Metal bass legend talks about The Guess Who and the state of modern music
Exclusive interview with FBPO’s Jon Liebman
January 18, 2021
Rudy Sarzo definitely has a place among the pantheon of great rock and metal bassists. The Cuban-born musician first made a name for himself in the 1980s playing with Ozzy Osbourne, Quiet Riot, and Whitesnake. Over the years, he’s also worked with the likes of Dio, Blue Öyster Cult, Geoff Tate’s Queensrÿche and Devil City Angels. Currently Sarzo plays bass with the trailblazing rock and roll band, The Guess Who.
FBPO: I can’t believe it’s been eight years since your last interview. Last time, we talked about Ozzie, Randy Rhoads, Dio, Cachao, Chucho Valdés, and a lot more. You must have a lot of very special memories.
RS: Yeah, yeah. Nothing has really been added to those subjects, but a lot of things have happened since. Now I’m playing with The Guess Who. I’ve been with the band over five years now, so that’s my major performing commitment and recording commitment.
FBPO: Does Randy Bachman ever come around?
RS: I do these events every year, except for this past October because of the obvious reasons. It involves some of the people from The Guess Who. And then there’s charity events. Randy Bachman was part of one of the events that we did, I would say about maybe three, four years ago, but that’s about it.
FBPO: What about Burton Cummings? Do his vibes still permeate the band? Is it a friendly thing?
RS: Well, of course. Listen, I grew up a fan of The Guess Who. Randy Bachman left it back in the late ’60s, ’69, right after “American Woman.” That’s a long time ago. And then, they added two guitar players after that and they carried on with songs like, “Share the Land,” which we perform, “Hand Me Down Blues.” So, the band carried on successfully. And then, in the mid ‘70s, Burton Cummings left the band. And so, the band carried on. They, of course, just like every band, eventually, usually the bass player and the drummer get together and form their own version of the band and carry on in some way, which is what happened with The Guess Who. Because what happens is, if you’re a guitar player, singer, songwriter, you can do a solo thing. If you’re the rhythm section, just a rhythm section, it’s kind of hard to keep it going as a solo career, unless you go in the studio, of course. And then, you’re a session musician. Of course, Burton Cummings had a solo career too.
FBPO: Are you recording remotely or doing any kind of virtual performances with The Guess Who?
RS: Not with The Guess Who. We haven’t done any real recording. We’re slowly putting dates back on our calendar as the vaccine shines a light upon us. We have shows booked for this year, but outside of that, no. Our last real scheduled booking was March. We had just finished doing a residency that we do every year at the Epcot Center in Orlando. So, when we started on Wednesday or Thursday, whatever it was, we had a packed house and as the days progressed, they started to announce that the Epcot Center was going to be closed by Sunday. It’s funny because I took photos from the side of the stage, and by the last show, there were like maybe 10 people in the audience. The park was empty, but for some reason, I guess contractual, they asked us to stay on and perform because we’re kind of like an attraction. All the attractions were still open and so were we.
FBPO: When we were talking in your last interview, you were touring with Blue Öyster Cult, and you were working on other projects like Animetal USA with Chris Impelitteri and TRED with Mike Orlando. Does that feel like a long time ago?
RS: Yeah, it does! TRED never became [a thing] outside of our own ears. Nobody ever heard any of our material. It included A.J. Pero as our drummer, and he’s passed away. So at some point, maybe Mike, who’s got the masters, he’s going to release it as a tribute to A.J. because that’s one of the last things A.J. recorded. And he was really playing outside of what he’s known for. I mean, I guess we all were. And so, that will be a really nice tribute to show another side of A.J.’s drumming skills. But yeah, I’ve been recording so many things, doing a whole lot of stuff. And I did play on the latest The Guess Who record. By the time that I joined, officially joined the band, there were a couple of tracks open, so I just jumped in and recorded on two songs. The bulk of it was recorded between Michael Devin, who is the current Whitesnake bass player, and Jim Kale, the original founding member basis of The Guess Who.
FBPO: In your last interview, you said, “I join the band; the band doesn’t join me,” and I’ve always really appreciated that statement. How do you find that balance between remaining true to the original basslines, the ones that were on the records that people know, and being yourself, being a member of the band as it exists now?
