“It was a great honor to be a part of thousands of records,” he says. “Being in the room watching greatness happen, working with the best producers, arrangers, artists and musicians. I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I’ve had the coolest life in the world.”
There are still many musicians playing sessions today, but it’s not the same as it was back in the day. It wasn’t just about being a great player and earning a rep that kept the phone ringing. As the great studio cats of the ‘70s and ‘80s will tell you, the days where everyone helped each other out, and forged strong friendships, are gone. Hell, even the days when actual musicians had to play all the parts and everything wasn’t Pro Tooled to death are gone too.
It took a lot to be a great studio guitarist, and only a select few could get into the scene and make their mark. For the cats lucky enough to break in, a lot of great music, and history was made. And luckily for Guitar International, they shared fond memories of their glory days with us.
Paul Jackson Jr. is still an in demand session guitarist, but when he first started playing, he didn’t know what a studio musician was. Once he did a little detective work, he was intrigued. He looked through a lot of albums, and saw certain musicians credited again and again. “Man, I see these guys on lots of records,” Jackson thought to himself. “I think I’d like to do that.” He felt it would be fun to play with a lot of different people, and that it took a certain type of musician, and a certain degree of excellence, to do it.
Lukather also started noticing the same names on the back of his favorite albums, and would buy a record just because one of his heroes, like Larry Carlton, played on it. But he really knew he wanted to become a studio musician once he became friends with the Porcaro brothers.
Lukather called the late Jeff Porcaro, the legendary drummer who was also his band mate in Toto, “the strongest force I ever met in my life. He had the charisma of 500 men.”
Porcaro was playing sessions with Steely Dan when he was still in high school, and his deep respect for the studio musicians that inspired his playing rubbed off on Luke.
“I knew what a studio musician was but I didn’t realize the significance of how deep the job really is,” he continues. “People don’t realize what it really takes to do the gig. If you’re doing a Kenny Rogers album, then all of the sudden you’re doing The Tubes at night, and Aretha Franklin the next day, you have to reinvent yourself on an hourly basis.”
Luke and Jackson both broke into the scene when they were 17 and 18 years old respectively, and some players, like Ray Parker Jr., who was a top studio guitarist before he wrote the theme for Ghostbusters, was playing sessions when he was 15.
When players like Lukather started breaking in, the session scene was not considered a young man’s game and still belonged to the studio legends like Tommy Tedesco and Glenn Campbell. Yet, Lukather says he and Porcaro “had this rock and roll attitude that most studio musicians prior to us didn’t have. I was like this crazy hooligan teenager, and instead of playing a 335 through a Princeton Reverb, I’d fucking bring in a Marshall and a Les Paul.”
The first step for anyone who wanted to become a studio musician was usually playing on demos for singers and songwriters who were hoping to land a record deal. “They didn’t have the bread to hire the A guys so they hired teenagers to come in there and do it,” Luke says.
Luke made $25 a demo, but the practical experience he gained was priceless. While working his way up in the studio world, he got his sound together, sharpened his sight reading, learned engineering techniques and how to work with headphones, just to name a few skills he got under his belt.
It was a crucial learning process that taught you what you needed to learn, and how far you had to go before you were ready for full-blown sessions. Dean Parks, who is still a first call session guitarist after over thirty years on the job, says, “If you weren’t ready, you’d get a nice little list at the end of the session about things you need to figure out, that goes for equipment and playing. It gave you experience at learning fast.”
Playing on demos could also hopefully lead to something better. “You demo for a songwriter, and that songwriter could end up being a producer on another project, or he’d be hiring other session players,” Parks continues. “You’d at least meet players that were doing master sessions as well as demo sessions. They crossed. And a player is likely to recommend you to get a gig.” Larry Carlton was still doing song demos after he became an established player, and after they become friends working on the Sonny and Cher show, he recommended Parks for them when he was too busy.
One of the top requirements of being a session player was good sight reading skills. “The better your sight reading, the more you could work,” says Jackson. “The better you read, the better you understood, the faster you did things. Also, the better your sight reading, the faster you could come up with a part because nobody had to explain anything to you.”
