Know How, Know When
I was in L.A. last week working on a project with philanthropist and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen at his private studio.
1. Guitarists Michael Landau with his Strat (left) and John Bohlinger sporting a PRS while getting ready to put down some tracks with Joe Walsh. 2. Guitarist John Bohlinger (foreground) works the rhythm while guitar hero Joe Walsh effortlessly lays down the lead tracks. 3. John Bohlinger, Tim Pike, Joe Walsh, Gary Novak, Jimmy Haslip, Michael Landau, and Scott Kinsey while recording in L.A. Photos By Joseph Armario
I was in L.A. last week working on a project with philanthropist and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen at his private studio. (One of the most beautiful studios I've seen, it's located in Beverly Hills and has enormous floor-to-ceiling windows that look out onto Coldwater Canyon.) On this project, Paul and I were sharing guitar duties with L.A. session ace Michael Landau. Paul was recording a simultaneous session with Doyle Bramhall, so he would overdub his parts later, which left Michael and me tracking together, sitting next to each other with our speaker cabinets in nearby iso booths.
The rest of the band featured drummer Gary Novak and bassist Jimmy Haslip, who have a side project band called Renegade Creation with Landau and Robben Ford. Given Landau's legendary ability—combined with the fact that these three guys usually hear Robben playing the other guitar part—I told myself, “Leave the shredding to Michael, just work a solid support part."
Before recording, we listened to the demos, checked the charts, divided the work, and decided who would play what: “You go high, I'll go low." “You're playing the Strat, I'll go with humbuckers on the PRS." “I'll do the tremolo thing while you're doing the weird Bigsby cowboy moves."
I did take a few solos, but only when it was a solo that I had played on the demo that became integral to the song. We left room for Paul to overdub his parts and gave Landau plenty of room for guitar heroics. We fell into a rhythm and quickly knocked out some good tracks. I was happy working in the non-glamorous position, because that's where I belonged.
On the third day of tracking, we experienced a paradigm shift when Joe Walsh arrived. I'm talking “Funk #49," “Life's Been Good," and “Rocky Mountain Way." He's a damn Eagle, a rock 'n' roll legend, your Ordinary Average Guitar Genius. Walsh was there to play and sing a cameo on a song called “Six Strings from Hell." This swamp-nasty groove (a bit of a modern narrative of Robert Johnson cutting his deal with Scratch) had a low chugging guitar part welded to a high slide part that Paul and I came up with while demoing the song.
Walsh, who was producing this song, liked the interplay of the two parts and said, “Yeah, you guys do those parts, they're cool. I'll play around it." Although I played slide on the demo, there was no way I was going to pick up a slide while Joe Walsh was in the room. I don't mind a musical ass-whooping every now and then when I deserve it, but I would rather raise the white flag before we even begin.
As we talked it through the song and checked the chart, I said, “Hey Michael, I'll do the low chug and you do the slide part." Landau, perhaps reading my mind, replied, “No way am I playing slide in front of Joe Walsh."
We had a standoff. It was a bit like those ultra-courteous cartoon gophers from Looney Tunes, with each of us politely encouraging the other to go first. We spent a few minutes going back and forth: “You do it. The part on the demo is good." “No, you do it—your slide playing is way better." Etcetera.
Eventually Landau said, “You guys can fire me or whatever, but I'm not doing it."
Finally we agreed to split the rhythm riff, with Landau going high on slide, me going low on chug, and Joe doing all the fills and solos. Joe set up his own rig—Les Paul, a couple of stompboxes, and a combo amp—and stood in the center of the room surrounded by the rest of the band. He didn't tweak his tone, mess with his cue mix, or even warm up. The drummer counted it off and Walsh came in with both barrels blazing. I could not get over how great he sounded—everything he played was the perfect part. What made it even more incredible was that he was playing a song he'd just heard with a band he'd just met. No wonder this guy is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
We ran the song three times and it was done. We went back to listen in the control booth and Joe picked the second take. There were no fixes. The only change from the live track was that Joe erased a few of his fills he thought got in the way of the vocal. I was thinking, “Man, this guy is throwing away cooler stuff than I have ever played." Yet through it all Joe was funny, encouraging, and incredibly generous— even bringing my wife Megan Mullins in to sing harmony with him. If you're allowed to work with one Guitar Hero in life, Joe Walsh is the one to get.
Guitar is the puzzle you never finish. Play 10 hours a day for 40 years and those sweet six strings will regularly reveal new mysteries. Michael Landau is a brilliant player, and Paul Allen and I each have our own cool bag, but combined we could never out-Joe-Walsh Joe Walsh. Everything he played sounded like a signature part. Listen to Hotel California and you'll hear how every note serves a purpose. That's what makes some players so great: They know how and they know when.
John Bohlinger is a Nashville multi-instrumentalist best know for his work in television, having lead the band for all six season of NBC's hit program Nashville Star, the 2011, 2010 and 2009 CMT Music Awards, as well as many specials for GAC, PBS, CMT, USA and HDTV.
John's music compositions and playing can be heard in several major label albums, motion pictures, over one hundred television spots and Muzak... (yes, Muzak does play some cool stuff.) Visit him at youtube.com/user/johnbohlinger
or facebook.com/johnbohlinger and check out his new band, The Tennessee Hot Damns.