Tim Pierce: The Guitarist with the Golden Touch
In Los Angeles, with its fierce competition for play-for-pay sessions, Tim Pierce is the man with the golden touch. Since the early 1990s, he’s been the go-to studio guitarist for artists such as Christina Aguilera, Rod Stewart, Elton John, Madonna, Santana, Rascal Flatts, Josh Grobin, Mylie Cyrus, Jason Mraz, Kelly Clarkson, Colbie Caillat, and hundreds of others.
In Guitar World magazine’s 2011 listing of the all-time Top-10 studio guitarists, Tim came in at #5 – no small feat, given that studio guitarists have been around since the advent of talkies. Tommy Tedesco – for decades Hollywood’s undisputed king of studio guitar – was rightly ranked #1, followed by Larry Carlton, Steve Lukather, and Jimmy Page. Why was Tim next in line? “Tim is just an unstoppable studio powerhouse,” wrote Ron Zabrocki.
Growing in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Pierce immersed himself in the songs he heard on the radio. Jimi Hendrix became his major catalyst for playing guitar. In his early teens he took guitar lessons with Steve Maase – “an incredible teacher” – and played in a series of local bands. At 20, Pierce moved to Los Angeles and made his first inroads as a studio guitarist with Bon Jovi, John Waite, and Rick Springfield. He became a full-fledged member of Rick Springfield’s band, spending four years touring and recording with the singer of “Jesse’s Girl” fame. By 1989, the luster of the road had worn thin, and Tim determined to stay in Los Angeles.
Good call – during the ensuing years, he has built up a clientele that keeps him working every day. (To get a glimpse of Tim working in his home studio, check out his three Pure Guitar video columns.) In preparation for this January 2013 interview, I asked Tim to prepare a list of a dozen or so recordings he’d rank among his best work. Since our meeting took place in Anaheim during the annual NAMM Show, it seemed natural to start with gear.
If you had to choose the four or five favorite instruments that you own, which ones would come to the top of the list?
I think the best-sounding guitar ever made is a Gibson Les Paul. It’s always been hard for me to keep in tune, but that’s kind of beside the point. And one of the best guitars I hear in the hands of anybody these days is a Gibson ES-335. I don’t know why that it. I think it might be kind of the luck of the draw or the talent of the people who designed it. So I would say a Gibson Les Paul, Gibson ES-335, a very good Stratocaster, and number four – hmm. How about three?
Leave it at that?
All right. What are your feelings on vintage vs. new instruments? Do you have a fetish for old instruments, or do you find everything you need with newer ones?
I love vintage instruments. I love how dry the wood is in those instruments. But I’ve never really gravitated toward them for several reasons. Part if it is when I grew up, I really liked the idea of walking through a music store and paying a reasonable price for a nice instrument. And I’ve never kind of been able to get over that. So a lot of the instruments that I like the most are expensive, but they’re not vintage-expensive. New instruments, the frets are perfect. The bridges are perfect. The aesthetic for “vintage” modern gear has gotten so good. I mean, it’s way better than it was in the early 2000s. So literally, if you want a P-90 pickup that’s new that sounds like an old one, you can get it. I also like the fact that a young player can get something that’s attainable because it’s new. So I really think at this point in time, the vintage-modern aesthetic has been fully realized, and that you don’t need a vintage instrument.
I have friends who have ’59 Les Pauls. A friend of mine, the producer John Shanks, has got an amazing collection of gear. He has two or three of that kind of Les Paul. He hired me to do a Rod Stewart record that he was too busy to play on because he had to produce it – he hires me when he’s too busy to play. We took my reissue ’58 Les Paul and his real ’59, and we evaluated my reissue against his real one, and there was a spongy quality to his that was nice, because the wood was drier. Other than that, it was kind of either-or for using a tool in the moment. And he was at peace with the fact. He admitted it right then and there that it wasn’t that much better.
What are your earliest memories of the guitar?
