After watching Bobby Vega playing at
a small club, a good friend of mine, a fantastic singer and guitarist I have
the pleasure to work with on occasion, turned to me during a break in the show
and said “You used to be good.”
Pretty much all I could answer was “I
used to think so too!”
Bobby Vega is that good.
“Put-the-bass-away-work-at-the-gas-station” good. He’s so good that his “Bass
Player TV” (http://truefire.com/bptv/) segment
was voted “Favorite” in the Bass Player Magazine Reader’s Poll in 2008 and again in 2009. His wide array of
technique, his ‘human cartoon’ personality, and his deeply funky playing make
him one of the most respected bass players amongst other bassists in the world.
He’s worked with funk pioneers Sly
Stone, Cold Blood, and of course Tower of Power, but he’s also worked with Paul
Butterfield, Lee Oskar, Jefferson Airplane and Starship, Etta James, Joan Baez,
Santana and many others encompassing many different genres of music. As he’s
said; “It’s not a ‘style’; it’s a ‘groove’. And this ain’t a ‘Hobby’, it’s
my whole life.”
This interview was a long time in the
works. Initial Emailed “20 Questions” went by the way-side. As I got to know
him better, the questions changed. As I became his friend, the stories got
better and better. The first part of the interview took place in his car on
Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, the second part, in his office at EMG Pickups in
Santa Rosa. Bobby’s has been a lifetime spent deep in the heart of the Music
Business, and the inherent cynicism usually found there runs headlong into
Bobby’s naturally effervescent personality. He is extremely generous with
anyone who’s curious about his knowledge and experience, but has little time
for those who are just looking to cop his style. “
Bobby is starting what he calls the
‘second phase’ of his life. It’s all about connections, and being visible and
accessible, through education and the benefits of ‘new media’. The way I see
it, the more ‘Bobby’ we all get in our playing and our lives is probably good
First things first; fill us in on your new website, and any other new
projects you have coming up.
I have to get some projects out;
otherwise I’ll be living in the projects!I have a website(www.bobbyvega.com ) I’m going to start putting things
on; I’ll be playing different basses, different gear,answering questions, consulting, lessons, sessions, artist
of the month, Kennan of the month, and “Ask Bob”, hopefully a humorous Q&A
kind of thing. And downloads and music, and people we should know about, other
bass players, other musicians, so their music is available on my web site.
So getting a hold of you for lessons and just in general, that would be through
I’m available for lessons but I have to figure out the right
price point, because of these difficult times.
What kind of stuff are you doing at EMG?
Umm…I’m doing, let’s see…hold on; I’m
going to read the card; “Bobby Vega, clinician, education, promotions.” I don’t
want to let anything out ahead of time because I don’t want it to be a lie, but
that’s what the card states right now. “Read the card!”
Tell me about the X pickups you’re working on with EMG.
They’re the new line.They’re a fast pickup and respond to
your touch. Lots of headroom...very musical…
this shit’s happenin’!
So, there’s three kinds of EMG X pickups you’re working on?
They’re available now; they’re
winding them as were speaking. There are the “JAX Alnico’s”, there’s some
Ceramic JX’s, and the Jazz Vintage JV X’s for Jazz bass. AndPX’s and PJX’s areavailable.
So what are the differences between the three models?
To me, the Alnico’s have a sweet low
end. The JV X’s have ‘rods’ (standard pole pieces), the Alnico’s have ‘bars’.
When a string is in between the magnets (‘rods’), to me, when you bend it, it
gets louder. There’s this kind of motion; it moves in and out of the magnet
field even though you’re in it. With the bar, it’s a different trip. What I dig
is (playing bass with JV X pickups),it has a more dynamic shift you can apply to it than this one does
(playing Alnico X). It can follow you. I want that. See; you can hear
every note and everything is clear and even. You shouldn’t run from that, you
should embrace it, and y’know…’pimp, control you’re…Basses!’ (Laughs)
But, they’re very musical.
That’s the thing; it’s great to have choices, so we can figure out how to use
the bass so it doesn’t use you!
Talking to you in the past, you’ve talked about producing a line of parts
and bridges. Do you still have plans for your own line?
I do, and that’s what I want to start
doing because I think throughout all the years of my experience, I’ve learned
what a lot of things can do, and what they’re used for, and maybe I can help
some people dial in sounds that they want to get to without them having to
sacrifice money and time. It’s a dream, but hopefully, I’ll be able to do that.
