YOU CONSTANTLY HAVE TO PULL THINGS out of the fire during sessions because gear breaks, and stuff happens that you have no control over. And, of course, in situations where the studio clock is running and time is money, people don’t have patience for delays. I mean, people are understanding to a point, but when they hire you, they expect you to have all your stuff working. Sometimes, that was tough in the rack era. You’d get your gear delivered, and they’d set it up, but maybe something was plugged in wrong, or something wasn’t plugged in at all, or perhaps something actually broke during transit. You’d hope that the tech had tested everything before he left the studio, but, you know, sh*t happens.
It all seemed like a lot of trouble, but we were expected to have a bunch of options ready when the producer or songwriter or artist would start asking for different sounds. As a session musician, you have to please those guys, and, at times, it would be art by committee. Someone would say, “I don’t know what I want, but that’s not it.” Everyone was either looking for the perfect noise—or an interesting noise—or the same sound that was on a hit record you’d cut weeks or months ago. You’d bring out a new toy to use on a song, and then everyone would want that “new sound” on their records. Remember when you heard a Tri-Stereo Chorus on just about everything on the radio? So you had different configurations of buttons to push that controlled the rack gear—and, you know, that was really no different than today, where guys have huge collections of pedals or effects plug-ins available—and you’d step on them until you came up with something the producer liked. You didn’t have to step on a bunch of buttons all at once, of course, but, back then, those big layered, kind of squishy sounds were what a lot of guys were looking for.
Which brings me to one of those statements that cracks me up when a player says it: “Well, I just plug straight into a Marshall. That’s all I need to get my sound.” Uh, huh. Well, they might do that, but the engineer is running them through a compressor or a limiter, and then adding a room sound, or another room mic to the mix—even the choice of microphones affects the sound. They might even add more effects at mixdown, so what someone hears on the final mix is not necessarily what was going on between the guitar cable and the amp. Once again, it’s that search for an interesting sound.
Today, a lot of producers and engineers have a ridiculous tray full of goodies to experiment with. Some of those guys also like to mess with the knobs themselves to feel like they’re part of the sonic creative process. I kind of let them have their way with it, because I’ve tripped and fallen on some really interesting things just by going with the flow of somebody else’s ideas. For me, the best stuff always comes quickly—even though some producers will make you play something a thousand times until the life is beaten out of the part. But whether you over-analyze or over-think a part, or whether you can just blast it right out, it’s all about the interpretation. Sound and interpretation are the keys to really great guitar performances.