Part one (May 2010)

The glory days of recording sessions — which were about 1976 to 1984 — were exciting times. There was so much work going on. All the big studios had three different rooms, and they were all buzzing with real players laying down tracks on everything from records to film and television scores to jingles. On a lot of the pop stuff, you might not even know who the artist was—you’d just get a call from a contractor to be at Capitol Studios from noon to 6 pm, Monday through Friday.

It was all about how many sessions you had each week. One guy would go, “Well, I got 20,” and another guy would say, “Hey, I got 23.” A session was a three-hour time period, so you’d want to fill up your day and night, and go for four or more sessions per day. If you were a guitar player, you could also sneak in and do a quick solo or an overdub, and add another “session” to your day. You see, it didn’t matter if you were in the studio for five minutes or two hours and 58 minutes, it still counted as a three-hour session on the books. It became a challenge to see how many sessions you could do, and still do quality work.

Back then, nobody made demos — very few people had home recording equipment. The songwriter or artist would show up and perform the song on a piano or an acoustic guitar, or play a cassette with maybe a piano and vocal. You’d get pretty detailed chord sheets, but most of it was a blank canvas. From that, you’d have to come up with a part right away.

Now, the idea was to get two tunes in three hours from scratch, after never hearing any of the material before that moment. No rehearsal, either. It all had to happen immediately. You had to have big ears, man. And you also had to have options, because maybe you’d play something and the producer or someone would say, “I don’t like that. Come up with something else.” It was all a challenge, and you had to bring your best game in order to rise to the occasion.

That’s what’s amazing about today’s crop of young guitar players — so many of them go right for the wall. It’s all about the chops. But there are not a whole lot of guys who could take a chart showing 24 bars of E with slashes on it, and come up with a part that makes sense in five minutes with the right sound and the right groove—as well as adding a little hook note or a nice chord voicing to add something hooky that wasn’t there originally. We were basically co-writing the songs, but we never got the dough for it. The room would get real quiet if you asked for part of a song, but when I think about how we really rewrote these people’s tunes — well, let’s just say it would be astounding if people could hear the before and after.

Part two (June 2010)

THE SESSION SCENE WASN’T JUST ABOUT CHOPS — personality had a lot to do with it, as well. Guys would come in with big attitudes and all the chops in the world, and at first you’d go, “Oh wow, that guy can really play. That’s cool.” But a lot of these guys wouldn’t stop. They’d noodle constantly, and just drive people so crazy that they’d want to kill you at the end of the day. These guys were usually tortured with practical jokes. You also had to be able to hang, but not be a brown noser. There’s a fine line between being cool and gracious, and being like the teacher’s pet. Brown nosers got raked through the coals. But if you proved you could deliver the goods, it was more because of the friendship thing that other players would recommend you for sessions. Once you got into the scene, it became your second family. Here’s one of my favorite stories that illustrates the bond we had…

I was late to a live tracking session because I got a flat tire, and it was a monster session with strings and horns and everything. Gene Page was the arranger, and he was notorious for writing out all the parts. So I’m 19 years old, and I’m late, and I’m panicking. Lee Ritenour is in the Guitar One chair, obviously, and as I sit down, I’m looking at my part—which is Guitar Two—and it’s really the piano part in Db with no chord symbols anywhere. Everything was written notes. Now, I know we’re getting one or two takes to get this down before they move on to the next tune. There are 60 musicians in the studio, and time is money. If I had gotten there on time and relaxed, I could have gotten it together, but I’m all flustered. I’m late, I’m young, and I’m new. I’m trying to make a name for myself, and if I f**k this all up— well, bad news travels fast. And people want to kick you down, because it will open a spot for somebody else to come in. When you’re trying to build a reputation, there’s no room for error.