You talked about producing; I’m curious as to what kind of producer you
are; ‘floating colored balloons’ or ‘No white food in the control booth’?
It depends on who you’re working
with, and most important is actually the song, if that’s what we’re capturing,
going after a song. It’s almost like having a Christmas tree and hanging ornaments
on it; you see what you’ve got and then start minusing, or see where it needs
help. It might need more on one side, but you’re not trying to fill it up, you
want to make it have some depth. You try to make the person you’re recording
have some dimension or some depth.
How about an Instructional DVD?
I’m going to work on that right away;
that’s going to happen sooner than later. I think that the people that I’m
working with want me to do that first.
Available in October!
Have you thought about the format at all?
Yes, it’s going to be short, to the
point, it’s going to be with a pick, then some stuff with fingers, then some
stuff with thumb; “Pick Fingers Thumb”. I’m going to keep them down where it’s
not a bible, it’s not Alex Haley and “Roots” where it’s so long you want to
slice yourself open. I can’t tell you how much stuff it’s going to be but I’m
going to try to do it so you can have a series of these versus running out of
things, or having too much on one DVD.
What is your Practice Routine like?
I just…start playing. I’ll start out
on a lick, and then I’ll play patterns, and then I’ll play Major and Minor. I
used to play with a lot of different guitar players, and so what happens now,
since they’re not around, now I play their parts. I play my rendition of all
the songs that are all in my head or that I hear, when I practice they all come
out. A lot of people think I’m just wasting my time practicing like that, but
it’s more keeping up the dexterity and fingers and stretching and playing with a
pick versus running scales. I use every finger, and I play chords and I stretch
and work on positions. I know there are a lot of people talking about
metronomes and drum machines, and you know what? Use them all people, drum
machines, metronomes, pigs ducks, frogs, chickens…
There are some strong differences of opinion between strict practice
routines and the ‘just be musical’ crowd.
Whatever works for you! Right now,
it’s like politicians; you don’t have to go vote for anybody. You know; ‘give
me some of that, and some of that. I’m gonna take some Stu, some Jeff, gimme
some Marcus, some Stanley, Brian Bromberg, Duck Dunn, Chuck (Rainey), it’s all
there. You’re not gonna get shot or go to hell. It’s like playing with a pick;
if it doesn’t work for you, don’t do it. I started playing with a pick because
I couldn’t do it with my fingers. I can’t go “Dododododo” with my fingers.
“What is Hip” with my fingers.
And don’t forget a cup of Rocco Jaco
& Larry & Victor too.
How long have you been playing with the pick?
Ever since I started.The guy who really got me was a guy
named Camille D’Coeur who worked at Don Wehr’s Music City, and was a guitar
player. He started when there wasn’t even slinky strings, he used to put Banjo
strings on his Telecaster, so he could bend the strings and stuff. And this guy
was really really really super funky.
Every Bobby Vega story starts with…
(Interrupting) “That mutha…”?
I was going to say “Bobby Vega, played with Sly Stone at 16”.
But what was before that? What brought you to the bass?
It was an accident. I was hanging out
with my friend Denny Widler and Andy Klingler, and Vern James, and I had a
cassette deck that my mother had just bought me from Emporium with “Born on the
Bayou” and my friend Denny Widler said “Man, I play in a band”, and I said “Wow
really? My Uncle has a guitar; would you like to borrow it?” He said “why don’t
you come down and play bass on it?” I said “No, man…” and he said “Why don’t
you come on down?” And that’s how I started. Just like that. I didn’t know what
end was what,or anything. I was
always very interested in playing music, I had wanted to but never…that started
So you jumped in the pool to see if you could swim? Did you take any
I took one lesson, from this bass
player named Dave Dunaway, who was a really great bass
player. It was at Super Music owned by Bruce Day who passed away who played
bass for Pablo Cruz. I went in and said “Well, y’know, say you’re in H, and you
wanted to get to J and W…” and he goes “There’s no H, there’s no J, there’s no
W.” I went “Oh shhii, er…well…what if you want to play “Somebody to Love”? He
took the bass and went “Doodoodoodoodoo…” and I went “Oh
shhii…” and gave him $3.75 and ran out the door, and never took another lesson.
