By age 20, Michael Landau had toured with
Boz Scaggs and was a staple of the Los Angeles studio
session scene. With a resume that runs from Julio Iglesias
to Miles Davis, Landau’s list of credits fills ten pages
of the All Music Guide. Over the last two decades, he has
found time between sessions to release a stream of solo
recordings. His latest, Organic Instrumentals [Tone Center],
combines the guitarist’s distinctive brand of Strat strangling
with the modern organ sounds of Larry Goldings
to produce ten tunes ranging from the Howlin’ Wolfstyle
blues “Wooly Mammoth” to the Bill Frisell-like
introspection of “The Family Tree.” These disparate feels
are knit together by Landau’s personal harmonic sense
and intensely focused attention on the details of tone.
Could you read music when you started doing session work?
Yes. I’m a decent reader and got better at it the more
I was forced to do it. I’m by no means a great reader, but
on record dates it’s mainly chord charts and pretty simple
stuff. I always focused more on the tone and playing.
Tommy Tedesco, Larry Carlton, Jay Graydon, and others
were well established when you started. What did you bring
to the table that helped you break in?
Steve Lukather couldn’t keep up with all the work
he was getting. He would recommend me for work
and things snowballed from there. The early ’80s was
the time of the big racks and heavily processed guitar
sounds. I had my gear dialed in—no hums or buzzes—
and I was able to get a variety of modern sounds quickly.
That was something that maybe the more established
guys weren’t doing.
Did you pick up any guitar playing or musical insights while
touring with Joni Mitchell?
Joni used several alternate tunings. One she used
on some songs on Hejira is fun to play: D, A, E, G, A,
D—low to high. Tuning the D string to E gives you an
easy way to play close intervals with the other strings.
It’s inspiring just to be around great artists and creative
people like Joni. Hopefully, some of their voodoo has
entered my psyche.
Why did you decide to do a strictly instrumental record
this time out?
I love non-vocal music because it is completely
open to interpretation. Some of the compositions on
the album are intentionally simple—the most important
things being a strong intent and setting a mood.
Where do you get your distinctive harmony?
I like the simplicity of a basic voicing made with
wide intervals by leaving out the fifth or third. I also like
where the top of the chord and melody stay the same
but the root of the chord moves around and changes.
But it has to feel good and flow, and it has to actually
feel good to play physically.
Would it be fair to say that your approach is based as much
on tone as on the notes? And if so, where did that come from?
The tone can dictate what I play, especially when I’m
playing live. It’s a constant adjustment to make every
note count and sit in the music just right. Also, what
I don’t play is as important to me as what I do play.
Landau with bassist Chris Chaney and drummer Gary Novak.
You have some vintage Fender Stratocasters and two Suhr
Strat-style guitars. How do you decide which one to use in the
studio or take on the road?
I recently removed the bridge humbuckers in all of
those guitars, so they have three single-coils now. The
’63 Fiesta Red is probably my favorite. I usually try to
bring at least one vintage instrument with me when
we tour. What can I say? They make me happy. In general,
I play my old guitars unless the single-coil noise
is too much. I have the Suhr “Silent Single Coil” (SSC)
system in both of my Suhrs and a couple of the Fenders,
and they all have Suhr ML [Mike Landau] pickups.
Other than the Eminence Tonespotter speakers, have you
had any mods done to your Fender Hot Rod DeVille?
My favorite speaker is the Celestion Heritage Series
G12-65. Unfortunately, it wouldn’t fit in the Deville.
I tried the Tonespotter on a whim and liked it better
than the stock speakers, but besides that the Devilles
are stock. I only use the clean channel on those amps,
with the volume set between 3 and 5.
What do the Vertex Effects Systems Mods do for your Arion
Stereo Chorus and Line 6 DL4?
Mason [see “Mason Marangella of Vertex Effects
Systems on Landau’s Pedal Mods”] replaced the stock
switches on the DL4 with heavy duty ones because I
kept breaking them. He also added truebypass
switching and did some other mods.
