A SESSION ROUNDTABLE OF THE GUITARISTS ON DONALD FAGEN’S SUNKEN CONDOS.
THOSE NOT IN THE “IN CROWD” CAN only assume that being a session guitarist
on a Steely Dan or Donald Fagen project
is an exercise of much creative energy
expended for a rickety shot at fate. Players
do their best, and often don’t know
until the record comes out whether their
parts made the cut. At least that’s the
rumor and myth. But what really happens
inside the studio walls when a meticulous
musical genius such as Fagen is crafting
We were afforded the chance to take
a peek behind the curtain, so to speak,
after Fagen completed his fourth solo
album, Sunken Condos [Reprise]. Steely
Dan multi-instrumentalist and Sunken
Condos co-producer Michael Leonhart
offered to bring together the four main
guitarists on the project—Jon Herington,
Larry Campbell, Gary Sieger, and
Kurt Rosenwinkel—and moderate a discussion
on what went down as the tracks
were going down.
Michael, how did you cast the players
and the gear for the Fagen sessions?
Leonhart: It occurs to me that there
was a Duke Ellington approach to all of
this, where Donald and I talked about
which guitar players to bring in, and
all of these guys were called because of
their feel and their touch. That was the
criteria. Period. So I thought it would be
a huge mistake to have people bringing
in six guitars and huge pedalboards, as
that would interfere with getting to the
essence of what these guitarists do. I think
I sent out an email that said, “Let’s keep
it to two guitars—three max.”
Herington: Whenever I’ve recorded
with Donald, he looks for a pretty straight-ahead
and simple sound. He’s looking for
clarity and tone and a sound that reveals
the nuances of the player’s touch. I did
talk to Michael ahead of time to make
sure we had the bases covered if he and
Donald wanted a particular sound. There
are a couple of guitars they are used to
hearing me play, but the go-to guitar for most of the stuff was a Gibson CS-336.
Campbell: I brought a Les Paul and a
Strat—with no preconceived notion of what
kind of sound I was going to be looking for.
Michael directed me towards a Marshall amp,
and, on the rhythm tracks, we started out
with a clean channel, and ended up going
for a more distorted sound.
Sieger: I brought a Strat, a Tele, a Gibson
hollowbody, and an Epiphone Joe Pass archtop.
What we landed on was the Epiphone—
which has a beautiful clean sound—and I
plugged into a Fender Champ.
Rosenwinkel: I brought a Moffa archtop
made by Dominico Moffa in Sicily. It’s
a beautiful archtop jazz guitar.
Leonhart: Here’s another thing about
casting. The album started to get this very
whiskey-like dark tone, due to everybody
leaning towards semi-hollow, hollowbody,
and archtop guitars. I thought, “Okay,
we’ll go for guitar sounds that are dark and
woody.” Once, we had that concept, crafting
the guitar sounds for the album became
much easier, and we could concentrate on
the groove and the playing.
Everyone knows the Steely Dan/Donald
Fagen mythology that a lot of guitar players
are brought into the studio, and yet no
one knows whether they actually make the
album or not. What kind of headspace do
you have to be in to give it your all during the
session with no guarantee your artistry will
ever be heard?
Herington: I guess I learned how to deal
with that lesson the first time I ever worked
with Donald and Walter [Becker, Fagen’s
Steely Dan partner] in the studio. They
seemed really happy with what I did, and I
was feeling pretty confident. I walked home
real happy, but that track didn’t make it to
the record [laughs]. About a month later, I
got a call from Walter, who asked if I would
come in and play on four other tunes. Thankfully,
I was spared the cutting-room floor on
those tunes! Donald has always been a particular
guy, but it doesn’t serve you to worry
about that while you’re recording. It’s just
Campbell: We’ve all done this long enough
to know that we’ve been replaced on stuff,
and we’ve been the replacers on stuff. You
get to where that’s just normal procedure. It
doesn’t mean that what you did wasn’t fabulous—
it just means the artist had a preference
for what somebody else did.
Leonhart: The funny thing with Donald
is that whether it’s a live or overdub session,
he’s approaching everything as building
a house from the bottom up in terms of
groove and tuning. I have seen him chuck a
solo that was gorgeous because the tuning
was slightly off. Donald’s brain is wired so
that he’s very sensitive to pitch, and he just
can’t turn that thing off—which can be a
plus and a minus at times. But in the case
of building a rhythm section, he’s not going
to green light a track unless it rings true. It
can be frustrating, but it’s the only way to
make this kind of stuff.
What was the typical process in the studio?
Leonhart: Would you believe that all these
guys tracked the songs without a vocal—
not even a demo? Some players would
simply have no way to conceptualize performing
to a vocal song without the lead
vocal in place. That’s another thing where
some people would just have no idea how
to conceptualize it. I could only say, “Well
here are the lyrics. This is what the song is
about.” Donald would talk about it a little
bit, and, at some point, he might even sing
some lines from the back of the room. Now,
as a rhythm player or a soloist, this can be
a surreal experience. How do you build an
arc to a solo when there’s no lead melody?
Campbell: The lyrics definitely helped
in most cases. That’s something that goes
on subconsciously when you’re either constructing
a solo or a rhythm part. You sort
of make a decision to get the emotion of the
song, and either play to it, or play starkly
against it. You just absorb the feel, and,
hopefully, that comes out subconsciously
in your fingers.
Leonhart: Typically, each session is always
three hours. It’s sort of an old-school method.
You have three hours, and that’s usually a good
arc for a session. You come in, warm up, get
into a groove about a half hour in, and right
around the three-hour mark, you start getting
tired, and it’s time to eat. There’s a certain
logic to that. The only time we have gone
shorter than three hours is when we knew
it wasn’t going to work out. Also, Donald
does not like to rush the process. I’ve never
heard him say after an hour, “That’s good.
We’ve got it.” He’ll always ask for another
take—one for good luck—and then he’ll ask
the guy if he wants to try something completely
What was it like to be asked to play on this album?
Rosenwinkel: It was a great blessing to
be asked to do the session. I’ve loved Steely
Dan and Donald Fagen for my whole life,
so I didn’t care about making the record or
not. The experience itself was something I
just wanted to enjoy. I was doing a recording
session with Donald Fagen, one of my musical
heroes, and he was really cool. There was
a great vibe in the studio. We had a lot of
laughs, and we did good work. One highlight
was discussing the harmony with Donald at
the piano. That was a real thrill—hearing
him play the changes.
Herington: The greatest pleasure for me
was, after playing so many sessions with
Donald, how much more relaxed and trusting
he felt during the Sunken Condos project.
I credit Michael for that. Donald trusts
Michael, so I think Donald felt he had an advocate,
and Michael trusted us, so we felt that
we had an advocate. For the first time ever,
I felt I could make suggestions of my own
without wasting time. Michael was there to
mediate everything, and guide us all towards
what needed to happen.
Campbell: It was kind of the same for
me—as far as a comfort level goes—because
I had some opportunities to play onstage
with Donald before the sessions. There was
no pressure, because we were just playing
live music, and I developed the start of my
relationship with him based on that, rather
than being nervous about auditioning for
a job, or trying to impress him. So when I
got the call, I could put all of that notorious
stuff out of my head about the Steely Dan
sessions, and just throw music around as if
we were playing a gig. Once I allowed myself
to get into that space, the studio experience
was completely enjoyable.
Sieger: It was a dream come true. Donald
said to me, “I’ve heard you play,” and six
months later, I get the call from Michael to
do the session. It was like, “You’ve got to be
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