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A Day in the Life of Conan Musical Director Jimmy Vivino

September 5, 2013
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YOU CAN TELL A LOT ABOUT A GUITAR PLAYER BY looking around his dressing room. Step into Jimmy Vivino’s backstage headquarters at the Conan show, for example, and one thing that may catch your eye is the mint-condition ’61 Princeton parked against the wall. Next, you may notice the latest addition to Vivino’s Fender amp collection—a ’58 Bassman with the words “Crazy Horse” stenciled on either side. “I bet that thing can tell some stories,” says Vivino.

If anything tells a story in this room, though, it’s not the amps, the guitars, or the sitar in the corner. It’s the seven fedoras on the wall. Vivino, who gets a lot of camera time on Conan, has enough specimens of his trademark fashion accessory to wear a different one each day of the week. Factor in his multifaceted career as a guitarist, bandleader, arranger, guitar collector, composer, and solo artist—his latest album is 13 Live [Blind Pig], by Jimmy Vivino & the Black Italians— and it makes sense to describe the hardworking musical director as, literally and figuratively, a “man of many hats.”

Next, we enter the band room, where the guitarist will lead the Conan house musicians—the Basic Cable Band—through a quick morning rehearsal. Horns, guitars, and other instruments are being uncased near Vivino’s Korg Kronos workstation and Pro Tools rig. One entire wall is packed floor-to-ceiling with large binders. “Those are each full of handwritten song charts,” says Vivino, who is never far from a pencil and staff paper. “We often write and even record and mix new music the same day it airs.”

Getting his start in music as a keyboardist and a trumpeter, Vivino has evolved into a skilled orchestrator who has composed for major motion pictures as well as off-Broadway musicals. His literacy in music seems all the more impressive when you consider that the closest he has come to a formal music education is Walter Piston’s revered 1955 book, Orchestration, to which Vivino has been referring since age 13, when his band director, Joe Sielski, gave him a copy. Vivino’s true schooling, though, has been decades of on-the-gig training from the likes of Michael McDonald, Levon Helm, Donald Fagen, Paul Shaffer, and Marc Shaiman.

“I’m all for music education, but I guess I always worried that if I went too deeply into it, I’d end up a music teacher,” says Vivino. “I love seeing young guitar virtuosos nail all that Pat Metheny and Joe Pass stuff, but I always ask them, ‘Can you play like Neil Young, too? Can you handle a session date?’ Maturity doesn’t always come with genius.”

Vivino and the band get started by establishing ultra-brief musical count-offs for each piece of music they’ll play on the show. (“The first three songs are two, three. The last one’s just four.”) To warm up, they test-drive Tower of Power’s funk tour-de-force, “What Is Hip?” Interestingly, Vivino has composed new intro and outro sections for the song. “Those are what the TV viewers hear before and after the commercial break,” Vivino explains. “It saves on licensing fees. You wouldn’t believe how much it costs to play a Beatles riff on TV for ten seconds.”

Vivino’s rehearsal rig comprises a ’68 Hagstrom Viking and a ’68 solid-state Kustom 4x10 combo with tuck-and-roll upholstery. (“I just picked these up. This is me acquiring the toys I yearned for as a youth.”) No matter what he’s plugged into, though, Vivino’s tone is commanding and his vibrato is soulful. It’s a sound so tasty that Seymour Duncan commended it publicly well before the two connected and became friends.

“I think being a singer often helps with vibrato,” says Vivino, who is a great lead vocalist. “Take Leslie West, B.B. King, or Albert King, for instance. In each case, it’s like the guy’s voice has moved to the guitar, too. Or, there’s Jeff Beck, who has this great thing going with the vibrato bar. His ballads are untouchable. He’s the greatest singer who doesn’t sing.”

An hour later, rehearsal on the Conan set has begun, and host Conan O’Brien is front and center, reading through cue cards, and finalizing comedy bits that will be filmed live later in the afternoon. It’s the same thing that Jay Leno and Jimmy Kimmel are likely doing on their sets just across town, only O’brien is leading his rehearsal while holding a ’55 Stratocaster, which is running into a Vox AC30. Whenever there’s down time, O’Brien starts playing Duane Eddy’s “Rebel Rouser,” key modulations and all. Riffing on tunes at rehearsal appears to be the famed talk show host’s calming ritual.

