Roberto Agustin Miguel Santiago Samuel Trujillo Veracruz was born in Santa Monica, to a Mexican and Native American family that celebrated music in their home.

The family split up when Trujillo was five, and he spent most of his boyhood in the Culver City area in West L.A., between his father's place in Venice Beach and his mother's Mar Vista apartment, but he held onto his family's love of music. "My mother was a huge fan of Motown – people like Marvin Gaye, James Brown and Sly and the Family Stone," he later recalled to Louder Sound. "Her girlfriends would be dancing, and there was this chest of drawers I would climb up on and play air guitar or air saxophone – air-anything. Then I'd go hang out with my dad who lived in Venice, and he'd play anything from the Rolling Stones to Led Zeppelin to Beethoven. But then my cousins were listening to Black Sabbath or on the R&B side they were listening to Parliament."

At age ten, Trujillo saved up to buy a copy of Santana's Abraxas. "I remember loving Carlos' playing, but also being enthralled with the album covers. Just the women and everything on their album covers," Trujillo told For Bass Players Only in 2014. "Then there was a spiritual side to it, too. There was all this cosmic stuff going on and I remember that on Santana III, there was this guy flying through the sky and there was like a cobra and it was like a psychedelic trip. The beautiful thing about vinyl was that it was sort of this package that you would get that took you into another world. It wasn't just the music, but the artwork. And when you opened up the jacket, it was like the treasure that was inside or getting a poster."

Trujillo grew up with family in rival Venice and Culver City gangs — "It made family get-togethers interesting," he said for the 2016 book, Metallica: All That Matters — but mostly avoided gang violence himself. “Maybe I knew the right people," he said. Trujillo entered pop-locking dance competitions with his friends, and he also took an interest in playing music himself, mesmerized by his flamenco guitarist father.

"Originally I wanted to be a drummer, but we couldn't afford a drum set, so that didn't happen. I wanted to be a keyboard/synth guy, but we couldn't afford a piano," Trujillo recalled in the 2004 book, So What! The Good, the Mad and the UglyBut at age 13, Trujillo attended the 1978 Southern California music festival Cal Jam II, and was struck by a performance by funk rockers Rubicon. "Someone from the band Rubicon [future Night Ranger and Damn Yankees bassist Jack Blades] did a cool, funky bass solo," he said, "and I realized that this is the instrument that really moves me."

Trujillo picked up an old, hollow body Harmony bass from one of his father's friends. "It didn't even work and the action was an inch off the fretboard," he remembered. "It was great for training." Trujillo loved funk, R&B, jazz, prog and hard rock — "It was the '70s, so even tracks like 'Earache My Eye' by Cheech and Chong, I used to LOVE that song," he said in So What!. He also gravitated to bass legend Jaco Pastorius, later the subject of a Trujillo-produced documentary. "Hearing him was like hearing Eddie Van Halen doing 'Eruption' for the first time," Robert recalled for the 2021 book, Metallica. "You thought, 'What instrument is that?'... He was funk, he was rock, he was soul. And his whole attitude was punk."

Trujillo joined a high school band called Oblivion and played local backyard parties. "We played a lot of Rush, Van Halen, Led Zeppelin and a shitload of Black Sabbath," he later recalled. He also played in bands called St. Regis and True Colors, and sometimes jammed with his Culver City High School classmate Rocky George, a guitarist. Trujillo was an active student in school sports (basketball, football and soccer) and theater, who surfed, skated and even picked up acting roles outside of school — he appeared briefly in 1978's Walter Matthau film House Calls, 1980's Gary Coleman TV movie Scout’s Honor and a 1982 episode of CHiPs called "Rock Devil Rock," which revolved around a Kiss-like band and featured a cameo from Elvira, Mistress of the Dark.

Under "Plans" in his high school yearbook, Trujillo wrote "Attend Musician Institute of Tech (MIT), study bass as a studio musician & become rich & famous like Led Zeppelin." He thanked his literature teacher and closed with a quote from a Roy Rogers song that Van Halen had recently covered: "Happy trails to you until we meet again." He went on to study jazz for a year at Dick Grove School of Music for a year, while Rocky George joined Suicidal Tendencies, a hardcore punk band taking a metal direction, which would invite Trujillo into the fold a few years later.

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