EMINEM. JANET JACKSON. Joe
Jonas. Maroon 5. P-Diddy. Jill Scott. Nicki
Minaj. Mike Posner. What do all these artists
have in common? In a typical 24-hour
period during 2011, they all benefitted from the
bass and/or MD skills of Adam Blackstone, the
29-year-old wunderkind who’s now moving into
Hollywood to work on NBC’s The Voice.
As he deftly juggles multiple music-director
gigs, a thriving recording career, TV success, and
a growing reputation as a first-rate producer,
Blackstone continues to redefine the role of the
bass player in pop culture for the next generation.
Many factors led a 21-year-old bassist to
go from open-mic sessions to playing Jay-Z’s
sold-out farewell show at Madison Square
Garden in the space of a month, but luck was
not one of them. For a musician as focused,
gifted, and hard working as Blackstone, luck
has played but the smallest part in a ten-year
career that has already reached the highest levels
of pop, R&B, and hip-hop bass artistry—and
continues to move toward even bigger stages.
Born in New Jersey to a family of musicians,
Blackstone was already playing piano and drums
by the time he was six, and he reluctantly began
focusing on bass at the request of a teacher in
third grade. It was a natural fit, however, and
he continued playing upright bass at Philadelphia’s
University of the Arts, where he earned a
degree in jazz performance. Blackstone emerged
determined to make his mark, and he
quickly became known for his distinctly
round tone, unrelenting work ethic, and
ear for detail. After coming to the attention
of Philly music icon and Roots drummer Ahmir
“Questlove” Thompson, Blackstone landed two
New York gigs that helped put him on the map:
Jay-Z’s “Fade to Black” show at the Garden, in
November 2003, and Dave Chappelle’s September
2004 Block Party in Brooklyn. Both concerts
were high-profi le, star-studded events that were
filmed and became popular documentaries. As
word spread of his leadership and dependability,
Blackstone became one of the most in-demand
bassist/musical directors in the world, working
with A-level artists such as Kanye West, Usher,
Al Green, Al Jarreau, Dionne Warwick, and
As he prepares to enter his 30s, Blackstone is
staying busy playing, producing, music-directing,
and digging into his latest gig—as Adam Levine’s
musical adviser on the hit talent show The
Voice—where he’s enjoying a whole new level
of visibility. His schedule is more packed than
ever, but as Blackstone
is the first
to tell you, that’s
all just part of the
You’re one of the busiest bass players in
the industry right now. How do you juggle
so many distinctive projects at once?
By respecting each artist, their craft,
and their music. I can’t bring Janet Jackson
tone to an Eminem gig, and I can’t bring a
Nicki Minaj mentality to a Jordin Sparks
recording session. Respecting each artist’s
music allows you to be authentic—when I’m
with Joe Jonas, I don’t want to sound like
I’m on a hip-hop gig.
One thing I know for sure is that nobody
is going to work harder than me in terms of
learning the music, pleasing the artist, and
working toward setting a higher standard. I
give 100 percent to every artist I work with;
I’ve never left a gig on bad terms, and I won’t
settle until my artists are completely happy.
How do you balance emulating a track
and putting your own touch on things?
I definitely learn the exact song first, and
if it moves me to do something, I might do
it. If it feels out of place because a vocal is
over that part or the artist is used to that
space, I’ll make the disciplined choice. It’s
all about learning the music and then slowly
infusing myself into it.
Once I got the Janet Jackson gig and realized
that it was coming from a place of pop
music and R&B, for example, I had to study
her previous bassists, Sam Sims and Ethan
Farmer, because they were doing some classic
slap bass parts I had to incorporate into my
playing. I played upright bass all through college,
and like a lot of cats at the time, I emulated
the full, round bass tone Pino Palladino was
getting on his P-Bass with flatwounds.
What about when you’re asked to create
a part of your own?
I like to talk to the artist and the producer—if
I’m not producing—to find out where they feel
the song takes them before I play on it, and
where they want the bass to take them once I
start playing on it. Initially, I listen to the song
without my bass; my producer/musical director
side kicks in and I hear the form first—where
and how long are the verse, chorus, and bridge,
and when do they repeat. Maybe I’ll scratch
out a chord chart. When I pick up my bass
and start vibing with the artist, I keep my part
very simple, without a lot of movement. I need
to have a solid foundation to hang everyone’s
ideas on. After the direction is established, I add
to my part as we go and stretch if requested.
