Bass Players To Know: Bernard Edwards
I’d like to title this column: “Better Late Than Never.” You’ve heard his bass lines at weddings, on the radio, at the supermarket, and possibly while waiting on the phone for the next available representative. His grooves defined the funk and disco era with their syncopated and infectious hooks, in-your-face tone, and get your booty on the dance floor swagger. And, as if they weren’t iconic enough, early producers of hip-hop decided that his bass lines would provide the perfect backdrop to the new musical and cultural phenomenon brewing across America. This bass player is Bernard Edwards, the funk master who teamed up with Nile Rodgers in the 1970’s to form Chic and produce records for other chart-topping artists such as Diana Ross and Sister Sledge. In addition to solo records and a long list of songwriting credits, he has provided the low end for recordings by David Bowie, Madonna, Robert Palmer, Rod Stewart, and many more.
So Who Is Bernard Edwards?
Edwards was born in Greenville, North Carolina in 1952 and spent most of his early years in Brooklyn. He began cutting his teeth in the New York music scene during the late 1960’s and in his late teens, Edwards was the musical director and bass player in the “Big Apple Band.” Nile Rodgers fortuitously joined the band and the two struck up a partnership that later morphed into their own group—Chic. They signed with Atlantic Records and were nominated for a Grammy thanks to the song “Dance, Dance, Dance” in 1977. They followed up the success of their first record with 1978’s C’est Chic and the single “Le Freak,” as well as the soon to be mega hit “Good Times” on 1979’s Risqué. All the while, Edwards and Rodgers wrote and produced songs for other artists including “We Are Family” by Sister Sledge and the record Diana with singles “Upside Down” and “I’m Coming Out” by Diana Ross.
During the late 1970’s, hip-hop was in its infancy until the success of “Rapper’s Delight” by The Sugarhill Gang. This song, which featured Edwards’ bass line, quickly became a mainstream musical phenomenon and paved the way for sampling in rap, hip-hop, and R&B. Since then, countless Edwards/Rodgers productions have been adapted to provide the musical background for hits by Salt-N-Pepa, Notorious B.I.G., Will Smith, and many others.
In the meantime, Edwards and Rodgers continued to release music and tour as Chic until 1983, at which time they decided to pursue other projects. Edwards then produced a solo record and formed The Power Station with Robert Palmer, Duran Duran’s Andy Taylor, and Chic’s drummer Tony Thompson. Still an in-demand session bassist, he played on records by Paul Simon, Mick Jagger, Joe Cocker, Rod Stewart, and projects that Nile Rodgers produced, including David Bowie’s Let’s Dance and Madonna’s Like A Virgin. After a long hiatus, Chic reunited in 1992 with the release of Chic-ism. Following a run of performances in Japan in 1996, Edwards passed away at the age of 43 due to complications with pneumonia.
Let’s Talk Style
Edwards is a master of taste. A player with great technical ability, he exercises restraint and control in the most musical way—creating a part and letting it guide the song. His lines are simple enough that you can sing along to them, yet they seem fresh over and over again due to the subtle tension they create. In many ways, he defined what we consider a “bass groove”—a hook that doesn’t need elaboration to be interesting, and in fact, is more effective when executed correctly over and over again. While Edwards certainly has the musical and technical ability to elaborate, as demonstrated in some of his solo material and in the precision with which he plays, neither the groove nor the sonic density of the song is ever compromised.
When it comes to a being great rhythm player, it all comes down to the right (or plucking) hand’s ability to control precision, articulation, and note duration. Edwards is keenly aware of this and utilizes different right-hand techniques (fingerstyle playing, slapping, or using a pick) without compromising the pocket or authenticity of the groove. While most players have a tendency to use slap bass as a means to showcase their technical facility, he uses the slap and pop attack as a means of adding character to the note. It contributes to the sound and feel of the part without opening the door to overly enthusiastic demonstrations of technique. This approach differentiates him from other slap players of the day and upcoming eras, affirming his sense of maturity and mindfulness when producing music.
Where Can I Hear Him?
“Good Times” (Chic: Risqué)
Written and produced by Edwards and Nile Rodgers, this has become one of the most iconic, genre-defying, and influential grooves in the history of recorded music. While it originally hit the top of the charts with Chic in 1979, the song (and Edwards’ bass line) quickly exceeded the world of disco and funk when The Sugarhill Gang used it as the basis for “Rapper’s Delight.” This ignited the flame of a new musical genre, hip-hop, and was sampled or referenced in countless other recordings. Furthermore, the iconic three-note phrase that begins the groove also inspired “Another One Bites The Dust” by Queen, released the following year. In other words, most of the people on planet earth have heard some version of this bass line. Go learn it.
“Material Girl” (Madonna: Like A Virgin)
A beautiful reflection of perfect pop production, this song exemplifies Edwards’ clear tone, punchy articulation, and attention to note duration. He executes a specific and clearly defined part that provides the rhythmic foundation while leaving space for the rest of the ensemble. This style of production mimics that of many Chic records, where the bass plays a simple yet effective part that rarely varies and instead, is catchy and positively repetitive. He takes a slightly busier approach during the choruses by accenting the higher octaves and nodding to the disco/dance grooves of the era; this sense of motion creates greater tension that is gracefully relieved by returning to the original pattern.
“Glad To Be Here” (Bernard Edwards: Glad To Be Here)
Featuring a ridiculously funky slap bass groove, this solo project by Edwards is a rare find in the vinyl bin. A showcase for his overall musicality, Edwards exercises precision, restraint, and taste in the way that he plays, despite his obvious technical mastery. The song is built around a syncopated bass groove that provides the musical hook to the choruses and intertwines accents with the drums and rhythm guitar. He takes a simpler approach to the verses that draw listeners’ attention to the vocals and leaves room to grow dynamically in other parts of the song.
How about you? What’s your favorite tune or album with Bernard Edwards? Please share with us in the comments.
Ryan Madora is a professional bass player, author, and educator living in Nashville, TN. In addition to touring and session work, she teaches private lessons and masterclasses to students of all levels. Visit her website to learn more!