Steve Lukathers Session Stories

May 1, 2010

THE GLORY DAYS OF RECORDING SESSIONS—WHICH were about 1976 to 1984—were exciting times. There was so much work going on. All the big studios had three different rooms, and they were all buzzing with real players laying down tracks on everything from records to film and television scores to jingles. On a lot of the pop stuff, you might not even know who the artist was—you’d just get a call from a contractor to be at Capitol Studios from noon to 6 pm, Monday through Friday.

It was all about how many sessions you had each week. One guy would go, “Well, I got 20,” and another guy would say, “Hey, I got 23.” A session was a three-hour time period, so you’d want to fill up your day and night, and go for four or more sessions per day. If you were a guitar player, you could also sneak in and do a quick solo or an overdub, and add another “session” to your day. You see, it didn’t matter if you were in the studio for five minutes or two hours and 58 minutes, it still counted as a three-hour session on the books. It became a challenge to see how many sessions you could do, and still do quality work.

Back then, nobody made demos—very few people had home recording equipment. The songwriter or artist would show up and perform the song on a piano or an acoustic guitar, or play a cassette with maybe a piano and vocal. You’d get pretty detailed chord sheets, but most of it was a blank canvas. From that, you’d have to come up with a part right away.

Now, the idea was to get two tunes in three hours from scratch, after never hearing any of the material before that moment. No rehearsal, either. It all had to happen immediately. You had to have big ears, man. And you also had to have options, because maybe you’d play something and the producer or someone would say, “I don’t like that. Come up with something else.” It was all a challenge, and you had to bring your best game in order to rise to the occasion.

That’s what’s amazing about today’s crop of young guitar players—so many of them go right for the wall. It’s all about the chops. But there are not a whole lot of guys who could take a chart showing 24 bars of E with slashes on it, and come up with a part that makes sense in five minutes with the right sound and the right groove—as well as adding a little hook note or a nice chord voicing to add something hooky that wasn’t there originally. We were basically co-writing the songs, but we never got the dough for it. The room would get real quiet if you asked for part of a song, but when I think about how we really rewrote these people’s tunes—well, let’s just say it would be astounding if people could hear the before and after.

Next issue: Dealing with click tracks, on-the-spot arrangements, and the era of excess.

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