Bruce Hall

A quarter century with REO Speedwagon
A quarter century with REO Speedwagon

It has been more than 25 years since bassist Bruce Hall ascended to the low-end stringed instrument position in the platinum-selling band REO Speedwagon. He’d played in other bands that shared venues in earlier times, but it helped that Hall was born and raised in the college duo-burg of Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, where REO got its start.

Hall is still holding down the low-end for the legendary band, which has seen other personnel changes since he joined in the late ’70s. We recently caught up with Hall to discuss where REO Speedwagon has been and where it’s going.

Vintage Guitar: Did growing up in a college town give you a different perspective concerning pop music, considering the clubs, fraternity parties, etc.?
Bruce Hall: Sure. I played those places. I started playing when I was 13, when I had a little band called Purple Haze. We played all the fraternities, the Red Lion, the Brown Jug, the Chances R. It was really a great way to grow up; that town was really special. Chicago had a huge music scene, and in Champaign/Urbana, there were lots of bands from when I was growing up until I left.

Were you a bassist from the get-go, or a converted guitarist?
I learned how to play guitar first, but I got into bass because our first bass player was only in the band for a couple of months. My first bass was a Paul McCartney-type Höfner.

What was your first guitar?
It belonged to my uncle, Lyle, who’d passed away. His guitar was left with my grandmother, and I asked if I could use it to learn. It was a Harmony. I remember what it looked like, but I couldn’t tell you the model.

Was it an acoustic or electric?
Actually, she had both. I tried the acoustic first, and the strings were so high, my fingers were a mess (chuckles).

Once you settled into playing bass, what kind of amp did you run the Höfner through?
One of the members of Purple Haze was Dick Harney, and his father was the manager of a local music store, and the day of a performance he’d let us pick out Kustom bass amps, Fender guitar amps, even Standel equipment. We’d get amps, microphones, and PA gear, and another employee, Gary Henderson, would drive us to gigs in the store’s van. All we had to do was display a sign that said the gear was “…courtesy of Emerson’s Music.” That was a great deal for us!

You also played with (longtime REO Speedwagon guitarist) Gary Richrath (VG, February/March ’93) in a pre-REO band called Feather Train…
Gary was from Peoria, and had been playing in a band called Suburban Nine-to-Five. Feather Train had already been a group for a little while when he came to Champaign, and we had an opening for a guitar player. Gary showed up with his Marshalls and his Les Pauls, and proceeded to just wail. He only played with us for a short time, but he and I really hit it off.

In Feather Train, I was using a Fender Bassman and a Fender Jazz Bass. It was about a ’65, and it was my first “experimental” bass (chuckles). I did all kinds of things to it, and I still have it. I gave it to Gary one time, and he sanded it down and painted it light green. Another time, I yanked the frets out.

There was an opening for the lead player slot in REO Speedwagon, and Gary was a different guitar player from most of the kids in Champaign. He was more into Jeff Beck and Clapton, so he’d turn up the volume a little more. And he was so fast, too! Most of us were still copying things off of records, and Gary was already writing songs. He was looking for more of a rock and roll band, and Feather Train had three lead singers; we were kind of like Three Dog Night.

Did Feather Train do any circuit work?
Most of the time, we played at the Brown Jug. None of the bands in town had a record deal, but we played in a regional area. At that time, we had a great booking agency in Champaign called Blytham; Irving Azoff was one of the guys who ran the place, and my current manager also worked there. So we played a lot; we didn’t have to work day jobs, because we could just about work seven nights a week. We’d go to Chicago, Wisconsin, Indiana… nearby places like Decatur and Rantoul. When we played the airman’s club at Chanute (Air Force Base), guys would tell us, “My hair used to be down to here” (laughs)! We played there all the time.

Do you play with fingers or a pick?
I do a little of both. Paul McCartney was an influence, of course, then Berry Oakley, Donald “Duck” Dunn. I tried to pick a lot of (James) Jamerson parts, but that guy was so good and so different it was hard for a little white boy to figure him out! I learned off of records a lot; whatever sounded good, I tried to incorporate, or at least learn it.

Was Richrath the connection to your joining REO?
Well, those guys were from the same town I grew up in, so I knew them before Gary came along. We had the same booking agency, but we didn’t play too many shows together. A friend of mine, Mike Murphy, had joined the band as the singer for a couple of albums, and they did a couple of my songs before I was even in the band. And Kevin (Cronin) and I became friends before I joined, so I could kind of see why they thought about me when they had an opening for the bass position.

Which would have happened around the time the live album came out.
Right. In fact, they’d recorded it, and when they asked me to join, they were still mixing it. Gary and Kevin were working on final edits, and they’d come to rehearsal, which is where I’d meet them. It was a pretty busy time.

The lineup of Cronin, Richrath, (drummer) Alan Gratzer, (keyboardist) Neal Doughty, and you recorded many hit albums and singles. What were some of your more memorable gigs?
I remember St. Louis during the Hi Infidelity tour. We sold out Busch Stadium; broke the attendance record set by the Beatles. In fact, we broke a lot of attendance records during that tour.

