An Interview with Rhonda Smith
Bassist, singer and songwriter Rhonda Smith‘s musical resume is as impressive as they come. Born in Halifax, Nova Scotia to a musical family, Rhonda started on baritone horn, keyboard and guitar. Picking up the bass, she said, was all thanks to her brother.
“He brought a bass home one day and told me not to touch it.”
Most recently, Rhonda has toured and recorded with Jeff Beck, following years of recording and touring with Prince. She’s also performed with Chaka Khan, Beyonce, T.I., Erykah Badu, Patti Austin, Patrice Rushen, Brenda Russell, Lee Ritenour, Larry Graham, Patti Labelle, Little Richard, Justin Timberlake, Najee, Candy Dulfer, Kirk Whalum and George Clinton.
We had the chance to catch up with Rhonda during Gerald Veasley’s Bass Bootcamp in March, where she was a Master Class instructor. Rhonda shared with us her approach to teaching, plus a behind-the-scenes look at performing with two legends: Prince and Jeff Beck, her views of the industry and what’s next for her.
We’re here at Gerald’s Bass Bootcamp. Tell us about your classes and teaching approach.
I have a curriculum that, regardless of how much of a beginner or advanced you are, is based around theory. First of all it starts with scales, what I call my four point scales. They’re vertical and linear, so that people can learn the fingerboard and learn where they can go and know what are the good notes and what are the bad notes. Then I have about half an hour of finger exercises I try to get through. Then the rest of it is basically what I would call “pulse rhythms,” with top and bottom with my thumb going over and on and underneath the string, then adding index finger, adding a second finger… adding other fingers into the moves. I haven’t [taught] a lesson yet unfortunately because we’ve been time restricted. So it’s pretty broad.
Have you done a lot of these clinics?
I’ve done a few. I’ve done Victor [Wooten]’s before, and I’m going do Victor’s again [in April 2011]. I guess I’ve done about three or four of them. Some in New York and some other ones through the years.
There’s a lot of music going on this weekend. Are you performing?
No, I’m just here for the camp. We’re on a break [from the Jeff Beck tour] and we’re getting ready to go back out again. We had a really busy year last year, so it was nice to give my hands a break. It was really intense.
This tour has gone on for nine months already.
Yeah, you know he had such an amazing year. It was really like his comeback although he really didn’t go anywhere, but I think the thing was that he didn’t have a new record out for seven years. I think everyone was really receptive to that. It started off in January when we got together, and he won a Grammy right off the bat. Then we went on tour as a double-bill in the beginning of February that started with him and Eric Clapton… Madison Square Garden, all that. We ended in South America in the middle of December, so it was a nice year.
So how did the Jeff Beck gig come about?
Actually, I was recommended for that by the great drummer, Narada Michael Walden. He recommended me to Jeff. It’s funny, because I hadn’t played with Jeff and I had really never played with Narada, which was kind of bold for him to do that. Generally I don’t like to recommend people I don’t know.
Before working with Jeff Beck, you were with Prince. Prince to Jeff Beck is a big jump.
Yeah, it’s a big leap. It’s two great guitar players and two different guitar players. But you know, both are perfectionists and both are amazing players who never play the same thing twice.
You shared a few great stories about your time with Prince earlier. Sounds like you were pretty instrumental in getting him to record with the fretless.
Yeah, I think it was definitely possible, [because it was] different. That’s definitely what I wanted to do. Through the years, it’s like we’ve incorporated that all the time, whether it’s “The One,” or all the songs, he always seems to be open to having the fretless. And I love that, because I love the instrument.
You also mentioned something about the dreaded fretless samples he was using before you joined the band. Do you think that you ended that for him?
[laughs] Yes, I think I did. I don’t think he ever used it again, and I was very happy for him.
At that time, you switched from playing a 5-string back to 4.
Well, it’s funny because I started with [Prince] with five, and then I went to six with him for a while. Four was better because Prince has a large admiration for Larry Graham, as we all do, and just that particular sound. He used to ask me a lot, “Don’t you want to play a jazz bass?” And I think the other thing is that when you have someone like Prince who is really really talented and plays every instrument, he’s not necessarily a 6-string player. He’s a guitar player. He’s not necessarily a 5-string player, and he doesn’t want to be. He wants to be traditional. So when he wants to come over to me and be efficient to say “hey, I want you to play this,” he wants to show me on [an instrument] he’s comfortable playing himself.
In looking back, it sounds like Prince was one of the bigger challenges.
Definitely, because at that time, you know I grew up in Montreal and we didn’t have… well, I wouldn’t say we didn’t have a lot of Prince, but R&B and Dance music wasn’t a huge market. It’s not a huge market in Canada. It was a little bit more Rock and Roll, Metal, Rush, Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix… you know this type of thing. And for me at that time, it was more fusion and jazz because I was in school. So it was more listening to Jaco and stuff like that and trying to go that way with the bass. So at the time, Prince’s music I had known completely. So it was a challenge, because he’s a great bass player and has great feel, and you have to emulate his sound and his feel.
How do you learn an incredible amount of music in a short amount of time? Do you have a formula for taking on new set lists?