It just terrified me that somebody had that much command and power over the
instrument being that close in a small room. Freaked me out. That was the last
lesson I ever took.
What I did was, I used to hang out at
music stores, and I used to go to concerts, “Soul on Ice” at Winterland with
James Brown, The Black Expos at the Civic Center to see Aretha Franklin, Ray
Charles and all those other people, Sly and the Family Stone used to practice
in our neighborhood, and I just saw a lot of music.
Did you come from a musical family? Was there a lot of music at home?
The way I was brought up, my mother
and father split up when I was a baby. Before kindergarten we went to live with
my grandmother and grandfather, so it’s me, my mother, my two sisters, my aunt,
my uncle, my grandmother, grandfather and my dog in a two bedroom house, in a
black neighborhood. Upstairs, my aunt was a ‘Soul Sister’, so it was all soul
music. Downstairs, my uncle was a surfer, so it was Led Zeppelin, Fat Mattress,
Mott the Hoople, T-Rex, all that, Jimi Hendrix and Blind Faith and all that
stuff. It was the best of both worlds.
I used to go to the Fillmore on
Fridays’, which was the Carousel Ballroom, on Van Ness and Market. On Saturday
I’d get up and go to the Family Dog, which was Chet Helms place, and I’d go
wash the floors, and I’d see soundcheck, and I’d get a pass for Saturday night.
My first really big major concert, rock concert, was Altamont. Altamont
Speedway. The Stones thing.
What were your impressions of Altamont? What do you remember about that?
I remember that when Santana started
playing, all the girls had clothes on, and by the time Santana stopped playing,
all their tops were off. It was like King Kong, very primitive, primal…the
first band that ever had this really primal effect on the audience where
everybody would just be swaying and moving, and the next thing you know clothes
would be coming off and people’d be getting high, with those jungle kind of
rhythms; percussion and the bass, the guitar playing melody lines; it was just
really powerful. It was really cool. Hypnotic.
You’ve worked with some big name artists. What have been some of your
best sideman gigs, who were the best bosses?
You know, I never really looked at
them as ‘bosses’, once you look at them as bosses you’re kind of out of the
gig. You were there because they wanted you to play not because they wanted you
to kiss their ass. So if they were your boss it was kinda “Hey! This is really
nice!” and (brakes squeeling) you’re outta there. I think I was very fortunate
because a lot of people I used to pay to go see I ended up playing with, and
that was really cool. A lot of times the gigs didn’t last a year, the longest I
think I ever stayed with a band was Etta James, and that was like six years.
One of the coolest guys I remember
was Frank Zappa. Ray White got me and Harvey Hughes – he was a drummer – used
to work in Cold Blood, got us an audition with Frank Zappa, and that was really
cool. We flew down to L.A., went to his studio, started playing, played for
about an hour, and Frank goes “Hey man, do you read?” I go “no.” and he goes
“Tell you what; you learn how to read and you got the gig.” But I didn’t think
about learning how to read, and then we ate lunch, he cooked lunch, and he was
just really cool and nice, and then he gave me “Shut Up 'n Play Yer Guitar”, “Shut Up
n’ Play Yer Guitar Some More”, and “Sheik Yerbouti”, and I’d never heard any
Frank Zappa music even before I went down there I didn’t listen to any. I used
to work at a psychedelic poster shop in San Francisco, all I knew about Frank
Zappa was that he was sitting on a toilet, and they took a picture of him. So
when I got home, and I played the albums, I thought “Damn. Did he do this on
purpose?” And that was my Frank Zappa story. I thought he was really cool.
Everybody else, they just stories and
experiences and whether they were cool, good or bad they helped you build
character, and that’s how you get your experience and playing style, because
usually stuff sticks with you after the gigs over, where it permeates and soaks
in. Because while you’re playing the gig, you’re just trying to learn it. You
really don’t have a grasp of it, you’re trying to get it, at least when you’re
starting to develop something. That’s the hardest part of being a sideman is;
how much to go? How much am I supposed to add on to that? Sometimes now, just
to get outside myself, I’ll have a shot of Tequila – not to get drunk – but
just to loosen up and go “fuck it”. But I know the tunes. Now I can get outside
myself and now we can actually play music by having a conversation by waiting
to hear what’s going to happen the next time around.
