Rocky George: Going the Distance with Rocky
Guitar World speaks with Suicidal Tendencies/Fishbone guitarist Rocky George.
Released in 1983, the self-titled debut album from Suicidal Tendencies has long been considered a classic of hardcore punk, and a crucial album in the punk/metal “crossover.” The band went through several guitar players before settling on Rocky George in 1984, and he had a lot more to offer than the usual punk/thrash players.
George was a talented lead guitarist with a background in jazz, and in those days guitar solos were forbidden in hardcore. But fans who accused Suicidal of abandoning their roots didn’t realize the band was moving away from what was accepted in hardcore since the first album. Suicidal founder Mike Muir gave the band a lot of room, and he wasn’t afraid to bring different elements, like Rocky, and later bassist Robert Trujillo, into the band. As Muir once said in an interview, “Is the song good, that’s the bottom line, not, ‘What kind of style is it?’ We’ll do something if we like it, [and] if we like it, it’s good.”
Although Suicidal had a surprise radio and MTV hit with the song “Institutionalized,” it took a while for the band to move up in the world. Like the Dead Kennedys, there was controversy over the band’s name, and they couldn’t play their native Los Angeles for years because of concerns over crowd violence. Still, the major labels came knocking, and once Suicidal signed with Epic in 1988, the band took a big step up with their songwriting and production on their third album, How Will I Laugh Tomorrow.
In 1990, Suicidal finally headlined in Southern California without incident, and they gave Pantera a big break as the opening act for their Lights, Camera, Revolutiontour. Suicidal would subsequently hit the road with Metallica, Queensryche, and the European leg of the Clash of the Titans tour with Megadeth, Slayer and Testament.
When Suicidal first broke up in 1995, George felt the band could have gone further, but he hasn’t spent much time looking back. Muir has since reformed Suicidal with a new line-up, and Rocky’s currently playing in Fishbone, another L.A. band that gives him plenty of room to do his thing. Though he’s laid down a lot of great guitar playing over the years, Rocky still feels there’s plenty more for the world to hear, and this in-depth interview with Guitar World has been long overdue.
GUITAR WORLD How did you hook up with Suicidal? You were in the band fairly early, and from what I understand, the guitarist on the first album, Grant Estes, was a fill-in guy.
ROCKY GEORGE Yeah, he wasn’t in the band that long. The guy before me didn’t last that long either. I joined in ’84. Amery [Smith, Suicidal drummer] was my connection. I met him through another guy that used to play guitar in Suicidal. I starting jamming with some people, and Amery was one of the guys I was jamming with then. Not too long after I started jamming with these guys, the guitar position opened up and Amery suggested me to audition. In fact, I was the only guy they auditioned.
GW Even on the first album Suicidal had guitar solos, which was verboten in punk at the time.
GEORGE That’s one of the things I liked was the fact there was space to play some solos. At that time, it was different for that genre of music. I know it pissed a lot of people off, but you can’t please everybody.
GW So did you feel the band was going for something different or had more vision than other hardcore bands?
GEORGE Yeah, definitely. There didn’t seem to be many restrictions. It wasn’t like, “We have to do this format.” Later on, when Robert [Trujillo] came on, he brought in another element from another musical direction, and that started changing things too. It wasn’t on purpose—it was a natural evolution. We never had an agenda,like, "we’re gonna go out and do this.” It was like putting seeds in the ground and seeing what will happen. The band was a complete democracy as far as decisions went and everyone had an equal input.
GW Why do you feel Suicidal was willing to do things differently when a lot of bands weren’t?
GEORGE I think it had a lot to do with the mindset of everybody. Maybe where we come from, too, and not conforming. I remember we were really proud of looking at old pictures. There weren't too many pictures where we looked at and went, “oh my God, I can’t believe what I’m wearing.” That goes for the music too. We were just naturally doing what we wanted to do, what we felt like doing. I can’t see how you can be ashamed of something when you’re doing what you want to do.
