Bass Players To Know: Rhonda Smith
When was the last time you listened to a groove that was absolutely funky, remarkably precise and played with such an undeniable sense of authority that you couldn’t resist being in awe? For me, it was the last time I listened to Rhonda Smith. Widely known as Prince’s bass player for over a decade, Smith has worked with Jeff Beck, Chaka Khan, Beyonce, and many others. With two solo records to her name, Smith’s versatility as a player, vocalist, writer, and performer has resulted in a career worthy of anyone with her talent and drive. She has the confidence of someone who knows the instrument inside and out, the stage presence of a performer who has traveled the world, and the work ethic that undoubtedly defines her as a bass player to know.
Who Is Rhonda Smith?
Smith spent her childhood in Montreal and grew up in a particularly musical family—three siblings who were encouraged to play instruments thanks to her mother’s love of the piano. After her brother came home with a bass one day and told her not to touch it, she was determined to pick it up. Self-taught at the onset, she studied Jazz Performance at McGill University and toured with a rock band alongside other female musicians. Embarking on her career, she performed with various Canadian artists, including songwriters Daniel Lavoie and Claude Dubois, and won a Juno Award as a session player for Best Contemporary Jazz Album.
Thanks to a chance meeting with legendary percussionist Sheila E. at a trade show, Smith was recommended to Prince as he was beginning to put a new band together. A few months later, she auditioned in person and was immediately asked to record parts on Emancipation. Between 1996 and 2009, Smith provided the low end for countless tours and records alongside the Prince of Pop.
As a session player, Smith’s deep grooves can also be found on records by Chaka Khan, The New Power Generation, Katharine McPhee, Terri Lynne Carrington, and Jeff Beck, among many others. In addition to touring alongside Jeff Beck since 2010, she has also worked with Beyonce, Erykah Badu, Larry Graham, Kirk Whalum, Lee Ritenour, and many others.
She has released two records as a solo artist, Intellipop (2000) and RS2 (2017) to showcase her talent as an instrumentalist, songwriter, vocalist, and bandleader. An active touring and recording artist for over two decades, Smith also excels as an educator and promotes the need for understanding the business side of music.
Let’s Talk Style
Smith is the bandleader’s bass player. As a skilled and technically proficient instrumentalist with a formal education in jazz studies and remarkably good ears, she excels at musicality and communication. She is able to pick up on the nuances of arrangement, respects the dynamic development of a live performance, and knows how to leave space within a groove. Her ability to take direction, support the needs of the artist, and bring a positive personality to the bandstand makes for a particularly hire-able player.
Whether you’re watching her perform or listening to her on a record, you can sense the immense amount of control she has over the instrument. She plays with a level of precision that is clearly the result of dedicated study, intense preparation, and years of experience in high-demand scenarios. To play with an artist like Prince, where the expectation of perfection is particularly high, Smith needed acute attention to detail and execution. This is a skill that she certainly entered the gig with but has further excelled at over time. Regardless of who she is playing with, she defines groove with a sense of authority and knows how each note—and the feel of each note—is essential to the foundation of a song.
With the rare talent of being able to integrate slap and pop amidst finger-style playing, Smith gracefully goes back and forth between techniques. This allows her to execute bass lines that are rhythmically and tonally complex; splashes of brightness literally “pop” up out of nowhere to surprise the listener and assert the role of the instrument. Combined with her execution of high-register chords and melodic lines, she has the unique ability to showcase what the bass is truly capable of, particularly within the world of pop, soul, funk, and fusion.
Where Can I Hear Her?
“Family Name” (Prince: One Nite Alone… Live!)
This epic Prince odyssey features Smith bringing the funk. All of the funk. Going back and forth between fingerstyle and slapping, low notes and high flourishes, perfectly timed fills and percussive pops, Smith is precise yet musical. She accents upbeats and mimics melodic lines, all while managing to throw in vocal harmonies. If that’s not impressive, I don’t know what it. Just when it couldn’t get any better, the groove shifts to a distorted and driving solo section interspersed with a call-and-response between Rhonda’s slap licks and Prince’s guitar. The showmanship, execution, and arrangement of this performance is nothing short of totally epic.
“Medley: Rice Pudding/Morning Dew” (Jeff Beck: Live at the Hollywood Bowl)
Smith’s bass playing propels this arrangement and showcases her ability to excel in a live context. From the rocking and adrenaline-drenched synchronous line of “Rice Pudding,” to holding down the fort as Beck addresses the audience, to anchoring the verses of “Morning Dew,” Smith enhances the dynamic development of the piece. Her seamless execution of the groove, tonal authority, and pocket playing makes her a particularly reliable member of any rhythm section. There’s no wonder why she has had and kept gigs with such highly regarded artists. Furthermore, I would be remiss not to mention how absolutely awesome her performance is on this record’s version of “You Never Know.”
“Lost Child” (Rhonda Smith: RS2)
With an intricate bass part that weaves in and out of the vocal melody, Smith integrates chordal voicings, a variety of plucking-hand techniques, and a killer groove to add depth to this track. Her stellar understanding of space and note duration provides just enough relief to breathe air into the groove. During the spoken-word outro of the song, Smith embellishes the bass part with fills that speak classic funk in the dialect of Larry Graham.
How about you? What’s your favorite tune or album with Rhonda Smith? 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!