Ace of Bass
Admittedly that is a cheesy headline, however in the case of Rob Trujillo, it is also kinda true. Steffan Chirazi speaks with him about the tools of his trade from childhood to WorldWired. Brett Murray films the love.
It always feels like there’ll be more time pre-show than there ever is, and a long travel delay coming into Birmingham, Alabama did not aide our cause in sitting down and having a bit of a bassline chat with Rob Trujillo. First, it appeared as though time would be too tight. Then the room designated for our chat suddenly became occupied. Fear not. The Tour Office crew (aka Eric Johnson, Brie Gentry, and Marc Reiter) graciously allowed us to gate-crash and RT carved the necessary minutes to chat about those four-string friends. Let’s waste no more time and just get into it…
SC: Let’s start with you telling us about the first bass you ever got hold of as a youth.
RT: The first bass I ever had was a Harmony hollow body bass with action off the neck. Action is the spacing between your string and the fret board. It didn’t work through an amp, but because it was a hollow body, I could hear it, so I worked on that for about a year, meaning scales and finger exercises. And I had a Fender copy with these coated, like rubber coated bass strings and that didn’t work through an amp. So most of my basses in the first couple years for whatever reason didn’t work through an amplifier. So I had to really earn that real bass. My first real bass was a Fender copy, and it would’ve been a P-Bass. And then there was a Jazz Bass. My first really good bass was an Ibanez Musician Bass and that’s the one where I actually started playing out in clubs and stuff with that bass.
SC: So you weren’t brand-driven when you were first starting to play? You weren’t, like, “Oh, I’ve seen such-and-such play a Fender, I’m gonna go for Fender.” You were going for what you could afford?
RT: I got what I could afford, and my dad and I used to refinish bits of equipment. So we’d buy an amp for 50 bucks that was ugly looking, and because my dad was a carpenter and had knowledge in construction and carpentry, we would redo the upholstery and make it look really fresh and new. And then we would trade it in for a better piece of equipment, so we’d get something really cheap, refinish it, and trade. We refinished a couple basses that were also non-working, but they looked great because we had stripped the paint off of ’em, stained ’em, and then we would trade that for another instrument. And usually that other instrument would’ve been like the Fender copy, the P-Bass copy or the Jazz Bass copy. At one point I even had a Gibson SG Bass but again, it was a copy. Didn’t sound great, was a pretty cheap instrument, but it worked good enough at the time, you know?
SC: Where were you picking these up from, the classifieds?
RT: Most of my basses were hand me downs at first, but it was a music shop in our neighborhood called Betty’s Music [where Rob first bought a bass – ED], and Betty’s was where Suicidal Tendencies first rehearsed and had been there forever, probably since the ’50s. I remember she’d [Betty] always say, “I’ll give you a good deal, honey.” She was from Alabama or somewhere originally, and all the local musicians from the West Side used to somehow end up at Betty’s either rehearsing or purchasing their gear. That was a couple steps down from Guitar Center, but you know, it was always interesting. It was really like a hoarder’s place, kind of a venue in the neighborhood. Very dusty and you know, God knows what you’d find behind those amps!!!
SC: That’s great.
RT: Couple dead mice, whatever, you know. But that’s where I started getting my gear and actually doing the “trade” thing. Because she would actually trade, you know. You couldn’t get a trade with some of these other places, they were too good, but you could wheel and deal with her. And that was good because she was helping us out in a way. She didn’t need to do that. She wasn’t really making a profit, so Betty was really helping the kids out.
SC: Very cool...moving forward, what did you buy with your first significant pay packet or amount of cash that you had in your pocket? When was that, what was it you got, and how much?
RT: Well, I was 19 when I bought an amp which was a legitimate amp and I wish I’d kept it. It was an Ampeg SVT and it was split cabinet, so it was ten-inch speakers and there were eight of ’em. Should have been in a refrigerator cabinet, so one cabinet would’ve split into two. And the amp was 100lbs, maybe 90, super heavy. I lived in an apartment building, so it was hard lugging that thing up the stairs, but it was a great amp. I purchased it for $300, which is pretty much nothing today, and I got that money from the sale of a $300 amp I had which became a $900 amp after [me and my ad] fixed it up. I didn’t realize how great it was till later in life when I actually now play Ampegs. But was so ugly, you know, it was just really an ugly amp. We refinished it with tweed material, [like] a potato sack. It looked crazy but cool, and I traded that for the Ibanez bass, which was my first real instrument, and then a Peavey amplifier which was brand new. Sounded horrible but it looked really cool, so that was my first real rig.
