The in-demand session and touring guitarist reveals what it takes to play for chart-topping artists.
Speed. For most guitarists, the word is synonymous with shredding. But for Brent Paschke—the longtime session and touring guitarist for the Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter and producer Pharrell Williams—speed means something else: It’s about delivering the right part and perfect sound at a moment’s notice.
“With Pharrell, time is very limited,” says Paschke. “We can be bouncing from room to room quickly, so I have to adjust to his workflow. If I had to tell him I need five or 10 minutes to adjust mics and check out different amps, I’d totally kill his vibe—and that’s the first thing to keep intact.”
Paschke knows a thing or two about nurturing the vibe, as evidenced by his datebook, which includes session work for such hitmakers as Snoop Dogg, Katy Perry, and Rob Thomas. The Twin Cities native was a member of the pop/rock band Spymob when he began working with Pharrell nearly 15 years ago. The Neptunes (the production/writing team of Williams and Chad Hugo) were Spymob fans, and they hired the band to record and tour with their hybrid musical side project, N*E*R*D. The opportunity would change Paschke’s career and expand his approach to the guitar. As he explained during a break from Pharrell’s 2015 tour, backing one of the world’s most digitally savvy producers means combining old-school tone and feel with cutting-edge skills in technology, arranging, and recording.
Does a session player need a special approach for electronically produced pop and urban music?
My studio work differs a bit from the traditional session musician. I work with a lot of producers who use keyboards and do a lot of programming. In these sessions, I usually get very little time. Because parts can be fixed “in the box,” things are a little more immediate. I’ll often be given some direction, but typically there are no charts, so you just have to be prepared to figure out what’s needed and do it fast. Start times can be 1 a.m., and you can be waiting for hours before recording. It’s all part of the session and you have to be flexible.
But overall, it’s not just about playing the part. If that’s all you’re worried about, you probably won’t have a pro gig for long. You need to get to a more spiritual level. What is the appropriate feel? What is the purpose of this song? What is supporting the vocals? What is my role in this song? How can I make this performance better without thinking of myself, but rather thinking of the song?
Do you write parts, or do you take your parts from demos?
Pharrell is a “100 percenter,” meaning he usually finishes whole songs by himself. I’ll sometimes suggest parts, but a song is finished in his head even before it gets onto a recording platform.
When you’re asked to play on songs by producers like Pharrell, Rodney Jerkins, Ryan Leslie, and Tricky Stewart, the tracks are already really dope. These guys know how to make stuff sound amazing right inside a keyboard. So the trick is to not screw it up. If they’ve recorded a keyboard part using a guitar sample and they want it recreated on a real guitar, you have to figure out what voicings, tone, and feel are going to either complement or replace those parts, while making them sound a little better.
What are the special challenges in adapting parts written on a keyboard or programmed in a sequencer?
A keyboard usually sounds a bit, for lack of a better term, flat. So that might mean my job is to add some excitement to the parts by double-tracking them. But some keyboard parts I’m asked to copy may also have chord voicings that can’t be played on guitar. In that case, I have to be careful with what notes I play on top of the chord. If it’s a major 7, for example, and the seventh is the top note in the keyboard part, I need to make sure my voicing matches it. Also, timing is an issue. If I’m doubling, I have to get that as tight as possible. Otherwise I’ll have to either manually nudge the notes in Pro Tools or use a plug-in like VocAlign to match the parts.
Paschke's custom pink Plexiglas Strat-style loaded with three Seymour Duncan including a JB Jr. in the bridge.
How do you perfect the ability to get into the groove?
Practice, practice, practice—but practice the right things. It’s not enough to spend a week, or even a month, saying, “I’m going to practice being a funk player.” It’s something that takes years. In today’s world where you can get lessons from pretty much anyone you want online, it’s easy to stop at just learning the technique. It takes more than just technique. You have to get that feel in your bones.
I used to spend hours on end playing some of the simplest funk riffs over and over to records. Still do to this day. Not because I need to learn the technique, but because I need to get that feel ingrained in my body. All the time I hear professional drummers talk about good guitarists not being able to lock into the simplest feels. Take the riff in “Sweet Home Alabama.” It’s fairly simple to play, but can you get it to feel like Lynyrd Skynyrd? I’d have to spend a little time making sure I had that. If it was me in the studio, I’d be in my headphones working over and over to get it to feel as close to Skynyrd as I could, with as much heart and proper respect to the original as I could. That’s the difference between someone who gets studio gigs and someone who doesn’t.
Does playing outside traditional guitar genres make you stretch beyond “typical” guitar skills?
