and later battering a bouncer who tried to stop him entertaining a groupie in a venue toilet.
In February 1979, aged just 21, Sid was found dead from an accumulation of fluid on the lungs, prompted by a heroin overdose. A suicide note requested he be buried in his boots, jeans and leather jacket.
5. Gene Simmons – KISS
Ever since making their debut in 1974, Kiss’s blood-spitting, fire-breathing, make-up slapping, six-and-a-half-foot-tall bassist, Gene Simmons has always had a keen interest in blood. For years the group’s stage show featured Simmons – in full devil regalia – puking up lungfuls of it. It was fake, of course, but convincing enough to have America’s Christian fundamentalists denounce him as the devil.
Simmons has always abstained from alcohol and drugs, but his serial womanising, as Simmons attests, is precisely why he formed the band in the first place. Not a master technician, but puking up blood while keeping the rhythm takes some doing.
As you probably know, Gene also has his own line of bass guitars, including the Axe and the Punisher, and a range of basses in collaboration with Gibson. How else does a bass player amass a personal fortune said to be in excess of $300m?
Nikki Sixx’s autobiography, The First 21: How I Became Nikki Sixx, is available now.