SC: Was this through Betty’s?
RT: I sold the [fixed up amp] in the Recycler [the same Recycler in which Lars placed the ad which James responded to when Metallica was founded! – ED]. I couldn’t go to Betty’s, I mean could do the small things with Betty’s, but I had to go into the Guitar Center or one of these places back then, a Nadine’s Music, which is where I actually did the deal. Nadine’s would only do cash for those little hood rat amps.
SC: Right. At what point did you settle on a brand of bass that you enjoyed playing for a while, what was that brand, and talk us through why.
RT: When I started touring with Suicidal Tendencies, I started playing a Tobias. How the Tobias came to be was I had that Ibanez bass I told you about, which was my first real bass, I got bored with the way it looked, and I cut it up and made it look kinda like what would’ve been the “hip” bass at the time. I can’t think of the name right now, but there was a certain bass that had an L shape and I wanted it to look like that. Worst thing I could’ve ever done! I cut it up, gave it a new paint job, and two days after it was finished, I went to a bar to play [Brennan’s Pub – ED], left it in the corner, and someone stole it. So all I had was a fretless, and I played fretless for a year, and it was a nice custom Music Man fretless that I had at the time. It was a blessing in disguise because my friend Steve McGrath, who now plays with Billy Idol, was already playing five-strings and he was playing Tobias. Tobias was located in Hollywood at the time, they were a custom shop and he said, “We’re gonna get you a custom five-string.” They were beautiful. These were expensive basses. And I ordered my first real Tobias custom bass at that time because he felt bad for me and he goes, we’re gonna get you something good. So I got the Tobias. It took me forever to pay for, a year. Rocky George, the guitar player from Suicidal Tendencies who I’d gone to high school with, actually loaned me the money to finally bring it home, because I had been making payments here and there over the course of a year and finally he was just like, “Here, dude, I’ll loan you the, your last 500 bucks,” or whatever I was at. So thank you, Rocky.
SC: That’s great.
RT: So I got that five-string and I kid you not, within a week or two, the person who stole the [L shaped] bass brought the bass back to the club where they stole it, and I got my bass back!
SC: Wow. Holy shit.
RT: Crazy story, right? The dude that originally stole the bass left me a note, and it read that he had found God and decided that the right thing to by the Lord was bring the bass back to the bar from where he stole it. Brennan’s Pub! And it was basically untouched when I opened the case, still like new! So I ended up getting a new bass, the five-string Tobias and I ended up getting my custom bass back. So I got everything back.
SC: Do you still have them?
RT: Yes. Both.
SC: And I gotta ask you, we’re jumping around a little bit, but do you ever pull them out?
RT: Yeah. I showed the L-shaped bass to Geddy Lee. We did an interview for his magazine, and he had a similar thing where he cut a bass and painted it blue too. He showed me his bass; his bass looked really cool. It was kinda similar in that like gold hardware, whammy bar, like all these weird things I added to mine, he did similar where he made it kind of… blingy, I guess you could say? Like [it] would’ve been one of Liberace’s basses at the time!!!
SC: Do you think it’ll ever come out on tour [today]?
RT: Never. It sounds horrible, it’s horrendous. But the other bass, the Tobias, the blue one, might be in the museum because it was the bass I used with Suicidal Tendencies and Infectious Grooves.
SC: Okay, so moving through the eras, where do you go from Tobias?
RT: So Tobias split up and got bought by Gibson, so the luthiers from Tobias ended up at a place called Fernandes. Fernandes made me basses for a couple years by those same luthiers from Tobias. Then they all split off and I basically needed a new company. I started checking out different brands and…Warwick! Comfort, sound, power, commitment. I found that Warwick was very accommodating, and they were really, truly passionate to the craft. Others were, don’t get me wrong, but [Warwick] could also accommodate the need for the amount of basses that we had to take on the road at the time. This was 2003, we’re going on this big tour and we need instruments for the multiple sets that are going out. A set goes to Europe, another one goes down to Asia, another to the States. And Warwick could do that.