RS: That’s a really good question. The older the band, the older the fans. I would say that the fans of The Guess Who are about my age, because I grew up with that music, and so did they, and I just turned 70. But I would say that my musical taste tapped at the year 2000. That was it, grunge. Appreciation for the Seattle sound and grunge and everything that happened in the 2000s was kind of like that was it. I have not gone any further from that. Maybe I’ve gotten deeper into jazz, but that’s not moving forward, that’s going back and expanding. There’s no new musical genre since, in the last 20 years, that has really captivated me or led me to expand my musical vocabulary.
FBPO: What about some of the bass players that emerged during that period? Names like Hadrien Feraud, Federico Malaman, and others. Are they on your radar at all?
RS: Yeah. There’s one, Glécio Nascimento, from Brazil. I don’t know if you ever heard him play. That’s a genre that has always been really dense in harmonic structure and rhythm, the marriage of rhythms and, me being Latino, that’s part of our melting pot of music, which is really interesting. The Afro-Cubans, or what became known as danzón, the evolution of popular music in Cuba, basically dates back to the turn of the last century, going from the 1800s to the 1900s. They still had a horrific treatment of the Africans, but as far as culturally, they really embraced a lot of it. So rhythms, rhythms and religion, the African voodoo, Santería, and all of that became part of the Cuban, Spanish colonial [experience]. Then, of course, then it became a multilayer fabric of our culture. Everything became inclusive, and what happened was … when you had the rhythms of the Afro-Cuban music but the classical music theory melodically intertwined for dancing purposes, they start incorporating something that was high society music, danzón, el danzón, which was very proper. So it was almost like a Caribbean version of the waltz. People dance the waltz in high society and England and Europe. Barbarito Diez was one of the big artists who sang danzón. What happened is this music was developed traditionally back at the turn of the century. But there was no recording equipment of the founding pioneers, of the pioneers of the musical style, so it was handed down through generations. By the time that recording studios became available in Cuba, like in the ‘40s and ‘50s, they started recording these artists. And by then, Barbarito Diez was kind of like one of the most popular ones.
FBPO: When we talked back in 2012, you’d expressed a desire to go back to Cuba. Have you been able to do that?
RS: Oh, no. You know I checked this morning. It’s still a brutal communist regime.
FBPO: There was a time, though, between then and now, where people were allowed to go, so I was just wondering.
RS: Yeah. They’ve been allowed for a long time. It’s been going on for a while, but I got to tell you, when I left Cuba, my family, all of us, we became stateless. We were declared non-Cubans. We lost our nationality. When I joined Ozzy, 1981, I didn’t have a passport because I was not a citizen of any country. I was stateless. The first week, we flew to England. I had no problem getting into England with just a reentry permit, no passport. But when we had to fly to Frankfurt, 1981, they were in the middle of the hijacker [situation]. I wrote about it in my book. I had machine guns pointed at me at customs. They don’t want me entering because I didn’t have a passport, I got a visa. They thought I was going to hijack the plane. It’s a whole story. And then, the promoter got me out of trouble. And as soon as I came back to the United States, I got my citizenship and got my passport. I refused to visit my country of origin as a tourist.
FBPO: Let’s talk more about bass stuff. Tell me about your gear.
RS: Well, since the last time we spoke, I have a couple of new signature models. We have a Spector signature model. I have the first edition of that model, pre-being purchased by Korg. The basses have been available with the Sims pickups. Now they’re introducing a new version of it, a new edition. I’m pretty sure they’ll still keep the Sims pickup model, but this one’s going to have the Fishman Fluence pickups. And they’re both very different, but very forward thinking, very progressive technology-wise. And then I also have my Sawtooth acoustic bass and that one also has Fishman preamp. And that was a beautiful bass. Sounds unbelievable. It was designed from scratch with certain fundamental features that I wanted to bring into the bass. And it’s just an incredible bass. In a nutshell, I wanted an acoustic bass that played like an electric because one of the things that I noticed with every single other acoustic bass that I own, there’s a transition if I pick one to the other. Takes me a couple of songs to get used to playing that tension. It’s a different tension. And this one is just exactly the same tension as an electric bass, on an acoustic bass.
FBPO: What kind of strings do you play?