GW How long were you playing guitar before you joined?
GEORGE Maybe three and a half, four years. I started fairly late. I played piano first. I played clarinet and I played saxophone for about eight years. I picked up guitar very quickly. I learned two or three songs the first day I had a guitar, and I just got hooked on it completely. I ended up selling my sax, and I spent a large part of my day practicing because I wanted to catch up with the people in my school. That was another thing that kept me pushing was the school I was going to.
GW Which was Culver City High School, where you went with Robert Trujillo. There were other good musicians going there as well?
GEORGE Yeah, some good ones, I don’t know if I would say a lot although it seemed like a lot. It was a good environment. Looking back on it, it seemed like it was a good crop of people to feed off each other. I don’t know what it was about that place. You hear about places that are little hotbeds where people feed off each other. It only takes a couple to spread to other people, it starts mushrooming and you have something that might last for a while, like the bass players that came out of Florida around Jaco’s time.
GW What kind of music did you like starting out? Were you into hardcore punk and metal, or that came later?
GEORGE I liked jazz for a long time. I had just recently, before Suicidal, gotten into the heavy stuff. I was very much an instrumental music snob, and if you people couldn’t play, I didn’t wanna hear it. Then I got into high-energy stuff. I started liking Motorhead, Discharge, then all of the sudden I was in a band like that.
GW The first Suicidal album is considered an important album in the metal/punk crossover. Did you feel it was a natural evolution that those genres would come together?
GEORGE I never really thought about it back then. I don’t really remember a drastic overnight change. I think it was gradual enough, because even in the early days we had a mixed crowd. In the mosh pit there were people with long hair, some mohawks, some skinheads and people with bandanas. I guess in some aspects it was good, because it seemed like the audience was getting bigger. There was a point, I think after we did that tour in ’91 with Queensryche, when it started boosting a little more with the metal people.
GW The song “Institutionalized” was popular on underground radio, and the video got a lot of play on cable. Did you ever think that song would be a hit?
GEORGE No [laughs]. Like I was saying about back then in ’84, there were a lot of different kinds of people at the shows, especially in different cities. There would be a completely different type of crowd in every city and it had a lot to do with the video being played in clubs. In ’84, ’85, maybe a little in ’86, a lot of videos they were playing on MTV were being played in dance clubs and bars and a lot of people were turned on to the band from seeing the video there. A lot of the videos we did were requested a lot, but MTV had a problem playing us. Someone there didn’t like the name of the band so we were pushed to only a certain time of the day. We didn’t break into the prime-time afternoon rotation. But I don’t think we expected to be embraced by MTV that much at the time. Later on in the ‘90’s we asked, “what do we have to do?” I forgot what video it was, but there was one we tried to obey their rules.
GW Did it work?
GEORGE No [laughs]. Most of our videos were interesting. We got good directors for all of ‘em.
GW Tom Araya has a brief appearance in the “Institutionalized” video.
GEORGE Kerry’s in there just for a quick second as well. You see him in the back.
GW You and Jeff Hanneman also had a little side band called Papsmear.
GEORGE I’ve been friends with Jeff a long time, and I still talk to him. I saw Slayer in a lot of small places around L.A. I remember seeing them at Madam Wong’s and Vet’s Auditorium in Culver City. We had multi-track recorders and we’d screw around on stuff.
GW Some reports claim that Dave Lombardo also played drums for Papsmear, and other reports claim a drum machine was used.
GEORGE Dave played drums, and there was a drum machine. That was so long ago, and there was so much beer involved!
GW Were there any plans to release it or do anything with it?
GEORGE I think there was at one point but something got squashed for some reason. I can’t remember where it came from, if it came from Slayer’s management or ours, or maybe it was even conflicts in schedules. I honestly don’t remember. [Editor’s Note–Two songs Papsmear songs, “Drunks Against Madd Mothers,” and “Can’t Stand You,” wound up on Slayer’s punk cover album, Undisputed Attitude.]