Then after a couple years they really got the type of bass I wanted down. It took a little while, but there’s comfort and there’s sound. I use different electronics than what other people might use, very specific that I like. Everybody’s got their thing. Every bass player has something they like.
SC: What’s the unique element of your electronics?
RT: Well, they’re very consistent and I use EMG’s which are very powerful sounding. They go really well with the attack that I have. But when I did the Jerry Cantrell album [Degradation Trip] I didn’t use any of the Warwicks. I wasn’t with Warwick at that time, so I was mainly using Fenders for Jerry’s record. And I had a red Tobias which was the main bass in terms of the active electronics for the heavier stuff. So you play around with the stuff, and each bass has a personality. And when we record bass in the studio these days with our producer, Greg Fidelman, we’ll do like the taste test, the blindfold test but we do it with sound. We’ll get six different basses, and there’s no favoritism. They could be a couple Fenders, a couple vintage, a couple of five-strings, four-strings, whatever, and then we listen to see what sounds best. Then there’s a winner, and the winner appears on the song. And sometimes you’re very surprised at what the winner is. And the winners this time were… I’ll just say they were some of the newer instruments. We’re talking about Greg who’s very old school. He’s gonna lean more towards the vintage instruments or particular classic brands. And again, I’m always pushing for the classics. It just depends on the song and the personality of the song.
SC: So that speaks well for Warwick, then, they’re making newer instruments that sound deep. They’re hitting the mark.
RT: They did hit the mark on that last record.
SC: So the personality thing is something I’ve always been intrigued with. When you play live, are there certain basses where it’s like, “Fuck, if this bass isn’t ready for this song I’m screwed”? Bring us into that world.
RT: You get to know an instrument. Like this bass here [the Tobias 5-string Aztec De La Chloe bass, see video – ED] is a great bass for “The Day That Never Comes.” This design here is Chloe Trujillo all the way, my wife, etched with an Aztec theme. We started experimenting with some of her art on some of my instruments and we have a lot of fun with that. But this bass sorta always seems to turn up on those more dynamic kinda songs. You’ll find that the character or the personality or the sound of an instrument really caters to certain types of songs. So “The Day That Never Comes” is a bit of a wild ride, similar to “…Sanitarium,” you know? This bass also had a strong presence in the Through the Never movie and you know, it looks great, but it also sounds great and feels great. It’s a very consistent instrument.
You can make anything work, but if you have the choice, you’re gonna go with a preference always. Someone’s gonna go, “You wanna play this or this?” You’re gonna go, “I’m playing that one.” That’s how we’re wired. I think every musician does that.
SC: So let me ask you if we can, just on an average set on this tour, I mean just for the readers, how many basses are you playing? What are their names, and what characteristics do they each hold for you?
RT: Well, I can’t get into all that because there’s too many, but the Flamethrower [and] the Aztec basses are the most popular. The Flamethrower is a Nash P-Bass. It was in a fire in state of Washington, not sure of the exact city, but it was actually in a fire. Bill Nash [owner and brain behind Nash Guitars who has also made guitars for James and knows his way around a pun – ED] asked if we were interested in this instrument. Most people would not be interested in an instrument that was burnt up and thrashed in a fire. We were like, yes. And we wired that puppy up, put all the right electronics in there and it feels great, sounds great. And it looks amazing. So Flamethrower rules.
SC: So that’s one of the ones you look forward to playing with most?
RT: Yeah, that one usually I’m gonna play for “Creeping Death,” some of the more old school tracks.
SC: Let’s talk about the Rickenbacker for a minute. That hasn’t appeared very much but was at the Chris Cornell show, we should say.
RT: The Rickenbacker looks really cool. Tried it out about ten years ago. We did our own custom thing to it and for some reason at that time it didn’t sound amazing onstage. And we decided to bring it back again. Some of the Soundgarden stuff tends to be a lower register. This bass was set up to handle the lower register, it sounded amazing and it was probably the coolest guitar that night. So now we’re gonna bring it back. The Ricky is one of the better-looking basses out there for sure. It’s definitely got a powerful presence and a historic value in rock and roll.