I would go to stores and see guitars on the wall. It didn’t matter if it was a $30 Vox at a hardware store – you used to be able to go to a hardware store or Sears and find an electric guitar on the wall. If there was a Harmony solidbody with four pickups in it, that was just as drool-worthy as a Stratocaster. But when I saw Jimi Hendrix playing a Stratocaster in photos, I fell in love with it. I was talking to somebody the other day about how when I saw my first real Stratocaster after seeing it in photos, I almost couldn’t believe it. It was like a woman’s body, with the contours and the paint. I almost started trembling, because I’d looked at Strats – only in pictures – for a long time. And when I actually saw the first one, I just couldn’t even believe it.
What town were you raised in?
Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Were your father or mother musicians?
No, they were not musicians, although my dad did play trumpet, he finally admitted to me later on, and he showed me the trumpet. It was all rusted. My love of music comes from Top-40 radio in the ’60s, and I’m very grateful for that. I was 12 years old in 1970, and I’m very grateful for that, because that was a very good era of music. And the songs on the radio in the ’60s were what caused me to fall in love with music.
What were the first albums that you saved up your money to buy?
Hendrix records. B.B. King, Jimi Hendrix, ZZ Top, Wishbone Ash, Yes. All of Deep Purple. Yeah.
Was there anyone early on in your development as a guitarist who left a lasting imprint?
My teacher, Steve Maase, is probably the greatest one. There are teachers, and there are good teachers. And he was a good teacher. My only training is two years of once-a-week lessons from age 12 to age 14, and they were from him. And that was a lifesaver, because he’s a good teacher and a great person. I think he’s still teaching.
Is there anything in Steve’s approach that you carry on in your own teaching?
Probably. He basically taught me the number system without either one of us knowing it. It’s the number system that they use in Nashville. And with pop music and rock music, it’s kind of all you need.
Would you describe that for the uninitiated?
If I can I will – I haven’t researched it for a lot of years. You have seven steps and then the octave – the eighth step. There’s a whole step between one and two, two and three. Half step between three and four, on and on. And all the chords and all the scales that you need for pop music, rock music, country music, R&B music, come from that number system.
When you get music to play, in what form does it usually arrive? Do people want you to invent the part or are you called upon to read?
In my particular line of work, I am a guitar arranger, so they show up with a chord chart or I do a takedown in one take. The music is simple enough that I try to get it in one take. I am in a position where I have to do everything very, very quickly. A lot of people don’t bother doing a chart. They’re busy with other things all the time, so I show up and do a takedown in one take. And that’s really common. You know, a lot of the studio musicians do that. Sometimes there is a chart, but it’s usually a chord chart. There is a whole different class of musicians in L.A. that does motion picture recording, and these people read. Not only do they read, but they read so well that it sounds like they wrote it, if you know what I’m talking about – playing from the heart, looking at a chart, reading the most complex parts in the world, and sounding like you wrote it and it came from you. That’s a different level. And I realized I could never attain that level, so I just stopped trying.
So what are you called upon to do? What’s an average week for you?
Okay, here’s an average week. I have a friend at Warner Brothers who hires me for a lot of records at Warner Brothers. For instance, when we did Josh Grobin in the fall, I would do a session at home every day for one of my independent artists. When I book work at home, it’s basically like I’m landing airplanes. Some people have to circle for a couple of days or hours, depending on people’s needs. The great thing about my home studio is everybody is in process, and scheduling is the greatest benefit to having a home studio, because I can talk to somebody on the phone and judge the level of discomfort in their voice when I ask them to change their slot. And if they can’t, I’ll keep them in their slot and I’ll ask somebody else to change that slot.
So what I would do on one of those particular weeks when I’m doing, like, Grobin, the Grobin sessions would start at 3:00 or 4:00 in the afternoon, so I would stuff a session in at home every day before that. Those are busy weeks, because they’re 12-hour days. I’ll do a three- or four-hour session at home with an independent artist or somebody who’s doing music for a television show or something, or a songwriter. Then I would show up at, like, Oceanway and do Josh Grobin until midnight. And those are busy weeks. I built up an independent clientele starting in the early 1990s that has basically gotten bigger and bigger and bigger. This has allowed me to prosper in an era when the actual record business has diminished.
How has the role of the guitar changed during the 25 years you’ve been doing studio work?
