Who are the greatest role players in rock history?

In sports they’re called “role players.” They’re the working class guys who play defense, dive for loose balls, get under the opponent’s skin, fight it out in the trenches. They’re not stars and they don’t make the big bucks or have lucrative endorsements or land supermodel wives. But without them you don’t win, period.

Music has role players, too. We tend to spend all our time talking about the charismatic lead singers and incendiary lead guitarists, but all the great bands also feature guys who stand off to the side, outside the limelight, and don’t really do anything except make the whole enterprise click. They seem not to be there for the fame or the glory so much as they are just because they love the music. Frequently you find them in the rhythm section, although not always, and when you look at the history of great bands all of a sudden being less great, you often don’t notice who isn’t there anymore.

I can’t imagine cranking out anything like a definitive 100 Greatest Anonymous Rock Role Players in History list, but I can certainly suggest a few worth considering.

John Paul Jones: I recently made a new friend, a musician, who was telling me about the night Dave Grohl came into the place she was playing with this weird little guy who kept waving at her from across the room. Turns out Them Crooked Vultures were in town and the weird little guy was the least-talked about member, once upon a time, of one of Rock’s greatest bands, Led Zeppelin.

Primarily known as the group’s bassist, JPJ also handled the piano, clavinet, mellotron, mandolin and – remember that signature recorder part in “Stairway”? Yeah, that, too. As hard as I know this probably is, sit down with a Zep CD sometime and listen, as best you can, to everything except the guitars, drums and semi-coherent mumblings from Robert Plant. Now, try to imagine where the band would have been without him.

Bill Berry: Category A: Murmur. Reckoning. Fables of the Reconstruction. Life’s Rich Pageant. Document. Green. Automatic for the People. New Adventures in Hi-Fi. Category B: Up. Reveal. Around the Sun. Notice anything? Right. Up until about 1996 or 1997 one could perhaps argue that REM was the greatest American band ever. Then the wheels flew off. Specifically, the band lost something as essential as it was intangible when its mild-mannered drummer retired. It’s true that REM recovered and finished with a bit of a kick, producing Accelerate and Collapse Into Now before finally calling it a day, but the basic fact is that they gave us several essential albums in their prime and very little we couldn’t live without after Berry’s departure.

John Deacon and Roger Taylor: Two-for-one here, because when the guy at the front of the stage is perhaps the greatest lead singer in Rock history and guy off to the other side is arguably the most underrated guitarist alive, there’s plenty of anonymity to go around. John and Roger were the rhythm section for Queen, and if you never paid them much attention, don’t feel bad. You’re not alone. But they played an incalculable role in the band’s success – Deacon the cool, perpetually bored looking bassist who never did anything except play perfectly and occasionally write a smash hit (“You’re My Best Friend,” “Another One Bites the Dust,” “Spread Your Wings,” and he also jacked out the bass line for “Under Pressure”). Taylor, in contrast, was simply electric – I’m not sure there has ever been a better drummer who fewer people paid attention to. He was also a tremendous vocalist. Many people hear some of the band’s anthemic moments and assume that Freddie is the one responsible for all those majestic, soaring high notes. Nuh-uh. Those high tenor spots were all Roger.

Larry Mullen, Jr.: I’ve always argued that U2 is one of the two or three best bands in history, but for the most part nobody is doing anything that’s musically all that complex. Mullen is at his best laying down beats that sound like marching-to-war cadences, and while it’s insanely appropriate for what the band is doing artistically, it’s rarely the stuff of technical genius.

But there’s a moment in Rattle & Hum, if you’ve seen the movie, that tells us more about LM than we’d ever know otherwise. The band comes off stage, catches its breath and prepares to go back out for an encore. They huddle up for a second and all of a sudden we see that Larry is fucking in charge. He’s telling everybody what to do and when and how and they’re all taking orders like they’re afraid he’ll stomp their balls off if they don’t.

Bono may be the superstar. Edge may have defined the sound of a generation. But Larry Mullen is the soul of the band. If he retires, my advice to the rest of the guys is to join him. Nothing good is going to happen to your legacy once he’s gone.

Dudu Zulu: Few Americans are probably familiar withJohnny Clegg & Savuka, the iconic South African band. And to all appearances, there’s no reason for Zulu, a percussionist and dancer, to be terribly central to the proceedings. To be sure, he was a talented drummer and his war dances with Clegg were among the most exhilarating moments of the group’s electric live performances (they’re responsible for the second and third best shows I ever saw), but on paper you’d think he could be replaced easily enough.

Then, in May of 1992, he was murdered while trying to help mediate a brutal taxi war in KwaZulu-Natal. Clegg carried on, but I saw his next tour. He was professional and energetic, but it was evident that something crucial was gone.

Andy Summers: It’s hard, in my experience, to find anyone who’ll tell you that The Police couldn’t have replaced Andy with a chimp, which I’ve always thought was grossly unfair. As with Larry Mullen above, he wasn’t doing anything that technically daunting – Sting and Stuart Copeland did most of the heavy lifting, and in fact some of the band’s most wonderful moments were drum and bass only. In many respects The Police were backward from most bands – the rhythm section drove things while the guitar was the support instrument. But Summers created a sound – atmospheres and textures and counter-melody lines – that was hugely responsible for the group’s success. We’re talking about one of my three favorite bands of all-time here, and you’ll never convince me that Summers was anything but essential to their greatness.

So there. That ought to get the conversation rolling…..

