Primus's Les Claypool names 7 bassists who shaped his sound

Les Claypool performs with Primus at Old Forester's Paristown Hall in Louisville, Kentucky on May 30, 2022
(Image credit: Stephen J. Cohen/Getty Images)

Few musicians manage to stay as busy – or turn out quality music at as consistent a rate – as Les Claypool. One would think that, given his propensity to hop from project to project, the quality of his work might suffer. Yet that's far from the case for the Richmond, California native.

Instead, Claypool seamlessly shifts gears, sometimes waiting years to return to past musical lily pads. To be sure, though, when he does return, it's usually worth a listen, and certainly worth the wait. And so, when Primus most recently came back down to Earth from their typically chaotic madness, Claypool reassembled his much-loved, long-dormant Frog Brigade group.

According to Claypool, "The Frog Brigade went on hiatus because we were too chickenshit to say we broke up. I'm happy to be back out with these guys. This band represents the early period of my solo work, and it's cool to be revisiting it. And I wanted to do Pink Floyd's Animals because I've always loved that record.

"It's interesting to do it in its entirety this time because I've got some different folks with me who will interpret it in their own ways. The goal is always to do something different outside my Primus endeavors."

Of course, Claypool is a member of a number of other collectives, as well. There's no denying that the dizzying array of projects can be challenging to take in. Still, there are sonic constants, the most prominent being Claypool's bombastic bass licks. Given the eclectic nature of his style, though, what's also undeniable is that it's nearly impossible to hone in on where it originates from.

When asked, Claypool takes a moment to ponder the question before quipping: "My attraction to the bass was due to my repulsion of the guitar. In high school, there was a talent show, and these guys played the Allman Brothers Band's Ramblin' Man through these cheap Fender Champ amps, and it just sounded awful. After that, I decided the bass sounded way cooler because it never sounded wimpy, and I could do all sorts of cool things with it.

"Later, when I started wanting to be in a band, I found that my being a bassist was great. No-one wanted to play bass, so it was way easier for me to find gigs because there was always demand."

From there, Claypool expands on his approach and how his perspective changes as he shifts from one project to the next, "I don't even think of it just as a bass guitar at this point. It all depends on the gig, you know? It's like, 'Okay, what crayon am I pulling out of the box for this one?' And even if I'm drawing similar pictures with my crayons, the expression is different because the situation calls for that.

"At the end of the day, the bass is the instrument I'm most comfortable playing," Claypool continues. "Historically, I've played with many textural players who are not in your face. So, there's always been a lot of space that I needed to cover. With Primus, originally, I was always trying to hold down the bottom while essentially playing the rhythm guitar parts at the same time. 

"That's why I was always doing so much strumming and whatnot. It wasn't until I began playing with Tom Waits that I approached things much differently. That's when I developed as a supporting player. So, it all depends on the gig."

1. Geddy Lee

"Geddy was my first superhero. He just did things that were a real kick in the ass on bass. But Geddy was a very melodic player, and his tone was always so amazing. 

"For a young man like me, the music of Rush was very enticing because it was unlike anything else. And honestly, Rush fans were unique people, and we still are. It's almost like being a Trekkie. It's like this exclusive club, and, before they got big, there was a cult element to the whole thing. But beyond that, Geddy's tonality, melodic sense, and overall power were all very enticing to me."

2. Chris Squire

Chris Squire performs onstage with Yes at Humphrey's Concerts by the Bay in San Diego, California on August 18, 2014

(Image credit: Daniel Knighton/Getty Images)

"Another guy who had one of the greatest tones in the world. His style really got me going, and I loved it almost as soon as I heard it. It goes without saying that a guy like this would influence me as a player and songwriter.

"His music was so great, and his style is timeless. Again, the tonality was great, and he was one of the most musical players I've ever heard."

3. Larry Graham

"His thumping and plucking were second to none. His style is intricate, and he's basically the guy who popularized that approach to playing bass. 