So I looked over at Ritenour, and all the color had left my skin. And I peek at his chart, and it’s “tacet,” “fill”—nothing. Just nothing. And my part is copying the piano part with all these voicings and five flats. I don’t think I took a breath for two minutes. They start counting off the tune, and Rit sees the panic in my face, and he just reaches over and switches charts on me. He gave me the easy part. He didn’t have to do that, and I could have choked. Of course, Rit can sight read anything, so he just relaxed through it, and at the end, I almost tongue kissed him. I go, “Dude, you could’ve thrown me under the bus.” He just goes, “Ah, I like you.” Back then, a guy like that could make or break you. We’ve been friends for 35 years now.

Part three (July 2010)

LET ME TELL YOU ABOUT CLICK tracks—they ruined my hearing. They are the reason why I have tinnitus so bad. Back in the heyday of the session musician, you’d get one mix in the phones. One. Today, everyone has their own headphone mixer they can control and get a mix that’s perfect for them. But in the ’70s and ’80s, you’d have six guys vying for what they wanted out of that one headphone mix, and the click track would be sent to everyone, and it was loud. Also, the click we’re talking about was not a nice, rhythmic shaker or something like that. It was that classic BANG, BANG, BANG, BANG that felt like someone was pounding a f**king nail right between your eyes. And, of course, you’d sometimes get that singer who had never been in the studio before who decides to take the headphones off, and put them around the microphone—which is the equivalent of sticking a mic right inside a speaker. So you’d get a 10kHz tone at 200dB ripping your eardrums apart. That was a drag.

We actually didn’t play too loud at sessions. In the beginning, your average amp was maybe a blackface Fender Deluxe. Then, when they started putting the stereo thing together with the Boss chorus, you’d try to get a couple of Fender Princetons. Pretty soon, though, I started playing louder. But, still, if it was a live tracking date—and your amps were in the same room as the other musicians— they didn’t want you slamming it. If you messed up, you’d ruin a take because the guitar sound would bleed through everything else in the room.

Now, back when guitar solos were considered to be hip, they’d hire you to do a solo on a record, but they’d also hire a couple of other guys to come in and try it. You never really knew what was going on. Things were a lot more covert back then. But you’d run into people, and say, “Hey, did you have a go at that Joni Mitchell tune? Yeah. Me too. I wonder which solo they’re going to keep?” So you’d kind of know which three or four guys you were up against, and it was like earning your stripes when they picked your solo. Of course, you didn’t know that until the record came out.

It’s kind of, well, interesting that most sessions are done piecemeal these days. Now, guys have home studios with all their stuff miked up, and you just come over and plug into their Pro Tools rig, or you send digital files back and forth from your home studio to their home studio. You give them a couple of takes, and they mess with it later. All the interaction between musicians is via computer screens. Nothing is in real time. But there’s something about sitting in a room with a bunch of guys and playing together. Interplay will happen. A cool fill will happen that the other guys will play off. And accidents will happen that are really cool. It was really improvisation, but within a strict song structure. We were constantly creating.

Part four (August 2010)

GUITAR PLAYER’S FACEBOOK PAGE posted a question asking readers what they wanted me to talk about, and many of you said, “career advice.” Unfortunately, it’s really tough to give career advice to a guitarist in 2010—especially if you’re looking to be a session player. That gig is almost non-existent. There are not many players who still do this sh*t, and those who do have to tap dance to keep things going. They have their own home studios with their gear all set up, and clients send them audio files. There’s less and less human contact. It’s really kind of scary.

The studio camaraderie of the ’70s and ’80s has disappeared, because recording budgets have disappeared. The record companies got hip to people making records at home, so they cut back the budgets. Now, by necessity, people have become very meticulous about recording costs. They’ll go, “Here’s what I can pay. Take your time and send me a couple of different solos, and a couple of different rhythm parts, and we’ll sift through it.” So everybody makes their own deals, and the rules change project by project.

For example, when I make my records, I hire guys for a live session and pay them what they’re worth. But I also use the barter system. You know, you sing on my record, I’ll play on yours, and we’re clean. No money changes hands. That’s a good approach because everyone is on a tight budget, and whatever you don’t spend, you get to keep, and that’s the money you use to eat with.

