San Francisco in the ’60s and ’70s was a hotbed for bassists. With bands like Sly and the Family Stone, The Grateful Dead, and Jefferson Airplane calling the city their home, the Bay area was fertile with exciting new music filled out by a lot of low end thump. It was in this musical landscape that Bobby Vega began his calling on bass.
Though he began playing almost as an accident, Vega quickly jumped into the scene and began working with national acts as a teenager. It was only a couple years between the first time he heard Sly and the Family Stone and when he began recording with Stone himself. Throughout his career he’s played with Sly Stone, Joan Baez, Cold Blood, Tower of Power, Etta James, Mickey Hart, Jefferson Starship, Bob Weir, Jerry Garcia, and many more.
Vega’s distinct style grew from studying other bassists that came through San Francisco and by his own experimentation. He’s further set apart by his use of a pick. While his mantra of “Pick Fingers Thumb” proves he’ll utilize any technique necessary to be musical, his picking enables him to create a percussive groove with a pocket deeper than anything you thought was possible.
If playing wasn’t enough, he’s also a veritable encyclopedia of bass gear and history. His experience of witnessing the evolution of bass has given him the ability to figure out and create nearly any tone imaginable. He currently puts this extensive knowledge to use with EMG Pickups, and he’ll soon have a back page column with Bass Player Magazine chronicling his gear, basses and effects.
We chatted with Vega to get the scoop on how he got his start, his ’61 Fender Jazz “Shark” bass, and why he thinks “funk” is a four letter word.
When did you start playing bass?
I started early. I think it was the middle of junior high school when I first started to get into it. I’ve always been interested in music since I can remember, before I even started school. My dad used to have one of those Telefunken hi-fi’s, [it] was the same one that Chuck Berry had on the back of [the album] Berry is On Top. He would play Mose Allison and Sergio Mendes and Chuck Berry and all that kind of stuff. Hearing all that stuff back then just got me really interested in music.
I read that you kind of just got roped into a band. Is that right?
Yeah. My mother knew that I loved music so she went to the Emporium, which was like a department store back then, and she bought me a cassette deck. [It was] the pre-ghetto blaster with the one speaker mono. She bought me that and the Born on the Bayou record on cassette. So I was walking down to my friend’s hangout and I said, “Check this out!” They said, “That’s cool. We have a band.” I told them my uncle had a guitar they could borrow if they wanted to, but they said “No. Why don’t you come down and play a bass line?” I said no, but they insisted and I eventually did it. And that’s how I started.
I remember there was a record called Agent Double O Soul. The first side was vocals and the other side was instrumental so you could play along with it. So I’d stand in front of the mirror and mimic “Agent Double O Soul.” Just a few years ago, my son introduced me to Bob Babbitt at a NAMM show and I told Bob about that. The great part about it is that Bob Babbitt played on that track.
So you were only 15 when you started playing with Bo Diddley?
Fifteen or sixteen. It was at the Fremont Drag Strip and that was my first real “working-with-someone-with-a-name” kind of thing.
How did that come about?
I had a friend named Jake when I worked at Don Wehr’s Music City in San Francisco. I used to work in the warehouse and they’d say, “Hey, can we get our warehouse boy to come out and demonstrate this?” So people started hearing me play because I would demonstrate the amp while the guys turned the knobs and talked about it. Jake knew that I played so he came in and said, “Hey man, want to go play a gig?” I said okay, and he said, “It’s with Bo Diddley.” I didn’t know who Bo was. I just thought a gig would be cool.
So I borrowed an amplifier from the music store and three of my friends gave me a ride. I had never even played with him or knew anything, but I just started beating the shit out of the bass on the gig. [laughs] At the end of the gig he handed me 75 one dollar bills and it looked like a roll of toilet paper. By the time I paid my friends for gas and their time most of that money was gone.
Another early gig you had was playing with Sly Stone, notably on the track “I Get High On You.” How did you start working with Sly?
I didn’t know this at the time, but he had bought a house for his family in San Francisco close to our neighborhood. I ended up knowing his cousins Tommy and Junebug through my friend Al Moody, who is a drummer. After some small talk, Sly was doing some tracks and needed a bass player. Tommy and Junebug knew me by then and they said, “Oh yeah, get Vega.” They just called me Vega. Nobody knew my name was Robert. As a matter of fact, I was Robert or Vega until I played with Sly. He started calling me Bobby and that’s when I started going by Bobby. Then all the sudden I ended up in the studio with Sly and we were cutting that track.
You were a fan of Sly’s before that, right?
Yeah. I mean, how could you not hear that music at that time? I remember as a kid sitting behind the gas station next to the bus stop and “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)” was on. For lack of a better term, the backdrop of the soundtrack of my life was Sly, Stevie Wonder, James Brown, Jimi Hendrix, Blind Faith, Steve Miller… I used to go to the Carousel Ballroom, which was the Fillmore, on Friday nights. Then I’d wake up Saturday morning and go to The Family Dog, which was Chet Helms’s place at Playland. One day I walked in and there were guys loading gear in. They said, “Hey, you want a job? Come over here and scrub the floors and you can come to the concert tonight.” So I would go to The Family Dog on Saturdays and scrub the floors to get in that night. I got to see Bob Moog when he first came, saw Santana, Ball and Jack. So on top of listening to all sort of ethnicity records as far as rock, soul and R&B, I’d get to see these guys play at soundcheck. When Yes first came into town, they were doing “Roundabout.” Of course, [Chris Squire] was playing through a Dual Showman and using a Rickenbacker. And the cabinet wasn’t facing out, it was facing sideways. I always paid attention to all that stuff.
One of the things I admire is that you seem to know how to get any sound or tone. Is that from paying to attention and watching the bass evolve?
