“I don’t see myself as having a particular sound. I’m more of a music creator, and guitars are my tools. I just try to be prepared for any job”: The career of Lyle Workman, sideman, session guy and soundtrack composer in five songs

Guitarist Lyle Workman performs on stage
Workman performing at the Get Him to the Greek promotion for which he also composed the soundtrack (Image credit: Michael Tullberg/Getty Images)

Does Lyle Workman have one of the most apt surnames, or what? Since making his debut in 1986 with the Bay Area–based band Bourgeois Tagg, the versatile guitarist has been one of the most in-demand players around, recording and/or touring with the likes of Sting, Beck, Todd Rundgren, Michael Bublé, Sarah McLachlan, Bryan Adams, Sheryl Crow and Frank Black. And that’s just scratching the surface of his credits. 

When he’s not collaborating with top stars, Workman has an enviable second day job as a film composer, having scored numerous Judd Apatow pictures, such as The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Superbad and Get Him To The Greek

“I’ve always wanted to play with rock bands and make records, but film scoring came out of left field,” Workman says. “I met a film executive who needed guitar playing on one of his personal projects, and after that I won the lottery and did Judd Apatow’s first film. It’s nothing I planned on, but I applied myself and studied a lot. 

“I took a film scoring course at UCLA and got my orchestral chops together. When the opportunity comes around, you have to be ready.” 

In many ways, it mirrors how Workman approaches recording sessions. “I always want to find out as much as I can about a record date,” he says. “I’ll ask the producer beforehand, ‘What’s the vibe? What are you looking for?’ If I’m told, ‘He’s a rock and roll singer and he likes these kinds of bands,’ then I’ll decide what gear will best fulfill those needs. 

“I’ve done a few records with Michael Bublé, so I know what he likes, but sometimes a producer will say, ‘We’re going to do something a little different,’ and I’ll modify what I bring to a session.” 

For most recording dates, Workman tries to “cover all the main food groups” by bringing a Stratocaster, Telecaster, ES-335, Les Paul and an SG. “Of course, I’ve got Silvertones, Jazzmasters and Jaguars. You never know when you might need them,” he says. “I don’t see myself as having a particular sound. I’m more of a music creator, and guitars are my tools. I just try to be prepared for any job.” 

At the same time, Workman has learned to expect the unexpected, like the time he flew to New York to audition for Sting’s band. “The first thing Sting said to me was, ‘This isn’t a Police cover band. These are the songs. Just do your own thing,’” Workman recalls. 

“Fortunately, Sting liked what I did. That was the opposite of how I usually worked, which was to learn the songs and replicate them as best I could. But that’s how things happen — you have to be able to throw everything you know out the window and go with it.” 

Workman has recorded four solo albums, his most recent being 2021’s Uncommon Measures, which included the pull-out-all-stops, nine-minute-plus masterpiece “North Star,” in which the guitarist weaves soaring slide melodies and thunderbolts of wicked shred in and around a 63-piece orchestra recorded at London’s Abbey Road Studios. 

“I’m essentially a sideman, and I love helping somebody fulfill their vision,” he says. “But when I do my own music, I’m able to use various experiences I’ve had and tailor them to how I want to come across to other musicians. I always want to feel as good about playing my music as I do when I work with other people. In the end, I think it all comes across in how something sounds.”

I Don't Mind At All – Bourgeois Tagg (Yoyo, 1987)

“This is a song I wrote with Brent Bourgeois. He and Larry Tagg were the co-leaders and central songwriters of Bourgeois Tagg. When I joined the band, I would submit ideas to the guys on cassette tapes. ‘I Don’t Mind at All’ was a little guitar thing I had. I didn’t have actual words to it; I think I mumbled ‘I don’t mind at all’ at the refrain of the chorus. 

“Brent loved it and turned it into a song with lyrics. He and I did a string arrangement. It was the first time I’d done something like that. 

“There’s no crazy solo, but I played nice stuff on it. I used my main acoustic-electric at the time, a six-string Ovation in standard tuning. You could just plug it in and get a good sound with it. This was my first time working with Todd Rundgren, who produced the album. 

“I think he was pretty happy with what I played, because he didn’t have much to say. He was very focused on the lyrics. It was a fun night putting that down, and I emerged unscathed.”

Can’t Stop Running – Todd Rundgren (Nearly Human, 1989)

“I did this record right after the Bourgeois Tagg album. The band had become a four-piece, and we all played on Todd’s album. Halfway into the sessions, we basically broke up. Todd was pretty hands-off about what I needed to play. I think he just likes to cast the right people and he lets them go. 

“With this song, he had a demo that had guitar all the way through it, including a solo. Todd wanted to record it live, and he told me, ‘You play the solo.’ I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh,’ because, you know, he’s a great guitar player himself. In the end, we did three solos in the song, all recorded live with no overdubs. 

“It was especially daunting for me, because not only did I play all of these solos but this track also saw a reunion of Todd’s band Utopia. I was a huge Utopia fan — I had all their records — and here I was meeting them and playing with them. No pressure, right? [laughs] But I had a great time. 

