Biffy Clyro: James Johnston's Top 5 Rock Bassists

Biffy Clyro smiling in front of a breezeblock wall
Biffy Clyro: James Johnston, Simon Neil and Ben Johnston (Image credit: Getty)

Scottish rock trio Biffy Clyro have been riding a wave of success this year. It started with them seeing in 2016 with a Hogmanay performance in Edinburgh, took in the release of their chart-topping album Ellipsis and triumphant headline sets at Reading and Leeds Festivals and is set to end on a run of dates at arenas across Europe and the UK.

Here, James Johnston hails the bassists that have inspired him…

Chris Slorach, Metz

James: “They’re a garage rock band from Toronto. I need to mention their song Acetate off their second record. The sound of the bass is really over the top and really extreme. There’s a kind of Krautrock, mathrock element to the band, but they sound like they don’t give a fuck, and I like that. They’re the kind of band that you want to see in a sweaty basement. It’s funny, even though I’m a bass player I’m never really drawn to things just purely as a bass player, it’s more as a music listener. It has to be the whole package, and I think that Metz have got that.”

Don Devore, The Icarus Line

Up Against The Wall from their record Penance Soiree is an example of a bass tone that I referenced when we were making Ellipsis. It has a kind of 80s vibe to it. We tried to kind of mimic that on our song Don’t, Won’t Can’t, which is one of the extra tracks on the deluxe edition. When you listen to 80s music, the bass drum isn’t so prominent, and the bass guitar really drives the music a lot more. Recently when I was getting tattooed and I was listening to an 80s radio station, I noticed just how prominent the bass was on all of the records.”

Jeff Ament, Pearl Jam

“I think he’s a really underrated bass player. He has a very subtle playing style but it really complements the music well. He, along with the other members of the band, are greater than the sum of their parts – any band has to be able to do that, has to be able to play together. The bass obviously isn’t a lead instrument, it’s very much there supporting the guitar or the vocal, and Jeff Ament does that beautifully. He’s got a really great tone. He was the first guy where I actually thought, ‘Wait a minute, I’m really interested in what he’s doing as an individual’, and I started looking for that a little bit more.”

Robert Sledge, Ben Folds Five

“There’s only piano, bass and drums, but what he does with the bass musically makes the band sound full and rich. He’s a musical bass player, unlike myself. I’m more meat-and-potatoes, playing root notes, but he’s definitely all over the bass. There’s a beautiful fuzz tone, which in the late 90s when we were first starting out, it had a big influence on me trying to explore different tones and different sounds. Ben Folds Five have done some stuff that was a little cheesy, but they are a really great band.”

Paul Simonon, The Clash

“He has to be in there as much for his style as his actual playing. Even if it’s just for that fucking image on the front of London Calling, it’s such an iconic image, and he had a real coolness about him. And of course his playing is really great. He just seems like the coolest bass player that has ever walked the face of the earth. He’s a bit of a mysterious character. When he was doing all that stuff with Damon Albarn [The Good, The Bad & The Queen], you knew who the daddy was. Obviously Damon is an incredible artist and has an amazing musical brain, but I always thought that he was trying to copy Simonon’s clothes to try and make it look as cool as he did! But Paul Simonon has written some unbelievable basslines. Guns Of Brixton is one of those that will stick around forever. They’re bringing reggae to another audience and opening it up different musical spheres to people that otherwise wouldn’t hear it. It’s just a really great playing style.”

Biffy Clyro tour the UK from November 29.

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Emma has been writing about music for 25 years, and is a regular contributor to Classic Rock, Metal Hammer, Prog and Louder. During that time her words have also appeared in publications including Kerrang!, Melody Maker, Select, The Blues Magazine and many more. She is also a professional pedant and grammar nerd and has worked as a copy editor on everything from film titles through to high-end property magazines. In her spare time, when not at gigs, you’ll find her at her local stables hanging out with a bunch of extremely characterful horses.