Whether it's a famous mate lending a helping hand, a superstar grooming a protégé's career, an oldster wanting to increase his cred with the kids or just a jokey get-together, there seems to be no end of name guitarists moonlighting on other people's records. But are the results ever any good? Do the players ever contribute anything worthwhile, apart from their name? Or is it just an exclusive boys' club?
Few session players set out to become session players in the first place, and even fewer aim to stay there. The logic runs something like this: get yourself known as a player, add a few good names to your CV and the solo deal will be just round the corner. Right? Not quite. But there are exceptions. One of them is Steve Lukather.
With more than 700 credits to his name, Lukather is one of the most prolific session guitarists in the business and one of the most famous. Beginning his sessioneering with the likes of Alice Cooper and Diana Ross in the late 1970s, he continued it even after he'd found fame with fellow band-of-sessioneers Toto. "We took a lot of shit from the press for it," he says, "but at that time we were doing almost every record that came out of LA." Style, genre or visibility were irrelevant: if Luke could add something to Cher's Take me home, he could do the same to Earth, Wind & Fire's Faces or Elton John's 21 At 33. With Toto already established, his position as Quincy Jones' first-call player would take his name to an even wider audience with a 1982 album: Michael Jackson's Thriller.
"I was doing all of Quincy's records back then," Luke says. "I wanted to be part of this one as Michael was way hot after Off the wall." Fittingly, Thriller followed Jones' The dude and Lukather's own Toto IV as the Grammy Awards' Album Of The Year.
Yet, it was another guitarist who took the plaudits for Thriller's impact, despite only contributing to one track. Eddie Van Halen's searing solo on Beat it is rightly considered a classic, and the catalyst for MJ appearing on the then rock-slanted MTV. However, it was Luke's job to bind VH's piece (which was over a backing track with too many chord changes) to the erratic percussion track. "I had to reduce the distorted guitar sound, and this is what was released," Lukather recalls.
Van Halen was simply chuffed to be asked. As a non-session player, he wasn't even concerned about making money from the deal - despite advice from everyone around him. As he told Rolling Stone, "I was a complete fool according to the rest of the band, our manager and everybody else, but I did it as a favour. I was not used. Maybe Michael will give me some dance lessons some day."
Although they didn't meet on this occasion, it was not the last time the two guitarists would work together. One of Lukather's staple session gigs is for Van Halen - but for backing vocals. "I'm a good luck charm for them. Every VH record I have sung on entered the charts at number one! Too bad it doesn't work for me!" Sadly, not even EVH's presence on Lukather's first solo album in 1989 could reverse the trend.
If anyone runs Lukather close for most respected sessioneer, it's Larry Carlton, so it was fitting that the 2002 Grammy for Best Pop Instrumental Album went to the pair's live album No substitutions. "When I was just starting to play, Larry was my hero," Luke said at the ceremony. Carlton's proved to be a hero to plenty of others, too. During the 1970s, he played on more than 100 gold records, by acts as diverse as Joni Mitchell, Barbra Streisand, Linda Ronstadt, Michael Jackson and Steely Dan. In fact, it's for his Kid Charlemagne solo on Steely Dan's The royal scam that he is most often remembered. "I do get asked a lot about that solo," Carlton admits. "A few years ago I put a little segment in my show where I would just play four or five of my most famous recordings. Kid Charlemagne was one of those, and I had to go back and relearn it and try to duplicate myself."
Speaking of copying, another seventies session superstar who found fame if not with, then because of, Steely Dan was Rick Derringer. So grateful were Donald Fagen and Walter Becker for Derringer's contributions to their songs (his solo on Chained lightning remains one of Fagen's personal favourites) that they wrote Ricky don't lose that number in tribute.
Despite the relative merits of Carlton, Lukather and Derringer, one serious session player achieved personal success to eclipse them all. Prolific in the early 1960s while still in his teens, Jimmy Page flitted from studio to studio, playing the parts that more famous guitarists would later claim they played (often in good faith: producers would commission Page to re-record their stars' solos in secret). Brian Poole And The Tremeloes, The Rolling Stones, Billy Fury, David Jones (soon to be Bowie), Lulu, Tom Jones, The Pretty Things, The Who, John Mayall and hundreds of others had the pleasure of the young Page in their studio. In the face of such prolific output, disputes were bound to arise. Most famous of them all is the "did he, didn't he?" question about Page's contribution to The Kinks' All day and all of the night. Although he didn't actually play the solo, Page's mere presence at the sessions (and the fact he has never denied it) torments Dave Davies to this day.