I do. I have always had a thing because I had formal training, I can read music, I can write music, so I can write for me. I seem to have a limited amount of space in my brain for things that aren’t written down. If I have to get new material, it’s like the old stuff moves out and the new stuff moves in.
I write little cheat notes for myself. It’s not staff music, it’s not notes generally. It’s just my own little cryptic notes that can get me through 10 or 15 or 20 songs relatively easy. I start that way when I go through and listen to it and it cuts down time for me. I write my notes when I have to learn material because that’s the most tedious time, when you have to sit down and learn someone’s material from scratch that we don’t know, note for note. So I’ll do that, I’ll write my cheat notes, then I’ll move on once I get all the material down on my cheat notes, then I’ll go back an review it to make any minor corrections if I have to do it. But that’s what I’ll use to guide me. And normally I’ll use that until it comes to memory after that, which will be a couple more repetitions and rehearsal with the band. There have been some instances where I’ll pull out a cheat sheet on stage, but probably no one will see it. Because it might be something we haven’t played in six months or something that I barely know that we’ve barely played. That’s what works for me.
You talk about a “musical industrial revolution”. Can you expand on that a little bit?
I kind of compared it to the industrial revolution when everything changed. People lost their jobs and they had to go into different things, and the system changed. It feels that way with music in a lot of the same ways, especially with the record companies. Like when people asked me if I had a record coming out. It’s easy to make records but it’s hard these days to put it in a place where it’s promoted or just to find a label that’s behind you. Especially when you’re in this kind of niche that a lot of us are in where we’re kind of not labeled. We don’t necessarily play fusion. I wouldn’t call my albums fusion, and I wouldn’t call them pop, but they’re not bass records either. So if you don’t have a label, you don’t get a bin. If you don’t have a bin, you don’t get in any stores. If they can’t categorize you into something, it’s not a good thing as far as sales and labeling goes.
Finding a company when you are between styles or you kind of can’t label yourself is even more difficult for people who can because things are changing. Labels are going under and I don’t think they’re as readily eager to spend money on people’s records or just to invest anymore because the return is not so great. Record sales are down for whatever reason. Even digital downloading was down last year. Is it the economy? I think the economy is part of it, but I think this change has been going on in the record industry for more than when this recession started. There was an effect back then, too. So that’s what I mean. We have to change with the time and people need to get smart with that. Prince is pretty smart with that in the way he uses the internet and if he wants to do his own stuff he does it, like the way he uses mass media. I think we have to find other ways to do that because things have changed and it’s a new day.
Prince controls his music, and that seems to be the key now.
Absolutely, and he’s a very smart man. He’s a great teacher too. He’s one of the people that taught me from the beginning to own my own masters and keep my own stuff and don’t give it up. That’s great advice, especially for creative material.
So will we see a new album from you?
Definitely, but I don’t know if it will be this year. I’m half-way through it. But it just depends on what my schedule will be, because I don’t wanna just throw something out. That’s what I was saying earlier today about the shift in time. Now you’ve got people like yourself. You could do a record tonight. You could put it up on your website tonight. You could put one song out. You could media flash it and put it out and get a reaction, see what people thing and do all kind of little things. There’s all kinds of things you could do with it. It’s a different day. It’s good and it’s bad, but it does give us other options to do other things. To get creative with things.
In your Master Class, you touched on the subject of female bass players. There are some phenomenal young female bass players in the spotlight now. You’ve certainly helped lead this, so it would be interesting to hear your views.
I think the internet has a lot to do with it. Humans follow by example. When I was younger there were no [female bassists]. Well, there was Carol Kaye. But I don’t think – and no disrespect to Carol because she’s great – [I don’t think I had a] “I want to be just like her” moment. She was a little bit before my time and stylistically we’re different, even though she’s done some absolutely wonderful things, and much respect to her. When young ladies have more examples of what they can do, and seeing people do that, they’ll do it. I was actually surprised how long it’s taken the ladies to come out because it’s a fun instrument. Bottom end is fun and anybody can do it, it’s just about feel. You don’t necessarily have to blow and solo and be chop-y all the time. There’s all kinds of different ways you can play the instrument.
Bass is known as a masculine instrument also. Just like drums, I think there’s been a flux of female drummers, too, in the same respect. When I was growing up, I didn’t know any girls who played drums. Maybe one. I think the internet has a lot to do with it.
Well it’s great because now there’s you, there’s Esperanza Spalding, there’s Tal Wilkenfeld…
I know probably another six or seven that work professionally [in addition to] those three.
And Esperanza beat Justin Bieber! A bassist won!
[laughs] I was so happy for her. She did really really really great. But it is a circle and it’s getting bigger. Like I said, we lead by example. If we don’t see it, we don’t know and people don’t know what they can do. Girls just keep picking up guitar or picking up a clarinet or getting the flute. We need something a little bit more exciting! Or oboe… what are you gonna do with an oboe?
So what’s next?
[The Jeff Beck tour] runs through July, then after that I’m not sure. If he decides to take a break, I will finish my album. Other than that we’ll see. That’s the great thing about musicians: we’re never the same from one day to the next. One phone call or meeting somebody can change your entire schedule, so that’s the fun thing about it. We’ll see.