Bass Players to Know: Gail Ann Dorsey

Gail Ann Dorsey with white bass

To quote one of my favorite musical guilty pleasures, it’s time to throw a little girl power into the mix. As a stellar vocalist and compelling player, Gail has had a reputable solo career and has recorded and toured with artists including David Bowie, Tears for Fears, Lenny Kravitz, Dar Williams, The Indigo Girls, and Gwen Stefani. With impeccable style, grace, and groove, Gail Ann Dorsey is a bass player to know.

So who is Gail Ann Dorsey?

Gain Ann Dorsey was born and bred in Philadelphia, a city with quite the reputation for birthing funky bass players. At first favoring guitar, Dorsey acquired a bass when she was 14 but took it up with greater ambition by her early 20s. With a passion for writing and producing films, she attended the California Institute of the Arts for Live Action Film, but the notorious uncertainty of the film industry inspired her to turn to a career in music. Upon moving to London at the age of 22, Dorsey began collaborating with a number of artists and eventually landed a record deal with Warner Music Group. She released her first solo record, The Corporate World, in 1989 with the help of producer and fellow bass player, Nathan East. While establishing herself among the London scene, she switched to Island Records and released her second solo effort, Rude Blue.

By the mid 1990’s, Dorsey began to focus more on session work and collaborating with other artists, including Gang of Four and Tears for Fears. In 1995, she joined David Bowie’s band and has since provided stunning vocals and bass lines on subsequent tours and records. In addition to working with Bowie, she has recorded and toured with other artists, including the Indigo Girls, Dar Williams, Joan Osborne, Suzanne Vega, Lenny Kravitz, and Boy George. Dorsey continues to play an active role as both a bass player and vocalist and released her third solo record, I Used To Be…, in 2004.

Let’s Talk Style

After years of listening to music, it’s only natural to distinguish the sound and personality of certain bass players. Dorsey, typically sporting the powerful and mid-range prominent Music Man, is heard loud and clear.

Although she is steeped in soul and R&B, Gail tends to steer away from excessive dead notes in favor of a concise groove and clean attack. She places emphasis on each individual note, thereby creating a deep and distinctive pocket. With plenty of experience playing pop and rock music, she is very much aware of how to enhance and drive a song, whether it’s with pulsing 8th notes or a specific bass part. Some of her more notable bass lines are derived from the minor-pentatonic scale, relying heavily on rhythmic solidity and the funky relationship of the root, fifth, and flat seventh.

One of Dorsey’s greatest attributes as a player comes from her knowledge of melody, phrasing, and space. During moments of elongated vocal notes, she strings together elegant melodic bass lines that take advantage of the openness in the music. This tends to lift the song to greater heights, adding beauty and strength to the already powerful lyrical phrases. Her melody lines are clean and graceful, played with an air of confidence and a knack for voice leading.

Where Can I Hear Her?

“Under Pressure” (David Bowie: A Reality Tour)

David Bowie: A Reality TourWith her signature tone, piercing vocals, and precise execution of one of the most celebrated bass lines in popular music, it’s obvious why Gail has become a mainstay in Bowie’s band. She takes a dignified approach to playing the song by remaining true to the recorded bass line and tremendously shines as a vocalist by sharing the lead duties with David.

Listen: iTunes | Amazon MP3

“Falling Down” (Tears For Fears: Raoul & Kings of Spain)

Tears For Fears: Raoul & Kings of SpainDorsey flexes her rock muscles with a minor pentatonic themed line during the verses, a heavy yet funky approach to the choruses, and a syncopated climbing line a la “I Feel Good” before ushering in the next verse. As she returns to the initial groove, she again provides the groundwork for the signature lofty vocals and atmospheric guitar work. As the song progresses, she plays more with register, adding higher embellishments to the initial groove and slipping funky fills into the last chorus.

Listen: iTunes | Amazon MP3

“Magical” (Gail Ann Dorsey: I Used To Be…)

Gail Ann Dorsey: I Used To Be…A great example of her clear and confident playing style, Dorsey settles into a simple, yet definitely funky groove during the verses. Playing to the chords, she supports the song with clean root notes, rhythmic fills, and elegant counter melodies that arise out of long vocal notes. The song breaks down into an ascending melodic line and concise, yet lovely solo before transitioning back to the verse and extended chorus.

Listen: iTunes | Amazon MP3

How about you? What’s your favorite tune or album with Gail Ann Dorsey? Please share with us in the comments.

Ryan Madora is a professional bass player and educator living in Nashville, TN. In addition to touring and playing sessions, she fronts an original music project, The Interludes and teaches private lessons. Visit her website to learn more about her music or to inquire about lessons.

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  1. Our first “girl power” column. Well done! GAD has amazing vocals, and man, can she play. I particularly like the choices you’ve made to showcase her style.

  2. And besides her mesmerizing voice such a beautiful woman :-)

  3. Dorsey is one of my favorite bassists, and she is a wonderful singer too. I just wish she would record more often.

  4. bassko

    You can also see & hear her with Lenny Kravitz from the recent iTunes Festival/London “unrehearsed & raw” as he announced it…

  5. MS. O.T.