In some ways it’s the same, and in other ways it’s totally different. Aaron Sterling plays with John Mayer. He’s a phenomenal drummer. He and I were talking a couple of years ago, and he was saying, “I’m working all the time, but I don’t hear the work on the radio.” I said, “Well, what we do is not at the forefront of pop radio anymore, and it used to be.” It used to be that if you’re a musician and you were making records in L.A., those records were on the radio. But that’s not the case anymore, and we all know why. Live musicians are a part of pop music, but they are not all of pop music anymore.
You’ve done both sides of it – the touring and studio musician. What are the best and worst parts of each?
I toured with Rick Springfield when he was a star in the ’80s, and I recognized at that moment that it was something that I was not interested in. I wanted to be in the laboratory. Right before I moved to L.A. in 1979, that was right when Toto’s first record came out, and I wanted to be one of those guys. Just through sheer determination and hanging around long enough, I was able to sort of be one of those guys. There were guys who had moved to L.A. and had become amazing studio musicians immediately. I was not that guy. It took me ten years of learning to actually get good enough to show up and deliver what needed to be delivered.
Back to touring. The only problem with touring is that you perfect something in rehearsal and then you go and repeat it for weeks on end. You have 23 hours of the day to fill while you wait for that glorious performance. And I wanted to be in the laboratory. I wanted to make things that got imprinted somewhere and were permanent. And once I started doing it, I realized that I was meeting people and getting opportunities that would have been lost if I had been in Wisconsin doing a concert with somebody. That eventually became the main difference. Some of the greatest things I’ve ever done have literally been caused by a phone call: “We need a guitar player. Can you come tomorrow or today?” Unfortunately, if you’re committed somewhere – even if you’re in Manhattan at the greatest concert in the world – somebody else gets that work. So I’ve been grateful for the ability to just stay in one place and be available.
Do you have desire to play in public?
I’m an odd musician in the sense that my work life is so satisfying that by the end of a day of session work, I don’t have that desire. I have friends who go and play in clubs, but my nightclub is my session. And I am challenged up to my eyeballs. Because I’m not really a trained musician, I really have to work hard to get my job done. There are other musicians for whom it comes easier. By the end of the day, I’ve emoted myself into exhaustion. I’m an odd musician in that way. There are people I know who are kind of mad at me for that. One of the exciting things about having a website and starting to do lots of videos is that it’s going to be my new nightclub [laughs] where I play, because you can just go to the website, or your Pure Guitar website, and look at live performances. So I’m really excited about that.
You’ve started offering online lessons at Tim Pierce Guitar.
Yeah. I always felt like teaching was an amazing thing. I have done it twice in my life, professionally, a long time ago, and both times were when I needed money. I was 19 when I did it, and I was about 26 when I did it again. I always felt that the student taught me more than I taught the student, because of the challenges they would bring. If I had to learn a Tool song or something and teach it to them, it was amazing to me that I’d get paid for getting more out of the lesson than the student. I’ve always respected and admired musicians. You meet a lot of musicians who complain about not having the things they want, and I’ve always thought, why don’t you just teach while you’re waiting for the success to happen? Why have a day job when you can keep the instrument in your hand all day, teaching, and make more money? Why do you have a day job and complain when you can have the thing in your hands all the time? What I want to do now is different than that, because I want to do online lessons. And I’m going to start with beginning lessons. I always knew that I would end up teaching – I’ve just been able to ride a wave for four decades and succeed in a way that I never expected. So I look forward to offering an online lesson program. [For details: http://www.timpierceguitar.com .]
If somebody wanted to put out a CD of the essential Tim Pierce, which performances would have to go on there?
I have a list in my iPhone in front of me, so I’m prepared. [Dials it up.] The Goo Goo Dolls’ “Iris.” It was a huge single for them, and that was one of those phone calls where I got the phone call literally at 11:00 AM, and I was at the studio at 3:00 in the afternoon. My buddy Rob Cavallo, who I’ve worked with for 15 years – he’s now the chairman at Warner Brothers Records – that was the first day I met him. And it was maybe one of the biggest hits he’s ever had.
