Guitar Talk, 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.
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Donald Fagen

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 another masterpiece?

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.


Gary Sieger

Kurt Rosenwinkel

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.

Jon Herington

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 not useful.

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?

Larry Campbell

Michael Leonhart

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 different.

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 kidding me.”