Tommy Tedesco, the most recorded guitarist in history, was also one of the most beloved characters to ever work the Los Angeles music scene. And work it he did: After arriving from Niagara Falls in 1953, Tommy spent four decades playing sessions for countless films, TV shows, record albums, commercial jingles – you name it. A ferociously good sight-reader, this wonderful, big-hearted Italian maestro of the strings became the town’s “first call” guitarist, meaning he was the first person to call for sessions. Beyond being a brilliant player, Tommy was renowned for his mischievous sense of humor and willingness to help talented newcomers navigate the studio system. Everyone who was part of that scene has choice Tedesco stories to share. I too have many fond memories him, and one stands above the rest. First, some background.
Before arriving at Guitar Player magazine in May ’78, I’d never heard of Tommy Tedesco. That all changed my first day on the job, when I was handed my regular monthly assignments. Among them were editing columns by Jeff Baxter, Barney Kessel, and Tommy Tedesco. Baxter, I learned, liked to dictate his over the phone. Kessel carefully hand-wrote his on a yellow legal pad. Tommy’s “Studio Log” column showed up in the mail, neatly typed and with an attached page of music from a recent session. These columns provided unsurpassed insight into studio life at the time, as Tommy detailed who each session was for, what gear he played, how he modified the music, and what he was paid. He’d always call to ask if the column was okay. I found him to be a wonderful guy through and through, and I ended up editing his column for fourteen years. I always enjoyed being around him at seminars, trade shows, studio dates, and when he’d visit our office.
My fondest memory of the man dates to May 18, 1980. That night Tommy and his wife Carmie threw a party at their spacious home in Northridge, California. The occasion was a sendoff for longtime session guitarists Al Hendrickson and Michael Anthony. By early evening, cars of all shapes and sizes had pulled up in front of the house. The signatures in the guest book included Bob Bain, Dennis Budimir, Larry Carlton, Steve Carnelli, David Cohen, Joe DiBlasi, Herb Ellis, Ron Eschete, Robben Ford, Grant Geissman, Jay Graydon, Al Hendrickson, Mitch Holder, Carol Kaye, Pat Martino, Tim May, Greg Poree, Lee Ritenour, Alan Reuss, Tony Rizzi, Thom Rotella, George M. Smith, and Barry Zweiss. In retrospect, this party proved to be a once-in-a-lifetime gathering of Los Angeles’ top studio guitarists.
As I reported in the April 1981 issue of Guitar Player, “The tenor of the evening was laid-back and polite, with no sign of inflated egos. Over clinking glasses and infectious laughter, most conversations centered on families, girlfriends, memories of old pals and times gone, humorous events in the studio, scams at the golf course, and friendly wagers. Although several instruments were inconspicuously stacked in a corner of the living room, none of these sharpshooters opened a case all night.” Several times that evening, I heard the quip, “If someone dropped a bomb on this party, L.A. would be a wide-open town for guitarists!”
Tommy had excellent journalistic instincts, and he’d encouraged me to bring along my tape recorder. A couple of hours into the party he corralled several of his pals into his study to talk about L.A.’s studio guitar scene. Representing the old guard were the revered players George M. Smith and Al Hendrickson. Smith, who had been active from 1929 through 1962, had played banjo and acoustic guitar on classic films for many famous Hollywood directors. Mastering the material in his seminal 1942 book Modern Guitar Method for Rhythm and Chord Improvising had been a rite of passage for virtually every guitarist at the party. A fine jazz player, Al Hendrickson had recorded with Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, and the Andrews Sisters before World War II. During his subsequent 35 years on the L.A. scene, he had played on over 5,000 films and many albums. Another long-time veteran was dapper, debonair Bob Bain, the guitarist for the Tonight Show. Representing the younger generation were Mitch Holder and Tim May, close friends who’d been doing film, TV, record, and jingle dates since the mid 1970s.
It was obvious that everyone had vast respect for George M. Smith, so I started the conversation by asking George what the studio scene was like when he’d arrived a half-century earlier, just as talking pictures were coming in. “There were three teachers, and they knew nine chords – three each!” he replied. “That’s about the way it was. I had to do all the research myself. See, those days, no one could read – it was all by ear – so they hired the guitarists and mandolin players a week in advance to teach them their parts. I used a little of Eddie Lang’s and Dick McDonough’s style, and a little bit of my own.” The electric guitar, of course, was virtually unheard of during this era.
