There’s a lot to be said for bass players who know how to play a song. While it may seem like a simple thing, it takes a mature attitude and a keen ear to do so. Sure, soloing is fun, and many of us want to showcase our slap technique, but exhibiting those skills doesn’t necessarily lead to being a working bass player when it comes to certain genres. It’s easy to get caught playing too many notes, not grooving correctly, or stepping out when it’s not appropriate to do so. If you ever need a reminder of how to best serve a song, I suggest you go back to the roots (pun intended) and zone in on a bass player that’s just so good at playing songs. In this case, it’s Sean Hurley. A long time member of Vertical Horizon, Hurley has also made an indelible mark on the L.A session scene, playing on records for artists as diverse as John Mayer, Ringo Starr, Miley Cyrus, and Leonard Cohen.
So Who Is Sean Hurley?
Hailing from Pittsfield, Massachusetts, Hurley’s musical education began with saxophone during elementary school and was quickly followed by bass. With exposure to rock, classic R&B, and Motown, he developed both ear training and reading chops. By the age of 16, he was teaching lessons at a local music store and landed a tour—first in support of Arlo Guthrie and shortly after that as Guthrie’s sideman. Following this early introduction to the touring lifestyle, he attended Berklee College of Music for a brief period before becoming a full-time player. While playing various blues gigs and living in Boston, he auditioned for Vertical Horizon, landed the gig, and started recording and touring with the band.
In 2000, Hurley moved to L.A. to establish himself in the session scene. While he continued working with Vertical Horizon, he wrote and recorded with Robin Thicke. This ended up being a gateway into working with different producers in the pop, rock, and R&B genres and by the late-2000s, Hurley racked up credits with Thicke, Josh Groban, Annie Lennox, Alicia Keys, and even Ringo Starr. After a few chance run-ins with John Mayer, he was invited to play with the band and soon took over the touring bass chair. In addition to touring, he recorded both Born and Raised and Paradise Valley with Mayer. More recently, he continues to be an active member of the L.A. scene and has credits with Alanis Morrissette, Melissa Ethridge, Michael Buble, Frankie Ballard, Idina Menzel, Colbie Caillat, and the late Leonard Cohen.
Let’s Talk Style
If three words could describe Hurley’s playing, I’d say that feel, intent, and class are what come to mind. As a session player, he has a deep understanding of groove and how to adapt to the feel of a song. He recognizes the subtle differences between playing a quarter note that punches or drives, that is soulful and relaxed, or that seems slightly ahead or behind the beat. Hurley can sink into the groove of the track as easily has he can be the one to define it.
As with all of the session greats, Hurley plays with intent. He obviously wants to make the song the best it can be for the artist and producer, satisfying the desire for perfection mixed with a bit of personality and surprise. Each note is played with good intentions—in the right place, at the right time, and with the right attack. He can be reserved and supportive by playing simple parts that gracefully elevate a section of a song. He can just as easily play with a busier and more aggressive attitude to drive a verse or open up a chorus.
And lastly, class. There are never too many notes, never something out of place, and always respect for the direction and production of a song. When you listen to a recording that he’s played on, you realize that he’s taken a dignified approach to the music, similar to how a great chef knows that only a few great ingredients are necessary to make a simple, elegant, and delicious dish.
Where Can I Hear Him?
“Everything You Want” (Vertical Horizon: Everything You Want)
The late 1990s produced an incredible number of hard-hitting, perfectly crafted pop-rock hits… This song is no exception to the rule. Hurley takes a punchy, rhythmically engaging approach to the verses of this song—he grooves on the root notes with a clean and distinctive part. During the choruses, he opens up by playing notes of longer duration to provide the perfect backdrop to the vocal melody. He effectively bumps up the energy during the bridge by pedaling through the chords and drops out with the rest of the band before the final verse. His parts are simple, musical, and exactly what the doctor ordered.
“Wildfire” (John Mayer: Paradise Valley)
Entering the song with a slide to the middle register, Hurley provides a warm and groovy accompaniment to the percussion and handclaps that drive the verses. The song picks up as he plays authoritative quarter notes to support the band, often interspersing classic R&B fills that highlight the 5th and 6th of the chord. Throughout the guitar solo/ride out of the song, he lets loose a bit with chromatic fills and clever rhythmic interplay.
“Smithereens” (Annie Lennox: Songs Of Mass Destruction)
This song is the perfect juxtaposition between mild-mannered chords and passionate, full-steam-ahead rock. With 10th chords a-la “Walk On The Wild Side,” Hurley fills out the first verse and establishes the melancholy mood of the song. As the drums kick in, he matches the band’s intensity and marries the kick drum pattern. He moves around the fretboard with ease, often sliding into the higher register or adding simple fills that provide just the right amount of energy.
How about you? What’s your favorite tune or album with Sean Hurley? Please share with us in the comments.