Decades later and Page returned to his pre-Zep collaborating habits, sharing stages with The Black Crowes, Puff Daddy, David Coverdale and even Robert Plant - only now it's for the sheer pleasure of it and not for money. "I found working with Puff Daddy great," the guitarist says of their Come with me/Kashmir mash-up. "I had a great time and he was a nice guy. Working with The Black Crowes came about by chance. I was doing a charity concert and someone suggested asking them to join me as they were in London on tour. And they said yes." Funny that. Who wouldn't jump at the chance to work with a guitar legend?
No stranger to new line-ups, Eric Clapton has also appeared on his fair share of OGRs - Other Guitarists' Records. Again, unlike a bona fide session player, he tends to only help out personal friends or heroes. In 1968, while John Lennon was busy invoking the talents of Yoko on The Beatles' White album, George Harrison drafted in a mate who also happened to be a decent musician. EC's resulting appearance on While my guitar gently weeps is rarely forgotten by any who hear it, although at the time his presence was strictly hush hush. "It was an anonymous venture," he explains, "because I think George was struggling with the two big boys in the group and he needed some back-up on one of his songs. But it was a real kick. I mean, to watch those guys work in those days was pretty inspiring." The Band, Bob Dylan, Elton John, The Rolling Stones, Pete Townshend and Phil Collins have also benefited from Slowhand's bluesy licks, but for the guitarist, the sessions with BB King proved the most memorable. "In the early days, just to be able to meet someone that I'd heard on record was a dream come true," says Clapton. "I spent so long with BB working on Riding with the King and it got to be the best thing you can hope for; where you stop being in awe of someone and you can actually be with them like a peer."
While not quite a session player (although his seventies work for Lord Sutch, Carl Douglas And The Tridents, and many others was done as one), the lumbering stroll at which Jeff Beck releases his own albums does mean the majority of his appearances are on other people's records, often his mates'. Stevie Wonder's Talking book features Beck playing on Superstition - a track Stevie had originally written for him - while Brian May's 1998 album track The guv'nor went one further as it was actually about JB. Typically, it took a while to come off. "I actually plucked up the courage to say, Jeff, would you play on my track? And he came down and played some great stuff," May recalls. "But he asked to take it away to perfect - and a year later, two days before I was due to deliver to EMI, it finally came back." In the circumstances, it's amazing that Beck's appearances on records by Mick Jagger, Tina Turner, Roger Waters, Seal et al were ever finished at all.
And so it goes on. Bob Dylan has guested with The Band, The Byrds, Johnny Cash, Harry Belafonte, Clapton, Leonard Cohen, The Grateful Dead, Harrison, Stevie Nicks and many more. Meanwhile the late Warren Zevon, has called on the guitar talent of David Gilmour, Glenn Frey, Lukather, Joe Walsh, Neil Young, Tom Petty and Ry Cooder and his friend Dylan too. For success by association, he's Top 5... even if his records never were. Similarly extravagant as an employer is Alice Cooper - Joe Satriani, Steve Vai, Joe Perry, Slash and - hey! - Steve Lukather are just a few who have helped out over the years.
At the other end of the scale, both opera tenor Pavarotti and fellow Italian Zucchero have eked duets from BB King, Jeff Beck, Brian May and Eric Clapton. In each case, a large international audience is suddenly accessible to the singer. But it's not just non-entities who hope to benefit from rubbing shoulders with rock's aristocracy.
Michael Jackson was quick to follow Van Halen's appearance on Beat it with another shredder du jour, Slash, for 1992's Dangerous. The question is: was MJ filling a Slash-sized whole or trying to recreate a past success? While EVH's solo on Beat it remains undeniably him, can the same be said of Slash's playing on Black and white? Could Bob Dylan's Under the red sky, Lenny Kravitz's Mama said, or even Carole King's Colour of your dreams have survived without Slash's contributions? For all his great work, the answer is probably yes. What's mostly been added is... his name.