Once we’re ready to record, I pride myself
in keeping my take. That’s not to say I’m always
a first-take player, but I want a complete bass
track down; I don’t want to rely on punching
in. I want you to hear the structure of the song
in my part and how it was a single performance
that I thought about and developed all the
way through. I’m composing a bass line, but
I’m also producing a bass line. My goal is for
it to resonate with people when they hear it
on the radio, and for other bassists to feel they
have to play it when they’re on the road with
the artist, or covering the song on a bar gig.
How did you work on your slap technique?
The first thing I did was to get a bass that
suited that style, a Performance; a lot of the
gospel cats play those, and the bassist before
me in Janet’s band, Ethan Farmer, played
one. Then I went back to basics and ’shedded
a ton, playing long tones, short tones,
and scales, slap-style. I listened to a lot of
famous slap bassists—Marcus Miller, Bootsy,
Larry Graham, and a bunch of gospel cats—to
hear their tone. Once I got those tones in my
ear, it became more automatic for me. We
were going eight hours a day for two months
working on the Janet material, learning 45 to
55 songs, and the whole time I was honing
my slap chops. She has a lot of hits, man!
How do you decide which gear to bring
to each job?
My gear choices are based solely on the
music and me being me. Sometimes the artist
is calling me for my sound. I’m blessed to have
a variety of instruments and gear that help
me get a wide range of tones, from Motown
on a P-Bass to slap with Janet to upright.
Which bassists have had the biggest
influence on your career?
When I was playing a lot of jazz on upright,
Ron Carter was huge to me. Jaco, of course,
taught me what an electric bass could do. Marcus
Miller opened me up to creating a specific tone.
At this point in my life, though, it’s my peers
who change the way I think and play. Guys
like Derrick Hodge, who is the greatest, and
Thaddeus Tribbett, who is a monster, change
the way I approach bass and also how my ears
work. I listen to those guys and we’re good
friends, but they blow my mind.
How did you land the gig on The Voice?
I’ve been Maroon 5’s MD and musical
consultant for the last year and a half,
and once Adam Levine became one of the
four judges, he brought me on as his musical
adviser. He and I have great musical
chemistry; I think the audience can see
how much we respect and love each other,
and that we have so much to bring to these
contestants, who are new to the industry.
What first inspired you to become a
I’ve always been musically opinionated
and a leader, and artists have always felt
comfortable talking to me first about the
details. Back in 2001, I didn’t know what
a musical director was, but I was already
doing the duties of one. As people noticed
my pride, professionalism, and accountability,
they started putting me in charge of
their projects. Most musical direction is less
about skills and more about leadership and
What do you do as a musical director?
The most basic job of an MD is to put
a band together, which involves knowing
the music and where it’s coming from, who
fits into that genre, and who’s going to play
it how it should be played. From there, I
take meetings with the artist, put the set list
together, build transitional parts in the show,
and let them know how the changes are going
to go down. It’s about being as hands-on as
possible and not being afraid of giving your
opinion to the artist about their music and
how you see it. That’s how you gain respect
from them, and after that, everyone becomes
super-comfortable with each other.
I learn all the music, build play-along
tracks in Pro Tools for the artists, put the
rehearsal schedule together, and make sure
the musicians know their parts. I handle all
the logistics; I’m involved in anything that has
to do with the artist and the music. During
the show, I’m directing the band—I’m giving
cues, signaling hard endings and hard starts,
and cuing the Pro Tools guy to start the tracks.
I’m making sure the artist is comfortable with
the volume onstage, and on top of it all, I’m
playing bass and keyboard bass.
Timing is important, too. I have to make
sure the artist has enough time to talk
between songs and do their monologue,
and if they’re going to change something
on the spot, I have to improvise. A lot for
that goes with knowing the artist.
The main thing I learned from him is to
come into every situation perfectly prepared
on all levels—to know everything in and out
of every tune so that if you have to teach it,
you can. As an MD, it’s my job to know the
bass lines, the keyboard parts, the hi-hat pattern,
the three notes the back-up singers are
supposed to sing, the guitar riffs, everything.