SC: So let’s bring you down a couple of the dark alleys… equipment nightmare evening. A show or two that stood out to you as being, you know, “I cannot get a break tonight!!!” Give us a couple of examples of ones right now that scream out.
RT: There was a club [in LA] which was the Key Club back then. And man, the whole night my rig was going out on me. I’d just come off the Ozzy tour, brought that same rig and it was all tweaked probably from travel. Loose connections, who knows what, but basically half the show I couldn’t… I didn’t even have sound. It was just like chk, chk-chk-chk-chk. That’s what I had to deal with, and you know, it’s kinda your worst nightmare. Because no matter how good you play or what the vibe of the building is, you’re in… you’re living your own personal hell. Another time was a show at the Pond in Anaheim, would’ve been in 2003 with Metallica, and I was getting this same thing, like a loose cable was chk-chk-chk. I was cutting out through the whole show. I see the crowd going crazy, loving the show, and you got this nightmare going on in your ears. So those are the two really significant, horrible moments.
SC: Have you ever wanted to switch a guitar because it’s been feeling so terrible and suddenly, from nowhere, you had a polar opposite energy off it?
RT: Absolutely. I almost did that the other night. I thought I was out of tune and I wasn’t, so I didn’t switch the guitar, but in my ears and in my head it’s like, “This guitar’s totally out of tune. This is horrible. I gotta switch the guitar right now!” I’m having this conversation in my brain as we’re playing “Fade to Black” the other night…
SC: That’s pretty intense.
RT: …and again I hit a couple notes where I go, “No, it’s in tune!” And what it is, as Kirk explained it, in these arenas sometimes it’s almost like the sound is bouncing off of the venue and there’s a delay, so when it comes back to your ears, what you’re hearing comes back pitched differently. So you’re hearing your sound pitched differently because of the delay and the effect that has coming back to you. So there’s a bend in the sound that causes you to think you’re out of tune. It’s really frustrating. It doesn’t happen at all venues but occasionally you’ll get that. And that’s what was going on in my ears and it was driving me crazy. It takes you out of your zone, but it also sometimes can put you in a weird dream state, like, “Where am I? What’s going on here? Am I really at a gig?” At that point, you just make sure you’re fretting the right notes. But what you’re gonna hear isn’t gonna sound completely right. That’s just the nature of the beast, man.
SC: So two final questions. First of all, a couple of the venues where you have consistently enjoyed great sound, great vibe, great performance?
RT: Oh, man. I’ll tell you, the Forum the other night for the Cornell event, for some reason the basses sounded really, really powerful. And that would’ve been the Rickenbacker and the Nash Jazz Bass, which I rarely use, which is crazy, but they sounded really powerful and full. I know they’ve made some changes sonically in that venue, maybe for the better. I have a pretty consistent sound, but I do find the medium range venues, or like a Toronto Opera House or the Fonda Theatre, those kinds of venues that are a little smaller, couple thousand, you know, [in those] I really feel the bass, and I like that. I like to feel the presence of the low end, and I know that situation doesn’t always work well for James. As a singer it can be very complicated to have too much bass in the room, but I like to feel my bass.
SC: And then I guess the final one for now will be one or two basses that have belonged to others that you could buy, that you could take on and own. What would they be? Whose basses, and why?
RT: Well, Jaco Pastorius’ bass, the Bass of Doom, fretless.
SC: The famous one. You did buy that!
RT: There’s a whole ’nother story to that we’re not gonna get into right now, but that has the most unique sound. It’s really a personality of its own and you know, in my mind the most special instrument on the planet. But oh, man, that’s a hard question because there’s basses that to me are just the featured sound and personality of so many songs, and usually they’re Fenders. Sorry, Warwick and whoever else!!!
There’s, like, James Jamerson who played all the Motown bass lines back in the day, so beautiful and powerful and dynamic. All those records and the style. But those particular basses back then, those Fenders that recorded so many records, it’s just incredible the personality they had and how great they made songs sound with their presence.
SC: So you’d be happy to buy one of those if you could get ahold of it?
RT: Yeah, I’d love to get… no one really knows I think where [to find] James Jamerson’s basses, but I’m not a collector. So I’m not out looking for this stuff, but you know, if I had to… yeah! Help me find that one!