Rudy Sarzo on Randy Rhoads' Mentoring, Quiet Riot's Documentary and the Joys of "Fitting In"

Rudy Sarzo. For more than 35 years he’s played bass alongside some of the biggest names in rock, including Ozzy Osbourne, David Coverdale and Ronnie James Dio, but what Guitar World readers really want to know is…

Why do you think you have been able to play in such a large number of bands throughout your career? — Paul Polito

The secret to my success is that when I join a band, I join the band—the band doesn’t join me. When I’m hired to play in a group, I study the group thoroughly and do the best I can within that role.

For example, when I played in Blue Öyster Cult from 2007 to 2012, I researched their history inside and out. The band sent me a list of nearly 40 songs, and I carefully studied the original recordings so that I would fit in seamlessly. People have told me that I’m a nice guy, but there are a lot of good musicians who are nice guys that aren’t getting a lot of gigs. I’m fortunate to be blessed that people want to work with me.

What inspired you to play bass? — Anthony Fragnito

When I saw the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Showin 1964, I wanted to be acknowledged by girls, as the Beatles were, and that inspired me to want to be a musician.

I was living in New Jersey at the time, and the day after the Beatles were on TV all the boys in my neighborhood combed their hair forward to get some sort of bangs on their foreheads. I started off playing guitar, but when I moved to Miami I switched to bass. The kids on every block had a band, and a lot of those kids were playing guitar, so somehow I got talked into playing bass, and here I am.

What are your fondest memories of the Eighties? — Victor DiPierro

Being in three of the most significant groups of the era—Quiet Riot, Whitesnake and Ozzy’s band. The mass exposure of our videos being played on MTV made those bands—and many others—huge, household names. If your album didn’t sell a million copies, you weren’t considered a success. Today’s generation needs an outlet to promote their music. Of course, now we have YouTube, but it doesn’t have quite the impact that MTV had during the Eighties.

Do you prefer playing in bands that feature one guitarist or two? — Joseph Luigi

That’s a great question. My first two-guitar-player band was Whitesnake, and I had to adjust my tone more so than my playing. Whenever I’ve played with Tommy Aldridge, whether it was Whitesnake or Ozzy’s band, I had to synchronize with his style because he plays what he wants and doesn’t adjust his playing to how the drums were played on the album. That’s why bands hire Tommy—they want his style—whereas people hire me because I fit in. I enjoy playing in one-guitar and two-guitar bands, but there is more freedom to jam in groups with one guitar.

What is your best quality as a bassist? — Tim Whyte

I want to be part of the band’s storytelling process. Basically, a song is a story being told. I strive to speak with my instrument and try not to just play notes—my bass is one of the characters in the story. Whether I’m playing with Ozzy or Dio, I try to contribute as much as I can to the music. I have many great memories of standing onstage next to Ronnie James Dio as he was singing “Man on the Silver Mountain.” He sang it with such absolute conviction that I was happy to provide a supporting groove.

Do you play on the beat, behind the beat or ahead of the beat? — Jason Jenkins

It depends on the drummer and the style of music. Tommy Aldridge, for example, plays ahead of the beat, which not only suited me but suited Randy [Rhoads], because we were playing arenas and stadiums. Playing ahead of the beat is really exciting because it pushes and drives the music. On the other hand, I’ve done gigs with Vinny Appice; he’s the most behind-the-beat guy I’ve ever played with onstage.

In your book, Off the Rails: Aboard the Crazy Train in the Blizzard of Ozz, you tell many stories about Randy Rhoads. What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think of him? — Scott Borg

That Randy was a mentor to all the musicians he made contact with, myself included. He has left a huge legacy. When Randy and I were in Quiet Riot in the Seventies, he spent more time teaching at the Musonia School of Music [in Los Angeles] than actually playing in the band. Randy would not only teach the fundamentals, but his students would bring in their favorite songs and ask him to dissect all the parts. All his students became better guitarists through Randy’s guidance. Randy would mentor after we played shows, as well. Kids would be waiting for him by the backstage door after we performed a show with Ozzy, and Randy would take the time to answer their questions.

Is it true that you quit Ozzy’s group because you no longer felt comfortable playing the same songs onstage that you played when Randy Rhoads was in the band? — Bill Wendy

It was emotionally painful playing those songs, so yes, that’s why I left. The band had no time to grieve, and we just kept playing. Bernie Tormé was hired to play guitar after Randy died. Sharon Osbourne didn’t want to pull the tour because she felt that Ozzy would go home and drink himself to death.

What was your reaction when you heard that Quiet Riot’s Metal Health hit Number One on the Billboard album chart, knocking the Police’s Synchronicity out of the top spot? — Jesse Kailua

It was November 1983, and we were all incredibly elated. Metal Health was Number Two on Billboard for a while and other artists were jumping over us. The week we went to Number One, the album sold a million copies! We were opening for Black Sabbath at the time, and then we played our first headlining show at Cobo Hall in Detroit on New Year’s Eve. The Metal Health lineup of Quiet Riot went from driving around California in a station wagon opening for Vandenberg to one of the biggest bands of the Eighties.

What are your thoughts on the recent Quiet Riot documentary Well Now You’re Here, There’s No Turning Back? — John Sidlovsky

It’s excellent! It puts the focus back on Quiet Riot’s contribution to rock music in the Eighties. Unfortunately, [lead singer] Kevin DuBrow died in 2007; he and I go back many years and I have a lot of great memories with him. I’ve known Kevin since the Seventies, during the Randy Rhoads–era Quiet Riot days. And then I shared an apartment with him when we played in the band DuBrow right before I joined Ozzy’s band. [Drummer] Frankie Banali is keeping the band alive today. And for someone like myself, who has put a lot of love and energy into Quiet Riot, I’m happy that the band is still going, and the documentary shows it.

What are your recollections of playing on Whitesnake’s Slip of the Tongue, and recording the album with Steve Vai? — Mark Hitt

When Tommy Aldridge and I finished the basic tracks, Steve wasn’t a member of the group. Adrian Vandenberg wrote the songs with David Coverdale, and Adrian injured his hand during the making of the album. Then Vai came in to complete the record; I didn’t get to play with him until we toured. During the Slip of the Tongue tour, Steve was promoting his solo album, Passion and Warfare, and we performed songs from it. Vai brought a very modern guitar style to Whitesnake, and it jelled perfectly with Adrian’s more classic, blues-based approach.

Two of your trademark onstage moves are your “over-handed” fretting technique and licking your fingers. How did those come about? — Mike Puma

If the music inspires me to do certain moves, I do them because they are all part of the flow. What initially inspired me to lick my fingers was that, when I started playing bass, I used to play the old-school flat-wound strings. Remember, I’ve been playing bass long before round-wound Rotosound strings have been around. The flat-wound strings used to get stiff because they had no grooves, so I started licking my fingers so I could pluck the strings without hurting my fingers. This was before I learned about boiling strings, which is what I do now. I get one show out of each set of strings; then I boil them and play them again. I like my strings to be supple. I still lick my fingers today because it’s part of my personality.

What’s next for Rudy Sarzo? — Paul Minster

I’m currently playing in a band with Tracii Guns called Gunzo. I also want to mentor musicians. People often ask me questions in person or on Facebook, and I do the best I can to help them. It’s always been difficult to get a record deal or to be heard. I want to offer guidance to the next generation of musicians and bands.

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