IF ANYONE CAN DISPROVE THE OLD SAYING “Jack of all trades, master of none,” it’s session ace Carl Verheyen. For three decades now, he’s been a first-call player in Hollywood—playing everything from gigs supporting Miley Cyrus, B.B. King, LeAnn Rimes, and Glenn Frey, to working the late-night talk show circuit and scoring innumerable television dates (including Seinfeld, Cheers, Frasier, Married…with Children, and Scrubs) and countless movies (including the 2009 blockbuster Star Trek and the Pixar/Disney animated hits Up and Ratatouille).
But calling Verheyen a studio rat is like saying Remy the gourmet-chef rodent from Ratatouille was a good poison detector for his colony—it misses half the picture. Verheyen has also been a member of Supertramp since 1985, and for the last few years he’s been turning up the burners with his own fiery Carl Verheyen Band.
“I’ve really tried to cut down on the studio work and put more of that energy into my own band and touring,” he says. “I used to do ten sessions a week, but I realized it wasn’t making me any better, it wasn’t making me any more well known, and it wasn’t enabling me to achieve my own musical vision. I was just being a sideman in the service of somebody else’s vision.”
His latest solo release, Trading 8s [King], finds him singing and swapping licks with a roster of illustrious players, including Joe Bonamassa, Steve Morse, Robben Ford, Albert Lee, Rick Vito, and Scott Henderson.
Did you begin Trading 8s knowing you’d have all these great guest guitarists?
No. I’ve been buddies with Joe Bonamassa for a number of years, and we had talked about making an album together in the past, but then we both got really busy so we never got that idea off the ground. Once I’d gotten him to play on this album, however, I started thinking about all the other potential guests I could have.
So the songs weren’t written with these players in mind— which is nice because it puts them into a setting a little different than the one’s we’re used to hearing them in.
Right. For instance, we’d been playing “Taxman” in the band for about three years and people kept saying, “When are you going to record that?” So we finally did it, with Scott Henderson sitting in. I asked Steve Morse to play on “On Our Way” because you usually hear him just blazing—he’s one of the strongest guitar players I’ve ever heard—but there’s a whole other side to him that’s lyrical and melodic. That’s what I thought he’d give me, but I got a beautiful, melodic solo out of him that was also shredding.
Similarly, Bonamassa’s playing on the title track isn’t as thick and bluesy as one might expect.
Joe can play a lot of styles, but he’s very disciplined in his approach to making his own music and growing his fan base. He really tries to keep it within the blues format. I admire guys who are able to rein it in and do one thing, but I don’t have that discipline—or even that desire. I love to play jazz, rock, blues, country, rockabilly, metal, and bluegrass. I’m kind of all over the place.
How do you usually write?
I wrote “On Our Way” in the shower, which I think is why the main theme is more of a melodic statement than a guitar statement. But most of my song ideas come after playing for an hour or two and coming across some kind of a riff or melodic idea that can be developed into a song. I’m a practice-aholic— I find my center as a person when I practice. If I have a couple of days where I can’t practice, I don’t feel good about myself.
How did you and all the guests prepare for the sessions?
With Joe, he just walked into the studio and I had about 45 of my amps there. He said, “You got any Marshalls?” I said, “Yeah. What do you want—45, 50, or 100 watts?” He picked 100 watts. So we put two 4x12 cabinets out in the room, put the heads in the control room, put a gobo between the cabs, and miked them. We recorded at the same time, so if one guy screwed up we had to do it over again, because we were bleeding into each other’s mics. What you hear on that song is the fourth take. But it was different with every player. With Robben, I went to a studio near his house, and we recorded together—but we weren’t necessarily trading eights, we were trading entire choruses. I played two and then he played two. With Scott, I had my stuff down on tape and I took it over to his home studio. With Albert, I waited for him to get back from England, and then we booked the studio two days later and just went in there and carved.
You’re a big fan of matching specific guitars with specific amps. What are some of your favorite combinations?
Around 1989, I started to think that my ’61 Fender Strat through a Vox AC30 sounded better than $60,000 worth of rack gear. I said, “The hell with this stuff,” and went back to more of a rootsy sound based on that marriage of the guitar and the amp. My Gibson SG sounds fantastic through this 1976 Marshall JTM45, and my Les Paul sounds great through a 1968 JTM50 plexi. But I’ve got about 65 different guitars and about 50 amplifiers. They’re all different, and they all sound great.