This is a great story. The night before, they had asked Dean Parks to play mandolin on the song. It was at Record One with Alan Sides engineering, and Dean was too tired. He’d been in the studio all day, and he said, “Please. Let me do this tomorrow.” And for whatever reason, the second engineer in the studio – and this is what I’m talking about, by staying in one place and not going on the road – the second engineer said, “Hey, why don’t you try Tim Pierce? He was here the other day.” And so Rob Cavallo called me and said, “Hey, we need a mandolin player. Bring your mandolin and come do this.” I said, “Okay, I’ll do it. Great.” I hung up the phone and I said to myself, “I am not showing up at a rock session for the Goo Goo Dolls” – despite their name, they’re a great rock band – “with a little mandolin case.” So I put an electric rig in my car, and I showed up at the session and brought in an electric rig. I actually got to do an electric slide solo, because I refused to show up with a mandolin case. So I horned my way into it, and I was really proud of it. It was nice. And Rob and I ended up working together. I’m working with him this month on a bunch of stuff. It’s a thing that’s lasted 15 years.
That song has a powerful emotional impact.
It’s beautiful, isn’t it? Yeah, yeah. Another one would be the band Bon Jovi’s “Runaway.” It was a demo that Jon did when he was living upstairs at the Power Station. I did six songs with him with a full band at the Power Station. That single was his first single, and he put his band together after that. I watched him become the biggest rock star in the world, with the biggest band in the world. It’s one of those situations where you go, “Wait a second! Could I have gotten on that train?” [Laughs.] “How did I miss that train?” It’s such a cool thing. It’s the only demo that survived on their first record, and it was the first single.
Next would be Michael Jackson’s “Black or White.” Bill Bottrell is this great producer I worked with, who produced Toy Matinee, which is a great record that I got to do and is part of this list. He was producing Michael Jackson. He invited me in to play on a song called “Black or White.” He said, “Michael is really, really in love with Motley Crue’s ‘Doctor Love’” – that’s a great rock song. He said, “I need to put something on the bridge of this song that sounds like that. Everything with Michael is a kind of a fantasy, and so I need you to turn this into Michael’s Motley Crue fantasy.” So if you listen to the bridge of that song, you can hear the influence of Motley Crue, with me playing the heavy metal bridge. Bill Bottrell had played the signature lick on that song [sings the rhythm guitar part] – that’s Bill Bottrell. One of the benefits of sharing the work with a group of people is that there are many people who assume, because I have a credit on that song, that I played that lick. And that has not hurt me! But it’s not the truth. That’s Bill Bottrell.
Let me open up this list again. [Looks at phone.] Okay. The next one I’m going to do is Jason Mraz’s “I Won’t Give Up.” Jason Mraz had a big single last year. About a year ago I got to do his record, and we did 25 days of live tracking, and I did about three weeks of overdubs. And he is so phenomenal as an artist and musician – everything he does. The song is finished and beautiful and wonderful when he shows up and plays it for you. So what you try and do, when you work it up with him, is not hurt his beautiful song. It was amazing to hear that song on the radio constantly in the year 2012 against all of the power, Lady Gaga, Katy Perry – you know, all the urban stuff – and then there’s Jason’s acoustic song. And I got to play 12-string acoustic, high-strung acoustic, a little bit of electric that you don’t hear, and 6-string acoustic. So he’s playing the gut string, and I’m doing all of the other acoustic and a couple of electric guitars around it.
Is he a good guy to work with?
He’s amazing. I admire him. He’s phenomenally successful, but he lives a very simple life and he uses his fame to travel around the world and take his crew with him and spread his music around. He wouldn’t care if he owned nothing. He is the real deal. When you’re working with him, he’s off in a corner, perfecting his next song. It’s just a big circle between him and his fans. It’s really amazing.
Another one: Rod Stewart’s “Broken Arrow.” That was a Robbie Robertson song. Still, to this day, it’s really beautiful. Jim Keltner played drums, Pat Leonard produced it. Beautiful.
I got to work on Shinedown’s last two records, and that’s probably the heaviest rock thing that I’ve gotten to do. Got to do some amazing stuff on that, but I do not want to encroach on Zach’s territory, because Zach [Myers] is a great guitar player, and I’m just very luck I got to share some Shinedown duties with Zach.
