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