Every weeknight it’s the same, all across the country: Local news anchors sign off with varying degrees of schmaltz … there’s a couple of commercials for cars or beer … and then it hits—the explosion of jubilant horns, grooving bass lines, tight guitar riffs, and funky keyboard blasts.

It’s late-night talk show time! Time for acerbic monologues, silly sketches, musical guests from all over the stylistic map, and interviews with stars and others getting their proverbial 15 minutes. But if you don’t watch closely—if you’re tucking the kids in or taking one last pass through your Facebook news feed—you might miss the people pumping out those catchy jams. Every night, no matter which network or cable channel you’re watching, a five-second pan across the stage is all the time you get to see some of the most talented, hardest-working musicians on TV. The gig comes with a perplexing dichotomy of fame and anonymity—go on, see for yourself: You know the shows and their hosts practically like they were your next-door neighbor, but how many of the 13 guitarists and bassists on these pages can you name without looking?

But don’t go feeling bad for them just yet. Although these guys groove away night after night on the world’s tiniest stages for audiences of millions who barely notice they exist, there are plenty of perks—40+ weeks of steady work each year playing a wide variety of music with a guaranteed paycheck, no late nights or early mornings, no heavy gear schlepping, and no shyster club owners or record label sleaze. Oh, and then there are the countless opportunities to meet and jam with a who’s-who of musical guests. “The best thing about this job is being excited every Sunday, knowing I get to go to work tomorrow!” says Letterman’s Sid McGinnis. He’s been at it for almost 30 years, and as we recently found out, his sentiment is shared by all the players of late-night TV.

We visited New York City and Los Angeles to interview the guitarists and bassists for six major talk shows, on set and in their rehearsal rooms, to find out what it’s really like to be part of a TV band.

The L.A. Crew: (left to right) The Tonight Show with Jay Leno's Paul Jackson Jr., Rickey Minor, and Dave Delhomme. Conan's Jimmy Vivino and Mike Merritt. Jimmy Kimmel Live!'s Toshi Yanagi and Jimmy Earl. Illustration by Steve Worthington.

It’s Showtime!
It’s mid-morning, and on both coasts the guitarists and bassists who provide the soundtrack to America’s late-night shows are arriving at their respective television studios. Most follow a similar schedule on show day, beginning with a band meeting somewhere between 10 a.m. and 1 p.m., depending upon the show. During the meetings, the bands plan out the day’s music—including commercial bumps (what plays when the show goes into and comes out of a commercial), play-on music (what plays when a guest walks out), and music for skits—at the direction of the band leader or musical director. After the day’s tasks are set, it’s time to rehearse and record.

All the music you hear during the show is played by the band, and the music used during prerecorded sketches or offsite bits is usually recorded in the hours preceding the taping of the main show. “We move pretty fast and go through 40 to 45 pieces of music per week,” explains Paul Jackson Jr., one of The Tonight Show band’s two guitarists. Most of the arrangements for the live show and recordings are put together on the fly in rehearsal that same day. Though reading music is not a necessity—The Late Show’s Felicia Collins notes, “I started off this gig minus the skills to read or write music other than writing down chords”— the daily practice of tackling new material is something that all of the guitarists agreed has sharpened their skills.

“[Being on the show] forced us to rehearse in a very systematic way when we first got the gig,” explains the Roots’ “Captain” Kirk Douglas. “So much more is being asked of us, it’s no longer just on our own terms what we are to do. Now we are being employed, so we had to really step our game up and be prepared for unexpected situations—and it’s made us a better band, doing that.”

The New York City Crew: (left to right) Saturday Night Live's Jared Scharff. The Late Show with David Letterman's Will Lee, Felicia Collins, and Sid McGinnis. Late Night with Jimmy Fallon's Mark Kelley and Kirk Douglas. Illustration by Steve Worthington.

After the bits are recorded in the rehearsal rooms—which are set up as mini recording studios so pro that Douglas says the Roots has recorded album material there—it’s time for onstage rehearsal. All of the bands watch the comedy rehearsals, contributing music to skits as necessary. “We even might get naked and act in sketches—believe me, I have,” says Jimmy Kimmel Live! guitarist Toshi Yanagi. Once rehearsals wrap, it’s time for makeup, wardrobe, and the taping.

Everyone we talked to agrees that, once the cameras start rolling, it’s important to stay on your toes. “The band’s job is to keep the energy up for the studio audience,” says Conan bassist Mike Merritt, “[But] each show is different—things can happen unexpectedly. [You have to] be ready for anything to happen at any time during taping.”

Late Show bassist Will Lee explains, “Most of the time spent onstage is us playing off the air for the audience, [songs] that the TV audience never really hears us do.” Lee’s cohort, Late Show guitarist Sid McGinnis, adds, “Part of the dance [is that] sometimes there are technical problems: With a million inputs, both audio and visual, sometimes we’ll be playing the same song for a really long time. That poor audience!” [Laughs.]

For The Late Show, the taping is where it all comes together in the first place. Unlike the other shows, its players barely rehearse prior to the taping. “We are lucky to squeeze 10 to 15 minutes of rehearsal between comedy and guest-band rehearsals,” says McGinnis. “We are perfectly under-rehearsed, so it’s always exciting and demands our full attention for the one-hour taping.” The band literally decides what to play live as the show is being taped—though 30 years of shared history and musical repertoire makes that feat easier to pull off for the CBS Orchestra than for the average band. When they need to learn new songs or freshen up arrangements, the band members work on material on their own time—something most of the other shows only do for special circumstances, like a sit-in guest or if they’re needed to back the musical guest.