Back then, Bob Bain added, “The average orchestra would maybe not have a guitar. They’d score a picture and there would be no guitar. If they used one, it would be almost as a solo instrument for a certain scene. Most of the composers in those days were not used to writing for guitar. The only time they did it was for a sequence that would require, say, banjo, or for a Western sequence.” Smith concurred: “I made the major part of my living before World War II with the banjo. I did all those John Ford movies – Grapes of Wrath, Tobacco Road. Electric guitar was out completely. If you were a jazz player before the war, you really didn’t work except when they wanted jazz guitar. That was a bad reputation to have!”
Tommy pointed out that being a jazz guitarist in Hollywood didn’t become hip until after he’d come on the scene: “Okay, in the’50s I found it was kind of hip playing jazz, like when Barney Kessel, Howard Roberts, and a few of the guys came in. They were featured, like when Bob [Bain] started playing on the Peter Gunn show with Henry Mancini. That was a big turnaround for jazz-type guitarists in this town. All of a sudden there was jazz work and jazz sounds. At that time, having a jazz score was as far removed as it would be to have somebody come up and tell you that all the music next year is going to be Hawaiian. When the tune ‘Peter Gunn’ took off, people said, ‘Oh, my God – I don’t believe that.’ That’s how far out it was to score that music.”
The popularity of jazz guitar held until the early 1970s, observed Al Hendrickson, and then “the jazz reputation got real bad again. There came to be a real distinction between rock and roll – or, for lack of a better term, contemporary – guitarists and jazz guitarists. Jazz guitarists would assume, and many times it’s true, that they just couldn’t talk to the rock and roll kids. So then the connotation of jazz got to be real negative again. In the early days, though, there were very few guitarists who could read at all. If they wanted somebody to come and play a jazz solo, that’s one thing. But it took a long time before they had enough confidence in guitar players to really write them into the score.”
That situation didn’t begin to change until Hendrickson, Bain, and Tony Rizzi demonstrated their sight-reading abilities. In the 1950s, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet became the first show to prominently feature guitar parts. At the time, there were so few guitarists able to play the music that the union had to give Bob Bain permission to play into overtime. “Ozzie and Harriet was a hard show, with the only guitar book in town,” Tommy remembered. “In those days, once you ran out of the five or six guys who could read, it was all over. When I finally subbed for Bob on Ozzie and Harriet, I was like a hero in this town because I was able to do it. That’s how astounding it was at the time for a guy to be able to do something.”
“Once composers found a guitarist who could read,” Bain added, “they began to use him, especially with electric guitar. George Smith is responsible for the studio guitar player really being recognized as a musician. Prior to that, guitarists were only thought of as rhythm players who played ukulele-type chords. If you remember, the guitar came out of the banjo, tenor banjo, and then the 6-string guitar. George turned it all around and wrote a method showing all the chords on the guitar, which was probably the most erudite thing that was ever done on the subject. He was the guy who laid the groundwork for us all.”
Before World War II, Smith recalled, he had to read piano parts: “If I didn’t learn to read piano parts – I don’t mean two-line things, but four-line chords – I wouldn’t have worked. When I first started in this business, I knew as much as anybody else in six-string chords, and they sounded horrible. Believe me, after hearing all these beautiful sounds around me and hearing those six-string chords doubling in there, I decided something had to be done. I started looking at Gershwin’s and Ellington’s music, and I saw the beautiful voicings. I said, ‘There’s something wrong with what I’ve been doing on the guitar.’ I knew something had to be done. I remembered all the good jazz tunes that Jack Teagarden played and noticed these beautiful changes kept reoccurring all the time. That was the basis of the book – it was based on bass notes. But it was rough. Believe me, when I quit the business, I was happy. It was difficult to pioneer all these things and put up with conductors who didn’t know. And you might think that just because they didn’t know, they were kind to you. They weren’t. You paid a hell of a price playing in those days. Sometimes they’d call you in for a $30 session, and you’d work one hour with the orchestra and then they’d make you stay around and play solos for two hours. They’d use those solos any way they’d want to – you didn’t even know what picture they used them in.”
When George mentioned that listening to Eddie Lang’s duets with violinist Joe Venuti inspired his interest in music, Bon Bain pointed out that there used to be a whole different approach to playing acoustic guitar. “Go back to Dick McDonough and Carl Kress on ‘Stagefright’ or ‘Dance On.’ To get the sound and do it, boy, you’re going to have to get your acoustic guitar out and spend a lot of time on it. We’re so used to playing the electric, where everything kind of comes out easily. To play an acoustic guitar solo with a good sound, you have to really concentrate. It’s an entirely different technique.”
