Just in case you’ve been living down deep coal mine for the past few years, Canadian born Rhonda Smith has been grabbing attention as one of the world’s most up and coming bass players. Having worked with Prince, as a solo singer songwriter and on a variety of projects, she is now poised for massive international exposure as part of Jeff Beck’s band for the legendary guitarist’s 2014 world tour. Stuart Bull met Rhonda for our video interview. Here’s a Bassment profile.
Holding down the bass gig with Prince must count as one of the most desirable and yet also one of the scariest jobs in contemporary music. But to follow that with a long-standing role as bassist for the mercurial Jeff Beck must be at least as daunting. Just leaving Beck himself out of the picture, Beck’s fans are used to the great man working with the cream of the world’s virtuoso players. You work with him, you have to be one of the finest in the world, every night.
Somehow, Rhonda Smith manages to carry this all off without looking as if she has the weight of the world on her shoulders. APRS (or a Fender) bass, maybe – but not a lot else. Shes enjoying herself – and why not?
Born in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, Rhondas family moved to the heavily French-influenced Montreal when she was still a child. She grew up surrounded by a thousand musical influences, which have no doubt contributed
to her eclectic approach today. While young she learned baritone horn, keyboard and beginner guitar. And then there was bass. “My older brother is the reason why I play bass. He brought a bass home one day and told me not to touch it.” Anyone with a sister will know what that led to!
Perhaps inevitably, Jazz called strongly and she studied Jazz performance while at Canadas prestigious McGill University, before touring the country with a variety of different Rock bands.
Moving to the USA saw a flurry of activity with some of the biggest names in the business
She won a coveted Juno Award (the Canadian equivalent of a Grammy) for Best Contemporary Jazz Album for her work with Jim Hillman and The Merlin Factor.
The Prince gig came about as the result of what is reported as being a chance meeting with Sheila E. at a music convention in Germany. “Sheila knew that Prince was putting a new band together so I gave her my press kit and she sent it to him. I didn’t hear from him for two months and I thought he wasn’t going to call… but thankfully he did. I flew up to Paisley Park and my audition was basically a jam session with him and a drummer. Suffice it to say he liked what he heard. The same day he had me in the studio recording bass parts on the Emancipation album.”
Moving to the USA saw a flurry of activity with some of the biggest names in the business, including: Chaka Khan, Beyonce, T. L, 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.
The gig with Jeff Beck followed a successful period during which Rhoda Smith became a noted solo performer as well as an accomplished band member. Two successful CDs, Intellipop and RS2, saw her firmly established not just as a bass player but also as a fine singer. The announcement was made in 2010, when she and drummer Narada Michael Walden replaced Tal Wilkenfeld and Vinnie Colaiuta. Incidentally,
it was Walden who recommended her for the gig, in case you are wondering. Given that female bass players are still something of a rarity, Becks ability to find two of them – both world class – is remarkable, but that’s pretty typical of everything Beck does: brilliant, difficult and unexpected!
Smith’s choice of gear has veered between the traditional and the ‘rather unusual’. Her core bass has been a Fender Jazz for many years (though she has also been spotted with Laklands and a variety of upright basses) and Fender is still listed as one of her sponsors. Most recently, however, she has been associated with PRS’s remarkable Gary Grainger basses, as reviewed in this issue.
For amplification, she has been a faithful Mesa Boogie user since at least her time with Prince. According to Boogie, 2x15s were her choice while working with Prince but she is now using Mesa Powerhouse 2×12 and 4×1 Os both driven by M-Pulse600 amps. “The Slave out on the M-Pulse600 is
then run to the Big Block 750 driving the second Powerhouse 2×12 for added punch and reinforcement on the big rock stage. The M9 was tried late in rehearsals and worked well but in the end, the already established rig with M-Pulse 600 and Big Block 750 won the spot until more time is available to incorporate the M9 Carbine full time,” Mesa Boogie says.
Add effects pedals from EBS and DigiTech and GHS strings and there you have it. Just add a huge helping of talent.