Then there was Live Aid, which was great. We’d played the night before, and we had to play kind of early in the morning in Philadelphia. I remember the Beach Boys singing with us on “Roll With The Changes,” and Paul Shaffer played with us. The stadium was packed; it was fun, but it was quick.

What were you using during the days of platinum albums?
I was using some Fender Precisions, made around ’57. I still have them, but I don’t take them on the road anymore. I used Trace Elliot amplifiers.

These days, I use a ’65 Fender Jazz I call “Butter.” She’s got a great history. I bought her when I was about 17 from Greg Philbin, when he was the bass player for REO. He had sanded her down; I don’t know what color she was originally, but he did a nice job. The wood looks nice. One night, I accidentally left it in the equipment van; it was winter, so all these cracks came through the varnish… but it looks cool.

I take her down to the Fender Custom Shop once or twice a year; they help me take good care of her. I’ve also got a Relic bass; I don’t mind having an instrument that looks used but not torn up. I have four Precisions and two Jazz Basses on the road.

Any other brands and models you’ve used over the years?
Sure. There was a time in the late ’80s when I got into active pickups, so I used Steinbergers with EMGs for a while. Then I found Spector; in fact, when Dave (Amato) joined the band, he turned me on to that brand. Stuart (Spector) set me up right; I got a five-string and a couple of four-strings.

Then Dave talked me into putting active EMGs into Butter. He said it was a great bass, and that I really ought to bring it out on the road, and I thought, “In order for me to get the sound I really want, I need to swap out the pickups.” So I did. I’ve still got the old pickups, for whenever I need to convert her back… if and when that time comes.

I basically use the old ’57 Precisions in the studio. I’ve got one with flatwounds and one with roundwounds.

What’s your perspective on the ’80s term “arena rock,” which was usually applied to REO, Styx, Journey, and Foreigner? It wasn’t usually complimentary…
I’ve never understood the term. And to tell you the truth, I’m glad I was there. We were coming out of the disco thing, and they said we were “faceless corporate rock,” all kinds of stuff. We were just trying hard to be good at what we were doing. And there were a lot of people coming out to the shows, for sure.

All of those bands had songs on the radio, and we all sounded totally different from each other. I guess writers just grouped us together because we all happened to be popular at the same time.

I need to inquire about Richrath’s departure and Amato joining.
Well, I love Gary like a brother. I don’t see him as often as I used to, but I hear he’s doing well. He left pretty suddenly, and it was hard to take at first.

Dave is an amazing player. He’s got an upbeat personality; a lot of times guitar players are kinda “me, me” (chuckles). Maybe that’s because a lot times they’re prominent songwriters in the band, and they want their music done in a certain way. They have a lot of ideas about how they want parts to be done. But Dave’s from a different school. He’s a wonderful guy, and can play almost any style.

Studio albums since Amato has been onboard?
We did Earth, A Small Man, His Dog & A Chicken, and Building the Bridge. If the Earth album had been titled something else … (laughs) it probably would have done well. The songs were really good, and I thought the record turned out great, but it never really got much of a chance. It was a time in our career when the record companies were going through a lot of turmoil, so they didn’t put a big push on it.

Building the Bridge was a different record for us because we decided we were fed up with the way we were being treated by the major companies. So we piled our money together and did the album on our own dime. We did a lot of the tracks at Oceanways [Studios] in L.A., and did vocals and some overdubs at Kevin’s studio.

You’ve also done live albums with Styx, including mutual jam sessions. What’s your perspective, as an REO member?
Even though Styx and REO are from the same state, we’d never really worked together. So we decided to tour together, and we had a great time. The kids who came to see us had a ball, too. So we kinda looked at each other and said, “We gotta record this!” We decided to do it in St. Louis – that’s why it’s called Arch Allies – and both bands did their sets, so that’s how it was released. Then we split if off into our own separate thing, after about a year; our album is called Plus, which includes a couple of extra things that weren’t on Arch Allies.

Any new recordings in the works?
Well, right now we’re working a lot. We know that these days it’s hard for older, established groups like us and maybe even Styx to put out records; there’s not a lot of “push” from the labels or radio. But it’s in our blood; we keep creating songs, and we want to do something with them. We work on songs at soundcheck, and everybody still likes writing.

A lot of veteran bands are playing summer circuits, casinos, etc…
We do those, of course, as well as state fairs. Those are good gigs for bands like ours. I mean, after all these years, what are we supposed to do with ourselves (laughs)?

To what extent are those gigs a nostalgia trip for the bands and their fans?
Well, classic rock radio loves to play the older songs. But it’s not just people our age who come to our shows. There are lots of young kids showing up, which is amazing and wonderful. Sometimes they come with their parents, but sometimes they listen to the classic rock stations themselves, and they’re singing along with everybody else! The business of rock and roll is still going… even for us ’80s “arena rock” bands (laughs)! And we don’t have any reason not to continue doing this.

Photo: Rick Gould.

This article originally appeared in VG‘s Aug. ’03 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.