Danny Kortchmar: My Career in Five Songs

Danny Kortchmar
(Image credit: Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images)

In a remarkable career that has spanned 50 years, Danny Kortchmar has recorded with an astonishing array of legends, including Carole King, James Taylor, Linda Ronstadt, Jackson Browne, Warren Zevon – and, as the saying goes, the list goes on! 

Hailing from New York City, the guitarist cut his teeth in the late 1960s playing Greenwich Village clubs in such groups as the King Bees and the Flying Machine (which featured a pre-Sweet Baby James James Taylor) before he headed to Los Angeles to try his hand at the studio-session scene. As he explains, his timing couldn’t have been better. 

“Things were changing right as I got to L.A.,” Kortchmar says. “The Wrecking Crew were still cutting records, but there was this new batch of players coming in – friends of mine, like Waddy Wachtel. We were different; we were rock and blues guys. And we were perfectly suited to the kinds of records that were coming into fashion.” 

As Kortchmar describes it, during most of the ’60s, L.A. sessions were business-like affairs, at which songs were cut in three-hour morning and afternoon blocks.

“Everybody was punching the clock, and most of the action revolved around producing singles,” he says. “But in the late ’60s and early ’70s, the emphasis shifted to albums, so you had producers like Peter Asher and Lou Adler making records with Carole King and James Taylor. They would bring us in for what turned into complete projects. It was an exciting time. I got to be deeply involved in the creative process.”

He laughs. “And I got my name in the credits! That never happened with the Wrecking Crew guys.” Kortchmar admits the demand for session guitarists isn’t what it used to be.

“It’s a whole different lifestyle these days,” he says. “You’ve got people making records at home, and they’re doing things remotely. A lot of the studios are gone.”

Learn how to back up a singer. It’s a skill set that too many people are uninterested in. They want to shred as fast and loud as possible. That sort of thing won’t get you hired

But he does have some advice for younger players hoping to get into the game. “Learn what a good song is,” he says. “Learn how to back up a singer. It’s a skill set that too many people are uninterested in. They want to shred as fast and loud as possible. That sort of thing won’t get you hired. Give me George Harrison any day.”

In addition to his session guitar credits, Kortchmar has distinguished himself as a songwriter and producer.

His work includes co-producing a trio of Don Henley albums (I Can’t Stand Still, Building the Perfect Beast, and The End of the Innocence), for which he collaborated on the writing of such songs as “Dirty Laundry,” “All She Wants to Do Is Dance,” and “Sunset Grill,” among others.

These days, Kortchmar is back playing with some of his studio pals, including Wachtel, Leland Sklar, Russ Kunkel, and Steve Postell, in a band called the Immediate Family.

“It started out as a solo project, but it quickly became a band,” he says. “We’ve done a lot of touring, and we have an album of all-original tunes coming soon. I’m prouder of it than anything I’ve ever done.” But these five tracks collectively form a very close second.

“It's Too Late“ – Carole King ('Tapestry,' 1971)

“I knew Carole King’s DNA as a songwriter. I had played with her long before Tapestry. In fact, I played on many of her demos for Screen Gems. That’s largely how I learned how to be a studio guitarist. Carole was a brilliant teacher. Working with her was like going to Harvard. It’s funny that Tapestry is such a classic, because nobody had big expectations for it. She had already made an album [1970’s Writer] that didn’t sell.  

“For the Tapestry sessions, we were cutting three tracks a day at A&M studios. Everybody was in the room sitting very close together, playing live. For a lot of the songs we had chord sheets, but for ‘It’s Too Late,’ Carole sat at the piano and played the song; I just had to absorb it. 

“When it came to the solo, I was told, ‘Play something melancholy.’ I was using a Telecaster and probably a Princeton amp. I think I did two or three passes, and everybody seemed pretty pleased.

“I have to be honest: At the time, I wasn’t feeling crazy about my playing on it. I thought it was kind of lazy. I had no idea that the song was going to be a Number One record, and that I was going to be listening to it in supermarkets and drug stores my whole life. Over the years, I’ve learned to dig the solo, and I realized that what I played was very authentic and fit the song perfectly.”

“Hurts So Bad“ – Linda Ronstadt ('Mad Love,' 1980)

“People called Mad Love Linda’s new-wave record. There was some resentment about it from a lot of the L.A. people, but I didn’t care. I loved the new-wave stuff. I was listening to the Clash and the Ramones, so when we went in to rock a little more, I was all for it. 

“I knew this tune from the Little Anthony and the Imperials version. The original was all strings and kind of a pop arrangement, but when Linda decided to do it, we pumped up the jam and made it more rock. One of the things I did was mimic the Imperials’ background vocals with guitar parts. I would kind of answer Linda where the singers would have come in. 

“I think we played everything live. The solo was fun. I always tried to fit the mood and the emotion of the song. I would listen to the lyrics and the context, so I just went with my gut and started blasting away. I had to match the power of Linda’s vocals, so I knew I had to go big. It was all spontaneous.