“There was one moment during the session when Todd looked at me and gave me a big smile because he liked what I was doing. That made me feel pretty good. 

“There’s a little intro that Todd had for the song. I took maybe 50 percent of his thing and added my own flair to it. When it came to the solos, it was like, ‘Here’s eight bars, or 16 bars,’ and off I went. I stood in the control room as I played. I used a Hamer Chaparral with a Floyd Rose, and I went into a Mesa/ Boogie Studio Preamp right into the board. It came out great. 

“After this record, I went on tour with Todd, and then we did another record called Second Wind. I had a couple of years with him.” 

New Mistake – Jellyfish (Spilt Milk, 1993)

“The guys in Jellyfish used to have a band called Beatnik Beatch that opened shows for Bourgeois Tagg. At the time, we were a big fish in the Bay Area pond. Later on, when they morphed into Jellyfish, [band founders] Andy Sturmer and Roger Manning were looking for a guitar player, and they called me. 

“This was for their second album, Spilt Milk. This situation was the opposite of how I worked with Todd Rundgren or Frank Black in that they had very specific guitar parts laid down in their demos. They basically needed somebody to play them a little bit more expertly and to add little embellishments. 

“I did a solo that I came up with on the spot, and then I doubled it. I used a Gibson ES-335 for it, which we rented from a great vintage guitar shop in Los Angeles. We rented about 15 guitars and amps, and I felt like I was in a candy store. 

“I didn’t mind replaying a lot of their parts. If I really love the music, I don’t mind being the smallest cog in the wheel. I just like being able to participate in any way, even if it’s a buried part that’s very minimal and isn’t showcased. Just to be a part of good music is enough for me. Spilt Milk was full of very good music, so it was an enjoyable experience.”

Solid Gold – Frank Black and the Catholics (Frank Black and the Catholics, 1998)

“At the time, I didn’t really listen to the Pixies that much. The drummer in Bourgeois Tagg turned me on to Frank Black’s first solo album, and I fell in love with it. I played it nonstop in my car. Then I turned Joel Danzig from Hamer Guitars on to it, and one day he called me and said that Frank was doing some recording in our neighborhood. It was a tribute record to [rock and roll songwriter] Otis Blackwell. I told Joel, ‘I’ve got to meet Frank Black.’ 

“Joel knew the producer of the record. He made some calls, and it was worked out that I would go to the studio to do some background vocals. So now I’m standing at the mic with Frank Black, and he said, ‘I hear you’re a really good guitar player. I’m actually working on a record. What are you doing in September?’ And I said, ‘I’m playing with you!’ He hired me to do some overdubs on his next record, Teenager of the Year, and that led to five years of recording and touring with him. 

“One of the tracks we did was ‘Solid Gold.’ This was another live-to-tape-with-no-overdubs thing. I think we might have even done this live to two-track. I used a ’57 Les Paul Jr. into a Mesa/Boogie Rectifier. The song has a pretty cool extended solo. There was never any discussion about what I would play. Frank liked my choices. He’d play what he played, and I’d make up my own parts. I think he liked to be surprised. 

“Frank was interesting in that he allowed for a lot of soloing, which wasn’t really the thing with alternative music or college music. He always gave me a lot of room to play. I’m sure there were a few folks who said, ‘He’s no Joey Santiago,’ and I agree — I am not Joey Santiago. He’s a completely different player, and I love his style and sound. I come from an older rock-and-roll thing. 

“I grew up on Hendrix and the Who, Queen and 10 Years After. From there, it was into John Scofield and Robben Ford. That’s what you get from me.”

North Star – Lyle Workman (Uncommon Measures, 2021)

“I wanted to make a record that encapsulated my journey through music, and the biggest element of that was orchestral music that I had the opportunity to dive into through film scoring. I knew I wanted John Ashton Thomas, my film orchestrator, involved in this. He and I have bonded over a lot of music. 

“‘North Star’ took a while to write and put together. It’s over nine minutes long, and it shifts from section to section like movements in classical music. I broke it down, playing riffs to a click track, and then I listened back to see what it needed — usually a new melodic idea. 

“We were going to use a full orchestra, but I had to have a basic track recorded first — that’s when I did my guitar parts. There’s a slide melody part on which I used my Gibson Trini Lopez. Then there’s a section with a lot of fast changes. For that I played my 1966 Fender Electric XII with a Gumby headstock. And finally, there’s the main solo section, where I kind of go wild. For that, I played my ’63 Strat. 

“We recorded the orchestra at Abbey Road, which was the pinnacle for me. Number one, we were doing my music. Number two, we were working with arguably the best orchestral musicians in the world — these people play on top soundtracks. And three, we were doing it at Abbey Road, which is ground zero for me — it’s where the Beatles recorded. 

“It was a long day with the orchestra — I think it took nine hours. I got nice compliments from the musicians, which was incredibly validating. It was challenging for everybody, but we had fun with it.”

Lyle Workman's new album Built to Last is available to buy and stream now 

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.