Some days I’ll get asked to play guitar, but make it not sound like a guitar. The producer will want that hint of a guitar, but he doesn’t want it to sound totally organic. Recently I did a lot of work on the upcoming Rob Thomas album, which was produced by Matt Serletic—an amazing producer with a big track record of huge pop hits. Matt will layer a lot, let you stretch out a bit, then start choosing parts from there. On Rob’s album, the approach was to really tweak that guitar—to go for something different. That means having Pro Tools chops, Melodyne chops, plug-in chops, and Beat Detector chops. I’ll record and then start editing. I’m really good with the computer and I’ve learned to think like a producer.
At these sessions, just being a hotshot guitar player won’t get you the gig at all. You need to understand what’s going on with guitars in pop music and how to get there in the computer. What does a straight root-five power chord sound like if it’s played once using the root and once using the fifth—but then copied and pasted each time? Then maybe a little of the end of the note is taken off. Or maybe it sounds better if the fifth is actually just pitch-shifted from the root, rather than played. Or maybe it sounds better if the fifth starts later. These are some of the tweaky things I might think of and do on sessions.
Paschke is most known for his work with hip-hop artists like Pharrell and Snoop Dogg. In this case, Paschke’s main sound is his ’57 Tele with his Matchless amp.
What are some other keys to finding success as a pop/urban session and touring player?
I think sound is a big one that a lot of guitarists miss. Obviously, the right sound depends on what style you’re doing. But one thing is universal: My dad, who is the most conservative guy I’ve ever met, would always tell me, “Buy the best tools you can.” This is very true in the guitar world.
I’ve been recording with Pharrell for almost 15 years now. He’s used to hearing my favorite guitar—a ’57 Tele—and my Matchless HC-30 amp. He has no idea what kind of guitar it is, what amp it is, how expensive it is, how old it is, or how dope it is. But he does know great classic tone. And when he hears it, he always approves it. The moral of the tone story is: You usually get what you pay for. If you want a great amp, it’s usually going to be a handwired boutique amp. A great guitar is usually going to be either vintage or handmade. There are exceptions to this, of course. I’ve played some really great cheap amps and guitars. But if you want that killer tone, you’ll spend less time by investing some more money.
Do you always stay with Teles and tubes? Funny, I’d associate that combination more with roots rock than highly produced pop.
We do use modeling tools, like the Kemper Profiler amplifier, but I’ve spent weeks working with different profiles, profiling my own amps, and setting it up to make sure there are no curveballs for him—or me for that matter.
Other than sound, what’s the key to keeping a gig like yours?
Another really important thing some players miss is timing. Back in the days of recording to tape, timing was everything. You usually had to play the chorus three times, a couple of verses, and a bridge. So you’d spend a lot of time with your drummer in a rehearsal room with a click, locking in feel and timing. Are you pushing or pulling a little before the chorus comes for some extra excitement? A great drummer will also sometimes lay back on a fill going into a section, so when it gets to the one of the new section, it feels like a slingshot and pulls you in.
How do you get that feel when you’re recording to programmed beats?
In the studio, I think it’s best if I can play the whole song through. If not, of course we can cut-and-paste or punch-in easily, but hey—why not go for feel and get inside the song and see if I can pull off the whole thing? You can practice that just by recording a lot.
Another way to improve your timing is to use a click live. At first, a click onstage can feel like it cages you in. But over time it doesn’t. You start to get that internal push and pull within it. Also, with other players in the band on a click, you always have a reference—and the same reference. Live, my job is to be the foundation for Pharrell. I need to make sure what I’m doing is supporting where he is going. So the click is keeping me in line, but Pharrell is deciding where the vibe is going. Is he pushing? Is he wanting to be more intimate for this verse? Does he want to take it out a little? Make it feel choppier? Lay it back? The list goes on.
How did you hook up with Pharrell?
My band, Spymob, was shopping for record deals in the late 1990s, so publishing and record companies had our demos. We were a pop-rock band—our main influences were Steely Dan, Todd Rundgren, and ’70s pop. At one point, Pharrell and Chad of the Neptunes got our demo from some label or publishing company. They really loved Spymob, so when we lost our deal with Epic records, we signed to [the Neptunes’ label] Star Trak, with Pharrell and Chad.
Was it hard to go from being part of your own rock band to being a session and touring player doing hip-hop and R&B?
Honestly, this was a dream come true for me. At that time the mixture of hip-hop and live instruments wasn’t that common. I loved all the rhythmic elements and new cutting-edge things that were being done with drum machines, and really wanted to make a record with someone blending those. The bonus for me was that Pharrell and Chad wrote amazing songs to play over. This was the beginning. N*E*R*D’s In Search Of... is where that all started for me. That still stands as one of my most proud recording moments.
What are you using in the studio these days? I pick guitars according to the kind of work I’m doing. For a session, I’ll usually take my ’57 Tele, 1964 Strat, 1982 Heritage single-cut, 1974 Gibson ES-335, 1976 Strat, and Gibson J-45 and Collings D1 acoustics.