RS: D’Addarios. Great, great. Very consistent. They’re great and they’re consistently great. Every package, you can trust it, that no string is going to be dead, or they’re going to break on you or anything like that. It’s just perfect.
FBPO: What about amps and effects?
RS: Recently, I discovered the Spark amp. Now, this is in addition to, of course, when I perform live. It’s always an Ampeg SVT. And pedals, I got so many pedals. I mean, anything from Darkglass to Boss. There’s a pedal that I started using called Cali76. It comes very close to the original Cali76 compressor. Excellent, excellent pedal. And, but I like to keep it simple by going back to the Spark. Spark has been really an incredible technology and tool. I mean, because it’s multipurpose. First of all, you can use it as an interface to record with, so I can actually use that. It’s made by Positive Grid, the company that makes all the plug-ins for guitars and bass, whatever.
FBPO: I heard you’re also a big fan of Tech 21 gear.
RS: Yes! I just purchased the Steve Harris pedal, recently. And, yeah, yeah, and there’s the little SansAmp Bass Driver from twenty years ago. That is like the staple of what you must have, as a bass player. Bring it into the studio!
FBPO: I know you’re very passionate about teaching. What advice would you impart to somebody who wants to learn to play bass? What do you think is important?
RS: As a professional bass player, I highly respect the creativity. I have studio musician friends, let’s say, in the case of Steve Lukather, and you can watch him say this in a documentary. He’ll go in to do a session with Berry Gordy. And Berry Gordy would be right on his face and say, “Okay, play something now, spectacular, for this incredible record.” You got to come up with that. It’s not like they’re sending each other MP3s. By the time you go into the studio, you know the track and you already figure out what you’re going to play. And Larry Carlton doing the same thing with Steely Dan. Jay Graydon, all of these musicians. To me, that is really what a studio musician should be, but it’s not. It’s also the guys who sit there with the sheet music and you’ve got to play exactly what the composer or the arranger wrote. Right. And I go like, oh, okay, wow. And I gravitate more towards the guys who have to be put on the spot and be creative because that’s what we are. We’re creative beings. And for a long time, I’ve been playing other people’s visions. I mean, of course, in the case, let’s say I recorded, “Cum On Feel the Noize.” I had never heard the song before. That’s 1983. There’s no YouTube to say, “Hey, what did Slade bass player play on the set?” No, it’s like, here’s the tracks already being recorded. I just rejoined the band. And I got to play on this song. It’s like, okay, I got to come up with something here. Okay. Well, I just finished playing with Ozzy Osbourne, this has nothing to do with Ozzy Osbourne.
FBPO: Change hats.
RS: Yeah, change hats. It’s like, hmmm, well, okay, well. And then, on the spot, I had to come up with that. And that was it. Done. And it’s on record forever. And then I had to play that to promote the record for many years. And then, as time goes on, people want to jam on it and I’m still playing the same part that just was originally I came up with on the spot. Right. Gosh, playing bass.
FBPO: I love it!
RS: You know what I mean? That’s what it’s all about, creation. And then, if that creation is so standing, you won’t be able to recreate. You’re playing it again. That’s like, I mean, for any great recording by any musician, imagine the difference between that and DaVinci was that nobody asked DaVinci to make the Mona Lisa again. “You know the Mona Lisa that you made for the guy down the street?” I want one too. Make me one.” You know what I mean? He didn’t have to do it.
FBPO: Did you ever think you’d be a 70-year-old rocker?
RS: Well, I’m looking forward to being a 90-year-old rocker.
FBPO: Good for you!
RS: What happens is, I see all these guys. We had Chuck Berry, rest in peace, and Little Richard and all these guys. They were rocking, especially Chuck Berry. And now you have Jagger, The Stones and you got The Who, and they’re still doing it. It’s like, yeah, 40 years ago I made a promise to God that as long as my fingers were going to keep moving, I was going to keep playing. And this was me sleeping on the floor, penniless as a starving musician. And that wasn’t kind of like, okay, if you let me move my fingers, I’m going to keep at it. That’s my sign to keep going. [Laughs] I just keep going.
See Jon’s blog with key takeaways from this interview here.
Rudy Sarzo enthusiastically endorses Jon Liebman’s Rock Bass book, available here.