"To this day, one of the greatest performances I've ever seen is when Larry played live at the Oakland Coliseum. And I was very fortunate several years ago to go to a private event that Larry was playing at, and he just kicked the shit out of everybody in the room. It was unbelievable.

"Larry Graham, for lack of a better term, is who I'd call the Jimi Hendrix of the bass. He changed the entire landscape with his approach."

4. Louis Johnson

"Louis Johnson completely changed my world. I remember watching Don Kirshner's Rock Concert, and I saw this guy standing there, just pumping the shit out of his bass. That was Louis.

"It was crazy, his hand would come almost a foot off the bass before he'd come back down with his thumb. I saw that and was like, 'Oh, my god… that's amazing.'"

5. Stanley Clarke

Stanley Clarke performs onstage at the Hollywood Bowl on June 14, 2014

(Image credit: Mathew Imaging/WireImage)

"I can't underestimate the influence Stanley Clarke had on me. As a kid, I didn't have much money to buy other records, so I was limited to what I could listen to at home. But back when I was in school, there was always that kid with a huge record collection, and I befriended that kid.

"I'd go over to hang out at his house, and one day, he said, 'I know you're really into Geddy Lee, but you've got to check out this guy Stanley Clarke; he's unreal.' So, I did, and it changed my life. His playing opened doors for me that I had no idea existed.

"I had a chance to play with Stanley a few years ago, and, man, he fucking kicked my ass. But I thought it was wonderful to have my ass kicked by one of my biggest heroes. I loved it because he's still a hero of mine. It means he still has something to show me, which I wholly appreciate."

6. Tony Levin

Tony Levin performs onstage with Peter Gabriel at the Mediolanum Forum of Assago in Milan, Italy on May 21, 2023

(Image credit: Sergione Infuso/Corbis via Getty Images)

"Next, I have to go with Tony Levin, who was a big influence on me. I was always a huge Tony Levin fan simply because I think he's one of the most tasteful and unique players of all time. As soon as you hear Tony's playing, you know that it's Tony. It's unmistakable. 

"I first came across him when I got into Peter Gabriel, and, of course, he played with King Crimson later. But what I love about him is that he's a more minimalistic player than any of the guys here. Every note Tony plays is incredibly powerful and unique and has his thumbprint all over it.

"As soon as you hear Tony, you know it's Tony. His tone is incredible. I've always been drawn to players who were unique and powerful. Tony was both of those things for me."

7. Mark Sandman

"I'm going to end with Mark Sandman, who is probably one of the most underrated bass players ever. For those that don't know, Mark was the bass player for Morphine, an incredible band from the '90s that people should check out. 

"I became aware of Mark after we played the H.O.R.D.E Festival in '98 or thereabouts. The thing about Mark was he played three-string slide bass, and two-string bass, with the strings tuned in unison an octave higher, which was something that no-one was doing. When he played slide bass, it was honestly the most passionate, emotional, sultry bass playing I've ever heard. That made me realize that you don't have to be some fancy guy with a bunch of strings to create wonderful, compelling sounds. 

"Unfortunately, Mark passed away right as we were becoming close friends. But he was an amazing player and one of the most emotive bassists I've ever encountered."

  • Les Claypool’s Fearless Flying Frog Brigade tour the USA May through July – see LesClaypool.com for dates.

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Andrew Daly

Andrew Daly is an iced-coffee-addicted, oddball Telecaster-playing, alfredo pasta-loving journalist from Long Island, NY, who, in addition to being a contributing writer for Guitar World, scribes for Rock Candy, Bass Player, Total Guitar, and Classic Rock History. Andrew has interviewed favorites like Ace Frehley, Johnny Marr, Vito Bratta, Bruce Kulick, Joe Perry, Brad Whitford, Rich Robinson, and Paul Stanley, while his all-time favorite (rhythm player), Keith Richards, continues to elude him.