On the other hand, who could mistake the Floydian bends of David Gilmour on solos for his pal Paul McCartney's projects: Flowers In The Dirt's We got married and No more lonely nights. Distinctive in its parity, Gilmour's touch is equally identifiable on Grace Jones' Slave to the rhythm, Bryan Ferry's Boys and girls and Pete Townshend's White city, to name a few. Only McCartney's later fifties tribute, Run devil run, finds Gilmour less distinctive, although he was Macca's first choice. "I remember Dave showing me some old photos of himself when he was a teenager, and his hair's all slicked back and he really looks like he's rocking," Sir Paul recalls. "I remember thinking then; If I ever want to do rock 'n' roll, this guy was there. He was an obvious choice for that reason."
Another always distinctive style comes from the Red Special of Brian May. Whether lending licks to Foo Fighters' Tired of you or Meat Loaf's A time for heroes, Bri's trademark sound endures. Even on (new 'Queen' member) Paul Rodgers' I'm ready, on which Brian sort of plays the blues, it's still unmistakably him. It's usually the same for Johnny Marr. After splitting from the most feted indie band of their day ("there are things that I want to do that can only happen outside of The Smiths") Marr turned moonlighting on other people's records into a whole career. The Pretenders, Pet Shop Boys, Beth Orton, Kirsty MacColl, Neil Finn, Billy Bragg, Beck, Oasis, Talking Heads, Bryan Ferry and even M People have all benefited from Marr's supple jangle, though such session-hoppers need to be careful about cut-offs. One aborted Marr collaboration from the mid-ninteies was with Echo And The Bunnymen's Ian McCulloch... years later, Mac revived a co-tune for the footie single he was working on, (How does it feel to be) On top of the world. It's the first and last time the king of indie guitar helped penned a song (albeit unwittingly) for The Spice Girls...
Left to themselves, celebrity guitarists need only the slightest of excuses to drift together. Noel Gallagher and Paul Weller met in 1994, exchanged mutual admiration (Noel for The Jam, Weller for Oasis debut single Supersonic) and began a spate of collaboration. Weller played on Oasis songs (Champagne supernova, Swamp song, a BBC2 Later appearance); Gallagher reciprocated (Stanley road, and a live support slot). They are, simply, the best of mates.
For Brian May, collaboration can be more about creative restoration. In 1983, sick of the sight of his Queen band-mates, Brian May assembled a band of friends (Eddie Van Halen and Beck bassist Phil Chen included) for the one-off Starfleet Project single. "I realised a big gap in my life was not playing with other musicians," he says. "I had almost never done it. We'd never been into the superstar thing of people guesting on the albums."
So-called 'guitarist's guitarists' are, of course often the most enthusiastic. Witness our cover star Steve Vai's mirthful organisation of Merry axemas - A guitar Christmas. "I had the desire to make an instrumental guitar Christmas record performing traditional Christmas songs with a twist," Vai explains. "It was difficult at first to pick the players to call, but Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Eric Johnson, Jeff Beck, Joe Satriani, Brian Setzer, Steve Morse, Steve Vai, Joe Perry, Richie Sambora, Alex Lifeson and Hotei are the ones that delivered stellar Yuletide guitar on a silver platter." That's a nice 'band' to have, yes? Could it even be these guys do it just for fun?
YOUNG GUNS (GO FOR IT)
Famous players swapping numbers and appearing on each other's records is one thing. But a lot of guitarists have actually tried to raise their street cred by being seen with This Year's Model (bad), or by trying to lend their weight to break the career of a new talent (good) or even by playing on something just for laughs (downright ugly). Some are guilty of all three.
For May, promoting Anita (Mrs May) Dobson's Talking of love was to be expected. But he's also worked with everyone from Japanese star Minako Honda to girl group Fuzzbox to comedy quartet Bad News. (Their track The life of Brian may have swung it.) None of it can tarnish the worship of other beneficiaries. "Taylor Hawkins and Dave Grohl are familiar with everything Queen ever did," Brian reveals of his work with Foo Fighters. "As soon as I turned the AC30 up full, wound off the treble, and fed my guitar into it with all pickups in phase, feeding back, sustaining like a cello, Taylor said; Ha, the White Queen sound! He was spot on, of course - even though I haven't used that sound in probably 15 years."