This insight prompted Mitch Holder to ask how the demands on studio guitarists changed once conductors felt that electric guitars could be written into the music. “After television came in,” Bain said, “they were sometimes using three or four guitars on a date. They used guitar for chases. I don’t care if it was horses, cars, or boats – the guitar could create emotion, action, and almost an anxiety if you needed it. The composers were always under the wire. They couldn’t really take their time about something, so they would say, ‘I’ll put in the rhythm section, and the easiest thing is to let the guitars make up the rhythm section or get something going.’ The part may have shown F7 for sixteen bars, but they’d say, ‘Create something.’ The guitar suddenly became very important.”
Tommy agreed: “Creativity has taken over tremendously. Years ago you didn’t create at all. You weren’t even allowed to create – if they wrote a part, that’s all they expected. And now it’s the opposite: They write something and expect you to create. Now Mitch and Tim are involved with The Dukes of Hazard. There are certain effects they use that don’t have anything to do with straight reading. You not only have to read, but you also have to be able to create whatever this leader wants.” Tim May concurred, pointing out that at many sessions he brings something new to the rhythm part: “They’ll love it when you get away from it, because usually they write pretty much nothing. But there are times when you have to second-guess the cat: Do you want this exactly like this or not?”
Mitch speculated that back in the 1960s, when recording dates would typically have multiple guitarists, the players worked so much “they could walk in and everybody knew what to do.” Tommy disagreed: “Not really. When they had three guitarists, one was an electric player, one was a rhythm player, and one had a 6-string Danelectro bass. It was pretty cut and dried. It was either that or they wanted three guys to do ‘sing-a-ding, chung-a-chung-a-chung’ – all rhythm things. But it was pretty specific. They didn’t let guys do their own thing, not at all.”
As the years progressed, Tim May stated, the roles of rhythm and lead became less defined: “In the late ’60s and early ’70s there was more of a cut-and-dried rhythm and lead. Oftentimes it was done by using acoustic and electric guitars for different parts, or, if not, at least it was different. One guy played rhythm; one guy played lead. Today, with almost all music, it’s not so much rhythm and lead players as it is parts. There’s not a lot of lead guitar – fills and stuff – being played on record dates. Almost all of it is overdubbed. Very rarely will we play fills on sessions. So when Mitch and I go to work, it’s not like, ‘You’re first and I’m second.’ It’s just two parts that tend to work together.”
May went on to observe that in modern sessions, when the tune “takes a left and gets into 5/8 time, a funny key, or something like that, it’s the rhythm players that will come through the majority of the time. They’re almost like the more legit guys now. The rhythm section will play it more often than the rest of the band will. It used to be that the strings were the legit guys and everybody else was just whatever. So I think that’s changed.”
Tommy disagreed: “No, not at all! Your guitar player is still the lowest. Compared to the guys I sit with all the time? Compared to strings? There’s no comparison. One of the hardest movie parts I’ve ever done is Gloria, a movie. Bill Conti wrote the shit out of it, right? Now, I worked at it and worked at it and got it down. All of a sudden we rehearsed it, and I found I was doubling the string players. They ate it up! They’ve been reading and playing since they were seven years old, and they eat it up.” “They don’t even think about,” echoed Bob Bain. “There’s no contest there.” “Whenever I read better than a sax player, which happens once every four years, I get thrills,” Tommy added. “I say, ‘Hey, I did better than you!’”
For Tedesco, the biggest change in studio work is in the style of playing, not the quality of the players. “It changes every few years, and whoever’s hot is going to work. It has nothing to do with the old musicianship or reading. You can be the greatest reader in the world – it ain’t gonna mean anything. If you don’t get the sound, forget it. That’s why you’re going to find so many older violin players around. All they are required to be is great musicians, and they stay on from year to year. In a rhythm section, you can forget it. A rhythm section will stay hot for three or four years, and then it’s who are the next musicians? And then a few years later it changes again. The rhythm chair is a monstrous one. If you’re a French horn player, you don’t have to play rock or jazz. You just have to be a good musician, get the sound, read, and then it’s all over. With the guitar you gotta be a rocker, a fusion, or whatever. Whatever style is in, that guy’s going to be hot and just tear it apart for a few years. Tim and Mitch are musicians besides being stylists, so they can do a lot of other work.
“I want to clean that up even a little more,” Tommy continued. “Most leaders and writers listen with their eyes, not their ears. Now if I decided to work on rock and fusion and all that, broke my ass and listened to every record, I’d have enough confidence in my ability to say, ‘I could do it.’ But it wouldn’t matter. As long as I look like a bartender and as long as they know they’re looking at Tom Tedesco, you can forget it. They don’t care what comes out of there because the old blindfold test in this business is tremendous.”
