Greg Rzab

Greg Rzab

On a warm summer’s night fifteen years ago, I met Greg Rzab for the first time. I sat on his backporch steps and listened to this 19-year-old kid play a solo on an old Fender fretless Jazz Bass. His hands moved like lightning across the fingerboard. Each note he played was focused and packed a punch that rattled every window in the neighborhood. I thought to myself, “This kid is going to make it big, someday.”

Since 1986, Greg has been the mainstay in the band of blues legend Buddy Guy. Greg’s performances on Guy’s 1991 Damn Right, I Got the Blues and 1993’s Feels Like Rain helped each album win a Grammy for “Best Blues Album.” Greg also performed on Otis Rush’s album, Ain’t Enough Coming In which was nominated for a 1994 Grammy in the same category. Downbeat magazine just awarded Guy and his band “Best Blues Album” honors for Slippin’ In. Greg has also performed with Jeff Beck, Bonnie Raitt, Eric Johnson, Stevie Ray and Jimmy Vaughan, Mark Knopfler and Eric Clapton.

Who would have thought that fifteen years later the two of us would be sitting on my back porch doing this interview.

Vintage Guitar: Are you self-taught, or did you have some trainingr? Do you sight read?

Greg Rzab: Mostly self taught. Years ago, I took a few lessons from a guy named Greg Gohde. I’m a bit rusty [sight reading], but chord charts are no problem.

Who were some of your big influences?

Marcus Miller, Abe Laboriel, Jaco Pastorius, Bootsy Collins, Larry Graham, Will Lee and Alphonso Johnson.

Do you remember your first bass?

A Univox copy of a P-bass, and then I bought a Ric 4001. After that I bought that Fender Fretless Jazz Bass and a ’55 P Bass.

Do you still have the two Fenders?

Not those particular basses, but I have others in my collection. A few years ago I purchased a 1960 stacked-knob Jazz Bass that belonged to Jaco Pastorius.

Did you get it while Jaco was still alive or was it from his estate?

His estate. A friend called and told me that the Pastorius family was planning to put the bass on the market.

Is there a big worn mark where Jaco’s thumb used to rest?

Yes, a big one. He almost wore a hole in this one. It was evident to me that he played this bass quite a bit.

Jaco had four or five basses, didn’t he?

From what I’ve head, he had a lot of Jazz Basses. I’m not sure how many. He had the one I own now, a couple of fretless basses and a blonde bass that he is pictured with on the Invitation album. In the documentation from his family, it states that this is the last Jazz Bass he played.

Do you play it much?

I used it recently during a live show and in the studio during Buddy’s last record, Slippin’ In, but now it’s safe and sound in a vault.

Is Jaco’s bass all original?

All original down to the wiring. I even saved the strings that came with it when I bought it.

Would you ever consider parting with it?

Maybe, but the price would have to be right. It would have to be a great deal before I would part with it.

Let’s talk about the last ten years with Buddy Guy. That is a long time to work with the same act. Is it hard to keep things from becoming monotonous?

Not at all. We never rehearse. When we were in the studio, we would talk about what we wanted to do, and then just rolled the tape. We did a television show for the BBC with Eric Clapton in 1987. We talked about the chord changes and then they rolled the cameras in and we did the show. That’s about as much rehearsal as we’ve ever had. With Buddy we never do the same show twice. There are no set lists. Buddy starts and we join in. We find the key, get the groove and take off. After ten years of working with Buddy, I can follow him, but he always surprises me. The spontaneity works great. We’re always fresh.

How did you get this gig?

I was playing with Otis Rush. After a show one night, Buddy came up to me and asked me to join his band.

Do you get a chance to show off your chops?

Oh yeah. They all walk off the stage and let me solo for a bit.

So, for the time being you’re content with your current gig?

Yeah. Buddy is a great musician and I really enjoy playing with him. The only thing is that I’ve been doing it for so long that I’m known in the business as “Buddy’s bassist.” People don’t know about the rest of it.

Do you think that might keep some guys from asking you to join them?

It could be out of respect for Buddy that other artists shy away from asking me to do other projects.

Maybe they’re afraid of waking up with a sawed-off headstock in their bed?

Maybe, but that’s not the case with Buddy. When I auditioned for the Stones, Buddy was really proud of me.

How did the Stones audition come about?

Good question. I really don’t know how they knew about me. Mick and Keith compiled a list of bassists they wanted to audition for the Voodoo Lounge tour. They called about two dozen guys to come and play for them. Each one of us had a closed audition. The most difficult part was that I was leaving to go overseas on tour with Buddy. I had one day off after a European date, so I took a thirteen hour flight back to New York City to do the audition. They had a limo pick me up at the airport and they put me up in The Helmsley Palace.

How was the audition?

It was great! It was The Rolling Stones!

Did you know all of their catalog?

It was almost like playing all of Hot Rocks. Mick asked what songs I knew. I told him that I wasn’t too up on most of their stuff, so he called out “Brown Sugar.” I was pretty nervous, and I generally don’t get that way. After we got started, they closed all the doors of the studio so that it was just me, Mick, Keith, Charlie and Ron. They had video cameras and sound recording equipment all set up. Once they started I couldn’t believe how tight they were like a machine. It was a great experience for me. Charlie Watts is a great drummer. He keeps perfect time.