I was really lucky for how and when and the time I grew up. If you think of me as a plant, the soil I grew up in was the downbeat for all that stuff. You can go to a music store and know what the amplifiers they were using on the gigs. It’s almost like the TV game show Concentration. When I would see an amp at the music store and hear someone play it, and then I’d go to a concert and see them use it when I stand in front of the stage. Back then the only thing that would really be in the PA would was kick and hi-hat and the horns and vocals. People were using their amplifiers to try to hit the back of the rooms.
So I got to see a bunch of stuff and I was fortunate enough to play with Mickey Hart. That’s how I got drenched into that soil and those people because Jack Casady and Phil Lesh were the first people to really do the R&D for all that stuff. They were the first guys I actually saw play chords and hang tones, versus these loud, barky basses like we have today. Being brought up in that really helped. I wasn’t thinking about money; I was going to school. If you put in all the different things I’ve experienced, that’s all part of my DNA now.
You have some really great basses. What do you look for in an instrument?
I don’t know until it gets into my hands and I say, “Oh shit.” [laughs] I have anywhere from 50 to 60 basses now. They weren’t given to me. I bought them. My ears and my hands are in a total different spot from when I first started playing. Now I’m developed and I can hear how they really sound. So all the stuff that I had as a kid and all the instruments I have now, I can spring them out and dial them in to hear what they actually do. I couldn’t hear it back then because I was trying to play.
What’s your current setup?
My main gig rig is eighteen or nineteen years old now. It’s a Glockenklang Bass Art. I also use a Glockenklang Heart Core. For cabinets I have two Heart Core cabs that have a 15-inch and a 10-inch whizzer cone. Then I have two Bass Art cabinets that have a 15-inch and a 2-inch dome speaker, and finally two Acoustic Arts cabs that have 10-inch and 2-inch domes. What I’ll do is use a 15/10 and a 15/dome, and that’s to play big gigs. If I want a little more throat I’ll use the 15-inch with the 2-inch dome and the 10-inch with the 2-inch dome. And then if I’m playing somewhere small, I’ll just use a single 10. On my amps, I don’t use any bass or treble – I just use the volume knobs. Once in a while I might use a little more bass on some of the Jazz basses that sound thinner, but for my main bass I just set everything flat.
Could you tell us about the Shark bass?
It’s a ’61 Jazz bass that’s not stock, but it gets up and does it. The pickups were made from scratch. I won’t say what the recipe is because I might come out with them, but they’re definitely not stock. The bridge on it is what later on became the Badass Bass II. It’s a two piece alder body finished in Two-Tone Sunburst, at least what’s left of it. Rosewood board, stock tuning pegs, then everything else is stock except for the finish. I’m using D’Addario nickel strings with gauges of .045, .065, .085, .105. That bass is happy that way.
To me when I play, I’m a part of that instrument and it’s a part of me.
Besides your incredible arsenal of gear, you employ just about every playing technique to fit the musical situation… Namely, you’re a proponent of using a pick. Do “fingers only” bassists ever try to call you out for that?
Well, no because when I play with a pick I don’t say, “Hey everybody, I’m playing with a pick!” I just play. The reason I started playing with a pick is because I couldn’t do certain things with my fingers. I can’t play “What is Hip” with my fingers and get it to sound right, but I can play other stuff with my fingers and make it sound good. I can play stuff with my thumb and do all sorts of crazy stuff, but the note gets there at a different time whether you’re using your fingers, a pick or your thumb. It sounds different. So now I have three different ways to approach the feel of a song. And just because I play with my thumb doesn’t mean I have to play lots of notes. And I can play so you don’t even hear the pick, or I can play so you can hear the pick.
I’m more into shapes and tonal structures and doing different things with [technique] than trying to say this is a better way or that is a better way. It’s just another tool in my arsenal. The only way to know which one is right is when everyone is smiling.
How do you adapt to playing with such a wide variety of artists?
I learned my art on the job. I learned how to play playing with Sly and Billy Preston, Etta James, Jefferson Starship, Tower of Power, Cold Blood, Jerry Garcia, and I could go on and on. That’s how I learned to play. Every time I had a gig, I didn’t know how to play any of that music. After the gig was over it became part of my DNA.
So I played with Sly. His funk is different from Zigaboo Modeliste, which is different from the Meters’ funk. I played with Tower of Power, which is different from those funks. Then I’m playing with Cold Blood. We’re talking about some diverse styles of R&B or whatever they call that music. I don’t like to say the “f word” because to me when someone says, “We’re going to play funky,” about 99% of the time it isn’t funky. I call it the “f word” now. I think it’s a misunderstood word.
Your albums Down the Road and Sketches of Bob are such different records, but they’re both great. Can we expect new solo material anytime soon?
Yeah, I’ll be coming out with stuff and it will have different stuff on it. Sketches of Bob is exactly what it is: they’re just sketches. It was just a short thing with a drum machine, so I could go to a school and someone could do a horn arrangement over it. Someone could write lyrics over it. I started it out with a studio song and had saxophonist Mark Russo filled it out. The last track was actually from another session where a guy wanted me to play the theme to Barney Miller. I went and did his record but he never used the track, so I used it. So the album starts with a studio track and ends with a studio track but the middle is just sketches.
For Down the Road, I did something different. What happened was that Victor Wooten was out, Victor Bailey, and all these great players [had solo albums]. Instead of me [playing lots of solo pieces], I went another way. I hired the Turtle Island Quartet and Airto [Moreira]. That was my idea of music at the time. There was so much being said then that if I had gone the other way I would have just been another Koi fish going for a pellet.
Shark Bass photo by Michael Weitrob. Photo of Bobby Vega recording “I Get High on You” by Warren Harris.