I’m not embarrassed to say that so many times
Questlove would sing the bass line to me and
say, “That’s wrong, it goes: boom, boom, boom,
boom boom.” I’ll go back and listen to it and
ten out of ten times, he’s dead on.
Another thing I learned from him is
confidence. When you play confidently, the
artists get comfortable and trust your playing.
Questlove comes into every situation like he’s
been playing that music for the last 20 years.
And now, artists allow him to put it together
on his own because they trust him so much.
Luckily, that’s the case for me now, too. He
showed me how to keep a band together
and manage band members, artists, and
everyone in their circles. I learned to stay
overtime and be the most prepared person
in the room. He also taught me to take risks
in rehearsals, because they can turn out to be
classic moments that define what the sound
is, and to not be afraid to infuse myself with
the music. I’ve learned so much from him,
it’s hard for me to stop. You and I could be
talking way past dinnertime if I kept going.
Do you find it hard to please big stars,
who sometimes have big egos?
I always stay humble and never let my ego
get in the way of my integrity. At the same
time, my confidence makes them comfortable.
The trick to that is knowing that I’ve done my
homework and researched every element of
their music and their history. They trust me.
I’m not scared to know that my idea is
the right one to go with, and I’m not scared
to get vetoed if they don’t like it, either. If
they want to try something else, I’ll give them
other ideas. I can throw out 15 ideas for a
part, and if they don’t like any of them, I’m
going to have ideas 16–30 on deck.
How important is teamwork and
Having a strong team around me is a huge,
huge part of what I do. If I can’t trust people
around me, whether it be my Pro Tools guy, my
bass tech, or my wife handling all of my loose
ends, I can’t perform to my highest level. I’m
very hands-on, but there are things I can’t do
and things I shouldn’t be doing because they
take away from me being creative, so I have
to pass those tasks along to people that I trust.
And if I hire someone to do something, I have
to trust that they’re on point and doing their
thing. I never have to check on the people
I hire, because I know they’re killing it, and
that allows me to give all of my time to the
artist and make sure they’re satisfied.
The pressure to make last-minute changes
must be intense sometimes.
Last-second changes don’t rattle me.
Nothing can rattle me on a gig. There are
a bunch of different things that separate
me from other people, and some of them
have nothing to do with playing. A lot of
this music game isn’t about skills; there’s
always someone around who can play. It’s
about character, it’s about musical respect,
integrity, and everything that comes with
being a great working musician.
I met Puff [P-Diddy] when we bumped
into each other in the parking lot of CenterStaging,
a rehearsal place in L.A. He said
he was familiar with my work with Kanye
and Jay-Z and that he was going to call me
next week. He called right when he said he
would. It was a Wednesday when we first
spoke, and we ended up doing Saturday
Night Live that Saturday. I get that type of
pressure all the time, and as an MD and bass
player, it’s my job to make it happen. But it
is a gift and a curse, because then the artist
tends to think that you can do it like that all
the time. At the end of the day, though, the
pressure makes it that much more intensified,
and when you succeed, it feels even better.
What advice would you give to a bassist
who wants to be in your position?
Work very hard. Be patient. I’m blessed
to be able to work steadily, but it wasn’t
always like this. Stay humble. When you
finally do get that gig, don’t go playing all
over the artist’s music. And be thankful in the
moment. Always remember that yesterday,
you didn’t have the gig, and tomorrow, you
might not have it, either.
Various Artists, Musical Director, VH1
Divas Celebrates Soul
Jill Scott, Light of the Sun
[Warner Bros., 2011]
Kanye West, VH1 Storytellers (DVD)
[Def Jam, 2010]
Janet Jackson, Live American Idol
Diane Birch, Bible Belt
Al Jarreau, The Very Best of Al Jarreau:
An Excellent Adventure
Al Green, Lay It Down
[Blue Note, 2008]
Kindred the Family Spirit, The Arrival
Jill Scott, VH1 SoulStage
Angie Stone, The Art of Love and War
Musiq (Soulchild), Luvanmusiq
Pharrell & the Yessirs, In My Mind
Jay Z, Fade to Black (DVD)
The Roots, Tipping Point
The Isley Brothers, Taken to the Next Phase
Joss Stone, The Soul Sessions
GROOVES OF STONE
BY CHRIS JISI
Adam Blackstone is a bonafide groove
hero, a plucker who possesses all the established,
under-the-radar intangibles that
“mysteriously” make a track come alive in
realms well beyond a first-rate digital mix.