I wanted to ask you about the Tower of Power gig; what I want to know is,
when you were doing the gig, how much of what you were playing was you, and how
much was Rocco’s stuff?It’s a
pretty iconic ‘bass chair’; how did you approach that?
Scared as a mutha…umm… A long time
ago, when my son was born – he’s thirteen now – I had named him Rocco, because
I didn’t want to name him Jaco because it was too sad a story, and to me, Rocco
is the Power in Tower. You take Rocco out, and there’s no more Power in Tower.
God bless’em all, but that’s the truth. I saw Rocco and said “Rocco, I just had
a baby boy and I named him Rocco.” He goes (raspy voice) “Yeah, I’m really
flattered Bobby, but if you really meant it, man, you’da fuckin’ named him
I’ve always been a big fan of Tower
of Power, I never learned any of their songs, and one day I get a call from
David Garibaldi and he says “Hey Robert, Tower’s looking for a bass player, I’m
gonna put your name in.” I said “Oh. Okay…yeah, alright.” Then Jeff Tamelier
called me up and said “Hey Bobby, Tower’s looking for a bass player and I
recommended you. Why don’t you come in for an audition,” “Oh. Okay.” So anyway,
I had some pictures that I had taken of Rocco, and I asked Jeff to pass them
along to Rocco, and he said “Hey Bobby why don’t you just come down to the
studio?” They were doing “The Oakland Zone”, and they were working at Herbie
Herbert’s Studio. So I went down there. So I go to see Rocco, and he says “Come
on man, walk with me”, so we went down the stairs and he says “Hey man, this
gig’s gonna be really good for you.” I said “What are you talkin’ about?” “I’m fuckin’
sick man, goin’ in the hospital.” I said “Man, I can’t play like you”, and
Rocco said “Yeah, I can’t play like you either.”
The stuff that they gave me to learn
was like, the demos without the horns, for that stuff. Some of it…want to hear
any of this?
(Bobby plays a CD with drums, bass,
guitar, keys, and a scratch vocal.)
How much of the material did you learn? You probably had to re-learn
everything after the horns came in…
I didn’t learn anything! And no
rehearsal! Listen to this;
(A demo track is playing with no
clearly discernable “One”)
(Laughing) The hard part is; where
does the “BooDooDoot” come in? After an hour and fifty minutes…the Matrix is
what it is, and there’s a “BooDooDoot” in…in every box!
How much of what you were playing was dead-on Rocco lines and how much
No! That’s the whole thing, that I
did the feel. Then the note choices, what I did is when I learned a song, I
learned the hook lines of it, and then the feel. Like, every night, Rocco
doesn’t play the same thing in Tower of Power. That’s his band, and he’s
jammin’. It’s his gig. You know what I mean; whoever’s gig that is, it’s
Rocco’s gig. You go to see him, and he’s playing things different ways
depending on how he feels. And yes; there’s a template, but, you never know
where he’s going go. But “BooDooDoot” is gonna be in there!
So I imitated the feel, or the sound.
What I really dug from Tower was “Bump City” and “What is Hip”. So Bump City,
Clean Slate, What is Hip, Soul Vaccination, and Get
Your Feet Back on the Ground. When I heard that, it’s like “Oh sh…!” That
to me was Tower of Power, so I tried to imitate that. That sound and that feel.
Because he’s right. There’s imitators, but you can’t do what he does.If you can get past that point, and
you’re freer, you’ll do a better job.
