String together the words Sting and bass, and numerous thoughts come to mind: Sting’s reggae-fied super-sub-hooks on Police classics like “Roxanne,” “Walking on the Moon,” “Driven to Tears,” and “Spirits in the Material World.” The bass-led jazzy harmonies on “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic,” “If I Ever Lose My Faith in You,” and “Seven Days.” His upright playing on the video of “Every Breath You Take.” And, the numerous instruments he has wielded live, from his unlined fretless Fender Precision and Ibanez basses, his fretted Spector, and his upright and electric-upright basses with the Police, to the vintage ’57 Fender Precision he has been rocking fingerstyle in recent years. Happily for us bottom dwellers, there’s a new edition of “Sting and bass,” and much of the credit goes to drummer Manu Katché.
Our story unfolds: In early 2021 Sting was recording The Bridge [A&M], his provocative latest effort whose title is a nod to the way the songs connect different characters, cultures, and eras. While working on the song “Captain Bateman,” a nautical, 19th-century tale of love and betrayal, a thought came to mind. He explains: “Sometimes you realize there’s more than one song in a track. There’s another interpretation. I was very fond of Manu’s drumming on ‘Captain Bateman,’ so late one night, I sat with my bass and a microphone, and I improvised a melody with my bass and my vocal over the basic track,” referring to Katché’s drums and Sting’s chord changes played on keyboard by co-producer Martin Kierszenbaum.
The result is a riveting flow of spontaneous melodicism, with wordless vocal matched perfectly to fingerboard choices. It summons the magic of George Benson or Oteil Burbridge, but it’s wholeheartedly Sting in timbre and tonality. He suitably dubbed his creation “Captain Bateman’s Basement,” and he included it as a bonus track on The Bridge. Asked if he ever recorded or performed in this style, he replies, “Not to this extent, no. It’s an interesting color.”
Getting to the specifics, Sting played his circa-2000 fretless tobacco-sunburst Fender Jaco Pastorius Jazz Bass. It was strung with DR Strings Nickel Lo-Riders, and recorded direct through an Avalon or Neve tube preamp. He did one take and made no punches or fixes. He used his favored apoyando fingerstyle technique, plucking with his thumb and index and middle fingers — something he began doing on bass in the ’90s, the result of being a lifelong guitar player and his interest in classical guitar technique. One other note: “Captain Bateman’s Basement” does not match “Captain Bateman” in form, because what Sting recorded to was an earlier version of “Captain Bateman” that contained a modulation, later removed.
The track launches with eight bars of Katché’s percolating groove. Sting begins his improvisation at letter A (the first verse), with a descending line that quickly establishes a few parameters. Given the song’s tonality of B minor (relative to D major) he starts in B minor pentatonic/D major pentatonic territory, staying mostly scalar with his lines. He also generally sings in one-bar phrases, given the need to breathe on the vocal side — always a musical way to go when soloing on bass (or any instrument). Lastly, he seems to have a sense of returning to the root (or an A–B motif, as in bar 16) every eight measures. He allows, “It’s nice to have a pedal to keep going back to, just to define the territory.”
Letter B is the second half of the first verse, and Sting remains in pentatonic terrain, ignoring to this point the enharmonic E major chord (in bars 14 and 22). He again resolves to his A–B motif at the end of letter B (23-24). On the bass side, he slides between a few notes, slides off a few, and does a hammer-on in bar 18 that best approximates his vocal ornamentation in the phrase. Asked if any particular vocalists or fretless bassists influenced his performance, he replies, “Not really, no.”
For the first chorus, at letter C, which moves to the relative major key of D, he retains his pentatonic musings but also steps out. First, it’s with the bluesy F natural against the G chord in bar 27, and then by catching the major third (A#) of the enharmonic (but V of Bm) F# chord in bar 28. He reveals, “That’s simply the way I improvised it. I wasn’t thinking about what scale or mode I was in. I was just having fun! I try not to get Greek about it.” A pretty, descending melodic sequence (the pickup to bar 31 to the beat one of 32) ends the chorus and brings us back to the tonic B.
A modulation arrives for letter D, kicked off by the pickup in bar 32, which most resembles (but doesn’t replicate) the half-verse of letter A. Sting gets creative, first with a bluesy launch (bar 33) to C# minor pentatonic lines, and then by laying way back with his bar-37 phrase. He offers, “You’re telling a story, and it can’t be just relentless notes. There has to be light, shade, rest.” In bars 40–41 he separates his vocal from his bass for the first time, singing the C# while playing the low E and F# underneath.
For the second half of what can be called the second verse, at letter E, we return to B minor, and Sting kicks it off with an ear-catching melody at the end of bar 41 into 42. Tasteful one-bar linear phrases follow, with a vocal-like intervallic jump in bar 46 (always tricky on bass) and a faithful return to the B root in 49.
The second chorus, at letter F begins with Sting’s dramatic high vocal pickup (end of bar 49) into a string of phrases that sit in B minor pentatonic, despite the section’s D major tonality. As before, he catches the 3rd of the enharmonic F# chord (bar 53).
At this point, we break from previous form. Letter G looks like a chorus through its first seven measures, but it extends to a 15-bar section. Sting works a dotted-eighth motif in bars 62, 63, and 65. And in a bass step-out, moment he answers his melodic phrase in bars 68–69 and 71 with 7th-fret harmonics (in bars 70 and 72), outlining the G/A harmony — or perhaps more accurately, Em/A. “I love the harmonics at the 7th fret,” he admits. “They’re particularly resonant.”
As we arrive at letter H, the final, one-chord section, a lot of invention happens. In the first two bars (73–74), Sting finds yet another A–B motif that he will shortly expound upon. But first he enters a six-bar period of theme and development built around the natural 6th of a B minor chord (though enharmonic here): a G#. It begins with the vocal-like interval at the end of bar 74 through the first part of 76. The phrase is then reshaped from the end of bar 76 through the start of 78. Last, it reaches a melodic crest from the end of bar 78 through 79 — listen for the two 16th-notes Sting sings on the downbeat of 79 (not shown), after he plays the G# on bass. He adds, “I’m telling a story here. It has a narrative sense.”
Finally, for the closing eight measures (beginning with the pickup at the end of bar 80), Sting settles on a simple, rooted melody that he first hinted at in bar 73. In between each one-bar phrase, he answers with two ringing harmonics (over the bar lines in 82, 84, and 86) that outline a Bm7 chord, underpinning the last harmonics with a B fundamental in the “basement.”
While it’s not quite the art of singing against a contrapuntal bass line, which Sting has mastered, he still recommends learning the bass part first, slowly and then gradually up to speed, and then learning the matching vocal line the same way, before putting the two together. Listen for how his bass mimics his vocal flourishes and expressions. Once you’re comfortable, don’t hesitate to add your own interpretation, both vocally and on your fingerboard. And have fun getting the two voices to correspond.
Download the complete transcription: HERE
Special thanks to Stevie Glasgow for his help with this story.