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Left to Right: Lyle Workman, Peter Thorn, Steve Stevens, Jon Button, Brian Ray, Frank Simes, and Eric Schermerhorn
It was guitarist Peter Thorn’s idea to get a group of guys together and talk about the ins and outs of being a sideman. Peter is a highly successful guitarist for hire and gear lover. He’s worked with artists such as Melissa Etheridge, Chris Cornell, Jewel, Alicia Keys, and many others. Premier Guitar was there to make sure no fights broke out, keep things on track, and capture the magic. We met at Tone Merchants in North Hollywood California on a clammy night. We moved some furniture around, renewed old acquaintances, and got comfortable. Soon, seven of the most successful sidemen in the business were talking shop about one of the toughest, most competitive industries to break into.
Lyle Workman is a composer, guitarist, and music producer who is best known for his soundtrack work. If you saw the movies Superbad, The 40 Year Old Virgin, and Forgetting Sarah Marshall, you’ve heard his work. He’s also worked as a sideman to Sting, Todd Rundgren, and Beck.
Eric Schermerhorn is a songwriter and guitarist who has worked in close quarters with such high profile artists as David Bowie, Iggy Pop, and Ric Ocasek. He replaced Johnny Marr in The The, recorded with They Might Be Giants and was a contributing songwriter to Jason Mraz’s big record Waiting for My Rocket To Come and for Sheryl Crow.
Brian Ray has had a long and amazing career. He’s pretty much played with everybody and done everything. His good karma and talent has led him to have the greatest gig in the history of mankind: To play bass and guitar in Paul McCartney’s touring band.
Jon Button is a master electric and upright bassist who’s played on many a commercial and soundtrack recording including the Emmy winning Batman Beyond. He’s also held down the low end for recording artists such as Robben Ford, Shakira, Sheryl Crow, Roger Daltry, and Pete Townsend.
Frank Simes is a Grammy nominated composer and guitarist with nine platinum records. He’s the music director for Roger Daltry and has played guitar for such heavy weights as Don Henley, Rod Stewart, Mick Jagger, Roger Waters, and The Motels.
Steve Stevens is an iconic force of nature. Besides being the music director and co-creator of the Billy Idol sound, Stevens won a Grammy for the Top Gun soundtrack. His solo records are truly awesome but he’s also known for working with such wide ranging artists as Vince Neil, Robert Palmer, Joni Mitchell, Tony Levin, and Michael Jackson.
How versatile does someone need to be to become a successful session or touring guy? Is it better be a Swiss Army Knife on guitar, or a guy who may only be good at a few things?
Eric Schermerhorn: Better not to be a Swiss Army Knife person. Look at Johnny Marr. He’s does “That thing.”
Frank Simes: Some can go to a session and cop a classical or Spanish thing on a classical guitar, or a twelve string open tuning thing. Some guys can do it all. I know I’m good at certain things and not good at other things.
Jon Button: I think there’s an avenue for either.
Peter Thorn: There’s utility players that play a little guitar, keys, mandolin, and everything under the sun and they get work too. My predecessor in Melissa Etheridge’s band was Phillip Sayce. He’s an unbelievable blues player. He’s got ballistic Stevie Ray Vaughan chops.
Lyle Workman: People email me questions, “How do I get to be a sideman?” I always say, “Learn how to read music.” The reason I say that is because there’s always going to be TV and film work, and those guys make really good money and it’s consistent. If you’re a good guitar player, and there’s a good guitar player that reads, that guy is going to be working more. He’s just going to have more avenues.
Steve Stevens: I missed that boat.
Lyle Workman: Not that you can’t work. I’m not that great of a reader either, but reading has helped me do certain things I wouldn’t have been able to do.
Eric Schermerhorn: Absolutely.
Frank Simes: I’m always sweating but I can get through it. [Laughing]
Jon Button: I’m actually a pretty darn good reader but I never use it. Not to take anything away from what you said.
Lyle Workman: If you started doing orchestral dates for movies, that’s constant work. That’s stay at home money. You just haven’t gotten into that clique yet, but once you do, you’ll be doing a whole other side.
Jon Button: I did do a bit of that and it kinda wasn’t what I was into.
Steve Stevens: I had to excuse myself from a session because I didn’t read. I got called in for a movie. I forgot the name of the film. It was an Antonio Banderas thing. They knew I played Spanish guitar. They said, “Hey would you come in and do this?” Without even asking me if I could read! I didn’t know the film thing, so I get in there. Boom, the music is in front of me. I start sweatin’!
I said, “Look, I’ll take a crack at it but I’m probably not the guy for this.” He said, “You can go.” So I picked up my case and said, “Knock yourself out.”
Lyle Workman: It’s a whole other side. If you don’t happen to meet someone who’s playing in Sheryl Crow’s band, what do you do? We’ve been around long enough to establish a lot of contacts, but we got lucky with the people we met. For people that are coming up now it’s like, if you can learn how to do this too, it’s going to help you.
Frank Simes: Knowledge is power and if you can’t do this you can do that. If you can’t join the next Sheryl Crow band or whatever, then you have a whole other base.