GW During your years in Suicidal you were always seen wearing a Pirates cap. I would assume were a fan of the team.
GEORGE You know, it’s funny, I used to be, back in the [Hall of Fame hitter] Willie Stargell days when they actually wore those hats. I used to wear that hat going to school then I stopped caring about baseball–I got sidetracked into other stuff. I still had the hats, and I liked the hat, so I wore it one day for a photo session. Our manager thought it was cool so I kept wearing it. Next thing I know, it became a thing. I can’t even wear them anymore.
GW Because your hair’s too big?
GEORGE Yeah [laughs]. Not possible. I’ve still got some Pirates hats though. They would get a little sweaty after a while and I’d have to retire them. I actually had a guy search the country for some of the suppliers and I got a box of those fitted hats for my size. I’m slowly going through that box. I’ve still got a few left but I can’t put ‘em on!
GW For a long time, Suicidal had a hard time getting gigs in L.A. because people were afraid of crowd violence.
GEORGE Yeah, it was paranoia. The promoters were scared and the people who had to insure the shows were scared. They were afraid of something happening but nothing’s ever happened. I forgot what show it was but someone had an issue at a show somewhere, and they were like, see what happens?” It got tied to us, like they’re the same kind of crowd that would do this. It just kept mushrooming, and next thing you know, we could play anywhere but L.A. We would tell them, “we’ve played here, here, and here…”, and they’d say, “but your audience isn’t there.” How could you be worried about something that never happens? I could understand their paranoia if they had an incident that happened, but it never did.
GW At the time, the only place Suicidal played in L.A. was a pretty infamous venue, The Balboa Theater. I never went there, but I heard it was a scary place because of the neighborhood.
GEORGE Yeah, it was a scary place. I don’t remember what it looked like inside but I remember how horrible it was outside. I remember that neighborhood–it was not a good place to go. I’m sure it had something to do with [the owners] not really caring about the building as long as they got paid. A lot of the nice places didn’t want that kind of stuff going on in there. I think somebody told me it was going to be fucked up but taking it in once you actually saw it, it was like, “wow.” What could we do? We already agreed to play [laughs]. [Ed Note–The Balboa Theater was located in South Central L.A. and it sporadically booked shows with bands such as Possessed, D.R.I., Corrosion of Conformity, Hirax, Cryptic Slaughter, and others until it closed in early 1989.]
GW By the early ‘90’s Suicidal played a big show at Irvine Meadows that went fine, then you were playing L.A. regularly after that.
GEORGE It got to the point where we were selling a good number of records and making good crowds in some of these others cities. We were playing San Francisco a lot and promoters saw, “okay, we can make some money.” I guess it was a matter of finding the right venue for people to realize it wasn’t going to be a problem.
GW So how did it feel to play L.A. after all that time?
GEORGE It was nice. It was good.
GW Was this the tour you did with Pantera opening?
GEORGE We played the Bren Center with them in Irvine in 1990. That was the third show of the tour but that was Pantera’s first show with us. Actually, I didn’t even see them. It took me until Denver to see them and when I did I was an instant fan. I thought they were really amazing and I knew they were gonna start taking off because they were really good. They had a lot of energy. They had integrity, they enjoyed what they were doing and they meant what they were doing. Dimebag was an awesome guy. We got along real well. We had a lot of similarities.
GW Watching Dime then, did you feel he would go on to be a guitar hero?
GEORGE I thought he was already there. He was completely refined. It was just a matter of people seeing him. It’s funny because I didn’t know that by the time we were playing with them that Dave Mustaine asked him to join Megadeth. He would not have worked good with Dave. Their personalities just wouldn’t mesh. But the fact that Dave saw that in him too, I figured more people would know. I think he made a good decision not taking that. He said he was bribed with shoes [laughs]. And free guitars.
GW After your first album with Suicidal, Join the Army, the band moved up to a major label with How Will I Laugh Tomorrow. When did the majors first show interest in the band?