I’ve played on three or four Santana records, which is really bizarre. Santana, I guess he doesn’t play much rhythm guitar, so he uses rhythm guitar players. And I’ve just known the producers that work on his records. There was a hit I played on called “Why Don’t You and I,” and if you heard it, you’d recognize it. When I saw the title and looked it up last night, I thought, “I don’t remember that title.” Two singers ended up singing it – Alex Band from The Calling sang it, and then Chad Kroeger from Nickelback sang it. Chad actually ended up with the radio version because of some deal-making that happened. I play rhythm guitar, Santana plays lead, and it was actually kind of a hit.
Rick Springfield – we did a bunch of songs that actually got to have really fiery eight-bar guitar solos. There’s a song called “Love Somebody” that had one of my favorites. So that’s on the list. And there’s a new movie that Dave Grohl did called Sound City, and Rick’s a big part of it. I saw a little rough cut of the movie, and there was a photograph of me. So I got to get a photograph in the movie. Go see this movie – it’s amazing. I spent years at this studio [Sound City Studios in L.A.], and Keith Olsen’s a big part of the movie. I spent years working with Keith Olsen, and I still work with him. It’s an amazing movie, and it was an amazing studio in an amazing era, and Dave Grohl took a liking to it. Rick Springfield – you know, we are friends, we’re family friends, we’re almost like brothers, he and I, even though I haven’t worked with him really since the ’80s. I don’t tour with him, but I love his band, I love all of his music. He’s going through another little renaissance right now.
And then, of course, Toy Matinee. That was actually the beginning of me feeling like I could actually be a studio musician. Pat Leonard put together this mega band after he had had all this Madonna success, and I got to be the guitar player. Part of the reason he hired me is because I was kind of rough around the edges and not the most obvious choice. That record became a kind of singular, high-quality musical experience that audiophiles fell in love with for a long time afterwards.
There’s an Uncle Cracker song called “Smile” that you would recognize – it’s on the radio – that I absolutely love. It’s one of my favorite pop songs. I also put down “Falling for You” by Colbie Caillat because I’ve done an enormous amount of work with her and her father, Ken. Ken produced Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, and he’s at my studio all the time. We’re always working on new artists together, independent artists. And Colbie – when you hear her voice, it’s breathtaking. It’s just a gift. I really love her music.
And then the last one I put on here was “Don’t Dream It’s Over” by Crowded House. That was an early one, but that actually got me hooked up with songwriters. After I finished with Rick Springfield in 1987, I went broke and I started doing publishing demos for songwriters. I had played on Crowded House, and that actually got me the $100 demos that I used to do every day with songwriters. It was a grueling period of time, but that’s another thing that taught me how to do what I do for a living.
How often are you actually in the same room with the artist when you’re recording parts?
Most of the time, with exceptions. There are pop stars who are smart enough to know that they don’t want to be anywhere near the recording process, because all they’re really trying to do is be celebrities, and that involves a whole different game. They just hire people to do the work, they approve it, and they show up to sing. I don’t fault them for that – it’s just a different game.
Would this be, like, Madonna and Christina Aguilera?
No, no. Madonna would be there at all her sessions. Christina Aguilera is there for a lot of her sessions. I’m probably talking more about some of the teen stars. It’s just that they are more involved in the media machine. And what happens a lot of the time with veteran musicians is they just get bored with the process. A lot of the record production, man, it’s like watching paint dry. I don’t fault artists for not being there every minute. They’re busy, and they have stuff to do.
Have you encountered famous artists who have good insight into guitar and can give you directions in the studio?
Yes. Most of the time, the artists are there. And most of the time, they have very good instincts about the guitar parts they want. They care deeply about what they’re doing. The smartest thing for me to do is keep my mouth shut and find out what they love and what they hate. And try to not be what they hate and try to be what they love as quickly as possible.
Takes a lot of intuition.
I suppose it does, yeah.
Has anyone surprised you with their insight or given you unusual directions? Like Michael Jackson used to say things like make it more “blue” or “green.”