These groove gifts enable him to pick the
right instrument and tone for each track;
subtly shade the pocket by applying different
feels within the same song (or even
the same phrase); use his jazz training to
insert ear-grabbing drops, and to anticipate—
and reveal—the upcoming chord
before the bar line; and react to everything
else that’s happening inside the track.
Example 1 evokes the main two-bar
riff and the four-bar B section (at 1:35)
of Joss Stone’s “Fell in Love With a Boy.”
With Questlove’s sparse, old-school drumming,
Blackstone is thrust into the subhook
role, first applying greasy phrasing to
the main riff on his ’72 J-Bass through a
Moogerfooger Bass MuRF pedal, and then
channeling Jamerson/Rainey with a passing-
tone syncopation in the last four bars.
Adam advises, “Totally lay back on the two
and four backbeat. The bass sets the pulse
for the track.” Example 2 recalls four bars
of the chorus (at 2:12) of Al Green’s “No
One Like You,” with Blackstone continuing
his melodic ways on a ’69 P-Bass. “My part
was inspired by playing off what the late,
great guitarist Spanky Chalmers was doing
on the track.” Dig Adam’s frequent use of
scoops via hammers or slides. “That’s part
of my style. When I scoop, I arrive on the
beat a little late, which helps on a laid-back
feel like this.”
Example 3 visits Blackstone’s upright
side—namely, the two-bar verse riff of Jill
Scott’s “Rolling Hills,” followed by three
jazzy variations he plays during the track.
Says Adam, who produced and co-wrote
the song and used his miked 1950s Epiphone
acoustic bass, “Jill sang that rhythm to
me and said she wanted an old Ellington,
juke joint vibe, so the upright was a must.
The key here is intonation, because the part
is so exposed and at a ballad tempo.” Finally,
Examples 4a and 4b conjure the power of
the breakdown (2:55) and out chorus (4:04)
of Pharrell & the Yessirs’ “Take It Off.” In Ex.
4a, Blackstone (on his ’69 P-Bass) shows
his comfort with melodic ideas over a wide
sonic range, capped by a cool double-stop.
For Ex. 4b, Adam reveals, “We were playing
more simply over these changes during
the song, so for the vamp out, (keyboardist/
producer) James Poyser asked me to explore
some other melodic options while ‘keeping it
sexy.’ What’s important is to know your harmony
through the upper extensions of the chords,
to add interest and color to your fills.”
“Fell in Love with a Girl” by Jack White Copyright Peppermint Strip Music. All Rights Reserved. “No One Like You” by Chalmers Alford, Adam
Blackstone, Al Green, James Poyser, and Ahmir Thompson Copyright 474 Music, Al Green Music, Inc., Irving Music, and Universal Music Careers. All
Rights Reserved. “Rolling Hills” by Adam Blackstone, Randall Bowland, Wayne McCurdy, Jill Scott, and Eric Wortham II Copyright Blue’s Baby Music,
Smoobie Music, Spanky GHM Music, and Universal Music Corporation. All Rights Reserved. “Take It Off Dime the Lights” by Pharrell L. Williams
Copyright EMI Blackwood Music, Inc. and Songs for Beans. All Rights Reserved.
Basses Epiphone upright bass, ’68 Fender
Precision Bass, ’73 Fender Jazz Bass,
fretless Ibanez Gary Willis 5-string, custom
Ibanez ATK 5-string, Lakland Skyline
55-02 5-string, Performance Guitars
5-string, Stagg electric double bass
Rig Gallien-Krueger Fusion 550, 1001RB,
and MB800 heads; Gallien-Krueger NEO412
and MB110 1x10 cabinets; Avalon U5 DI
Effects EBS Micro Bass, EBS OctoBass,
EBS MultiComp, EBS MultiDrive
Strings Black Diamond Nickel 550 roundwounds,
Black Diamond Chromium flatwounds,
Super Sensitive Red Label double
Synths Korg MS2000, Korg Microkorg,
Korg Triton Extreme, Korg Kronos