The days of the Musician’s Union guy checking up on a studio date are long over. They can’t police this sh*t! Everyone has a home studio, and they don’t know what is going on, and I don’t care. The union f**ked the record guys. The guys who play film-soundtrack dates got different deals, and they’ll get great pensions, but the union dropped the ball so poorly for the record guys that we don’t have any allegiance to them at all. The embarrassing amount of money I’ll get from the Musician’s Union when I reach pension age is a joke.

So I guess the best “career advice” for session-musician hopefuls is to be a movie guy, but the handful of guys who do film soundtracks will never leave that job. It’s a coveted position—almost like a lifetime gig—but it’s also an intense pressure reading job. There is no time to get anything together—you look at the dots and you read them—and even great players can fold under that kind of pressure. I think we’re talking about six guys who hold those positions. Dean Parks is probably the reigning king. He started out as a saxophone player, so he can read anything. He’s a quiet giant with a magical touch who doesn’t just read notes— he interprets the music. Now, a lot of players can methodically sit and look at the dots and play them, but can they put any emotion into it? That’s what you have to ask yourself if you really want to go after a movie gig. Chops alone won’t break you into that business.

Part five (September 2010)

LAST MONTH, I SAID A LOT OF players can look at the dots and play them, but that only a handful of musicians can sight-read anything and bring emotion to the music. Tommy Tedesco had that ability, and so do Dean Parks, Carl Verheyen, George Doering, and a few others. So how do you put emotion into what you’re reading? First, you can’t be afraid of what you’re reading. It has to be like reading a book. When you read, you immediately understand the language, and you’re instantly interpreting what the writer has to say. You have to bring that instant comprehension and interpretation to reading music, as well.

If you want to get hired for a film-scoring session, there’s also the pressure of reading and interpreting the music in real time along with an orchestra and a conductor, and there’s a totally different time thing going on. It’s not like listening to a click track. A lot of stuff is rubato— which means there is no time—so you not only have to watch the conductor, you also have to know how to play with an orchestra. You may have to anticipate the downbeat, or lay back on it. It’s a real art.

Those kinds of reading sessions are a whole other ballgame than your typical rock, pop, or funk session, where you often look at a chord sheet and compose your part on the spot. That’s a different kind of art, and it’s something you work at your whole life. You can’t prep for instantly playing a solo or a riff or a rhythm part live—that’s the point of improvisation. You’ve been preparing for those moments by practicing and studying, and through practical experience. You also have to listen.

On that note, it’s a shame when you see kids who play really great when they’re sitting on the edge of their beds, but if you put them with a real drummer and a live band, and they fall apart. Their time goes right out the window, and if you can’t play in the pocket, I don’t give a sh*t how flashy you are. Here’s the lesson for the month: If it doesn’t groove, it sucks.

I think some players jump over the nuts and bolts, and immediately start shredding. They never learn to play rhythm guitar—and not just play rhythm guitar, but own it. Check out any Motown record. There’s a guitarist whose only job was to play two and four with the drummer, and he made those records sing. There’s something to be said about “stupid” playing. Can you play dumb and really swing? Here’s a great exercise that works for any style of music: Program a groove into a drum machine, and have a friend write out some chord changes. Now, you have five minutes to compose a part on the spot. What are you going to play? Can you play in time? Do your parts bring the song to life? I believe that song interpretation is what a player should focus on, because there are a million shredders out there. The big question is, “Do you want to work, or do you want to show everyone how fast you are?”

Part six (October 2010)

IT OCCURS TO ME THAT I SHOULD perhaps throw a glimmer of hope at GP readers, as opposed to all the gloom and doom I’ve been spewing lately about the collapse of session dates, diminishing recording quality, and machines taking over the world. I mean, we’ve all done the dance with the technology stuff. And technology is wonderful if you use it properly, and not as an excuse for bad playing or singing. Non-destructive editing, endless amount of recording time, plug-ins you can try millions of things and risk nothing. But, ironically, if you can’t sing and can’t play, technology can make you sound perfect. And that’s what we have today — records where everything is perfect.