How did you go about layering the parts on
I wanted this record to be big and full
sounding, with lots of colors coming in and
out. In general I will add guitar parts with
specific sounds until the song has a good
dynamic feel and fullness. I can tell right
away if it’s too busy sonically. I try to bring
it right to the edge without going overboard
with too much information. Some
of the songs, like “Smoke,” have four or
five guitar parts, including the acoustics.
If the parts and sounds all work together,
you can have a lot of information going on
without it bombarding you.
How are you getting that “amp being destroyed”
distortion on “Delano”?
I used a Berkos FX The Germanium
Experience through a Dumble Overdrive
Special amp on the solo. The Berkos is a
Fuzz Face-style pedal, and most of the dirt
comes from it. I think I played my ’68 Strat.
The solo sound on “Sneaker Wave” is quite
different. What was your setup for that?
I used a ’63 Strat with a Maxon SD-9
Sonic Distortion pedal through a Suhr Badger
18-watt head into a Kerry Wright 4x12 cabinet
with Celestion Heritage Series G12-65s.
Which delay are you using for the spooky
effects on “Ghouls and the Goblins?”
I used the Line 6 Echo Pro, which was
added when I was mixing. I used the “Echo
Platter” setting. It’s a nice, almost choruslike
tape flutter effect.
On the same tune, there is a section at 2:13
where an unaccompanied guitar part is widely
split to the left and right. Did you manually
double it or use delay to split it?
That’s the Echo Pro on the right side. It
was added later with the same “Echo Platter”
setting. While I recorded the effect, I
was messing with the delay time and feedback
to freak it out a bit. I used the ’63
Fiesta Red Strat through the Suhr Badger
head on that section.
Which other guitars and amps did you use for
I used a ’52 Fender Telecaster, a ’65 Fender
Jaguar, a ’68 Gibson ES-335, a ’63 Gibson SG,
and a ’54 Martin 0-15 acoustic. For amps I
also used a ’64 Fender Super Reverb. I used
the Kerry Wright cabinet for the whole
record. It’s an open-back, huge-sounding
cabinet. In general I used both Shure SM57
and Royer R-121 ribbon mics, a few inches
back, just off the center of the cone, give or
take an inch or two depending on the part.
When you back the mics off a bit, it can help
a part sit in a track better, especially if there
are more that two guitar parts.
With three drummers and four bassists, how
did you decide which rhythm section to use on
All of those drummers are great and any
one of them could have played on any of the
songs on the album. In general, Gary Novak
played on the tunes that have more of a jazz
influence. We have been playing some of
those tunes together live for a while now. I
imagined Charley Drayton playing “Woolly
Mammoth” when I first had the riff in my
head. The tune “Sneaker Wave” with Vinnie
Colaiuta on it was recorded several years ago.
It was originally intended to be a vocal song.
All three of them have their own voice on
the drums. [Bassists] Andy Hess and Chris
Chaney have been touring with me in the
last few years. I tried to get all my favorites
in there at some point.
You seem to be pushing your solo and live career
harder in the last couple of years. Does that coincide
with the slowing down of the studio scene?
I’ve been fortunate to work with great
artists over the years, but being in a band
and performing original music has always
been what I wanted to do ever since I can
remember. Playing live, improvising with
my pals, and making records is what I love
of Vertex Effects
Systems on Landau’s
“I replaced some components
on Michael’s Line 6 DL-4 to make the analog
settings more lo-fi and the digital settings
more hi-fi. I also replaced the footswitches
and mounted them to the enclosure rather
than the circuit board, and added pots at
the left and right outputs that can add up to
10dB of output level to compensate for any
drop when the effect is engaged.
I modified his Arion Chorus to make the
chorus sound go faster and slower than usual,
added a “Vibe” setting which alters the Speed
and Depth controls for more warble and low
end, and added true bypass switching.”
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