From Guitar Player: for professional and amateur guitarists
October, 1979 Vol. 13, No. 10
Waddy Wachtel: Rock Sideman, Pop Producer, Touring Guitarist-by Steve Fishell
Waddy Wachtel, 32, is Linda Ronstadt's guitarist. Linda is based in Los Angeles, a rock and roll boom town crawling with guitar sharpshooters for hire. Aside from being one of the world's major entertainers and the darling of People magazine set, Ronstadt-along with her producers-has earned respect throughout the music industry for impeccable taste in the selection of musicians. For example, Lowell George, David Lindley, Nigel Olsson, Andrew Gold, J.D. Souther, Emmylou Harris, David Grisman, James Taylor, and Maria Muldaur all appeared on a single Ronstadt LP (Prisoner in Disguise [Asylum, 7E1045]) and the sidemen-Russ Kunkel, Herb Pedersen, Danny Kortchmar, Glen D. Hardin, and others-while not household words, are no less respected among industry peers for their skills and taste. Waddy Wachtel's position as a leading onstage and session guitar player is thus one of the choicest plums among West Coast guitar careers.
The combination of two phenonmena-the profusion of guitars and the high financial stakes in the record industry-has resulted in fierce competition for the guitarist's chair on record dates. Untalented players simply don't have a prayer. Even the pool of able, experienced guitarists is too large to allow them all to gain lucrative session work. So what does it take to score the coveted "first guitar" chair? Bypassing for the moment both the more concrete musical prerequisites and also the most intangible factors (say, fate and luck), we are left with a human quality that's difficult to pin down but often crucial nevertheless, and that's attitude. Linda Ronstadt once said that when seeking a replacement for singer/composer/multi-instrumentalist Ander Gold she was looking for a fine player, and upon choosing Waddy Wachtel she was fortunate to gain his positive attitude to boot.
Often an album's liner notes will simply credit the guitar work to a mysterious "Waddy," but Wachtel's abilities are no mystery to the many artists aside from Linda Ronstadt who have sought his talents. It's a prestigious list, including James Taylor, Rod Stewart, Jackson Browne, Karla Bonoff, Warrren Zevon, Randy Newman, Carole King, J.D. Souther, Andrew Gold, and the Pointer Sisters, among others. In fact, he is one of the few LA studio guitarists whose enviable schedule rarely leaves room for commercials, jingles, and the like.
Five years ago Waddy was practically unknown to recording artists and producers. His relatively swift rise in popularity can in part be attributed to his penchant for biting melodic solo work, sensitive ballad sweetening, and gutsy, in-the-pocket rhythm playing. But perhaps the overall key to Waddy's success is his mastery of-and uncompromising dedication to-rock and roll.
Waddy has also successfully ventured into record production. Last year he coproduced two LP's, Warren Zevon's Excitable Boy with Jackson Browne, and Bryan Ferry's The Bride Stripped Bare [Atlantic, 19205]. Waddy's own songs have been recorded by Linda Ronstadt ("Maybe I'm Right," on her Simple Dreams LP) and also by Warren Zevon, with whom he and Leroy Marinell co-authored Zevon's hit "Werewolves Of London" [MExcitable Boy].
Robert Wachtel was born in Queens, New York, on May 24, 1947. Young Bob, not yet nicknamed Waddy, was the only member of his family to pursue a musical career (except for a piano-playing cousin). At age four or five he saw a guitar on TV. "My mouth fell open," he recalls. "I said, 'What is that?' My mom said that it was a guitar. In my mind it still looks like a Gibson L-5. And I said, 'That's what I want,' and that was it."
Waddy's parents encouraged him to pursue music, but they put off purchasing that first guitar for years. "They'd buy me ukuleles instead," Waddy says. "And I counted those strings, and I'd say, "Hey, a guitar has six-this only has four.' I didn't get a guitar until I was about nine. It was called a Kamico, and it was about 24 bucks, and I thought it was the greatest thing I ever saw in my life. I cherished it."
Waddy is left-handed, so he picked his new guitar with his left hand and fretted it with his right. He soon began to take guitar lessons, however, and his teacher, Gene Dell, convinced him to play in the conventional manner. Like many successful players, Waddy spent hours imitating the singers and learning the songs from the radio-especially rock and roll tunes by groups such as the Del Vikings-also from the Mel Bay method books. "Those books are excellent," he says. "I went through all of them."
Waddy studied scales, chords, and theory with Gene Dell until he was 13. "I was practicing at home," he remembers, "and I played a major A chord on the 5th fret. And just by chance my hand went down a step and played the same form on the 3rd fret, and I heard that relationship. The record 'Tequila' [by the Champs, available on various oldies collections] was on the radio, and I heard it and realized that the whole-step interval just created that song. So I listened to the record and understood what they were doing. After that, as an extracurricular activity, I'd ask the teacher to put a tune down on tape and I'd learn it by ear. Gradually my ear started taking over everything. I'd read through an exercise and memorize it. The teacher would say, 'Why, you're not reading it,' and I'd say, 'How can I read it? It's in my head.' And after a while we got up to these two part Bach things, and I'd learn both parts and he'd come back and say, 'You're not reading both parts; you're cheating.'"