Happily, life is on a pendulum, and I think we’ve now swung so far to the right, that we’re at a point where everybody knows everything is auto-tuned and fixed. Want a test? Listen to a record, and then go see the band live. If they sound awful, well, now you know how the record was made! But it’s high time for that pendulum to swing back the other way, and I think that it is.

I only have to look to my son, Trevor, and his crew to see that some young people want to go back to the woodshed and practice, practice, practice. They care about playing well, and they want to sound great, but they want to sound great without bringing in all the magic fix-its. They don’t want to work that way, and they don’t want their music to be all slicked out with every little glitch repaired. They get that there was something wonderful about the records I grew up listening to. I mean, hey, there were a few mistakes in a lot of those classic tracks. Things were loose, and a little out of tune or whatever, but when you go back and listen to a Rolling Stones record, you don’t go, “Ugh, that’s out of tune.” You go, “Wow, that is wonderfully beautiful.” I find it exhilarating to hear kids say, “Yeah, yeah—we know. Records today are all bells and whistles. We gotta get back to the real deal.”

Now, the real deal is where I like to work. I just co-produced, co-wrote, and played a couple of things on Lee Ritenour’s 6 String Theory album [see the interview with Ritenour]. There are like 25 guitar players on it, and it was really fun. Some incredible music went down—some great jazz, blues, and country picking. It was a real eclectic group, and everyone did their shit live. You started from here, you went through all the mess, and then you came out the other end. That was the take. People would walk in and say. “Wow, man—everybody is playing at the same time!” There’s a magic that happens when you do that, and people are amazed when they see it, which cracks me up, because that’s the way it was supposed to be when I got in the game.

Part seven (November 2010)

ONE INTERESTING THING ABOUT the glory days of the session scene was that you typically didn’t get an opportunity to sound like yourself until you made your mark. Until then, you’d show up, and the producers might throw all these names at you to explain which guitarist they wanted you to sound like. As a young guy coming up, that would always piss me off. I’d go, “Yeah, everybody wants to sound like Larry Carlton, but not everyone is Larry Carlton!” It would be really frustrating to kind of keep within the lines—you know what I mean? Now, everyone’s favorite influences come out in their playing—and I was certainly influenced by Larry—but what you usually get is a bunch of yourself coming out along with a little bit of whatever influenced you. That’s how you discover and define your own style—you can’t get there by copying someone else completely.

So if you wanted to bring your own approach into the studio, you really had to try to blow people’s minds and get your style into their heads. Playing on a hit always helped, because then some of the producers around town would look for the guy who helped make that song successful. And if all the planets aligned, man, they might not ask you to sound like someone else anymore. That was a major triumph for me when that happened.

But I can’t complain too much about having to absorb other players’ styles for certain producers, because it’s all knowledge I was able to use in other areas of my career. This was incredibly helpful to me in everything from helping plan chart success for my band projects and solo stuff, to all the tracks I’ve produced, to arranging or writing for other artists, to jamming on stage with Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter, Eddie Van Halen, Elton John, Quincy Jones and Michael Jackson, George Harrison and Bob Dylan, Jeff Lynne and Jim Keltner, and all the other incredible guitar players I’ve had the honor of playing with. I learned a lot, and I gained a lot of confidence. And when you’re confident, you can allow yourself to let go of certain things—of fear, perhaps— and just create. Sometimes, it’s scary and humbling, but also a lot of fun and a great honor to play with people I love, and who helped shape me as the musician I am. You also can’t be afraid to make mistakes. We all do. And they go by fast—unless some dick on YouTube points out: “Watch at 1:34 where he f**ks up.” I will never get that, but, hey, that’s for another time. LOL.

One critical lesson the session world taught me was to be mentally and technically prepared for the unknown. I’ve said it before in these columns—the pressure was on when the engineer hit the Record button, and you had to deliver. So what mental tools can you use to survive and succeed—whatever path you take in the music industry? Humor is good. Confidence is good. Belief in yourself is a big one, too. Whatever you do, just be the best you can be. Don’t bullsh*t yourself or the music, and you’ll kill it. Trust me.

Steve Lukather, Guitar Player, May-December 2010