“Life is good – but music is almost like a Shrek movie for me” quips Bobby Vega. “I have to go far, far away, and over in the UK and Europe, music is treated more like art than it is where I’m from. Music is an art form, but in the US, musicians aren’t necessarily revered as art – whereas, in other countries, they are more appreciated. Jazz musicians would leave the US and go over there because they were treated like artists.”
Bobby is a world traveler, of course, but usually in the role of sideman for artists such as Etta James. His CV shows no shortage of impressive names – how does Sly & The Family Stone, Tower Of Power and Santana grab you? Vega is very appreciative of the position he finds himself in at this time in his life. Widely considered as the wielder of the funkiest pick in bassdom, his playing and words of wisdom are inspiring players old and new.
“It’s a trip,” he muses, “because I’m totally blessed, lucky and fortunate. I’ve worked for all this – but it doesn’t always mean you get what you’ve worked hard for. And when it happens, it’s a blessing. I wish people were more in the moment, and in the moment with us at the time, because what happens these days is that people bring phones and cameras out and they’re not there with you, so it feels very awkward. Anything I can play, you can have – but don’t record me, as it makes me feel awkward to the point I don’t really feel like playing! It doesn’t feel like we’re together or playing together. At a show, I can go play and people are up dancing – but if I’m not facing them, I’m up there making the band sound like we’re all playing together, putting out energy, working. Over time, the hairs on your arms stand up, everyone gets up and has a good time... and that’s music! That’s part of the magic of it.”
If you’ve ever seen Bobby at a gig or a trade show, you can’t help but notice that he walks in the same way he plays; with an almost metronomic swing, as though a rhythmic pulse courses through his veins every second. No surprise, then, that he has some pointers for our drumming brethren and other members of the band. “I just look for them to do their job, hopefully. Play and drive and know the music; let me know when the verse and the chorus and the bridge comes, and when to take it down. And if they don’t know that, and they don’t play it like that, well they don’t need to tell me and I don’t need to tell them. Sometimes a guitar player may be playing out of time with the keyboard player or the horn section, so it’s my job to make them all sound like they are playing together.”
Raised in the Bay Area of San Francisco, Bobby experienced the rich musical environment of the 60s and 70s – and it’s easy to hear those influences in his bass playing. “I’m a fan of all great music and songs. There’s been so much music coming out of the Bay Area for decades, but I don’t know how fertile it still is – because what is music now in 2019? Where is it coming from, what is a hit record now? Everything has moved over or changed. It’s not a bad thing, but can you accept it or find your balance in it now? I can tell you the whole evolution of time, but if you want to go forwards, go backwards - and then you can go forwards! Pay attention to what went before. I play music so it isn’t a fad, I can play with a pick, fingers or a thumb, so it doesn’t matter. If I can’t do what someone wants, I’ll refer them to someone who can.”
One of Bobby’s legendary lines is featured on the Sly Stone track ‘I Get High On You’. The line is relatively simple on paper, but fiendishly tricky to play while remaining consistent. So what was he thinking when he recorded the part? “I played it with a pick, and was imitating Rocco Prestia of Tower Of Power. Rustee Allen played a lot of stuff after Larry Graham left, and Sly played a lot of bass too. That was a 1965 Jazz bass strung with Guild chrome flats through a Countryman direct box, played through a Fender Twin Reverb. One take – the first take! It’s a feel. I learned how to overdub with Sly; just like the There’s A Riot Goin’ On record, he was overdubbing tracks that were already there.”
Was Sly as difficult to work with as has been reported over the years? “Everybody is a challenge to work with. Some people are easy, some difficult, some days are better than others. All the people I’ve worked with have had different personalities, different producers, different gigs so it’s always going to change. You get hired to play, so can you play? Playing music is about you adjusting to your situation and circumstance.”
Vega was in the vicinity when Alembic produced their early active instruments alongside the Grateful Dead in the late 60s – and they were very different basses to the customary Fenders and Gibsons of the time. “I used to go to every music store and hock shop in San Francisco; I would visit Alembic when it was on Judah Street in San Francisco,” he remembers. “I used to watch the guys there make basses for Jack Casady and Phil Lesh in the late 60s and early 70s. Alembic was one of the first companies where their instruments were not ‘off the rack’, with all sorts of different custom-made stuff. They were really pushing the envelope and were the first to use onboard preamps and EQ. The first Alembics were Guilds: snapshots of time. Guitars now are just shapes; the Telecaster shape, Stratocaster shape, Les Paul shape, SG shape, 335 shape, Precision shape, Jazz shape. Most of the time, people really don’t know the history of it, they’re just shapes!”
Bobby has used many basses over the years but has become almost synonymous with the Jazz bass, especially his well-worn 1961 stack-pot Jazz bass, dubbed ‘The Shark’. “I can play any bass. First, I had a Gibson EB1, but the likes of Larry Graham, John Paul Jones, Jerry Jemmott, they were all Jazz players and I went ‘Wow, okay’, that’s how I started and learned to work with it. The body is very comfortable for me. I have many basses, but you go to the instrument, the instrument doesn’t go to you. So can you actually adjust and see what that instrument does and then utilize it? And that’s what it is. The Shark is a great-sounding instrument but it’s not stock; there are years and years of relationship there, and that’s my longest relationship on Earth. It is part of me.”
May the funk be with you, Lord Vega.