While May-sponsored talents have so far lacked longevity, David Gilmour's attempt at playing the svengali proved infinitely more successful. Funding, producing and playing on the demos that would win her a contract with EMI, in 1977 he gave a young Kate Bush the leg-up that any fledgling talent would kill for. "I listened to a tape of this girl and she was brilliant," he recalled years later. "We made proper master recordings - not demos - of three tracks which we played to EMI and they signed her. I chose the songs then employed other people to do the work - and it worked brilliantly."
Bush's subsequent debut LP The kick inside, as well as The dreaming, Sensual world and Hounds of love all feature Gilmour's work. New discoveries did not get in the way of the old pals' act, however. When long-time Floyd friend Roy Harper wanted musicians for his Once project, Gilmour was his first choice. "I thought Dave was right for one song, he ended up on two. And I needed a female singer so he brought Kate." As he deadpans: "You resort to your friends in circumstances when you need things."
The downside of such nepotistic noodlings is that for every sleb who takes someone else's solo, that's another opportunity lost for bona fide session guys. The upside is that if you ever do make it in, you'll find the guitar world is a small one, where there are no end of new famous friends just waiting to help you out. What are you waiting for?
Steve Lukather is the reigning king of session guitar, with over 700 albums to his credit. Guitarist e-mailed him for some tips of the trade...
Guitarist: Of the 700-plus albums you've appeared on, what's been the most memorable - outside of your 'own' music - to take part in and why?
Luke: "It's hard to remember a 'best' session, there have been so many with the best of the best. I have forgotten a lot as I was doing 20-25 sessions a week in the heyday. I'd never trade that for any amount of money and I am willing to take ALL the shit from the so-called 'music critics' as they have NO idea what it takes to BE a session player. To this day I get nothing but SHIT from these c**ts but I am still here, happy and working, after almost 30 years! If they had any power at all I would have been out of work 25 years ago, ha ha! All I can say is that the very best legends I have played with are the nicest people. The 'rockstar fabs' are dickheads and for the most part had 15 minutes of fame and are gone.
"God surely has blessed me with a gift and opportunity - there are millions of guys better than me. I have no delusions but I will take my life and my blessings and run with it and have a great fucking time! Some day I might write a book, as if anyone gives a fuck, but even last weekend I played on Les Paul's new CD. Yeah THAT Les Paul! Me and Kenny Wayne Shepherd tradin' licks. He is a great player and a great kid, massive feel and heart..."
Guitarist: Nice. Inevitably though, what sessions have been a real ball-ache?
Luke: "I finally gave up session playing as a job when I was hired (without knowing who I was working for) for Richard Simmons - a workout guru, WAY light in the loafers, and it wasn't music. I was whoring myself out for money. Richard Simmons was the only time I ever walked out on a session - I realised that I had to be more selective. I've had a chance to work with 99 per cent of all my heroes. Money don't buy that. I wouldn't trade it for anything!"
Guitarist: Is there any other guitarist you'd never have a duel with, live or in the studio?
Luke: "Man, they are all better than me but I can hold my own. The better someone plays the better I play, but I am still blown away by greatness! The hum of Jeff Beck's amp blows away 99 per cent of any player on earth. I am but a turd in the punch bowl of guitar players! I got lucky livin' in LA. I have no ego - how could I when I go down to the end of my hill and Alan Holdsworth is playin'!? I am not worthy to suck the peanuts outta his poop but I always have a beer with him and bow to the greatness and he has always been kind to me. I am not worthy, haha."
Guitarist: If a reader wanted to pursue a career in sessions, what's the #1 piece of advice you'd give them?
Luke: "There is no session scene anymore, it's over! The A-guys are doin' road gigs or taking a DAY job. For real! Thanks to ProTools you don't have to play well and no-one has the budgets to pay the A-guys. So start a band, write your own music and go for it."
Guitarist: Some of your solos and riffs are rightly acclaimed as classics, but be honest, have you ever done a session where you think you played badly?/p>
Luke: "Well, I think I suck most of the time, I have had a few lucky moments but I am consistently humbled by greatness. It doesn't have to be flash, fast bullshit - the guys in Radiohead KILL me with their sounds and ideas."
Guitarist: And the question everyone's asking: what's Michael Jackson really like?
"I wouldn't send MY kid to Neverland, haha. Mike has always been nice to me. I don't know him at all beyond playing a session for him. He pays well!"
For the full, unbelievable Lukather discography (including an album with Joe Pasquale), visit stevelukather.com!
Guitarist (Future Publishing Ltd), April 2005