SIMPLY PUT, RUDY SARZO IS LIVING THE AMERICAN DREAM BY WAY OF ONE of the most exciting bass careers in hard rock and heavy metal history. He grew up a Cuban immigrant in the United States’ Cuban Refugee Program, in Miami, Florida, falling in love with playing music the same way many kids of his generation did—by seeing the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964. His first bass was a modified guitar, a Craftsman from Sears, and he learned bass by playing along with the Play Electric Bass with the Ventures album. “At 64 years old, my influences go all the way back to the Ventures,” laughs Sarzo.
Sarzo moved to Los Angeles in the ’70s, where he hooked up with an early version of Quiet Riot that featured now-legendary guitarist Randy Rhoads and ruled the L.A. bar circuit alongside Van Halen. Sarzo then went on to join Rhoads in Ozzy Osbourne’s fledgling solo band, before returning to Quiet Riot after Rhoads’ untimely death in 1982. Quiet Riot’s first LP after the Rhoads era, Metal Health, featured Sarzo on all but two songs, and it was the first heavy metal album to ever reach No. 1 on the Billboard 200. From there, Sarzo went on to play with a mindboggling list of heavy hitters, including Whitesnake, Dio, Blue Öyster Cult, and Yngwie Malmsteen, further solidifying his reputation as heavy metal’s go-to bassist.
In between all his high-profile assignments, Sarzo has also done lots of lesser-known but highly compelling work. Check out the one-off eponymous debut from Manic Eden, a band consisting of ex-Whitesnake members, or Animetal USA, the Japanese animeinspired speed-metal band, for some of Sarzo’s most solid performances on record. He��s also got a book, Off the Rails, about his time in Ozzy’s band; he’s put out a sample library with Sony Creative called Workingman’s Bass; he’s a counselor at the Rock ’n’ Roll Fantasy Camp in Las Vegas; and since 2012, he has been touring and recording with Operation: Mindcrime, ex-Queensrÿche singer Geoff Tate’s version of his former band. After four decades and counting, Sarzo is still inspiring new generations of young upstarts to pick up a bass and bang their heads.
How did you get the gig with Operation: Mindcrime?
Queensrÿche opened for Quiet Riot in 1983, back when they had just released the Queensrÿche EP. That’s when I first met Geoff. I’ve always been a big fan of the band—great songs, great players, and great guys. When you’re putting a band together, the hardest thing to find is a quality singer—a guy who is not only a star, but someone who can really sing and tell a great story. Geoff is that guy. He’s the best singer of his generation. We had talked about working together before, but it never came to fruition. So, when this opportunity came up, I said, “Of course, I’d love to work with him.”
You contributed bass to three tracks on Queensrÿche’s Frequency Unknown. Why not the entire record?
There were budgetary restrictions based on geography. Half the band is from Seattle, the record was produced in the Bay Area, and I live in Los Angeles, so they sent me the tracks they wanted me to cut.
What are some of the challenges of recording in that scenario?
When people send me tracks to record, I have to become my own producer and think of all the incomplete aspects of the song. If I do get a finished vocal track, I play the supportive role, almost like ghosting what the vocals are doing melodically and playing notes according to where the melody goes. Ideally, if I have finished drum, vocal, and rhythm guitar tracks, I can get a really good vision of where the bass track needs to be.
What do you use to record at home?
Pro Tools 10 and my trusty M-Audio Delta 1010 [audio interface], which I’ve had forever. It tracks really well. When I track at home nowadays, I usually just send a DI and leave it up to the person mixing to add a plug-in or re-amp it. You can’t send them a track and say, “This is my tone,” because you don’t know what kind of mix they are going for.
How has recording bass changed since you started your career in the ’70s?
Back in the day, there was a fundamental tone. The engineer would plug a Jazz or Precision Bass directly into an SSL or a Trident board, and in a couple of minutes you’d have an incredible tone. Engineers would tell me, “Play as hard as you’re going to play,” and they would set the limiters according to what my feel was going to be. The tone was always so inspiring—it was this big, fat tone with all the fundamentals you get naturally from a passive bass.
Why do you think that changed?
In the ’80s, the sound of music changed, and I started playing for producers who were conscious of getting songs on playlists for radio programmers. We also started facing sonic competition from Oberheim bass synthesizers and active basses. The frequency of the bass started to get into a different area.
Speaking of active instruments, you’re now playing a Spector on tour with Operation: Mindcrime.
I started with my signature model Peavey Cirrus, which is a great bass, but it doesn’t have the same tone as the Spector. I always look at instruments within a track as being characters or personalities. And with the Operation: Mindcrime album being so character-driven, I definitely knew that I had to play the Spector in order to fulfill my role—to reproduce the character of the bass on those recordings. [Original Queensrÿche bassist Eddie Jackson played a Spector NS-2 on the album.]
You recently wrapped the Randy Rhoads Remembered tour. What tone were you going for?
That was probably the best tone I’ve ever had. I wanted to capture the essence of what it was like when I played with Randy. Those Ozzy records were recorded with a Gibson EB-O and a Fender Precision— that’s what Bob Daisley, who did a wonderful, wonderful job on those two albums, used. So I brought out my ’59 P-Bass to try to remain true to what we were doing 30 years ago.
