The Late Show’s Sid McGinnis (left), Will Lee (middle), and Felicia Collins (right). McGinnis’ go-to is a 1955 Stratocaster (pictured) that has been modifi ed with with different capacitors and resistors, rewired tone controls, and rewound pickups. Lee primarily plays his Sadowsky Will Lee Signature model, and Collins is pictured with her Hamer Daytona. Photo by Jeffrey R. Staab/CBS
Peaks and Valleys
Like any job, there are upsides and downsides to playing to millions of people every night. For most of the musicians in the late-night bands, the chance to have a steady gig and play with great musicians is definitely a plus, but it also comes with a packed schedule that often requires not seizing other opportunities that come up unless they occur between the six to eight weeks that most late-night players get off each year.
When Lee first joined Letterman in the ’80s, he struggled to maintain his studio career due to the fact that most producers thought he was no longer available for outside sessions. “I ended up not doing a lot of records as a result of, y’know, being thought of as the guy who’s gotta leave,” remembers Lee. “Only certain producers, like the late Arif Mardin, would work around my schedule. However, that was a short-term problem because, in the long run, the [big-label] studio thing went away.”
Minor made similar sacrifices when he took his TV gig. “I had a couple of calls to do stuff on Broadway and write and conduct, and I can’t really take those jobs,” he says. “I have produced four different events at the White House with President Obama. If they don’t coincide with my weeks off, I can’t do them.”
Fallon bassist Mark Kelley (left) and guitarist “Captain” Kirk Douglas (right). Though he primarily plays Les Pauls with the Roots, one of Douglas’ main guitars for the show is this red Gibson Custom Shop ES-356. Douglas and Kelley’s setups, like most late night shows, are optimized for the small studios and low stage volume. Kelley uses an Ampeg Micro-VR (back) and Douglas uses a Mesa/Boogie Stiletto combo (front). Photos by Lloyd Bishop/NBC.
For a band like the Roots—which was known for its incessant touring before it landed the TV gig—the time commitment means they now have to go out on the road in shorter spurts. But they actually see that as a welcome advantage. “When we do go back out on the road, for like the first day or the second day, you’re, like, ‘Oh, this is great,’” says Douglas. “By the third day I am reminded why I don’t like touring anymore. I get a quick reminder of how fortunate we are in that realm.”
For a show like SNL, which has a shorter but intense yearly schedule, the hours can be the tougher part. “Since we are there from about 10:30 a.m. until 1 a.m. on Saturdays, it really feels like an entire week rolled into one day,” says Scharff. However, even with the long hours, Scharff says it’s worth it just because he gets to interact with some of his biggest musical heroes. “Aside from playing with the sickest band ever, it’s great to see amazing bands play on the show. And sometimes, like last season’s finale with Mick Jagger and Jeff Beck, we get to play with them.”
On top of the longer-term commitment, for about 40 weeks per year—fewer for Saturday Night Live, which is seasonal— missing even a single show isn’t really an option. “There was one time when I was so sick and felt like my body was exploding and [band leader] Lenny Pickett was, like, ‘You should do the show,’” laughs Scharff. “I made it happen. I have never missed a show.”
Although these strict short- and longterm scheduling considerations are challenging for all the players we spoke to, they only underscored the need for each of them to find ways to exercise their own creative muscles outside those confines. All of the late-night bassists and guitarists interviewed here have one or more outside projects to keep the creative juices flowing in ways that TV-show playing isn’t conducive to. “If I suck or if I play my ass off, the [studio audience] reaction is always the same,” says Lee. “That’s why I’ve gotta go out and get my ass kicked by real music audiences.”