Les Claypool: the 5 basslines that changed my life

Bassist Les Claypool of Primus performs live on stage at Marymoor Park on August 14, 2021 in Redmond, Washington
(Image credit: Photo by Jim Bennett/Getty Images)

Best known for exploding out of the Bay Area music scene towards the end of the 1980s with ‘thrash funk’ trio, Primus, Les Claypool is an artist in a vast left-field league of his very own. Yet at the centre of his envelope-shredding music is his astonishing fleet-fingered bass work. 

"I've always said that bass is the crayon I picked out of the box," he says. "I'd still be drawing the same picture if I picked up guitar or whatever, but it'd look a little different."

A master of his instrument to almost other-worldly levels, Claypool is currently promoting a special New Years Eve concert at JaM Cellars Ballroom in Napa, CA, that will see Vinnie Colaiuta guest on drums.

So what are the tracks that Les Claypool, sometime frontman of Primus, solo performer, film-maker, novelist and master collaborator, names as his favorite bass performances? 

1. Yes - Roundabout (1971)

"Chris Squire was an early hero to me. The guy who produced Fragile, Eddie Offord, contacted Primus in the early days and wanted to produce us, but we were too many chefs in the kitchen and we didn’t want anyone producing us. But the one thing he said was, ‘I can get you that Chris Squire tone.’ I was like, ‘Hmm!’ and trying to pick his brains about it, but he wouldn’t give up any information, ha ha! Having played for a long time now, I’ve learnt that your tone is very much in your fingers and how you attack your instrument, though." 

2. Rush - All The World’s A Stage (1976)

"For me, when I was a kid, All The World’s A Stage was an incredible discovery. It was really the album that launched me into the world of playing bass. Geddy is a very melodic player, and the way he phrases things is incredible. I actually inducted Rush into the Canadian Hall of Fame and we played ‘Spirit Of Radio’ – and that shit is hard, man!" 

3. Graham Central Station - Scream (1979)

"The album Starwalk was a great influence on me, not necessarily because it had Larry Graham’s best songs, but because there’s a song on there called ‘Scream’ which is very impressive. Pretty much anything that Larry played on is amazing, though – he’s done everything there is to know about bass." 

4. Peter Gabriel - Shock The Monkey (1982)

"Tony Levin is revered in the world of bass thanks to all that stuff he did with Gabriel and King Crimson. It was pretty spectacular. As far as being an all-round player is concerned, he’s probably my favourite. He’s got a good groove, he’s got a great tone, he’s got that creepy mysterious experimental element to him, and he’s incredibly tasteful. There are guys who are tasteful that you couldn’t tell from a hundred other bass players, but Tony is very recognisable. He sits in the mix but you can recognise him, which is a very tricky thing to do." 

Morphine - Honey White (1995)

"Mark Sandman was in his mid 40s when he died at a festival in Italy of heart failure. I played some music with the Morphine guys for a tribute record to Mark. It was really strange, because we did ‘Honey White’, which was a song that I’d played in my band in the past, and they hadn’t played the song since he died. It was a little strange. He played a 2-string bass with a slide, so I did my best. He had an amazing feel and was very creative. It’s not like he was a technical wizard – he was all about emotion."

Les Claypool’s Bastard Jazz will ring in the New Year with a two-show run at JaM Cellars Ballroom in Napa, CA on December 30th and 31st. Tickets and VIP packages to the special NYE performance are now on sale from lesclaypool.com (opens in new tab)

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Joel McIver was the Editor of Bass Player magazine from 2018 to 2022, having spent six years before that editing Bass Guitar magazine. A journalist with 25 years' experience in the music field, he's also the author of 35 books, a couple of bestsellers among them. He regularly appears on podcasts, radio and TV.

With contributions from