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Good Vibrations: Scott Totten Details His Gigs as Musical Director for the Beach Boys

Scott Totten has the responsibility of “conducting” Brian Wilson’s brilliant studio arrangements as musical director for the Beach Boys. We asked him how he goes about accomplishing this difficult task.
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Surf guitars (left to right)—John Stamos,
 Totten, and Jeff Foskett ride the 6-string waves with vocalist Mike Love.

Surf guitars (left to right)—John Stamos,  Totten, and Jeff Foskett ride the 6-string waves with vocalist Mike Love.

Scott Totten earned a Bachelor of Music degree from Berklee, performed in numerous Broadway musicals, and did tons of session work, but perhaps his most demanding gig has been “conducting” Brian Wilson’s brilliant studio arrangements as musical director for the Beach Boys. In addition to ensuring the band performs the music of the Beach Boys with near-impeccable precision at every single show, he has to do this job for an act that seems to be constantly on tour, as well as under the watchful eye of original Beach Boy, Mike Love.

What are some of the challenges of musical directing a band that is etched into the fabric of American rock culture?

A lot of the Beach Boys music is very orchestrated and specific. So one of the things I take very seriously is adhering to the arrangements Brian Wilson came up with in the studio—this is the guitar part, this is the organ part, this is the drum beat, this is your vocal part, and so on. I try not to take it to the point of stifling the band, but when an audience hears “California Girls,” they want to hear what they know. I’m like a conductor, actually. I have to know the score, as well as each player’s part, so if I need to, I can say, “It should be phrased like this.”

Do you get together with the band to rehearse the arrangements before each tour?

Because we’re always on tour, having a rehearsal day is a very rare thing. In the 17 years I’ve been in the band, we’ve had maybe four rehearsal days when Mike wanted to work up some new material from the catalog. But, generally, what happens when we add a song is I’ll write out lead sheets and chord charts, and send out mp3s with me singing the vocal parts for each musician. The players are asked to study the parts on their own time, and we’ll rehearse the song when we get together for a soundcheck.

Man, that’s not a lot of time to work things out.

Well, I have to be the guy to say to Mike, “I’m sorry. It’s not ready yet. We need another day.”

How do you approach the guitars in a band whose music goes all the way back to the ’60s, and carries on into the now?

I’ve heard some people describe the early Beach Boys as kind of a punk band, because they were kids in a garage doing their best Chuck Berry impersonation. So, for those songs, the guitar parts can be a little freer, because those were free-spirited records. Then, Brian started working with the Wrecking Crew, and everything becomes very orchestrated, so I feel the guitar parts should be more precise. Now, there are people in the band who feel I should play [Beach Boy guitarist] Carl Wilson’s solos note-for-note, and there are people outside the band who feel I should just do my own thing. I adhere closer to doing Carl’s solos, but I’m not the same player that Carl was, so I still have my sound—which is a bit smoother, as Carl’s approach was sharper and more angular.

On the early records, Carl used a Jaguar, which has a very distinctive sound that a Strat doesn’t really have. Then, in the mid ’60s, you had Carl playing Stratocasters, Guilds, or Gibsons, and you had the studio guys playing Gibsons and Telecasters. So there’s a lot of ground to cover tone wise. I put Lindy Fralin pickups in my Strat, and they have a blender pot that allows me to use the neck and bridge pickups at the same time. That’s the sound I use for 95 percent of the show. It’s not really a conventional Strat tone, but it’s a little closer to a Tele or a Jaguar. For the later records from the ’80s and ’90s, I can also approximate those super-Strat sounds.

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How do you cast the parts between yourself and current Beach Boys co-guitarist Jeff Foskett?

On the early stuff, Jeff is more the strum, and I’m more the ga-ga-ga-ga-ga. On the later stuff, with all the interlocking guitars, we just decide between us who wants to do what.

Who is your own main influence on guitar?

For me, it all comes back to Jimi Hendrix. Fortunately, Mike really loves Jimi Hendrix, too. That’s one of the reasons I got to be in the band, because I sent him a demo tape that had some pretty wild stuff on it, and he liked it.

It must be a trip studying what was in Brian Wilson’s head, and decoding those parts for an entire live show.

Not to give bootleggers any credit, but the big thing for me was poring over unreleased outtakes, because the studio techs had a journal reel running all the time. “California Girls” took 43 takes, so I can listen carefully, and go, “What happened on take six? How is it different from take 20?”

That’s a really deep dive. Why not just study the released material that everyone knows?

The reason why is because on some takes, they had the saxophone section up super loud, and that allowed me to hear what all the sax parts were, and what kind of saxes they used. On the record, those parts are buried deep in the mix, but on earlier takes, you can hear them loud and clear. Also, when something required 43 takes, that tells me Brian was very particular about what he wanted to do. So I feel that I should study that stuff.

What was the most challenging song for you to arrange for the stage?

I would say “Good Vibrations.” That’s a tough one, because our keyboard player has to do the Theremin and all the cello parts. There’s also a tack piano and flutes. Then, there are more vocal parts than we have singers on stage. It’s tricky to sing it and perform it with accuracy and energy.

How do you advise all the sound crews you must encounter throughout a tour to ensure they project all of your hard work out to the audience?

I always tell the front-of-house mixer, “Don’t think of it as one lead singer, some harmony vocals, and a band. Think of it as a bunch of lead singers, because everybody is singing a note in a chord, which is the harmonic support for the sound. Then, the instruments fill in the rest. The vocals are the star—not my guitar parts. Also, Mike is the Beach Boy—he’s the star of the show, and Jeff sings the high parts—but you can’t have those parts screaming loud and the other vocals buried. That’s not the sound of the Beach Boys. Every note is very important.

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