FROM HIS FIRST PROFESSIONAL GIG IN 1983— with late Plasmatics frontwoman Wendy O. Williams—to his recent stint playing bass for Billy Joel at the 12/12/12 Hurricane Sandy Relief Concert, Greg Smith has epitomized the term “working musician.” Over the past 30 years, he’s played bass for Alice Cooper, Rainbow, Dokken, and Blue Öyster Cult, and he even squeezed in a four-year run as the bassist in the Billy Joel/Twyla Tharp Broadway musical Movin’ Out. His rock-solid playing, high tenor vocals, and encyclopedic knowledge of contemporary rock songs—all honed in Long Island’s once-fertile cover-band scene—keep him thoroughly employed. We talked to Smith the day before he hit the road with his current boss, Ted Nugent, on the Midwest Rock ’N Roll Express tour with Styx and REO Speedwagon.
| Ted Nugent with Smith|
Did you have to read for the Movin’ Out gig?
There was no reading involved at all. When the thing started, we’d get together with Twyla Tharp and the music coordinator, and she’d say, “I’m thinking about these songs.” We’d learn them off the records, and then she’d change stuff around. We created it on-the-spot.
How did singing become one of your strong suits?
Many years ago I was afraid of the microphone—I never really knew I could sing. I was playing in a band called Devias, and the singer would say, “You can hit that note. That’s a B—that’s easy.” I didn’t know if a B was high or not; I just went, “Okay.” He encouraged me, and as I did it, I gained more confidence. Singing is 80 percent confidence, anyway. You have to have the nuts to just get up there and blurt it out. At first the playing and singing aspect was really difficult, because you have to split your brain. After a while it becomes second nature.
Ritchie Blackmore has historically preferred bassists who play with a pick. How did you accommodate him, being predominantly a fingerstyle player?
I’m not a very good pick player. I learned with my fingers, and I don’t have much experience using a pick at all. With Blackmore I ended up growing out my fingernails just a bit and angling them to get that pointed sound he likes. He was happy with that. On this latest tour, though, Nugent was like, “‘Stranglehold’ with a pick, right?” I said, “Whatever you want, boss.”
You’ve played with some great drummers. Who has challenged you in a different way?
Jonathan Mover [GTR, Joe Satriani] had a band called Einstein a while back, and I was the bass player when it first started. That was the only band I’ve ever been in where I actually had to count and try not to pay attention to him. He played such intricate stuff that if I got caught up in listening to him, I’d get lost. So if it was in 7/8, I had to count 1–2–3–4–5–6–7 and let him do his thing. Experiences like that make you a better player.
You’ve played some iconic songs live throughout your career. Do you stick to the bass lines on the records?
When I get a gig like that, I listen to what the current band has been doing. Then I go back to the original and meld the two, inserting a little of myself into the mix. I thought the bass solo in “Stranglehold” was a do-your-own- thing part, but when I joined the band, Ted was like, “No, man, you have to play that exact part.” But for the rest of the stuff I do what I please. He really digs improvisation; you never know when Ted’s going to do a Jimi Hendrix song. Blackmore was the same way, too—he’d just bust into a Hendrix song. You just have to hope it’s one you know!
Basses 1972 Fender Precision Bass, three Fender ’57 Reissue Precision Basses
Rig Hartke LH1000 head, Hartke Hydrive 8x10 cabinets
Strings Ernie Ball Slinky (.045–.105)
Accessories Zoom B3 Bass Effects, Hipshot Bass Xtenders, Dream Earz In-Ear Monitors, Shure Wireless