They ended up choosing Darryl. Any hard feelings?

No hard feelings at all, but I really wanted that gig because they are such good people and I had a great time with them. We opened several shows for the Stones, including Vegas and the Rose Bowl.

Maybe something better will come along.

Better than the Stones? That will be hard.

You just returned from the West Coast. Were you on tour?

No, I was just visiting a friend. We went to hear Larry Graham from Sly Stone’s old band. This guy started all that thumb thumping bass funk back in the late Sixties. What a show? The guy has such a great sound.

Can we talk about Stevie Ray’s last show?

Yeah. Nathan East offered me a chance to sit in with Eric and Buddy, which was really gracious on his part. I flew up with Buddy and Eric in the helicopter. Me, Buddy, Jimmy Vaughan, Stevie and Eric were back in Eric’s private suite after the show. We were just sitting around talking when Eric’s manager came in and told us that it was time to go. I went to climb into Clapton’s copter but all the seats were taken, so Eric asked one of the guys to get out and let me ride with them. There were four copters. We were in the last one that took off. When we landed in Chicago, we had no idea what had happened.

When did you find out what happened?

At 6:30 the next morning; my mother called. She said that she was so happy to hear my voice. She told me that the news had broadcast that Clapton was killed in a helicopter crash the night before. I started making a few calls and found out that it was Stevie. I was so freaked out.

Did you know Stevie?

Yeah, I did. He was one of the coolest guys in this business. He was all cleaned up and playing so well so sharp and so focused. I spent most of the day of the concert in Stevie’s dressing room. He was so relaxed. Me, Buddy and Clapton were at the side of the stage after Stevie finished his set that night. He smoked ’em! Clapton looked over at us and asked Buddy, “How can I follow that.” Buddy told him he couldn’t, so he should just get out there and be himself.

You mean Stevie played better that Clapton that night?

Better than anyone, I was with Stevie the night Clapton played at the Palace of Auburn Hills in Michigan. Eric invited Stevie on stage. Eric handed Stevie his green Strat. Stevie plugged it in, and in one note Stevie’s personality cut through the band. He cut through the equipment and smoked the place. He was one with his guitar, and there was no mistaking his sound.

People haven’t forgotten him.

No, they haven’t. He’s as big, or bigger, now than when he was alive. I’ve seen guys all over the world trying to copy his act. You know, the cowboy hat and an old beat-up Strat. They try, but none of them comes close to his style. He had such a distinctive sound. The other guy like that is Carlos [Santana]. If you turn on a radio anywhere and hear a few notes from him, you know it’s Carlos.

There are a lot of jazz players like that.

Oh yeah, Wes Montgomery, Metheny, Miles.

You’ve worked with Jeff Beck, haven’t you?

How’d you know that?

Jeff mentioned you to Les Paul the last time they got together.

Yeah. What a player! Unbelievable! He doesn’t use a pick anymore and the trem on his tailpiece is an extension of his hand. The sound just flows out of him. It was a real good session. A while back, Jeff had Little Richard autograph his green Strat using a screwdriver. So before we got started, I asked him to carve his name into my bass. I had a great time recording with Jeff.

What are your main basses these days?

I play a Lakland and my old Jazz basses.

Do you prefer an active instrument over Pre-CBS Fenders?

No, not necessarily. However, I have been using my Lakland almost exclusively live. I like having more tonal control at my fingertips. I’ve tried many active basses during my career, but I found most to be too mechanical or electronic sounding. The Lakland is different. It offers a lot of variety and yet it still sounds natural to me. It is also very well made, balances nicely, and the neck was easy to get used to, like my old Fenders.

What other basses do you have?

I have two Laklands, Jaco’s Jazz Bass, a ’62 sunburst Jazz Bass, a ’60 Jazz Bass, a ’69 P-Bass with a neck made by Kubicki and a ’61 stacked knob Jazz Bass that belonged to Dee Murray. He used it on the Yellow Brick Road tour with Elton John.

I heard you ran into John Entwistle on the West Coast.

We played at The House of Blues on the Sunset Strip. After the show, I was sitting around in the dressing room when this huge bodyguard came in and asked if I was the bass player. He said someone wanted to meet me. So I got up and went with this guy. We walked into this VIP room, and John was standing in the corner. The bodyguard told him I was the bass player. I stuck out my hand and introduced myself. Entwistle grabbed my hand and started twisting it behind his back. I said, “John, can I have my arm back?” He said, “No way.” Jokingly, he tried to bite my arm and said, “You play too good. I’m going to break your f—–g arm.”

You’re fortunate that you are playing in a Blues band at a time when that sound is so widely accepted. Years ago guys did what you are doing for $25 a week.

I was one of them. There were a lot of lean years, and it’s just starting to come around now.

So, what’s next for you?

I like the gig I have now, but I would like to get into something else. I like to play everything and I listen to everything. I’ll entertain all offers.

Thanks for sitting down and talking with me.

Any time.

Greg with his brand new Lakland Bass.

This article originally appeared in VG‘s May ’96 issue.