From here the conversation turned to what studio guitarists earn. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Bain explained, a studio guitarist could hope to earn around $13,000 a year. Musicians were paid $33 for a record date, and then it jumped to $41.25, where it remained for many years. “Eventually the pay began to go up,” Bob said, “and when they finally got to the studio orchestras, you had a guarantee of $14,000 a year. But you couldn’t work for any other TV shows or do anything else. Records were put on the quota to try to spread the work around.” Tommy replied, “It’s kind of weird to hear of guys making $13,000, when now there’s guys making $150,000 to a possible $200,000 a year as a sideman. Naturally, the hot players are making that big money, but if a guy is pretty successful, he’s still making $75,000-$80,000 a year. I think of musicians as averaging $60-$70 an hour when they work. And that’s a pretty fair basis. In this business, it’s amounts of work that you need.” “Right,” added May. “The only time we make money is when we’re there.”
Bain quickly pointed out that while the working conditions and salaries couldn’t be beat, only a small circle of people were making the kind of money Tommy mentioned. And as with real estate, location was everything. “Basically the music business is in this town,” Bain said, “and that’s why you have all the good players in this town. That’s why the majority of the work is done here. Los Angeles, Hollywood – whatever you want to call it – is the greatest talent pool there is in the whole world, and that includes musicians, singers, actors, producers, studio facilities. So naturally work is going to come here. The only reason a lot of pictures are scored in Europe is because it’s cheaper, and certain producers want that. But as I say, it’s a small group that gets most of the work – always has been, always will be. Same with actors and singers – there is a select group that does 80% of the work.”
I asked the group about the less-enjoyable aspects of studio work. For Bob Bain, it was working calls where the music wasn’t enjoyable to play. For Tim May, it was occasionally working with musicians who weren’t quite up to par. Tommy said, “The main thing that gets to me is the boredom. You get bored to death.” The best relief, everyone agreed, came from working alongside friends. As Tim put it, “What makes it most enjoyable for me is when I go and see Mitch, Bob, Tom, or some of the guys there. You know it’s going to be a real professional attitude, and it’s also going to be a real fun scene, as opposed to working with people who are quiet – nothing. When Mitch and I are somewhere, we’ll move baffles around just so we can hang out and bullshit. It makes all the difference in the world because you’re playing day in and day out. When Tommy’s on a date, you know it’s going to be a great time no matter what.” “Don’t we get the job done?” Tedesco asked. “That’s the bottom line,” answered Holder.
“I have fun because otherwise I’d be bored out of my mind,” Tommy elaborated. “When I’m on a six-hour date with a strange bass player and a drummer who doesn’t talk to me at all, I’ll say, ‘What the hell is this all about? Let’s let the shit hit the fan and go crazy.’” Mitch stated that he was amazed by the attitude Tedesco inspired – “everybody’s so laid-back.” Tommy explained, “I’ve always been one to create that laid-back feeling with the guys, to try to get a family. To be honest with you, I do it because I was hurt by some of the older cats, and I remember how it felt. I remember guys doing that when I was 12 years old, and I made up my mind not to be that way. And I can’t help it – I’m not that way.”
I asked the participants for suggestions for longevity as a studio musician. “You just have to go with what happens and keep cool,” Bain offered. “The styles have changed so much, I wouldn’t even try to compete with some of the guys. But then what you do have in your favor is experience. That experience can sometimes be a great help to you. I grew up with Duke Ellington, for instance, so every once in a while somebody wants to sing a Duke Ellington tune on the Tonight Show, and they don’t have any music, and I happen to know it. Well, how do you know it? You know it because you’ve been playing as long as I have.”
For Mitch, having the proper tone played an essential role: “If you get the right sound, you’re 90% on the way to doing a good job. The problem is with communication. Leaders have heard these different styles or sounds, and they have trouble expressing what they want. When you get down to it, there are tons of little boxes that you pick up – they don’t know what they all are. They’ll have the sound in their head and say that it sounds like such-and-such to them, but you don’t know what they’re talking about.” “It’s a ‘fuzz-wah,’” May added.
“I’ll give you a nice example,” Tommy exlaborated. “I don’t have a flanger. I’ve been playing for years, and there’s all kinds of writers who have been writing ‘flanger’ on parts for me. I’ve used every means of device for flangers: a wah-wah, my Electro-Harmonix Micro Synthesizer, an analog delay. It all depends on which dial I want to push. And to this day, so help me God, not once has anybody said, ‘Hey – that’s not a flanger.’ Ninety percent of the time they’ve heard some sound and don’t really know exactly what it is.” Oftentimes, May said, when a composer wanted a contemporary sound, he’d simply write “wah-wah” above the part, but “the actual amount of time you step on a wah-wah is very seldom. There’s so many other things you can go for.”