Jay Graydon was a top session player from the ‘70’s whose legendary credits include the solo on Steely Dan’s “Peg” and co-writing the Earth Wind and Fire hit “After the Love is Gone.” Graydon says he was “an average reader, and thankfully I was never on a session in which I couldn’t play what was written,” although there were definitely sessions that put his reading skills to the test. “Reading is a huge part of the gig, but you must not play the stuff like an exercise in a book,” he continues. “Interpretation is important when the part’s a solo.”
If Lukather had to play on a heavy reading gig, he’d come to the studio half an hour early to check out the charts, find the hardest one, and see if he had to work through it or not. “I could read, but I was never like Tommy Tedesco at sight reading,” he says. “I could do it under pressure, but it wasn’t my favorite thing in the world to do.” The joke among session players went, “Studio work is 95% boredom, 5% sheer terror.”
Being a good sight reader wasn’t enough. The best session players could read and be inventive when they needed to be. Says Parks, “You had to be able to play as freely as a player who can’t read, you had to be able to play by ear and be able to read whatever’s written.” “When working with a chord chart, Dean came up with ear candy parts that fit perfectly in a track, that never get in the way, and enhanced the track beyond belief,” says Graydon.
Being creative on demand was important because session musicians were often relied on to make something out of nothing. “Somebody would give you like 85 bars of E written on a piece of paper, and all of the sudden all the guys in the band would rewrite this song for these people,” says Lukather. “We’d come up with some really cool shit, and that was a challenge, especially if you’re playing with another guitar player.”
Early in his career, Lukather played sessions with Ray Parker Jr, who he calls “the funkiest motherfucker I’ve ever played with, ever. He’d come up with the most amazing parts, then I’d have to find a part next to his. We were totally like the odd couple, but we worked together really fast and really well together. Jay Graydon and I had the connection as well.”
There was another crucial requirement to becoming a first call player. Your chops and professionalism were of course important, but Lukather says 80% of what got you in the door was your personality. “There were a lot of guys that were great players that didn’t have the attitude or the vibe that was needed to make the hang,” he says. “In order to be one of the cats you had to be liked by the guys. There was a certain reverence that you had, a respect, and knowing where you were in the pecking order.”
If Luke arrived at a session where he would play with Dean Parks, he’d never take the Guitar 1 part away from Dean. “And I don’t care what any producer says, I’m sitting in Guitar 2 because Dean’s one of the giants of all time.” And for the established and upcoming session musicians alike, Larry Carlton was the rock of Gibraltar, the cat all the established and up and coming cats alike revered and respected. “Larry was a God to all of us,” Luke continues. “We all wanted to play like Larry, I still do.”
Once Lukather became a first call player himself, he asked drummer Jim Keltner (Mad Dogs and Englishmen) how he could ever repay everyone for all the help they gave him. Keltner told him, “Luke, give it on to somebody else.” “That’s what you do, you pass the brotherhood along,” Lukather continues. “And to this day, I still try to get people work.”
Carlton helped break Parks into the scene, then Parks brought Graydon in. When Graydon got tired of studio work, he passed a lot of calls on to Lukather. Then Luke helped out Mike Landau, a longtime friend he grew up with who went on to play with Joni Mitchell and Miles Davis. “Landau’s the greatest guitar player in the world to me, a giant,” Luke says. “One of the greatest musicians I’ve ever known in my life, and one of my best friends.”
“Lee Ritenour and Ray Parker Jr. really went out on a limb and had enough faith in me to send me out on dates,” says Jackson. “It’s funny because when I started out at 18, it didn’t seem like I was that young. Now that I have a daughter who’s 17, I realize how young I really was, and these guys took care of me.” “We did look out for each other on many levels,” says Graydon. “Tommy Tedesco helped me many times when I first started, telling me how to deal with so many issues.”
As Andy Brauer, who ran a rental and cartage company that catered to the top studio cats, recalls, “Back then it was we’re all on the same team, and everybody was really cool. People were friends, they’d hang, and would turn each other on to different dates. There was never that competitive I’m better than you (attitude).”
