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An Inspiring Chat with Bassist Rhonda Smith

I had a chance to sit down with the legendary Rhonda Smith after her astonishing clinic at Bass Player Live. Her ability to communicate on every level (her presence, musicality, and public speaking) is inspiring. In this exclusive interview, Rhonda talks gear, tells funny stories, and discusses some of her own inspirations over the years.

So, you’ve been with Paul Reed Smith for a little while now. How did you fall into it with them?

Ya know, a mutual friend thought that it would be a great combination. I was playing a Fender at the time, and I love Fender, but I was looking for something a little bit more active and I love 24 frets. So I was graciously BLESSED to have Gary Grainger lend me one of his private stocks because they don’t have a lot of those just sitting around – you have to order it and it can take several months. I tried this bass and I absolutely LOVED it. I call it ‘Tequila Sunrise,’ which I was playing today [during the clinic].

It was fantastic!

There’s just something about this bass that I absolutely love. And, unfortunately for Gary, he never got the bass back – I was just not willing to part with it! I didn’t have anything in my arsenal. Ya know, I had 22-24 basses; nothing had that sound or that feel to me. There’s just something about it...the craftsmanship. It can take a beating, and I give it a beating, and it holds up. I just loved it and I didn’t wanna part with it. Not a lot of basses do that for me.

So, I had to figure out what I was gonna do to have it NOT taken back from me! [Laughs]

Well, I’m sure Paul definitely appreciates that.

Oh, I know he does. I love Paul.

So, what do you typically look for in a bass, both sonically and physically?

First of all, I look for something that’s beautiful. I love beautiful woods; always have. But, it’s gotta feel great to my hands. It can’t be too overpainted, there can’t be too much lacquer on the neck because that affects the sound for me. It’s can’t be too bright. It’s gotta sound great to me acoustically because I play a lot of bass without an amp also.

So I want a great punch-back, I want a great sound and feel like I’m playing something really strong acoustically, and then when I plug it in, I want to have a lot of variation. I don’t want it to be too brittle or too boomy – it’s gotta be in between.

Coincidentally, the Grainger bass kinda nails all of that.

ABSOLUTELY. He did a fantastic job on that.

You’ve said before in other interviews that you got into playing bass because your older brother had a bass and asked you not to touch his bass (as a younger sibling myself, I totally get the temptation!). Do you remember what kind of bass it was?

It was a Sears bass! Ya know, I’m a pretty good negotiator (only because I learned from my brother). This particular brother was the best negotiator in the world.

Was he the oldest of your siblings?

No, I have two older brothers and an older sister (and I’m the youngest). So, he’s the closest to me in age, but he IS older than me. But, he sold me that bass later and charged me too much for it!

Maybe it was just interest he was charging you for him being without the bass...

[laughs] He’s a bugger! I love him to death. But he’s haunted by my stories now because he has to live with that!

[Laughs] Do you still have the bass?

OOH NO. Absolutely not – it was a piece of garbage! It was a terrible bass, and he charged me too much for it!

What’s funny is that we see a lot of those Sears or department store ad basses come through the shop all the time, and some of them are fantastic little weirdos!

This one wasn’t.

[Laughs] This one was a lemon?

Yeah, this was like a hundred dollar bass.

And he charged you too much for it.

...and he charged me too much for it.

Lesson learned. Have you come across anything, gear-wise, that’s inspired you to write music or just get out and shed?

YES. What I really like right now, and I didn’t get a chance to talk about it in my clinic, and I don’t endorse the product, but it’s TC Electronic’s and it’s called the Ditto [Looper]. The little one – I just got that recently. And...MAN. It’s a cool thing in my arsenal. I can’t say that I’ve used it live so much as of yet. But for me to be able to train, for me to be able to play through changes, I can put different chords, different bass lines...It’s not so much that I use it to stack four of five different bass parts, but usually I just use it so I can play with it. I really love that pedal. So, THAT’s inspired me to do some things and actually write some grooves and some songs that I’ll use, hopefully, on the next record.

You’ve given credit to Shelia E. with regard to recommending you to Prince. How did you meet her?

I met Shelia for the first time at the NAMM show out in LA. This is back when my friend Kat Dyson and I were endorsing Godin guitars. So, we’re talkin’ like 1995, I think. Maybe ‘96? ...At that time there were probably less female musicians around, so if you knew them, you KNEW them. After we did the NAMM show, we did Musikmesse in Germany, and Sheila was there again (and there were even a SMALLER combination of female musicians). So we kinda ran into her again – she was looking for new musicians to put a band together for Prince. He’s always been particular to female players – she’s an amazing player. She’s an icon. That’s why the book is called ‘ICON’!

My last question kinda ties into that. You’ve talked about being a female bass player in a time when there weren’t many out there. You’ve broken those walls down, with the likes of Sheila and Esperanza [Spaulding]. What sort of advice would you give to young aspiring musicians to get themselves out there?

Regardless of gender?

Regardless of gender. Thankfully, you’ve broken down those walls.

What’s always guided me through the good and the bad, and the low and the high, is:

Do it because you love it, and it’ll love you back. Be honest about it, but respect the music first. If you always respect the music first, learn your parts. Treat people like you want to be treated. BE ON TIME – these are really important things. Don’t put people out. All of those human factors go a long way. It’s not JUST about the music [or] how well you play in this business. It’s how you treat people, it’s how you get along with people, it’s if people wanna be around you, too. I don’t wanna be babysat, and I don’t wanna be the babysitter for somebody. All of those things go together.

Some people say that the music industry is 20% music and 80% business. Some people need to take care of the business and be aware of that. Put the egos aside. There’s a time to have an ego, and a time to not have an ego. Just be easy to get along with. Be someone that people like. Be someone that people like playing music with as much as they like making music. Ya know, it’s always been said to me and it’s always true – in a group, a leader or someone who’s looking to fill a position would rather take a lesser player who is easier to handle and not a pain in the rear over somebody who is absolutely amazing but a pain in the ass. You dig?

I can dig! Thank you so much  we’re looking forward to seeing more of you soon, perhaps a clinic with us!

Marc Najjar
Marc Najjar

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