Sometimes the most unusual request can lead you in a direction that’s phenomenal. First you get scared, and you go, “How am I going to honor this request?” But then you start throwing stuff out. One of the things about my job that is difficult – it’s probably hard for a lot of musicians – is there’s a certain amount of rejection. You offer something that’s your heart and soul, and it gets rejected [snaps fingers] immediately. And it’s like, “Okay. What else you got?” And then you go, “Okay. Try this.” [Snaps fingers.] “No, we don’t like that.” “What else you got?” All the air gets taken out of the room sometimes. So having a request that is color-based or something like that actually can spur you to reach really deep inside yourself. And it’s usually something that’s obvious, but giving it a name kind of diminishes it, so it’s almost better if you approach it from that way. It kind of feels like do or die, and then you take that energy and you go, “I wanna live. I don’t want to die. So here we go – I’ll try and give you blue. I’ll try and give you green.” But in Michael Jackson’s case, he walked into the studio, he was very normal, and I looked him straight in the eye, and he was very sweet and very nice and almost childlike. He was very, very interested in my pedalboard. He said, “Man, you must just love this pedalboard – look at all those things.” The innocence of a child. It was great.
Early in your career, did you ever feel star-struck? Which would be dangerous in your line of work, I imagine.
I’ve talked about this with my friends who do this for a living, and we don’t have any photographs of the people we work with, because it’s unprofessional. When I walk into a situation, I have to present myself as an equal. I have to present myself in the exact way that we’re sitting in this room – as an equal, and as somebody that doesn’t have any of that fan energy. Consequently, after four decades of working with all these people, I have no pictures of them, because it’s unprofessional.
It’s the same in my line of work. You never ask for autographs or photos. The second you do that, you set up a wall between you and the artist. And sometimes you can’t breach it later.
Yeah. However – the truth? We used to stare at records. We’d just stare at them. You’d stare at the pilot light on the Fender amp in the photo in the background. You’d stare at every name, and you’d wonder who, you know, Jeff Porcaro is. And then you show up in a room and you’re playing with Jeff Porcaro. Of course. That was when I played with Phil Collins. I was in a room, and he was playing drums. And we did a song called “You’ll Be in My Heart” – that should have been on that list. I forgot that one. He won an Academy Award with that, which for him was amazing, because he’s a film buff and an actor. That song was in a Disney movie, and he got to go up and get handed an Academy Award, an Oscar, for that song. And when I sat across from him, it was just chills, right up and down my spine: “This is not happening!”
Have artists sent you gold records?
They way that used to work, it was easy for a while, and then it got harder. There was a Madonna record that I played on, and I thought, “I gotta have a gold Madonna record,” right? So I called the trophy company and ordered my Madonna record. And at that point, I think the session paid me $400, and I paid $75 for the record. And then it started to get very difficult, because they made it harder. You would have to call the management office for one of these artists and you’d have to talk to a 19-year-old receptionist, tell her your story, and sort of beg for these things. And I just gave up. At a certain point in life I took the gold records down in my house because I wanted people to perceive me as a new musician. And if you have your records up there from other decades, it’s not always the greatest thing. I think now it is the greatest thing, because they don’t make them anymore, and records don’t go gold and platinum. Of course, now I wish I had one for everything I’ve ever done, but it’s something I lost. I have no regrets about that. It never meant that much to me.
You mentioned Keith Olsen earlier. In the early ’80s, here he was doing these great records with Jeff Beck, the Dixie Dregs. He seems to have an affinity for guitar.
Keith is responsible for giving me my first break in music. He got me the Rick Springfield gig. And those recordings you mentioned – those are guitar records. His ears and his ability to capture performances quickly – I mean, he had the best studio players in that studio. He had Lindsey Buckingham in that studio. He had great rock guitar players – yeah, absolutely. His ears are giant.
Years ago, when Jeff Baxter was at the height of his career as a studio guitarist, I asked him how much he thinks equipment really matters. He looked at me and said, “Not at all. It’s a poor workman who blames his tools.”
I absolutely agree! There was a great Danny Kortchmar quote – I’ve never met Danny, but I hope I get to meet him. He was asked, “What is the first quality you look for in a studio musician?” He said, “Joy.” And I thought, “Yes! Amen.” You know, if you can have a good guitar amp and find a sweet spot where it distorts at 5 or 6, and you have a couple of pedals, and you have a guitar that sort of plays in tune, there’s not much more than that that’s necessary.
Having said that, though, I look at the videos you made for us, and it looks like you’re sitting in the cockpit of a 747.
Well, I live in an environment where people over the years end up collecting a lot of gear, and I am no exception. My collection is very modest compared to some of the people that I know and work with.