How do you prepare for gigs where you haven’t played on the record?
When I join a band like Whitesnake, Ozzy, Dio, or Blue Öyster Cult, I study the catalog. I study everything that has been recorded, and I look at the growth of the band and their live performances. Having said that, as a bass player, I am most affected if the drummer who recorded the songs is no longer in the band, especially if it’s somebody who has a different internal clock.
Tommy Aldridge, for example, leans forward [plays on top of the beat] when he plays. He played a lot of boogie blues in stadiums with Black Oak Arkansas, and he brings all that with him, whether he’s playing with Ozzy or Whitesnake, so I can’t play with the same feel that’s on the record. You have to listen to what the drummer is doing and lock in with him; I have to lock in with Tommy. Fortunately, with Ozzy, Randy also naturally leaned forward, so all I had to do was lock in with the two of them.
Even with Ozzy, you were using interesting techniques, like thumping a root note with your thumb while plucking octaves with your forefinger.
When I started playing in clubs in Florida in the ’70s, I played Top 40. Our set lists were based on what was on the radio, and that meant everything from Johnny Cash to Led Zeppelin. I was also playing a lot of funk, a lot of disco, a lot of R&B. One of the techniques I had to learn was slapping. I’m not at the level of Victor Wooten, but I can do oldschool slap, like Larry Graham. So, if you are watching an old video of me playing “Suicide Solution” with Ozzy, that’s what I did. It was mainly so the bass would cut through Randy’s stack of Marshalls. Since I don’t play with a pick, I used my thumb to help it cut through.
The ’70s were a great time for bass players.
When I look back at all the musicians who’ve inspired me, there was a fearless attitude to their playing. That attitude was lost in the ’80s. If you listen to Geezer Butler or Tim Bogert or Mel Schacher from Grand Funk Railroad—every band that was successful had a great bass player. It was as if you could not succeed with a weak bass player in the ’70s.
You’re probably most associated with Ozzy’s Speak of the Devil album. How was that recording experience?
Where I grew up, in Miami, every day was a beach day, so the music of Black Sabbath wasn’t really me. That’s weird for me to say, because I’m the guy who recorded Speak of the Devil, but I was not at all familiar with that material. I heard “Fairies Wear Boots,” like, a week before we recorded it. It was all new information—a crash course on Geezer Butler. When the record came out, there was a comment from Geezer saying, “They sound like they are playing connect-the-dots music,” and I have to tell you, that’s pretty accurate [laughs]. But I had a field day playing all those pentatonic blues licks.
Geoff Tate’s former Queensrÿche bandmates have made disparaging comments about the current lineup.
I’ve been doing this for a long time. For me, it’s just a matter of getting onstage with the best people I can and playing the best songs possible for the audience. That’s it. I’ve been insulted by the best—you just learn how to deal with it and move on [laughs].
Is that part of the key to your success—dealing with it and moving on?
I look at the situation and my contribution, and I learn from what I could have done or what I’ve done. I never think, “Wow, I recorded ‘Cum On Feel the Noize’—I wonder who’s playing that now?” When you move forward, you hope that the person who comes in to take your place is the best person they can find. With Quiet Riot, I support everything Frankie [Banali, drummer and manager] is doing. We all worked very hard to help Quiet Riot achieve a certain level of success, and the last thing we want to do is to see the whole thing go down in flames. I don’t want to be replaced by a hack. I want to be replaced by the best person available. I hope the person who comes in helps to carry on the spirit of the band.
You’ve held a lot of top gigs in hard rock and heavy metal. To what do you attribute your appeal?
My philosophy is that I join the band—the band does not join me. It’s like there’s a piece of this puzzle that’s missing, and I have to look at the shape of the piece, adapt to the whole, and fit in seamlessly so that when I go in, I’m not making any big changes. My contribution is to fulfill only what is needed. With time, I can take the role and expand upon it, but not in a way that is going to take away from the original.
OsbourneSpeak of the Devil [Jet, 1982], Tribute [Epic, 1987]. With Quiet RiotMetal Health [Pasha, 1983]; Condition Critical [Pasha, 1984]; Alive and Well [Cleopatra, 1999]. With M.A.R.S.Project Driver [Shrapnel, 1986]. With Whitesnake Slip of the Tongue [Geffen, 1989]. With Manic EdenManic Eden [Victory, 1994]. With Queensrÿche Frequency Unknown [Deadline, 2013].
Basses Spector Euro 4LX, Spector Euro4LX Ian Hill Signature, Peavey Rudy Sarzo Signature Cirrus
Rig Acoustic B800H amps, Acoustic B810 MKII 8x10 cabs
Strings D’Addario EXL165 Nickel Wounds (.045–.105)
EffectsPigtronix Philosopher Bass Compressor, Whirlwind OC Bass Optical Compressor, EBS Billy Sheehan Signature Drive, MXR M81 Bass Preamp
Etc. Line 6 Relay G50 Wireless System, Roland GR-55 Guitar Synth