Lyle Workman Channels Arthur’s Leads

Session guitarist and soundtrack composer Lyle Workman’s guitar-playing and compositional abilities are such that he’s a first-call player for a variety of projects. Many know him for his work on Todd Rundgren’s albums Nearly Human and 2nd Wind, but his versatility earns him work with artists as diverse as Michael Bublé, Ziggy Marley, and Shakira—though these days he spends most of his time scoring films. We recently spoke to him about the lead-guitar work he did for Arthur Channel after vocalist/guitarist Jon Greene and bassist Greg Richling brought him the album’s basic tracks.

Did you find yourself using a handful of go-to gear to track the Arthur Channel parts?
Yeah. Effects-wise, let’s start with the overdrives: I’ve got the PaulCAudio Tim, the Univox Super-Fuzz, an old Fuzz Face, a reissue Pro Co Rat, and a Skreddy Zero, which is like a Big Muff. Sometimes I just turn the amp up and get the distortion from that.A Boss VB-2 Vibrato is my go-to unit for anything that sounds a little bit wobbly. The Line 6 DL4 delay is kind of a staple—I have to have that. I've got a crazy little Guyatone digital delay for freaky sounds, and I also have a DigiTech Whammy. And I use a bass compressor that I'm just in love with—the EBS MultiComp. A lot of the time, that’s on to give me just a little bit of presence and not a whole lot of compression.

What do you like about the EBS versus other compressors?
It has a very nice, warm, robust sound, but it can be subtle. It doesn’t thin the sound out. It’s got a 3-position switch: tube simulation, midrange bump, and normal. I generally use tube-simulation mode. The preset threshold and ratio work really well with guitar, so you don’t have that problem with the popping and clicking sound you get sometimes with other compressors. It’s also very simple. When a compressor pedal has four or five knobs on it, it’s just too much.

Did you use modelers or plug-ins or the real deal for amp sounds?
I used two Divided by 13s—an FTR 37 and an RSA 23. The 37 is 6V6 driven, and it’s my favorite when I want a totally clean swatch to put stuff into, like distortions and overdrives. The 23 has KT88s, and I favor it when I want to get a little bit more overdrive from the amp—for medium- to high-gain stuff. I also used a have a ’66 Princeton Reverb that’s kind of a go-to clean-swatch amp. It takes pedals well and also has a kind of nice, natural compression.

What were your main guitars?
A ’72 Fender Thinline Telecaster, the semi-acoustic one with the two big humbuckers. The pickups are hot. They’ve got, like, 10k output, but you still get that nice Tele sound—that really springy, steely sound you get from a Tele—but with much more gain. That’s one of my main guitars. I also used a Gretsch Duo Jet reissue—one of the Stephen Stern custom shop masterbuilts, with the DeArmond-style pickups.

Is your ’72 all stock?
Actually, no. I never really liked the neck on that guitar. It’s very narrow, and it shrank over time—it got to the point where the high-E string would be falling off the neck. I cheated by loosening the bolt to sort of kick it one way, but then it would fall off the other side. So I went to Guitar Center and bought a Mexican-made Thinline reissue that had a nice neck. I took it to my guitar tech, Norik Renson, who’s been working on my guitars for the last 18 years. He took the finish off, put a slightly different radius on the fretboard, and put new frets on it. It’s been there ever since.

What was your initial impression of the Arthur Channel songs when you first heard them?
I really liked them. I thought they were fresh and unique. I liked the tone of Jon’s voice. There was something different about the way he wrote songs. The chord structures weren’t the typical pop fare. I heard maybe a little bit of Jeff Buckley, who I’m a huge fan of.

Did you collaborate with Jon and Greg on the approach to the leads, or did they pretty much give you free rein?
It was in the free-rein territory—obviously with their input, though. They would chime in if they really liked something or had something they wanted me to try. The thing that was also unique was that they would say, “Go ahead and do a solo here.” “What?” I’d say incredulously. “A guitar solo in 2013?” Just about every pop song used to have a guitar solo—verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, solo. But now the guitar solo’s gone the way of the doo-wop singer.

There are a lot of layers, textures, and subtleties on this album, and there’s a very atmospheric vibe. Was that there before, or were the delay- and reverb-drenched moods something you brought to the table?
That was me, but they also added a lot of that later in the mixing. When they came to me, the meat and potatoes of the tracks were laid down, the rhythm guitar parts, and then I added colors. Like the song “Vapor” starts with a kind of arpeggio—that would be a good indication of the types of parts that Jon laid down, the parts that the songwriter would have written the song to.

How do you approach a typical session where someone brings you songs to augment with guitar parts?
It’s hard to pinpoint that process exactly. It’s just reacting to what you’re hearing. Typically, the people you’re working with are careful not to fill your head with too many descriptions and too much information or instructions. They say, “This is what we have. What do you think?” And then it’s me saying, “Well, let me try this.” I’d just dial up a sound for a part and then either get the yea or the nay.

Do you think about melodic ideas or types of tones first?
I think of technical aspects last. The first things I think of are the melodic aspects—they dictate what the sound should be. For example, I’ll hear a line, like a single-note line, in my head. It’s not a solo, but maybe a line that happens in the intro and after the chorus, before the vocal comes in. And then, on my pedalboard I’ve got enough pedals to give me a gamut of distortion or fuzz. As I’m crafting the line, I might say, “This would sound better with this amp, or with this guitar.” I have the ability to come up with the idea with my pedalboard and the guitar, but then I refine it if I feel I need to.

What sort of direction did they give you initially?
I think they just wanted to see what my take would be. I just started playing the songs, and we started recording. It sounds like a little bit of a glib answer, but you get to a point in your career where people just want to trust your first impressions of things. That’s always the best-case scenario for me, when people let you do that. You end up doing your best work when you just do what you do. So if the casting is right … it’s the same way with a movie, sometimes the best directors don’t say anything. Woody Allen’s supposedly that way. He’s notorious for not telling anybody everything. You trust that your players are going to react in a way you like. It’s all about the casting.

As an avid session player, how do you deal with it when you’re hired for a project where you’re not inspired—or are even repelled—by the music?
It’s rare to be in love with the music … but it depends on the player and the type of music they like. Some people like the current state of pop music and are fine with it. For us older guys who miss Led Zeppelin and the Who and guitar solos, it’s a little more challenging. But you’ve got to take it all in. I think anybody who can make a living playing music has a huge blessing. If you’re playing on a record where you don’t really communicate with or love the music but you’re getting paid for it, that’s a champagne problem. I feel grateful every time I get a call, even after all these years. I feel grateful regardless of what the project is, or what the music is, or whether I like it or not. Also, there’s a cool challenge in figuring out how I can make music that I might not purchase myself as good as I can make it and make them happy. The more that you give of yourself to it, the more that you find something within it that you really like.