GEORGE They were interested when we did Join the Army. Labels actually offered us a deal but they wanted us to change our name, so we put out Join the Army through Caroline. Then Epic came along but they didn’t want us to change our name. They came to our shows, they saw that we had good audiences and that we sold a lot of merchandise. Epic let us do our thing. They didn’t try to twist things one way or the other.
GW It felt like there was a big improvement from Join the Army to How Will Laugh. The songs and production were a lot stronger. Did you feel you went a step up when you signed with Epic?
GEORGE Oh definitely. Everything in every way got better. We were put on salary and we had better touring conditions.
GW Before the majors came knocking, did you feel the band could go to the next level?
GEORGE I kinda wasn’t expecting it to get where it did. I didn’t have that kind of foresight. It’s not like I didn’t think we could. I just wasn’t thinking about it. It was like climbing a ladder and it happened at a good pace. We didn’t do it too fast. We did small steps, little by little.
GW What was your favorite album you did with Suicidal, and what were your favorite guitar solos you laid down with the band?
GEORGE There’s something about Suicidal For Life… We had so much control on that record because we co-produced it and there was a lot of collaboration. Sometimes when you go back and listen to something you didn’t want to do, maybe it's because you change your feeling about it later on, but you still remember, “I wish I did it this way.” There was none of that on that record. At the same time, now as I step away from it for a while, I look back at Lights, Camera, Revolution and that was a fun album to record. I would say those two were probably my favorites as far as the recording and the finished product. I like the “How Will I Laugh” solo. I did it at, must have been, three o’clock in the morning. I remember Mark Dodson the engineer was laying on the couch, falling asleep, with the remote next to the couch. I was all wide-awake and excited. It wasn’t that I tried a bunch of takes. I felt like trying it at that time because I felt good. “Let me try it, put that song up,” and everyone there was fading. It turned out really good. When we did The Art of Rebellion, the solo on “Nobody Hears”, I remembered doing a solo and I liked it, and Peter Collins, the producer, said, “you can do better.” “But I like this one.” I kept doing another one, another one... I liked every solo that I was doing. He would say, “Think like this, think like this…” So I tried to think what he was thinking, and I did a blend of what I was doing and what he was thinking, and it worked. At the time I was like, “ehhhh.” Then I went back and listened to it, and I liked that solo. There’s a singing aspect to it that’s cool.
GW Did you work out your solos, or did you improv them?
GEORGE They were all improv’d. I’m sure there’s a couple of solos over the years that I’ve actually worked out. Sometimes I’d think I had a take I wanted, then I’d come back the next day and give it another shot anyways, just to see if I could beat that one. It depends on how I’d feel at the time. If I felt good when I was playing, I’d get good stuff recorded. Unfortunately, you can’t always feel good, but I’d try to. I remember one time I was doing the beginning of “You Can’t Bring Me Down”. That clean part... I had a problem getting that working. I went to go play ice hockey, I came back to the studio, and it went like that. I felt great when I came back, and everything just went boom, boom, boom.
GW How did you get into playing ice hockey?
GEORGE I grew up with a rink right down the street. There were a lot of rinks in the area I grew up in, and I used to work at an ice rink when I was a kid. I used to drive a Zamboni. It got bigger when Gretsky came over. Now there’s rinks everywhere.
GW When Robert Trujillo came in as Suicidal’s bassist, how do you feel the band evolved with a new musical element?
GEORGE I knew Robert for a long time and I knew what he could do. At first, I was wondering if we could actually show what he could do, then when he actually started doing it, it was like, “this is perfect,” and we tried opening the door even more. It was cool and I’m glad it worked. I wasn’t thinking about it changing the band that much but it did. It was just a matter of talking him into it because he was into a whole different style of music at the time. He liked really heavy bass dance music and hard rock wasn’t quite up his alley at that point, even though he’d been in a band that played Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath covers.
GW Once you started playing guitar, who were your influences?