“I’d say we were all continually competing, but not in a backbiting or sabotaging way, ever,” says Parks. “If I sat next to somebody and they’re coming up with something I’d never thought of, did I want to come up with the same quality stuff? When I saw how great Larry Carlton developed his technique and his solidity for jazz / rock, I sure did. Competitive, yeah, I wanted to be that good, but it wasn’t competitive like I wanted his gig.”
Carlton often preached the policy of leaving your ego at the door when playing sessions, and there’s a joke about the late comedian Milton Berle that Lukather likes to apply to studio work. Berle, who legend has it was pretty large below the belt, once claimed he was in a contest to see who had the biggest, but once he whipped it out, the others in the competition cried, “Miltie, just enough to win!”
“If you’ve got a huge cock, you only whip out enough to win,” says Luke. “You never show the whole thing. It’s not how much you play, it’s how much you don’t play. You have to listen man. If somebody blew into a session as a first timer and started shredding and showing off, that was the kiss of death. You were banished to the cornfield!” “We were not hired to show off,” says Graydon. “Play the stuff as good as possible, and take direction from the people in charge.”
In the glory days of the studio scene, once you were in the door, you never had to worry about being out of work. There were tons of gigs for everyone, and many of the top studio cats played several dates a day, every day. Once Dean Parks was up and running, he told Guitar World contributor Steven Rosen he “turned down twice as much work as I was able to do.” Larry Carlton reportedly played over 5,000 dates before closing the door on his session days in the late seventies.
As Jay Graydon recalls, an average session lasted three hours, but many were booked as a double (six hours). The hours were often 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., and 2 to 5 p.m. “I typically worked four sessions a day, and the second double typically started at 7 p.m.” Graydon recalls most sessions going the full length, sometimes overtime, but there were some he could get in and out of quickly. One time he played twenty-eight sessions in six days.
During the glory days of the studio scene, Andy Brauer’s team hauled, set up and broke down gear for 15 to 20 sessions a day. “We were runnin’ around like banshees, but it was so much fun,” he says.
There were of course numerous other great studio players who didn’t get the recognition they deserved, but are still remembered and respected by their peers. The list of unsung session heroes includes Dennis Budimir (who along with Tedesco did the lion’s share of film and T.V. work and reportedly played on over 400 film soundtracks), Mitch Holden (who in addition to his studio work was the guitarist in the Johnny Carson era Tonight Show band), Richard Littlefield (Aretha Franklin, Billy Joel), Tim May (Lionel Ritchie, Michael J. Fox’s guitar parts in Back to the Future), Tim Pierce (Rick Springfield, The Goo Goo Dolls), Steve Watson (who did a lot of T.V. work including Magnum P.I., Hill Street Blues), David T. Walker (who Graydon calls “the king of fill guitar on the R&B circuit”), and Wah Wah Watson (“Papa Was a Rolling Stone,” “Car Wash”), among others.
The great studio musicians who laid the groundwork before cats like Lukather came along often didn’t get album credit either. “There was never a rule that said you had to have your name on a record,” Luke explains. “That was out of courtesy and respect for the artist and the producers. If you really knew who played on 90% of those ‘60s records, you’d be baffled. You’d realize that those bands didn’t really exist. There were a handful of guys they put on every hit record you ever heard. But you never got any credit, and those guys are just now being revered.”
When asked which artists the cats recall fondly, Quincy Jones and Steely Dan come up a lot. “Working with Q was always the hippest sessions,” says Luke. “Great players, and you knew you were playing on a hit record. He was a gracious host, and he made you feel at home. Not only did he pay great, but he’d send flowers to my wife just to say thanks for letting him keep me for twelve hours.”
With Steely Dan, Carlton laid down the legendary “Kid Charlemagne” solo, and the solo in “Peg” was a personal highlight for Graydon as well. He was about the seventh cat to try and nail a solo for the song, which was recorded ten times with different rhythm sections. Graydon played melodic solos for about an hour until Donald Fagen finally told him to think “blues” whenever he could, which changed Graydon’s whole approach. “I humbly state I did a good job.”