People know me most for my work with Pharrell, and with him, my main sound is my Tele with my Matchless. More recent is probably the 335 through different Kemper models. But that said, I seem to work best with my standards and not going too far out of the box.
That’s a pretty nice arsenal.
My theory on guitars is to first get at least a couple of amazing default “standard” guitars. I feel that would be a Strat, Tele, or Les Paul for starters. They will usually cost you a bit, unless you get a lucky find. I bought my ’57 Tele when I was in my early 20s, so early on I had a taste of an amazing sounding, playing, and recording guitar. My ’64 Strat was next. For years, they were really the only guitars I had that sounded amazing no matter what. Some guitars just have that correct midrange, tight low end, clean top end—a balanced sound.
Paschke’s tone guide is simple: “You get what you pay for. If you want that killer tone, you’ll spend less time
by investing some more money.”
After having those for a few years, it was hard to settle for less, so I just waited until I had the money to build up my collection of “standards.” Of course, I needed a Les Paul, so I searched out an ’82 Heritage that sounded amazing. Next was my 335. Pharrell has been asking for older sounds recently. He’ll say “Chuck Berry” or someone in that style. I know that usually means a semi-hollowbody. And that was my excuse for getting a good 335.
Do you usually go direct or mic a cabinet?
My amp is most always a on a two-mic combo—a Royer 121 and a dynamic, usually a [Sennheiser] 409 or a 421, whichever sounds best. I also try to have a great mic pre— something like a Great River 1073 style—and I usually like it pushed almost into the red. I always like to record with some compression and prefer [Empirical Labs] Distressors. Default settings are usually a 4:1 ratio, a bit slow of an attack, a bit slow of a release, and no harmonic distortion engaged.
This is when I have the chance to set up amps—which is rare these days. But in a perfect world this is what I do. On the Snoop album, it was all amps and all miked up this way because we had time.
What do you do when you have less time?
I’ve been using my Kemper more and more. I’ve spent quite a bit of time getting to know it and making it work for me. Pharrell shoots very much from the hip and doesn’t overthink. You’ll rarely find an artist so in touch with his inner bliss.
It’s about the part, the feel, and the sound—and probably in that order. To Pharrell, the process is as important as the song, and all of that gets printed. And when I stated that order—the part, the feel, the sound—if you have “the sound” ready, that’s one thing scratched off the list.
So using the Kemper works well for me for a few reasons. One big one is that I can be adjusting everything in my headphones. As Pharrell is working on a track or recording a vocal, I’m checking out different guitars, trying different modeled amps, reverbs, stompbox settings, and delays. I’m getting everything ready at a touch of a button, so when P asks for something, I’ll have it ready. The Kemper gives me flexibility because I can record anywhere, at any time. With P’s schedule, you don’t know where you might be recording. It might be backstage before a show.
What’s the biggest challenge under that kind of time pressure?
To know the part. Pharrell sometimes writes a few different ideas really fast. I’m not sure which one he’s going to end up working on, so I’ll chart everything he does. The studios know to always have a note pad and paper ready for me! P can write some really complex chord progressions, so I’ll be working all these out and figuring out what scales work over the progressions. For example, I might be soloing in the Lydian mode the whole time, but when I get to the last chord on the turnaround, it might work best to use Mixolydian with a flat 6. Along with charting all this, I’ll try to always note the guitar and amp setting I used for any potential punch-ins later.
Pharrell Williams performs “Happy” on Saturday Night Live, April 7, 2014. Paschke is on the right.
How does your touring rig compare to your studio setup?
This is been a moving target for me. When I’m using real amps live, I’m just copying my favorite studio rig: Matchless HC-30 miked with a Royer 121 and a 409 through a Great River mic pre and Distressors. Live, I’m mostly using my ’76 maple-neck Strat with pickups custom-wound by M.J. at Seymour Duncan.
I have a Bradshaw rig that controls all my pedals—a Tim Pierce Distortion, Strymon TimeLine and Mobius, Boss Octave, ZVEX Fuzz Factory 7, Analog Man Bi-Comp Compressor, Wampler Pinnacle Distortion, MXR Phase 90, and a gate. For wireless, I’m using a Shure ULX-D.
On dates where we’re flying most of the time, however, the Kemper works great. I can check my whole Kemper rig—with the Bradshaw included—on a commercial plane. It’s great.
Fifteen years is a long time to work with any artist, especially one as diverse as Pharrell. How do you keep that kind of gig going?
Recording with him is a very cool experience, and you have to treat it as more than just a “session.” These are songs that are not about proving how cool you are, how hard this beat is going to hit, or how much money it’s going to make. These songs are extensions of Pharrell—his personal feelings, his hopes of getting a positive message out, his hopes of giving someone a song that will make them perform at the best they’ve ever performed. So you don’t go in thinking, “I’m just a session player.” Rather, I’m a person who is here to help Pharrell with a vision—I’m not just a guitar player at this point.