GEORGE What actually got me started playing guitar were The Rolling Stones. I was playing sax and listening to the Stones a lot and I thought, “I could play more songs if I played guitar,” because the songs were written on guitar. Shortly after that, I discovered the jazz rock thing, and I got catapulted into another stratosphere. Robert loaned me the Mahavishnu record, Inner Mounting Flame, and that turned me in a completely different direction.
GW You also took lessons from Steve Lynch, who played in the ‘80’s band Autograph, and Ted Greene, who wrote Chord Chemistry and was one of the most sought out teachers in L.A.
GEORGE I went to Steve just because I saw him doing some eight finger stuff and I wanted to understand the concept, where it came from, what to do, etc. I didn’t take that many lessons from Steve but he did show me that eight finger thing. With Ted, I took lessons before Suicidal, during…as much as I could, basically. If I was going on tour, he’d give me six weeks of stuff to work on. If I was home for a while, I’d go see him weekly for a bit. I’m still learning from Ted. The books, the lessons I have, and his website, a lot of students have been uploading his lessons and song arrangements. There’s some video taped lessons on there, which is a nice memory. I remember sitting in that same spot.
GW What did you work on with Ted?
GEORGE A lot of chord melody, the whole chordal chemistry thing, chord vocabulary, harmony. I’ve always liked the way a clean guitar sounds with a little reverb. You learn a lot of these voicings and how to get the guitar to sing like that.
GW Were you able to do any of that with Suicidal?
GEORGE Every time I had the opportunity to play a non-barre chord I would. I still try to do a lot of chord stuff if I can squeeze it in somewhere. I still practice a lot. I still feel like there’s a lot to learn.
GW You joined the band after the first album came out, but with the Still Cyco album you were able to revisit those songs and play on them. What was that experience like for you?
GEORGE To be honest, I really wasn’t interested in doing it that much. I thought it was something that was done. It had already been stated. There were other reasons behind doing that, I can understand why, but it wasn’t something I wanted to do. [Editor’s Note – Suicidal reportedly re-recorded their first album because they weren’t getting royalties from the original recording.]
GW At the same time, do you feel if you had played on the first album you would have approached the songs the same way?
GEORGE Yeah. It would be interesting to see how I would approach it now. That would be a whole other thing right now. If you keep developing, you should be approaching the same scenarios a little differently.
GW You’ve been with the same equipment companies, Ibanez and Mesa Boogie, for a long time. Why have you stayed with them all these years?
GEORGE The first good guitar I got when I sold my sax was an Ibanez Blazer and it was a really nice guitar with a brass bridge. I still have it and it plays really nice. It’s solid. I bought another Ibanez after that then I got into Suicidal. I can’t remember if they approached me or I asked them. I was already playing them. But since then, they’ve been so good to me as far as getting things I need, what I want, if I need a part sent out or need something adjusted, I’ve been happy with what I get and what I’m using. I’ve never seen much need to look for something else even when something’s been offered. I’ll stick with what I’ve got and I like it. The last guitar I got from Ibanez is a Prestige which I really like a lot. It’s got an auto-trem and you don’t have to cut the strings when you change ‘em. It clips them off and locks them in place. I don’t need an allen wrench or a string winder. There’s a lock on the back of the tuning peg. You don’t have to wrap it around because it won’t slip. For amps, I’ve been using Boogie for a while. I did try a couple of things recently–a Framus Dragon–and it was cool, but there’s something about the Boogies I really like. On the last tour, I was using a Triple Rectifier. I was using a rack mounted Dual Rectifier a bit. In Suicidal, I had a rack with a Tri-Axis and a 290 power amp. I used the Dual Rectifier for rhythms and I switched to the Tri-Axis for my clean and rhythm sounds. Before the Rectifiers, I had a Mark III.
GW You used to play with metal picks back in the day. Do you still use them?