“The Steely Dan stuff you were always glad to be a part of because you knew it was gonna be good,” says Parks. “You weren’t always walkin’ out of there exhilarated because you were pretty much put through the ringer. Those guys listened to every little part, and you weren’t exactly sure if your part was gonna make the record, or even if the whole rhythm section you were working with was gonna make it on that song. But you knew it was gonna end up good, and you wanted to hear the final product.” (Jackson missed playing with Steely Dan decades before, but was finally able to play with them when they reunited).
“As far as solos, I have to say working with Don Henley on ‘Dirty Laundry,’” says Lukather. “I got to play with Joe Walsh, one of my time heroes, and Don was really a gracious host once again.”
When trying to nail a great solo, the smart producers would always roll tape, especially when the musicians weren’t aware of it. “Some of the biggest hit records are done in a blink of an eye,” Luke continues. “Often, before anybody even knew what was going on, just playing without thinking would be the greatest takes in the world, and used on a lot of records.
“When I did ‘Running With the Night’ (Lionel Ritchie), I didn’t even know he was recording. That was a run through. I was getting my sound, trying to get my chops up, I go, ‘OK, I’m ready to do it now,’ and he goes, ‘Oh it’s done.’ I said, ‘What are you talking about? I just played a bunch of bullshit the whole song.’ He goes, ‘No man, it was great.’ And that’s the record. That happened a lot.”
A lot of session players would eventually leave the studio scene to record and tour with their own bands, but in Lukather’s case with Toto, he was somehow able to juggle both. “I used to wake up at like 8 in the morning, then go from 10 until 2 in the morning, every day, six days a week, and loved it,” he says. “I don’t know how I did it. You don’t need sleep when you’re 20 years old, you wanna play every note possible.”
For many studio cats, there came a time when they were ready to move on to other things. “To have the kind of energy to do three dates in a day from 8 to midnight is tough,” says Brauer.
As Carlton said in a 1986 interview, he quit doing sessions when he no longer looked forward to them. “I chose to discontinue doing it, because my heart wasn’t in it,” he said. “I’d reached a plateau, and something needed to change.”
“Dean Parks has bailed twice in the past,” says Graydon. “It was difficult getting back in, and more difficult the second time. When a studio guy bails, past accounts become comfortable with other players. It’s almost like starting over.”
Parks says, “I think some session players see money go by, they know what contribution they have to the (project), they only made the session fee, and they’re seein’ the people they work for get rich. I think that’s the motivation for a lot of them (leaving). And not everybody likes session playing. It’s a certain pressure, it’s a certain grind…”
What probably kept Jackson from burning out was he didn’t overbook his schedule. “I usually never did more than six or eight sessions a week,” he says. “I once played 17 sessions in a week, and I thought I was gonna die! But six to eight sessions was really busy for me, and I was really fortunate that the records I did were really, really cool records.”
Granted, being a studio player wasn’t always about playing on the greatest albums in music history. The top session guys could often find themselves playing on a lot of crappy pop and disco records; Lukather was even asked to play on a Richard Simmons album.
A common refrain you hear from former studio musicians is they left the scene “to become artists,” and indeed, by the time they’re ready to bail, it’s often because playing sessions felt more like a job than an art form.
“I did 15 years in man, and it got to the point where I was starting to get a little jaded and I wasn’t giving as much love as I should,” says Lukather. And once Luke saw the new hot-shot on the block, Dann Huff, coming up fast, he decided it was time to bow out gracefully.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly where and why the good times for this era of session players came to an end. When Nirvana and their Seattle ilk exploded in the early ‘90s, guitar solos and great musicianship suddenly became a joke, and many musicians, along with the hair bands, suffered. And some will tell you the studio scene really took a hit with the advent of Pro Tools, which became affordable in the mid nineties.
Chris Johnson now runs the cartage business Andy Brauer began in the late ‘70’s, and he’s seen the drastic changes the studio scene has gone through first hand. “In the heyday, people worked as much as three to four times a week, and now it’s more like three or four times a month,” he says. “There’s still a lot of sessions going on, but now people are taking smaller rigs. Lately the trend has been to send files because a lot of people have Pro Tools rigs at their houses. They can open up session files, and things are being sent around town.”
The players who did a lot of film and tv dates, however, were able to survive the changes the scene went through. In fact Jackson and Parks were both recently featured guitarists on American Idol.