What did you use on this album?
I’m a big fan of Dr. Z amps, and he (Mike Zaite) has made me a few that got a lot of use on this record, including a Carmen Ghia. I have three old plexi Marshall heads that I like to use for solos. My clean sound for the last five or six years has been a ’63 Vox AC30 on one side, and a 1964 Fender Twin on the other side. The Vox gives me all kinds of high-end sparkle from my Strat’s single-coils, while the Twin gives me more midrange girth. I’ve also got about nine little tiny amps—a Gibson Falcon, three Fender Princetons, a tweed Deluxe, a blackface Deluxe, an Italian amp called The Valve, and a German Bergertone— that really get it done in the studio.
Do you take those on your session dates, too?
My typical rig for a soundtrack is two 1x12 cabinets and a 16-space rack that I slave three or four heads through. I also take a big pedalboard that’s about three or four feet long.
Which heads do you usually take?
I usually take the Carmen Ghia and an old blackface Fender Tremolux. I’ve also been using a THD Flexi-50 running EL34 power tubes a lot.
Which pedals would you consider indispensable to your sound?
The indispensable ones would be the ones on my live pedalboard, like the Landgraff Perfect Distortion and an Italian pedal from VDL Professional Analogics called the Il Distorsore. What I’m looking for is something to saturate my sound enough to make it real fluid and easy to play, and yet still be able to tell which pickup I’m using. Single-coil distortion has a lot more character than humbucker distortion, because there are more things you have to do—you have to run them through the right pedals, and you have to run them through the right amp with the right amount of gain. If I take one of those vintage Marshalls and turn it up to 6, it gives me a semi-crunchy sound. And if I put the right pedal in front of that, I get enough saturation that I’m over the top for soloing. It’s got enough sustain and warmth that it’ll hold and hang just like a humbucker—but you can still tell which of the five pickup settings I’m on. That’s my ultimate goal in finding the right pedals and the right tone. My other indispensable pedals are a Hermida Audio Zendrive, which works really well on the clean side of my rig, and I also use vintage Fuzz Faces, Rats, old Tube Screamers, a TRex Mudhoney, and a Fuchs Cream pedal.
Is your approach to recording your own material different than your approach to sideman sessions?
When you’re making your own music, it’s completely your musical vision and the concept is purely artistic. I’m trying to make a statement that will last for all time. When I’m doing studio work, I’m not really an artist—I’m a well-listened craftsman. What I mean by that is that I’ve got the tools to do the job: If it takes a Les Paul through a Champ, I’ve got it. If it takes a Rickenbacker 12-string through a Fender Twin, got it. And when I say “well listened,” I think about when I played on this movie called Walking Tall not too long ago and they said, “We need that ZZ Top sound.” The well-listened craftsman knows that ZZ Top is Billy Gibbons playing a Les Paul with humbuckers through a little tweed amp, and he’s getting the pinched harmonics and using more of a Texas shuffle feel than a Chicago shuffle feel. And pulling up all that musical knowledge and heritage, and basically being a music historian in a sense, is something I really enjoy doing. But the artistic level there is maybe 40 percent, compared to 100 percent for your own record.
What’s the least glamorous part of being an A-list session player?
In the movie business, the only down side is that they don’t credit your solo work. They give the caterers credits at the end of the movie, but I was the principle soloist in Ratatouille— I played mandolin, a bunch of Django Reinhardt-type stuff, and parts where there’s a 105-piece orchestra backing me up—and I didn’t get any credit.
What are some of the biggest misconceptions players have about being a studio guitarist?
I think one of the things that people don’t realize is the knowledge of styles you have to have. For example, you might be called in for a country session, and if you’re the hat-wearing, boot-wearing Telecaster player, you’re probably going to nail it, right? But many times the producer and artist huddle together in the control room and then come out and say, “Y’know, it’s too country. We want to take it a little more country rock.” And if you’re that guy with the boots, hat, and Tele, you might be going home because you don’t have a concept of country rock. Or they might even want to take it in another direction and get out the acoustic guitars for bluegrass—or whatever. I’ve seen it happen many times where we started in one direction and turned completely around and made the song entirely different. And it’s that knowledge of styles that gets you hired. If you’re a specialist, you may work, but you’re not going to work nearly as much as the guy that composers, producers, and songwriters can trust no matter where things go.