You don’t have the refrigerator-size trunks of gear?
Not anymore. And part of that is the industry has changed to where you want to be light on your feet. It’s kind of like the military – you want to come in with the smallest amount of gear, do the most amount of damage, and then move on. [Laughs.] Did I say that? Yeah. It’s really become that way. I’ve had the experience in the past where I would bring a truckload of gear, and people would get angry. If you’re working in a studio, you want your guitar player to show up with a few things, get the job done quickly, and then get the heck out of there. It’s nice now. It’s a smaller complement.
I remember when some of the L.A. guys would have cartage send over three giant cases of stuff.
There’s a very good reason for that. You make a phone call early on, and you say, “What do you need?” “Ah, just bring your stuff.” Because nobody wants to talk about it – they’re busy. Then you show up with 12 things, and it’s “Hey, you got a Jazzmaster?” “Well, of course I do. But I didn’t bring it.”
“Got an electric sitar?”
Exactly! It’s infuriating to show up and get asked that question.
Which pedals and amps get the most use from you?
Right now it’s Divided By 13 for the amplifiers, because it does have that sweet spot, where you go, “Oh, that sounds like a guitar.” It’s slightly distorted, but fat-sounding. If you put up a sound that’s too clean, it doesn’t sustain. You have to get it to where it’s just about the break up and has the right amount of top and bottom. Some people use a Fender amp all their lives for that.
Where do you dial in to get that on your amp?
It’s usually around 3, but on a Fender it can be around 6. I have a Wizard that’s great, and that amp is very clean all the way up to 7 and it distorts a little bit at 10, and that’s an awesome thing too. Every amp does different stuff. Paul makes an amp now that’s a clone of a plexi Marshall, and a plexi Marshall has its role. There’s less use for a Marshall sound right now in my world, because the sounds are more clean and more Fendery and more bloomy and more open. But every amp has its moment.
What about pedals? Do you have favorites?
Strymon – all their pedals are amazing. The Eventide pedals are amazing because they have wall warts and the fidelity is great. There’s a guy, Tom Bucovac, who’s one of the greatest guitar players I’ve ever heard, and he loves Boss pedals. There’s so much good stuff out there right now that you can almost kind of just throw a dart and get something good. But those are some good ones.
Ry Cooder told me that to get a really great sound on record, like Elmore James’ fire-breathing sound, you don’t turn the volume all the way up. You find a spot, like around 5 or 6, and that’s how to get a big tone on a record.
Yeah. What happens with guitar sounds is they begin to collapse. Distortion is a funny thing. It just depends on the part. The higher the gain, the more compressed it sounds, and the more it begins to collapse. Ry Cooder said another great thing, that he preferred pickups that are non-humbucking, because they are more like microphones. They’re open-sounding. Some of these discoveries take a long time. Like we all had sounds in the ’80s that really don’t stand the test of time. We’re all back to this very organic thing that you’re talking about. Sometimes you just go down the wrong road for a while.
Ry’s favorite Stratocaster had the pickup from an Oahu lap steel.
Yeah. Those really cheap pickups – they sound amazing. Just open and beautiful. The problem with cheaper guitars is they don’t intonate very well, so it’s hard to use them sometimes.
One of the common recurring themes I’ve heard from studio guitarists through the years is that after a while it becomes a grind. Is there anything you do at the end of the day to step away from music and refresh yourself to be able to project that joy day after day?
I’ve lived my whole professional life just staying one step ahead of burn out. One of the reasons I don’t play live is because I like the day to end at a certain time. I like to do a really intense session, and then be done at a certain point. So for me, the trick is I like to be outdoors, and I like for the day to end at a certain point. It’s an odd thing. I’ve been very successful, and I’ve thought that if I put an ad in the newspaper, it would be “Musician for hire. Doesn’t travel. Doesn’t work at night.” [Laughs.] I’ve actually been able to get away with murder. The way I refresh myself is by working insanely hard and then driving away at 7:00. Now, there are people I work until midnight with – I have no problem with that – but that’s how I’ve done it. I get outdoors. I’m lucky. Being able to make a living in the studio has been a good fit for me, because I like to go out and see things at night, and I like to work during the day.