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 Organic Instrumentals?
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 the record?
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 each track?
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 to do.
Mason Marangella of Vertex Effects Systems on Landau’s Pedal Mods
“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.”