SNL’s Jared Scharff primarily uses a Fano Alt de Facto JM6 and a 65Amps Monterey head. The second 65Amps and Bruno heads (background) are backups. Photos by Rebecca Dirks.
Show day for Saturday Night Live is also quite different from the other late-night shows due to the once-a-week format. In a word, it’s long. But each week leading up to it is different, depending on how much music is required for sketches. Scharff only comes to rehearsals during the week if it’s necessary to provide music for a sketch (any time a cast member or host plays an instrument in a skit, the band is backing them live) or record bits. That means he has to work on the week’s tunes during his own time.
Despite the slight differences in how The Late Show and SNL operate, for all of the shows it’s pretty much the same once the show wraps: The band members head home for the night and ready themselves to do it all again. Jackson says this is a major motivator to practice. “Mediocrity is a non-option,” he says. “I practice every day. I, as well as every person in the Rickey Minor Band, strive for excellence every single day.” For others, including Conan guitarist and musical director Jimmy Vivino, there are other concerns. “We’re working now in the age of the iPhone. We are working 24 hours a day … I work while I’m on vacation—social media doesn’t shut down.”
The Tonight Show’s Paul Jackson Jr. (left) is known for his main orange PRS 250, which is outfitted with 245 pickups. He runs a multi-amp rig that includes an Evil Robot head, Fuchs Overdrive Supreme 100 head, and a Kasha RM100H Rock- Mod (not pictured). Bassist and musical director Rickey Minor (right) generally sticks to one bass per night to keep things simple. The Aguilar is a monitor rig, as his signal goes direct through an A-Designs REDDI.
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Long before that red light on the front of the cameras turns on, an incredible amount of preparation goes into each show. Most of that falls on the shoulders of the musical director, who is in charge of choosing and arranging the material the band plays each night. Given that the bands typically play between five and eight songs a night, the catalog builds very quickly. “We are close to a thousand songs and I have been here two years,” says The Tonight Show bassist and musical director Rickey Minor. “We try to add new songs all the time, and not necessarily new songs on the charts, but new songs period. Everything from Blink-182 to Sinatra.”
With so many songs, it’s important for the musical director to be organized and have a great support team—which is usually anchored by a musical supervisor. Diane Louie has filled that role for Minor since 1987. “She has every chart that I have done or has been associated with my productions since ’87. And this was before computers, so we have transferred and scanned charts and scores,” he says. “Let’s say I want ‘I Will Always Love You,’ there might be nine different versions I have done—different keys, different arrangements, different orchestrations— everything from a symphony to a jazz trio. We have all the songs by title and date, with clips of the audio from it. It’s pretty sophisticated.”
Conan’s Jimmy Vivino has a vast collection of guitars to choose from. Here, he’s pictured with a vintage Graziano/Futurama that has had the accordion switches removed and the pickups replaced with three pickups from one of Hound Dog Taylor’s original Norma guitars.
On Conan, musical director Vivino meets with Barre Duryea—who doubles as Vivino’s guitar tech and recording engineer— to decide not only what guitars will be used that day, but also what needs to be pre-recorded. “All of my job is about writing and arranging. Playing is a perk,” says Vivino. Although O’Brien himself is a huge guitar nerd, Vivino says he doesn’t get too involved when it comes to choosing the set lists. “I just put it together based on energy and flow for the show. The host doesn’t have any input other than trusting us.”
For Minor, supervising everything is the hardest part of the gig. “The most challenging part is managing personalities and just letting it go. This is true on any gig, but managing people and knowing when to step in and when to let people work it out themselves is important.” For Vivino, the ability to change direction with little or no notice to him or the band is a huge factor. “There are a lot of last-minute changes and additions to the work schedule every day. You have to be able to scramble at the drop of a hat,” he says. “What you don’t use today, you will probably need tomorrow.”