So what was the step between Rocco taking you aside and saying ‘this gig
will be really good for you’, and you getting the gig? Did you actually play
No! That was one of the weirdest,
outset experiences of my life. I get a call, and David goes “Look Robert,
whoever does the stuff the best is gonna get the gig. So we’re going to send
you some stuff, and you pick out three tunes.” So I said ‘okay’, and I locked
myself in a room for two weeks, eight hours a day. And I learned “Soul with a
Capital S”; the intro song they were doing, “Can’t You See (You’re Doing Me
Wrong)”, and “What is Hip”. So those are the three songs that I auditioned
with, and I learned them with all of the horn parts in mind, and what happens is
that when I went to audition, there wasn’t any horn. I was just…I was sitting
in the control booth with the bass in the center channel with the bass
speakers, and Emilio was there, and Jeff was on the couch over there, and Dave
was in the other room and the keyboard was in the other room and Larry was
kinda singing, and Emilio is looking at me like “Okay go!” In a recording
studio. So there wasn’t drums here and me watching this and then him playing…
Learning the song…you see people on
YouTube all the time playing along with the song, and that’s really great, but
learning them that way, then playing them with a band, then playing them with
THAT band, is a totally different experience. The first time I ever played,
after I finally got the gig, I played my first gig which was at the Greek
Theater in Los Angeles, it was like being put in a slingshot, being pulled back
as far as the slingshot will go and then they let you go and you’re going
‘Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!!!’ Cause, man, they’re not messin’ around. “Three Four
The first gig, we’re on stage…I was
in Canada the night before, with a band I had, so at four o’clock in the
morning I was chasing the promoter, I got the promoter and paid everybody about
5:30, 6:00 in the morning, got a car, went to the airport, from Canada to San
Francisco with my bass, I had gout, so I had a gout boot on and they had to
wheel me around in a wheelchair, from there I went to Los Angeles, hotel, and
then soundcheck at the Greek Theater at One O’clock. That was my first gig with
Tower. So I get to the Greek Theater, andthe gear’s all set up and there’s Rocco’s ‘Workingman’s’ rig, when he
was using SWR stuff, And they’re like ‘Okay go ahead and plug in’ and I get
plugged in and the next thing I know, comin’ in from Stage Left, there’s Rocco.
“Oh shi…I thought, oh” so I get all my stuff down and get out of the way, and
So...I’m going…I’m cryin’…I’m tired,
I’ve been up since forever, and there’s Rocco…so they finish soundcheck, and
Rocco walked away so they said ‘okay Bobby get up there’. So I hopped back up
there, I got my Gout Boot on and I put my stuff back up there playing through
Rocco’s rig, and here we go. Emilio say “Hey Bobby, what do you want to do?”
and I said “I don’t care.”
He says “What do you want to do?” and
I say ‘It doesn’t matter.’
Then he says “Come here. Look, we’ve
done this without a bass player before. It really doesn’t matter. So we can do
this without a bass player.”
I said ‘Oh! Uh, “Soul with a Capital
S!’, and he says “Okay, ready? Horns? Dave, hit it, two three four…” and BAM!
There were no rehearsals. I didn’t rehearse once with them. We’d go over stuff
at sound check, they’d go ‘learn this one’, and then we’d be at the Fair, and
there’s be everyone, eating cotton candy, chewin’ on a pig foot, watching us
practice, run over a tune we were going to do. That was it, that was the only
rehearsal. ‘Okay we’re outta here.’
What kind of tour was it?
They’re family oriented, so they’d be
out for two weeks at the most and then home, so that was good. They work
really, really hard for their money. Man, that’s an hour and fifty minutes of
intense music. The bass and drum chair, you’re constantly shovelin’ coal. You
don’t stop. Even the ballads are intense. If you lose your concentration, you’ll
mess up, and you’ll get the worst ‘stink-eye’! They’re like the R&B
Soprano’s; they’ll kill you just lookin’ at you! But that was the best, the
most prestigious ‘Bass chair’ that I’ve sat in.
The other hard bass chair to sit in
was Jack Cassidy’s bass chair. Jefferson Airplane, or Starship, there’s a lot
of ‘Jack Heads’. With Rocco, it was like Jaco and Victor Bailey (ed. Bailey took over for Jaco in Weather
Report). There was a lot of pressure, a lot of people looking at you. Every
night there were three to five guys sittin’ there goin’ “How come they called
you? You got some big shoes to fill.” I’m like ‘Hey man, I’m not tryin’ to fill
his shoes.’ After the gig some people were like “Wow man, that was great” and
other were like “Hey man you missed a note…” Here! You do it. “You missed the
lick in “James Brown”. An hour and fifty minutes of “BooDoodoot”!
But you had to know that going in!
No! Ididn’t think about any of
that stuff! Because if I thought about it, I wouldn’t have taken the gig I’da
been so nervous. That was the thing not thinking about that stuff, trying to not think about that stuff. It
was hard enough hangin’ with those guys (Tower). That’s a tough room.
But you survived!
Survived-ish! Ish! Rocco came back in four months. I think I helped him get
A Bad Ass thank you to Bobby Vega and also to member Kennan Shaw for
compiling the questions. For the latest on Bobby, please visit...