Smooth Grooves

How many chart hits treat us to a bass solo? I could only think of The Who’s ‘My Generation’ and Paul Simon’s ‘You Can Call Me Al’. That is, until I remembered Sade’s ‘Smooth Operator’:

A Billboard-topping song with lead bass playing. Remarkable.

Although the 1980s were responsible for many of the greatest atrocities in music and fashion (slap bass and mascara for everyone) it was also the final decade before machines started to take over from musicians. The production may sound dated now – chorus on a bass is now thankfully a thing of the past – but this tune gives us a rare chance to step out of the shadows and get up to the ‘dusty end’ of the fretboard.

Sade – ‘Smooth Operator’ bass transcription pdf

From the moment you hear the fill in bar 4, it’s clear that the bass is at the heart of this Latin-tinged pop masterpiece; Paul Denman’s bassline anchors the song throughout, with grooves predominantly based on roots and 5ths, with the occasional chromatic passing note.

The bass solo (bar 57) is a straightforward D minor affair (D aeolian, specifically, for those who like to get theoretical). Notice how much the use of melodic and rhythmic repetition helps to make the solo sound cohesive – if it’s singable, then it’s memorable. The climax of the solo involves some high-altitude fretwork, I’ve taken the liberty of notating the entire solo an octave lower to aid reading; any more than 3 ledger lines above the stave makes me feel dizzy.

The stimulus to transcribe this came from hearing Me’Shell Ndegeocello’s cover version of ‘Smooth Operator’; a much rougher, darker interpretation of a slick 1980’s tune:

She put it in 5/4, too. Here’s what the intro looks like on paper:

me'shell smooth operator