“Linda and [her producer/manager] Peter Asher are both very astute and knew what they wanted. They were really happy with it, so I was thrilled. Linda has said in interviews that this is her favorite guitar solo on any of her records, which is an incredible compliment. She certainly has a lot of great solos to pick from.”

“Driving With Your Eyes Closed“ – Don Henley ('Building the Perfect Beast,' 1984)

“Working with Don Henley has been such a pleasure. I knew him from his Eagles days. We all hung out together, smoked pot and had fun. Everybody knew one another back then. There was friendly competition, but we were all really digging what everyone else was doing. Don and I did three of his solo albums together. This one, Building the Perfect Beast, was the second.  

“Don didn’t want acoustic guitars on his records. He wanted to get far away from the Eagles’ sound, so I used a lot of synths and drum machines. On this album, I would make demos at home. The next day I’d play what I had for Don, and if he liked it, he’d say, ‘I can sing to that,’ and we’d start recording right away. It was really a terrific situation for me, as a writer and producer. 

“On this track, I started a beat on the drum machine, got the guitar tuned to E-flat open, and I flew by the seat of my pants. The riff came about from the line ‘Drivin’ with your eyes closed,’ which was my only lyrical contribution to the song. I just grooved.

“There are two solos – one that’s short, and the end solo that’s a little longer. I enjoyed working with synths on this material, so I wove the guitars around them. I went for very spare solos – there’s a lot of space between the notes. I remember going for what John Lennon did on ‘Come Together’ – a very stinging, sinuous sound.”

“I Will Not Go Quietly“ – Don Henley ('I Will Not Go Quietly,' 1989)

“I’m very proud of this song. It rocks like mad. I programed the drums with my Akai MPC3000, got a beat going and then started playing guitar parts. The opening guitar that you hear is me using a vibrato pedal. 

“I always loved that Lonnie Mack–type sound, so I took that and pushed it further and further. It took a long time to put together – probably three days of continuous work.

“There’s a buzz-saw guitar that really tears it up, and there’s probably three or four more guitars in unison on which I’m using the whammy. I had a Stratocaster with a whammy bar that had two or three of the springs taken out, so it had a lot of play to it. I think I used a Paul Reed Smith on some of the lead stuff. It’s pretty killer.

“Axl Rose was a big admirer of Don’s singing. He had grown up listening to the Eagles, and he came in to sing on the track. I remember he was kind of a shy fellow, but not impolite, and he sang beautifully. There was one funny moment with me: He really loved the drum track, and he asked me who played on it. I had to tell him, 'Well, me, but they’re not real drums. It’s all programmed on the MPC3000.'”

“Blaze of Glory“ – Jon Bon Jovi ('Blaze of Glory,' 1990)

“This was Jon’s debut solo record, and I co-produced it with him and played on it. Jon and I got along right away when we first spoke on the phone. He’s a lovely fellow, very smart.  We talked about how to proceed with the album, and the first thing he said was, ‘Well, I want Jeff Beck to play on it and do the solos.’  

“I said, ‘Great,’ but then Jon said that Jeff wanted to use his own band. I told him this wasn’t a good idea. These were pop-rock songs, and we should use guys who play that music. I convinced them both that I should use other people, so I brought in guys like Kenny Aronoff [drums], Randy Jackson [bass], and Benmont Tench [keyboards]. 

“We had the greatest time cutting the basic tracks. They tore it up, and Jon was astonished how soulful they all were. Then Jeff Beck came in to do the solos. Jon was on deadline to get the album finished, so he was in one room doing vocals and he said, ‘You work with Jeff to get the solos.’ So it was me, Jeff Beck, and Robbie Jacobs, the engineer. 

When Jeff played, I was startled. I was watching the grand master of the Stratocaster

“Jeff wasn’t rude, but he wasn’t impressed by much. He didn’t want to talk about his career or anything, but if you talked to him about hot rods, his eyes would light up. He’s a car guy. 

“I had mentioned that I was in the movie This is Spinal Tap, and that impressed him. So I called up Christopher Guest and said, ‘You’ve got to come down and say hello to Jeff.’ And he did. Jeff was delighted to see him. That was a funny event.

“When Jeff played, I was startled. I was watching the grand master of the Stratocaster. Jeff was very efficient when playing his parts. He would set up, I’d run the tune for him, and he’d play one or two passes. Each take was a keeper – just totally great. 

“Watching him play was amazing. The way he used his thumb, his vibrato, how he messed with the volume or the whammy bar. I didn’t have to tell him what to do or belabor anything. He just knew.”

Joe is a freelance journalist who has, over the past few decades, interviewed hundreds of guitarists for Guitar WorldGuitar PlayerMusicRadar and Classic Rock. He is also a former editor of Guitar World, contributing writer for Guitar Aficionado and VP of A&R for Island Records. He’s an enthusiastic guitarist, but he’s nowhere near the likes of the people he interviews. Surprisingly, his skills are more suited to the drums. If you need a drummer for your Beatles tribute band, look him up.