Where a player could make as much as triple scale on a session in the good old days, now a lot of players are working non-union for flat rates. And what about the tradition of recommending up and coming cats for gigs? Well that was back when there was more than enough work for everyone. Today it’s hard to imagine how a new cat could break in. “Back in the day all the B and C guys coming up were getting the left-overs from the A list guys,” Johnson continues. “Well there aren’t any left-overs anymore.”
“People weren’t greedy about their sessions back then,” laments Brauer. “It’s not the same anymore. You see the new cats, they’re more corporate executive types than the passionate, burning guitar players. Now it’s all business.”
As Lukather continued to reflect back into his studio musician past, a lot of great memories came flooding back. “I was a kid, we were all kids,” he says. “We were just coming up, trying to find our way, and now we’re the old guys. I mean, I blink and 30 years of my life goes by.”
Lukather once said he felt he would have been more respected as a guitarist if he had only done Toto. It was a defensive remark he made against the slings and arrows session players endured from music critics who regarded their profession as hack work. Looking back on his session days now, he wishes he never said it.
“I regret ever saying I was ashamed, or wish I hadn’t done sessions, or wish I was taken more seriously. That’s just bullshit. I’m really proud to have been a studio musician, playing with the greatest artists on the planet. I played with Elton John, and he’s playing ‘Levon’ in-between takes just for me. I played with Miles Davis. To see Aretha Franklin playing piano and singing the vocals live, I’m in the room four feet away from her, and I almost couldn’t play because she was so great. I mean, I jammed Beatles songs with Paul McCartney and George Harrison. How hard was my dick when that was going on? That’s the shit you just can’t buy. I mean, how could I ever think that wasn’t cool?”
Sidebar: Studio Players – The Gear Throughout the Years
As gear technology advanced, the studio cats had to keep up with it so they could deliver whatever the hot sound of the day was. “You had to have all the hot gear, know how to make it work,” says Lukather. “You had to try to have the new piece of gear before anybody else had it, and be the first to get it on a hit record. It was kind of a pissing contest, it was pretty fun. You had to have all this shit in your toolbox and do the best you could to imitate what they wanted. What was cool was after you play on a few records, then they want you to play like yourself.”
In the ‘70s, Carlton and Graydon relied on the Gibson ES-335 as their guitar of choice. 335s were considered middle of the road guitars, a semi-hollow body with a wood block running through the middle that controlled feedback, and it sounded close enough to a solidbody that it worked well for either rock or jazz music. Fender amps were still de rigueur, but the cats got theirs modified by Paul Rivera, who of course later went on to found his own amp line.
Going into the ‘80s, the new tools of the trade were strats custom built by Mike McGuire from Valley Arts Guitar and Jim Tyler that were equipped with humbuckers and Floyd Rose tremolos, Mesa Boogie amps, and racks designed by Bob Bradshaw, which Landau and Luke helped popularize. Luke endorsed Valley Arts before switching to Music Man, and he even got Larry Carlton to put down his beloved 335 for a while in exchange for his own Valley Arts model.
The new innovations in gear also excited the old school players about session work again. Parks says with the Bradshaw system, “you could organize your effects and tweak to your heart’s delight at eye level, as well do your switching on the floor, which is something I’d always wanted. Having the equipment so organizeable, all of the sudden, the job became more fun for me.”
“You kinda had to stay with technology, but by the same token if something wasn’t broken, you didn’t want to fix it,” says Jackson. “There’s nothing that sounds like an old strat or an old tele. I think it’s come full circle now. Pedals and analog are back, which is cool. It’s come back to things that buzz and hum and sound warm and fuzzy.”
About David Konow:
David Konow has written for many publications and websites including Guitar World, Fangoria, Made Loud, HD Video Pro, MovieMaker, Creative Screenwriting, Geek Monthly, pop culture / technology site Tom’s Hardware/ Tom’s Games, Decibel, and many others. He is the author of Bang Your Head, which was published by the Crown division of Random House in 2002, and is currently working on his third book for St. Martin’s Press.
David Konow, Guitar International, Sept. 2010