In this week’s Artists in Focus blog we’re putting the spotlight on the instrument that has the ability to make us all weak at the knees when it’s done right, the backbone of the band - the bass! And whilst the bass features in the majority of our favourite tunes, we think there’s no better context for this conversation that in the music of neo-soul king, D’Angelo.

Alongside artists like Erykah Badu, Lauryn Hill, Maxwell and Angie Stone, D’Angelo is heavily associated with the neo-soul movement and, through his songwriting and producing, was a key driver of a new sound.

R&B Heavyweights

After teaching himself to play the piano as a child, at 18 he won the amateur talent competition at Harlem’s Apollo Theater three weeks in a row! It must’ve been clear then what a talent his possessed. And in his 1991 audition with major label EMI, D’Angelo didn’t hold back this talent, as the audition ended up being an impromptu three-hour piano recital. He was of course signed pretty quickly after that mega performance.

It was a hit single for R&B group Black Men United that would put the D’Angelo name in the spotlight. The group included some R&B heavyweights like Usher, R Kelly and Boyz II Men, so the success of the song “U Will Know”, written by D’Angelo, was pretty hard to ignore. It’s safe to say that the hype surrounding D’Angelo then was quickly increasing!

Bass Royalty!

It’ll come as no surprise that his debut album Brown Sugar sold over two million copies, and the second album that followed won the Grammy for Best R&B Album, it’s lead single “Untitled (How Does It Feel)” also winning a Grammy for Best Male R&B Vocal. After a 14 year period off from music due to personal problems, D’Angelo was back with a significant bang with the Black Messiah album in 2014. What a wild ride!

Bringing it back to the bass, the D’Angelo sound is iconic in its laid back, relaxed style, with a huge dollop of funk thrown in there too. The hit track “Lady” from his first album is a real example of this feel that became so popular in neo-soul, and why so many people continue to love D’Angelo – “Lady” has a casual 44 million Spotify streams!

But another bass tune that we love from D’Angelo is “Spanish Joint”, which you can find in the Rockschool Bass Grade 7 syllabus. Featured on the 2000 Voodoo album, this track is considered a milestone in the neo-soul genre. The tune opens with a signature bass line that carries everything along, so you’ll need to make sure this is delivered evenly throughout. By paying particular attention to your touch – ensuring it is smooth and accurate – you’ll preserve that signature D’Angelo relaxed vibe. Double stops and vibrato also give the song a huge amount of flavour. Enjoy this one!

Charlie Hunter played an eight string hybrid guitar on "Spanish Joint", handling both guitar and bass simultaneously. His bass line is a melodic groove with undertones of Latin and Cajun rhythms that sit well in the musical and lyrical atmosphere of the record. An incredible musician adding incredible flair to this wonderful piece.

And it would absolutely not be possible to wrap up this blog without mentioning the bass royalty that played on many of D’Angelo tracks featured on "Voodoo". Pino Palladino is an iconic musician who has been in high demand throughout his hugely successful career. His CV boasts big names like The Who, John Mayer, Nine Inch Nails, Gary Numan, Jeff Beck, Elton John, Tina Turner, Paul Simon, Eric Clapton, Ed Sheeran, Adele… need we go on?

Pino is praised for his use of the fretless bass on so many mega album recordings. He marries the tone of the fretless bass with an octaver effect which uses the higher range of the instrument. The end result is a sound far from the stereotypical “low notes” you’d find in a bass part! His parts also add in chords, lead lines and counter melodies – bassists have you played anything like it?!

The phenomenally versatile playing of Charlie Hunter and Pino Palladino, combined with the smooth sounds of D’Angelo is potentially THE match made in heaven.