Kimmel bassist Jimmy Earl’s (left) go-to basses are a 1966 Fender Jazz with a Badass bridge and Hipshot tuners with a Bass Xtender, and his new Warwick Jimmy Earl Signature bass. Guitarist Toshi Yanagi (middle) recently purchased this 1964 Gibson Firebird I which he uses for the show’s more rocking numbers. Yanagi’s arsenal (right) consists of a Gibson Flying V, Taylor acoustic, Gibson Les Paul goldtop, Gibson Angus Young SG, and the Firebird. Photos by Jason Shadrick.

The Gear World
Although many of the players on late-night TV are certified gearheads—just watch Scharff geek-out on boutique pedals or McGinnis talk DIY Tele wiring in our Rig Rundown videos on the next pages—gear concerns tend to take a backseat to just getting the job done.

Douglas from the Roots sums it all up nicely. “There’s so much going on with the skits that we’re involved in and the music that has to be learned for the day, when it gets to that point you realize that the gear … of course it has to be at a certain level of quality—but beyond that, it’s more about focusing on what has to be done. And the gear can kind of be secondary. It’s just got to work.”

Merritt from Conan takes the same practical approach to his bass rig, “Since I’m playing 99 percent of the time when the band is on, there’s no time to change instruments to tailor the sound for a particular tune. [And] switching instruments sometimes involves having to change output level—and when you go direct like I do, there’s no time for the audio crew to adjust levels for house, monitors, and on-air.”

Most of the guitarists we spoke to tailor their rigs to the songs they’ll be playing on any given night, with some special consideration being given to versatility and the television audience. Yanagi prefers a clean amp with strong mids so he can “cut through those little TV speakers in homes” and stay out of the way of the other instruments. Late Show guitarists have to be prepared for whatever tunes might be called up. Collins explains, “Each night, I’ll have a single-coil [guitar], a guitar with humbuckers, [one with] P-90s, an electric semi-hollowbody … 6- and 12-string acoustics. Since practically every song we do happens from calling an audible, my gear is personal preference that I hope will accommodate a wide range of specifics.”

Vivino, on the other hand, takes particular joy in showcasing his many unique guitars and instruments from lesser-known luthiers. “Barre Duryea just throws five guitars out there for me and we make them work, depending upon what guitars we want seen,” he explains. “I guess after 20 years a lot of people tune in to say, ‘What’s Vivino playing today?’”

Conan bassist Mike Merritt (left) sticks with his Sadowsky Vintage 4 with a Hipshot Xtender. Among Vivino’s favorites (right photo) when we visited with him were (left to right) the Futurama, an original 1953 Les Paul goldtop, and a recent issue Fender American Vintage ‘72 Telecaster Custom. Photos by Jason Shadrick.

Breaking In
If your main reason for reading about these players from late-night TV to see how you can follow in their footsteps, you may want to pause before giving notice to your landlord and boss. There are cool opportunities out there, but the prospects are about as realistically bankable as setting off to become a chart-topping rock star.

“These gigs are a dying breed,” says Scharff—the only guitarist we interviewed who got his TV gig through a traditional audition. There’s not a lot of turnover in late-night bands, as evidenced by the fact that most of the current groups have been with their shows since the inception.

That said, there’s always hope for passionate, skilled, dedicated players. Merritt sums up what many of the guitarists told us: “Be versatile, open, knowledgeable and respectful of all kinds of music. Approach playing songs like a good character actor plays a part. Be a quick study, learn things fast, be a good reader, be prepared, and be in the moment.”

But it’s about more than just being a badass on bass or guitar. All the players we spoke to emphasized the importance of personality and being able to work well with others. “If you are someone who is fun to be around and is responsible enough to do what it takes, then you will gravitate to like folk,” says The Tonight Show’s Delhomme.

Letterman’s Lee sums up what’s at the heart of it all, though. Follow his advice, and the aforementioned obstacles should all be secondary. “Love what you do—that’s the No. 1 priority.”