“I’m the inverse of most guitarists,” says O’Brien, whose song repertoire spans Radiohead all the way back to his hero, Buddy Holly (who, not coincidentally, also played a ’55 Strat). “I can only play complete songs. I don’t know anything else.” Heading backstage, O’Brien hands me the über-valuable Fender to check out. I try to enjoy playing the highly prized hunk of Strat history in my hands, but I’m too nervous about the fact that it has no strap locks.

The rare Stratocaster was a 50th birthday present to O’Brien from Vivino, Conan producer Jeff Ross, and TBS president Steve Koonin—a generous gift that reflects the love and loyalty Vivino and the Conan staff have for their boss. The devotion goes both ways, because, from the show’s start on NBC in New York 20 years ago, through its move to California for its infamous, shortlived stint as The Tonight Show, and on to its current home on TBS, O’Brien has always fought hard to keep his beloved team intact.

Over on the bandstand, Vivino’s TV rig features two new combo amps—a Fender Eric Clapton Signature Twinolux and a Colby Dual Tone Booster—and the day’s guitar roster includes a reissue Guild M-75 Aristocrat, a Gretsch G6120RHH Reverend Horton Heat signature model, a ’66 Epiphone Casino, a ’60s Gibson ES-330, and Vivino’s treasured ’52 Telecaster. Behind his podium is a Dunlop wah, a Korg DT-1 rack-mount tuner, and several Visual Sound stompboxes, including a Double Trouble overdrive/booster and a Dual Tap Delay.

“I love pedals, and I need them for the show, so I can get different sounds at moderate volume levels,” says Vivino, who also uses stompboxes when he works with other acts, such as the popular Beatles tribute, the Fab Faux. “But my feelings about pedalboards changed one night in the ’80s, when I was playing with Al Kooper. I was running a Les Paul through various boxes into a Deluxe Reverb, when Joe Walsh came onstage to sit in. He immediately unplugged my pedalboard, plugged my guitar straight into the amp, turned everything up all the way, and the tone of God came out of his hands. I was stunned. Since then, my motto has become ‘Amp, wire, guitar,’ and that’s it. ‘Practice unsafe guitar,’ I say [laughs]. These days, the only thing I might run before an amp is a Fulltone Tube Tape Echo, which I use for a little slapback and bit of boost, to bust the amp up a bit.”

Speaking of playing “unsafe,” Vivino’s new album, 13 Live, was recorded entirely live in the famed Woodstock barn studio of his former bandleader, Levon Helm. “I like the warts-and-all approach,” says Vivino. “Live recordings are moments caught in time. They’re musical conversations. I love studio recording, too, but how much great stuff do we throw away in Pro Tools in the name of, ‘It’s not good enough’? I worked with Hubert Sumlin for a long time, and had this great process of eliminating the brain completely and getting to that pure place of heart-to-hand playing. I always aim for that.”

Vivino then takes me to a room backstage where his right-hand man, Conan band technician Barre Duryea, has a Gibson L-5 gutted on an operating table that is crowded with everything from a soldering iron and a drill press to nearly every type of D’Addario string available. Vivino not only knows guitars, he’s obsessive about hardware and history. He knows who used nylon saddles on Gibson bridges, and when. If he has to, he’ll take apart and rewind a vintage Gibson PAF pickup. He’ll put flatwound strings on a Strat to get the Buddy Holly tone. He likes Seymour Duncan, TonePros, J.R. Kohler, MojoAxe, Weber, and just about any other manufacturer who offers innovative new guitar and amp parts that don’t tarnish the vibe or appearance of vintage gear.

The room is also filled with dozens of guitars. Some are old. (“Here’s my favorite Les Paul—a ’53 P-90 goldtop. And here’s the ’59-ish Telecaster Tommy Tedesco played on the Marketts hit, ‘Out of Limits.’”). Others are new. (“If there’s a fresh take on guitar design—such as James Trussart’s metal-bodied guitars, Paul Reed Smith’s double-cutaway hollowbodies, or Collings’ electric line, I’m in.”) All are quality.

“One time, back in New York, I pulled a guitar out of my storage locker and realized I hadn’t seen it, let alone played it, in over five years, so I got rid of it,” says Vivino. “When you hit that point in your life, you realize it’s finally time to consolidate down from the 300 guitars you have to the 60 you actually need [laughs]. Seriously, though, Muddy Waters had only one guitar. You really only need the guitar you’re playing. That’s it. And maybe the one the guy next to you has, too.”

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