Image Credits: Last.FM, Passagen, Symeo


  • Patrick Vecchio

    Aston “Family Man” Barrett (bass) and Carlton Barrett (drums and percussion), Bob Marley and the Wailers. Best. Rhythm. Section. Ever.

  • Summers has several fine solo albums, including one of Monk tunes. Great stuff. A seriously under-rated guitarist.

    • Wuf: I’ve honestly never been able to get my head around the lack of respect AS seems to get in some circles. But maybe this is the point – if he were getting due respect I wouldn’t be talking about him, would I?

      Still, you never hear anybody badmouthing JPJ or Berry, do you? They get ignored, but not dogged.

  • John Paul Jones was the first one that came to mind as I was reading your 2nd paragraph.

    I’ve been struck recently, as I’ve watched a few shows about bands like The Who and The Doors, about how essential it was for these 4 exact people meet and play together and that changing any one of them would have changed the entire dynamic of the band and they would have been less. I’d say Ringo was essential to the Beatles and they wouldn’t have done the same without him.

  • The Englishman

    I don’t know why but Mike Nesmith instantly came to mind.

  • I don’t know why, either.

  • John Paul Jones came first to mind for me too. A top list for that is really thinking about him before asking the question. He went on to produce some good records for other bands as well. “Children” by the Mission U.K. He was the Church’s pick to produce “Heyday” but the label was afraid of getting Led Zeppelin all over their shiny new alt rock.

    Others who come to mind:

    Tony Levin – I’m trying to picture Peter Gabriel’s solo career without Tony Levin, but I’m drawing a blank.

    Alan Wilder – Depeche Mode (their recordings since his departure have revealed them to be exactly as two-dimensional as we feared they always were)

    Robbie Krieger – I agree that part of the Doors’ formula was the serendipitous meeting of those four, but how does the guy who wrote a good portion of their most memorable tracks fall to third on a band’s visibility depth chart?

    Roger Fisher – Without Ann & Nancy Wilson, there’d be no Heart, but after Roger left, they didn’t exactly throw down a lot of awesome.

    Mike Campbell – sure, Tom Petty stood there with the Rickenbacker, but Mike did most of the heavy lifting to give the Heartbreakers their sound.

    Rupert Greenall – after seeing the Fixx live, I was taken aback at how much keyboardist Rupert Greenall was responsible for their sound and how much he did live. A lot of what I had assumed was Rupert Hine production work was really riffing off of what Greenall did to their sound.

    J.J. Jeczalik – Trevor Horn may have produced the Art of Noise. Anne Dudley may have even given them their compositional legitimacy. But someone else did the actual work of getting down to deciphering the rudimentary tech of early ’80s sampling and sequencing and coming up with the strange noises that were the band’s hallmark.

  • Mick Taylor, with the Stones. Sure, they are still commercially successful since he was replaced with Ron Wood, but it could easily be argued that the albums he played on (Sticky Finger, Exile, and Ya-ya’s if you count the live work) are the best they ever did. As far as that goes, you could almost say that Charlie and Bill fit this category and would have received far less recognition if they were in any other, lesser known band. Jagger and Richards got most of the press, but Bill and Charlie were essential to the music.

  • Patrick Vecchio

    WTF, Sam: No Brinsley Schwartz?

  • Hey, I can’t think of everybody. That’s what I have you guys for.

  • Patrick Vecchio

    A little something for everybody here: Stu Boy King (w/The Dictators). Bootsie Collins (w/James Brown). Jan Hammer (w/Jeff Beck). Jack Casady and Jorma Kaukonen (w/Jefferson Airplane). Phil Manzanera (w/Roxy Music). Goldie McJohn (w/Steppenwolf). Waddy Wachtel (w/Warren Zevon). Clive Bunker (w/Jethro Tull). Ian Underwood, Ruth Underwood (w/Zappa, MOI). Steve Nieve, Bruce Thomas (w/Elvis Costello & the Attractions).

    Y’all are musical heathens, though, for not jumping on the Barrett brothers bandwagon.

  • Patrick Vecchio

    Sam, I’m shocked you didn’t nominate the entire Rumour. (And if you wanted to start a category of great overlooked backing bands, the Rumour would be a good place to start. After the Wailers, of course).

  • Brilliant! I especially agree with Andy Summers. You say The Edge defined a generation but he was heavily influenced by Summers and wrote the forward to Andy’s autobiography. I never realized his importance to the group until the Police’s reunion tour, as I was in my teens during their prime. Good Lord, the man is the master of space!

  • Patrick Vecchio

    Better the Figgs than the Fuggs—although they may be from before your time.

  • I always think of Alex Lifeson. I’m not even the biggest Rush fan but I always enjoyed his work, and actually the latest album really prominently features the guitars. Steve Harris from Maiden also comes to mind, in an era of riff oriented guitar rock his bass really completes those tunes.

    • I thought about Lifeson. It’s odd to ponder the idea that the lead guitarist in a band like Rush is the wallflower, but I guess he’s kinda like Summers in this respect, isn’t he?

  • @ Patrick Vecchio – I nodded silently with regards to the Barrett brothers. I’m definitely in agreement with you on them. 🙂

    Regarding Alex Lifeson though, I’d almost call him an anti-role player. I’d maybe even go so far as to call him a passenger. I’ve never cared for his noodling guitar style.

  • Glad someone mentioned Bootsy Collins. That’s the one I thought of right away. Then Billy Preston, which might not be fair since he had a decent solo career. How about James Burton?

    • Burton is a good one. Played with freakin’ everybody.

      But if we start dipping into session guys, man, that opens up a whole other conversation. How about somebody like Waddy Wachtel?

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