This lack of knowledge on the part of composers also occasionally extended to the guitar itself. “Sometimes a part will say ‘gut string,’” Bain observed, “and I’ll know the writer didn’t mean that. I’ll automatically play it on electric, and he’ll say, ‘Yeah, that’s right!’ You’ve got to anticipate the leader. Maybe at the time he thought gut-string, but now that the cue is on and the drummer is playing eighth-note semi-rock, you know it’s not going to work. So to give the thing more motion, you play something that will work with what the rhythm section is doing.”
We then focused on how to break into studio work – learn your instrument properly, get some experience, maybe attend G.I.T. or one of the other guitar schools, and learn as many styles as possible. Finally, we addressed the future of studio work in L.A. Everyone felt that there was more work than ever, but more qualified players too. As Tommy put it, “There is an extreme amount of work – there’s just more guys dividing the pie.” In the last response of the evening, Tim May hinted at things to come: “I feel there’s less work now than there was a year or two ago, but the record business was really wailing in ’77, ’78, and ’79. Now there are some self-contained groups happening, and record companies don’t want to spend a huge budget. It seems like a lot of major artists are still cutting, but a lot of the peripheral new artists are getting a much smaller budget, so there’s not a lot of dates going around. A lot of artists have gone to Europe to do scab dates. I also notice that there are only a couple of cats who have gotten in since I have. I’m kind of an optimistic guy, though, and I think it’s going to be cool. During the course of a career, you’ll probably see the business go up and down several times. Things will change, and they’ll probably be for the better.”
With that, we ended our time in Tommy’s study and rejoined the party. As the event began winding down, Tommy said to me, “There has never been a gathering like this before, and I’m sure all these guys will never get together at the same time again.”
Tim May’s prediction – “Things will change, and they’ll probably be for the better” – proved to be half-true. Today, the Los Angeles studio guitar scene is but a shadow of what it was thirty years ago. As I was writing this article in February 2011, I asked Mitch Holder for an update on the L.A. session scene. Mitch responded, “The cycle of studio players has certainly dwindled. The way in which recording is done now is different. It’s mostly home based, and if anyone needs a track, they can call their friends or whatever. The recording profession in general is gone. Independent studios have closed, and there are just a few left.”
I also asked Mitch Holder for an update on those in attendance. Mitch wrote back, “That was certainly a memorable night. As far as I know, there hasn’t been anything like that since, and after Tedesco passed [in 1997], the era was pretty much over. Carmie is alive and well. Herb Ellis, Alan Reuss, George M. Smith, Al Hendrickson, and Tony Rizzi have passed. Bob Bain and Dennis Budimir are retired. Larry Carlton, Robben Ford, Lee Ritenour, and Jay Graydon are pursuing solo careers. Greg Poree, Thom Rotella, and Tim May still do a little studio work. Grant Geismann writes for the TV show Two and a Half Men. David Cohen is a psychologist, Joe DiBlasi is in music production, Ron Eschete plays jazz, and I’m not sure what Steve Carnelli is doing.
“I see Bob Bain as much as I can. As a matter of fact, Tim May and I went to his house just last week. He had some five guitar charts that Jack Marshall had arranged way back, and Bob found them and wanted to play them again. It was fun and, of course, we had some good laughs. That’s what I miss now – the guys. We used to see each other regularly, and now I hardly see any other musicians. The days of Tedesco and clan are memories now – good ones, to say the least.”
For more Tommy Tedesco:
Luckily, several of Tommy Tedesco’s books and records are still available. I highly recommend three of his books (click on the underlined links to learn more about each): Tommy Tedesco – Confessions of a Guitar Player, For Guitar Players Only, and Tommy Tedesco: Anatomy of a Guitar Player. Amazon sells several of his CDs, including Fine Fretted Friend and The Tommy Tedesco Trio’s Hollywood Gypsy. Tommy’s son, Denny Tedesco, honored him with the 2008 documentary The Wrecking Crew, which has played festivals and is currently awaiting commercial release. For details, visit http://www.wreckingcrewfilm.com/.
It also safe to say that whenever you watch old movies or reruns of vintage TV shows, the guitar parts you hear were likely played by Tommy or someone else who attended that party all those years ago. I invite others who were at that party or who knew Tommy Tedesco to add their comments below.
Thanks to Mitch Holder and Jon Sievert for their help with this article.
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© 2011 Jas Obrecht. All rights reserved. This article may not be reposted or reprinted without the author’s permission.