Rafael Moreira: The Super Session Guitarist Goes His Own Way with Magnetico's 'Death Race'

Like some kind of superhero, Rafael Moreira seems to be all over the place.
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Like some kind of superhero, Rafael Moreira seems to be all over the place. He has played guitar on massively popular television shows such as American Idol, The Voice, Rock Star: INXS, Rock Star: Supernova, and the recent remake of To Tell the Truth. You also may have seen him on Saturday Night Live, The Late Show with David Letterman, The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, Late Night with Conan O’Brien, Jimmy Kimmel Live!, the MTV Music Awards, Good Morning America, and more. He has performed with superstars such as Christina Aguilera, Pink, Steven Tyler, Paul Stanley, Stevie Wonder, Sheryl Crow, and others. You’ve heard his music in video games, television shows, and movie trailers. In the Los Angeles music scene—and all that the entertainment capitol sends out to the world at large—he is nearly omnipresent, but much of his high-profile career is doing great work for other artists.

However, the Brazilian-born Moreira—who was taught to play guitar by his mother, and formed his first band at age eight with his two older brothers—has also managed to produce his own work. Considering his workload, it’s almost miraculous that he has time to write and record for himself, but Moreira has persevered to release an instrumental solo album (2005’s Acid Guitar) and two albums with his rock trio Magnetico—2008’s Songs About the World, and last year’s Death Race. How does he do it?

What was the recording process for Death Race?

We recorded live at Steakhouse Studios in North Hollywood. We did two takes on each song. To be honest, I wish I was in the studio for a month, but we only had one day to record the basic tracks for the whole album. Then, I brought everything home and started doing vocals and guitar solos. I was never happy. I questioned everything, because I was home alone most of the time. Over time, I had to let it go. Also, I got two gigs right after I recorded the basics, and that took me away from my own project for a while.

What were some of the main guitars you used on the sessions?

I used a few guitars by the Gibson Custom Shop: a True Historic ’57 Les Paul Goldtop, a True Historic ’57 Les Paul Black Beauty, a True Historic 1960 Les Paul Reissue Sunburst, a 1959 Les Paul Standard Reissue in tobacco burst, and an EDS-1275 doubleneck. I also used a PRS 24 with a Floyd Rose, a Fender Custom Shop 1952 Thinline Tele Relic, and a Gibson Les Paul Baritone. All of the electrics were strung with Ernie Ball Slinky M-Steel strings, gauged .010-.046. If I tune down, I might mix up the gauge with a .011 on the high E and a .060 on the low E. For acoustic parts, I used all Gibsons—a 12-string Songwriter Deluxe, a Dove, and a J-45.

What about amps?

I used one head for the whole record—a Bogner Shiva. It’s custom, it’s old, and they don’t make it anymore. The cabinet was a Bogner 4x12 loaded with Celestion Vintage 30s.

Did you use any pedals on the album tracks?

For solos, I used a hand-wired Ibanez Tube Screamer, and I have an Arion Chorus that works great for Leslie-type sounds. An Electro-Harmonix POG made an appearance here and there, as well.

Although you’ve designed Magnetico as a rock band, I think your Brazilian heritage shows up in how you phrase your solos.

Sure. I completely agree. I’m just a sum of all these voices I have, and they’re going to come out somehow, even if I try to keep it just rock. But I think those things are unconscious. I don’t ever say, “Hey, I’ll throw this influence in here.” Those voices of mine just come out, and I guess I like to see where they take the music. For example, a rock player will typically attack the downstrokes—the ones and threes—when playing solos. But, because of my jazz influences, I tend to attack the upstrokes and swing a bit more.

You’re also a very melodic player…

That’s a mentality I learned from Scott Henderson around the time I was taking classes at Hollywood’s Musician’s Institute. He encouraged me to speak through my solos, as if we were having a conversation. He said the tools to create a conversation are motifs, so develop them. This concept became like a religion for me. Now, that approach comes out whether I’m sitting down and composing a solo, or improvising a solo in real time. Occasionally, I like to surprise listeners—you know, go somewhere completely different when they think they know where you’re headed—but I always want the audience to completely understand what I’m saying.

Your television work requires you to play covers most of the time. How do you prepare for that, and is it difficult juggling the creative differences in being both a solo artist and a sideman?

Vofka Solovey

When I started playing guitar as a little kid, it never crossed my mind to be a side guy. But then, my first gig after going to school in Los Angeles was with Christina Aguilera, and I had to fit into that world. You’ve got to be supportive, you’ve got to be a team player, and you’ve got to play for the music. It’s very different work than being a solo artist and playing your own tunes. It’s conflicting, but I chose to embrace it all.

For the television shows, my job is to learn and play a lot of music by other people. How I approach that gig is to just do it and own it. And once the show is over, I’ll never think about that song again. Whatever songs I’ve learned for Rock Star, American Idol, The Voice, or even for another artist—they are gone forever from my head once I’m done. Then, I go back to writing and playing my own material. I need to get rid of all the other stuff that was in my head for the purpose of my own work. It’s like a hard drive. I just let the data go so that I can create the music I want.

That’s interesting. So if I saw you play “Lola” by the Kinks on television, and, a week later, I asked you, “Hey, Rafa, let’s jam on ‘Lola,’” you’d look at me with a blank face?

[Laughs.] If you called me a week later to play a song I had played the week before, I would have to listen to the tune a couple of times to get it back.

Many guitarists who have enjoyed successful careers as side or session players never break out and establish themselves as solo artists with their own material. How do you think you managed to get out there under your own name?

I’ve lived that for close to 20 years. I’ve seen a lot of great players—great friends—going from one gig to the other real quick. Like, “Where’s the next gig? Where’s the next gig?” And years go by, and they haven’t seriously produced their own music at all. For the most part, I’ve fought the drive to always get the next gig, because I have this voice in my head that wants to get out. I always have. It means no harm to anybody, it’s just that I’m a human being, and I feel like I have something of my own to say.