GEORGE No, I stopped using those for several different reasons. They were hard to get. I got them for a guy in Amarillo, Texas, and they were expensive. They were $4 a piece and I got a deal for $2 a piece. I liked them, but they were really hard on my guitars, pickups and strings. I decided to make things a little bit easier for everybody and for a while now I’ve been using a regular Jim Dunlop Tortex .88. The green ones. When I was using light gauge strings, I went through them a lot. I started using heavier strings because of that. Up until two or three years ago I was using .10-.52 Dean Markleys and now I moved up to .11-.52.
GW When did you hook up with Fishbone?
GEORGE Probably five or six years ago. I had known them for a long time because we were on sister labels. We were on Epic and they were on Columbia so I’d see ‘em around a lot. I knew the guy that was playing guitar before me years and years ago, before I was playing in Suicidal Tendencies. He was getting ready to quit and he suggested me. I tried it out and it was different for me. I wasn’t too hip to ska and reggae. I listened to a little reggae but I never played it. I had to kind of learn from scratch. I’m a pretty eclectic guy. There’s a lot of rock, there’s punk, there’s jazz and blues, gospel... There’s a lot of different elements I like playing. Now I can play some ska and it’s fun, especially live. There’s so many spaces to try things, that door’s wide open.
GW Fishbone were a big cult band since the mid-eighties, and I remember a lot of people felt they were gonna go on to really big things. I’m surprised they didn’t get bigger than they did.
GEORGE There’s some of that with Suicidal too. We should have been bigger. We went to France, we’d be mainstream, and the people at the label there said, “What’s going on in America? Why isn’t this happening there?” And we didn’t know. The label’s not doing what they should be doing and that’s how we looked at it. I know Fishbone had the same problems with their label.
GW Fishbone aren’t an easy band to categorize, and Suicidal incorporated a lot of different musical elements as well. Do you feel the labels had problems with bands that weren’t easy to pigeonhole?
GEORGE Yeah, I know that was a problem, and that’s still a problem in the music business now, or what’s left of it. It’s hard to promote something that you can’t define in one word as a genre, like a metal band or a country band. Some bands are a bit of everything. How can you market that? Some people would just rather not do it.
GW When Seattle became the big thing in the early ‘90’s, did it affect Suicidal at all?
GEORGE Yeah, that affected us. Pearl Jam were our label-mates and, all of a sudden all Epic cared about was Pearl Jam. For the Suicidal For Life album, we were on tour with Metallica playing sheds and big crowds. People would come up after the shows and ask, “when’s the new album coming out?,” and we were like, “it’s out.” Someone wasn’t doing what they should have been doing. It should have been on all the promos for the show and there wasn’t any effort into promoting the album. I really think we could have gone a lot further. We had a lot left in us and we didn’t split up because of a lack of internal energy. We had a lot of ideas we could have explore, and we could have been influential in the coming years after with the way things shifted musically in the mainstream. We agreed to break up after that tour in ’94. The best thing we decided to do then was split up because we were still under contract with Epic and they weren’t doing anything for us. Why keep putting effort into this thing when they’re just gonna sit on their hands and not do anything? In hindsight, it would have been a good idea to go on hiatus but it didn’t even come up during the meeting.
GW Did you ever think about going back, or by that point you wanted to do something different?
GEORGE I felt like it was time to do something else, but I haven’t thought about going back much. Fishbone and Infectious Grooves played a show together and I hadn’t seen them in thirteen years. Mike’s doing his thing right now and the Suicidal that’s there is a different band. I’m not ragging on them since they’re all good players. They’ve got a great drummer. It’s just different. We played with Suicidal in L.A. too, and it was just weird being there because I hadn’t seen Suicidal play [in a long time]. Hearing it, it just seemed different. I started doing a lot of different things and I still do them. I do a lot of writing at home and recording on a computer. I did some cues on some TV shows and I’d love to do a movie. I have a whole thing of music that I haven’t gotten out and I’d like to do that. I still feel like I haven’t showed myself to the world yet, really. The package hasn’t been completely opened.