What does it take to be an R&B bass icon? Here’s how Pino Palladino changed the game.
• Understand the basic elements of palm-muting.
• Develop a more fluid sense of timing when playing R&B and soul-based grooves.
• Learn to love simplicity in bass lines. Click here to download a printable PDF of this lesson's notation.
Most bassists have this one fact in common: Their lifelong dream gig has been held, at one point or another, by Pino Palladino. The 6'8" Welshman is the epitome of a jack-of-all-trades—and, more importantly, a master of all of them.
Pino began music on classical guitar and didn't pick up bass until age 17, but his rapid mastery of the instrument and unique concepts of time and groove quickly earned him spots with some of the biggest names in the world. He landed session and touring gigs with the likes of Eric Clapton, Melissa Etheridge, David Gilmour, B.B. King, and Elton John—just to name a few.
So, how did this fretless-pioneering, pop-session bassist become one of the most iconic R&B and soul musicians of a generation?
The Soulquarians Era
Searching for the perfect set of musicians for what would become Voodoo, D'Angelo discovered Palladino on a live B.B. King album in the late '90s. Pino joined an incredible team of musicians that included Questlove, Roy Hargrove, Q-Tip, Raphael Saadiq, and Charlie Hunter to back D'Angelo on his newest offering after a long sabbatical following his first album, 1995's Brown Sugar.
The Voodoo sessions began around 1998 at the fabled Electric Lady Studios. R&B, hip-hop, and rap music were particularly bombastic and monochromatic at the time, leaving an open lane for the Voodoo crew to take a sharp-left turn from the genre. Through a collaboration between D'Angelo and his band to invent their soft, sensual, behind-the-beat feel, neo-soul was born.
During an appearance on the Chris Rock Show, Palladino propels D'Angelo's “Chicken Grease" along with drummer Ahmir “Questlove" Thompson. The bass line is classic Pino: understated, smooth, and funky as hell.
Neo-soul required a subtlety and nuance highly specific to this niche genre, and Pino's playing delivered exactly that. His bass lines were shockingly simple, yet maintained a complete command of the groove, epitomizing a musician's version of speaking less while saying more. They are often buried in the mix by nature of the deep tone, but never fail to be the strongest heartbeat of the track.
He became a fixture of the neo-soul movement, playing and recording with the Vanguard (D'Angelo's band) as well as the Soulquarians collective (including artists like Erykah Badu, J Dilla, the Roots, Mos Def, and Talib Kweli).
Pino's playing brought an extra magic to the profound grooves of neo-soul, bolstered by his years of studying classic soul and funk bassists like James Jamerson, Bootsy Collins, and Rocco Prestia. And part of that magic was created by his unique approach to a particular right-hand playing technique, actually spawned by his musical beginnings on classical guitar: palm-muting.
String Muting for a Modern Age
Back in Jamerson's time, the original Fender bass came stock with a foam mute under the metal bell covering its bridge. The music of the time still required the thumpy, dark sound of a miked upright bass, and a foam mute masked the brighter, more legato inclinations of its electric cousin.
As funk and dance music popularized popping and slapping, bassists in the late '60s and '70s began removing the foam from their Fenders. Once the more melodic bass lines of the '70s and '80s became mainstream, bass guitar mutes became a thing of the past.
But the original soul and R&B recordings featured that deep, deadened sound, so Pino strived to recreate it for the neo-soul genre. It wasn't practical to bring back the foam mute, as modern songs often require a transition from muting to fingerstyle to slapping between a verse and chorus of the same song. Capitalizing on his musical-chameleon nature, Pino developed his own style of palm-muting to mark the era of neo-soul. With the meaty, right edge of his palm resting on the strings about an inch from the bridge, he adapted the classical-guitar technique of plucking with one finger per string. The thumb plucks the 4th string, index finger for 3rd, middle finger for 2nd, and ring finger on the 1st string.
Mastering the Pino Palm-Mute
It requires a bit of experimentation to find the sweet spot on your individual instrument, but it's easy to recognize when you get it. Playing on top of the bridge allows too much extraneous string ringing, and playing too far up the body will deaden too much tone from your notes.
Getting your picking hand up to speed is another story. Here are two great exercises (Ex. 1 and Ex. 2) to work on the one-finger-per-string technique, before we jump into more ways to achieve the Palladino palm-muting sound. (Don't fret if your ring finger is lagging far behind the others—be sure that your thumb, index, and middle are falling in line, and add in the ring finger when you're feeling adventurous.)
Less is More: “Africa" by D'Angelo (Voodoo)
One of my favorite bass parts (and favorite song of all time, in fact) is “Africa" from D'Angelo's Voodoo.
Note the brevity and clarity of this line. So much space is left between the notes that you sometimes wonder if Pino was lulled to sleep in the session by the gorgeous harmonic landscapes passing by.
Even more subtle is the deft way in which Pino and Questlove nail these deceptively quirky and complex rhythms—often playing the bass drum and bass line together on the “and" of one, instead of the downbeat. It's a masterful lesson in both groove and restraint, which are perhaps the two most important concepts in Pino's palm-muting. Ex. 3 is inspired by this classic duo.
It's important to include that Pino recorded most of Voodoo on a '63 Fender P Bass, with heavy-gauge La Bella strings (à la James Jamerson) tuned down a whole-step. While you can achieve the “Pino" sound on any instrument, many bassists attribute the extra Voodoo voodoo to these gear choices.
Driving the Groove: “The Joint" by the RH Factor (Hard Groove)
Pino and trumpeter Roy Hargrove played together on the Voodoo sessions, and there's no doubt their concepts of soul and groove are a perfect fit. Pino was also part of Hargrove's band, the RH Factor, when they recorded the 2003 album, Hard Groove. On “The Joint," Pino drives the rhythm section on this track, providing the majority of its melodic and rhythmic content with his bass line.
The next two examples (Ex. 4 and Ex. 5) are what could be described as a version of the verse and chorus of this tune that show what a palm-muted bass line can do when it's front and center.
Muting like a Metronome: “Vultures" by John Mayer Trio (Continuum)
When drummer Steve Jordan and Pino met in the early '80s, they were among the top-call session musicians in the industry. After a recommendation from Jordan to John Mayer that Pino join them on a one-off, the three meshed so well that the John Mayer Trio was born.
You can also find this song on the trio's live album Try!, but Pino's juicy palm-muting licks come through more clearly on the studio version from Continuum.
The track's bass line is much more “square" than the previous examples from the neo-soul archives, but still delivers a masterclass of groove. Pino becomes the song's metronome, setting a solid foundation, with plenty of fills thrown in at the most tasteful moments. Check out Ex. 6, which was inspired by this groove and some signature Pino fills.
Neo-Soul in New Pop: “Darkness and Light" by John Legend (Darkness and Light)
Pino proves he is the absolute master of soul on John Legend's most recent album, Darkness and Light. Palladino remains one of the world's most prolifically recorded bassists, meaning he plays a lot of mainstream and commercial music—but this pop album features so much laid-back palm-muting, you might think you're still listening to D'Angelo. This style can be heard particularly in the album's title track, with bass lines similar to Ex. 7. He plays an especially virtuosic palm-muting line in another track on the record, “Overload," which inspired Ex. 8.
If I continued to share the amount of Palladino's god-like palm-muting that exists in the recorded realm, this lesson would span a tome of Lord-of-the-Rings magnitude. Be sure to check out all of Pino's discography with the Soulquarians, and the rest of the tunes from the albums mentioned here. Pino is truly a never-ending source of soul and inspiration. If you absorb his catchy grooves, you'll be palm-muting like the best in no time.