The Ventures and Duane Eddy were big influences on Wachtel. By the time he was 14 he had joined up with two friends of his older brother Jimmy and formed his first group, a trio-two guitarists and bass, no drums. [Ed. Note: Jimmy Wachtel is now a successful LA based album cover designer and photographer.] A series of bands followed; one of which was a jazz group. Through this exposure, and from hearing his brother's large collection of jazz records, Waddy encountered the music of Charlie Parker, Lou Donaldson, Stan Getz, Johnny Smith, and others. There was a surf music band, a blues band, and a Rolling Stones-influenced rock band. Another one was a vocal group; Waddy says, "We'd just stand on corners and snap our fingers and sing."
This variety of experiences helped Waddy discover the fundamentals he needed t develop his own style. "It just kind of came about," he explains. "I would listen to these jazz guys, and people would say, 'Yeah, he's really got a particular style.' I didn't know what that meant, really, but I knew that I could play a melody and then improvise. So I just started to improvise a little. I wasn't aware of any kind of style that was being formulated."
In 1968 Waddy moved out to California with a band that he had formed in New England, and that aggregation worked in LA for two years until Wachtel dismissed the group. In 1972 he heard that the Everly Brothers were looking for a guitarist to replace Bob Warford. To his dismay, the Everlys were not present for his audition, but he was hired and met the brothers just minutes before their first performance together. Two days later he found himself on a plane to Europe.
Waddy toured with the Everlys for over a year. During this time he befriended the band's keyboardist, Warren Zevon, and their musical association has continued to this day. Waddy describes the seemingly countless days on the road: "It became very musical. As soon as a show would end, we would all go to the hotel and sing and play music all night. It was fantastic."
Following his Everly Brothers days, Waddy spent some time forming a band with guitarist Lindsey Buckingham and singer Stevie Nicks, currently with Fleetwood Mac, but clashing musical sensibilities left him dissatisfied. He decided to hit the road with singer Carole King in the fall of 1974, and was asked to play on her Thoroughbred album; subsequently his name began to circulate around Los Angeles.
The proverbial big break came in 1975 when J.D. Souther, the southern California singer and composer, invited Waddy to play on his Black Rose album. His sensitive string bending on the tune "Simple Man, Simple Dreams" so impressed the producer Peter Asher that Waddy was called shortly thereafter to play on Linda Ronstadt's Hasten Down The Wind album, which Asher produced. From that point on, things happened fast. He became Linda's permanent road guitarist, and his calls for record dates increased dramatically.
Session players are particularly concerned with their guitar gear since they must satisfy not only their own tastes, but those of producers and artists as well. Waddy was lucky enough at age ten to acquire a Gibson L-7 arch-top, and the next year he got another Gibson, a Bigsby-equipped by Les Paul. The Bigsby vibrato tailpiece was especially suited to the Duane Eddy tunes, and to this day the device remains essential to Waddy's technique.
Waddy's current guitars include a '58 Les Paul sunburst. "It's the best guitar I've ever played," he says. "The neck is just as thin and wide as it can be. I bought it from Stephen Stills about ten years ago." He also owns two Fender Stratocasters-a '56 sunburst and a red one from '63-a Gibson J-200 flat-top acoustic that he always takes on the road, a Rickenbacker Bake-lite 6 string lap steel, and a Gibson Super 400 arch-top that he almost never touches.
Wachtel got into Stratocasters after an onstage accident put one of his Les Pauls out of commission. "I've never had a Fender in my life," he recalls, "but I was on the road with Carole King, and we were onstage, and I put the Les Paul down in a guitar stand. It fell over and cracked the head. The next day I went looking for a Les Paul to replace it, but all the ones I tried just didn't make it. I found this really beautiful sunburst Strat just like the guy [Don Wilson] in the Ventures had that had a great neck on it, and I said, 'I'll take it.' When I take it out on the stage, I beat the hell out of it. It's criminal, but every guitar I try to substitute for it just doesn't make it." For playing acoustic on Linda Ronstadt's sessions (for example, "Love Me Tender," Living In The USA), Waddy usually used Peter Asher's J-200, which he prefers over his own because it is easier for him to play and has a wider neck.
During the '60's, experimentation with special effects was the rage. Waddy says, "Being a guitar playing kid, I got to preview everything that happened during that time. The Ventures used volume pedals and fuzztones. Long before we even heard of the Rolling Stones I'd already broken my fuzztone. Everywhere I'd go everyone hated it, so I had to throw it away. Then the Stone came out with "Satisfaction," and no one knew what that sound was. You can hear the fuzztone snap on in that record."
One of the things that sets Waddy Wachtel apart from the vast majority of electric guitar players is a hesitancy to modify instruments. "I don't know anything about the electronics," he says, "so I would never try to modify a guitar. I've never liked a modified instrument. I don't like the way a Fender sounds with a Gibson pickup on it, and I never put a five-way pick up selector switch on either of the Strats. I'm just afraid that any slight change might alter the sound. Like if you use an effects device, even if it's off, as long as it's plugged into your circuit it adds a kind of brittle high, rather than the certain tone that comes out straight from the amp. When you patch in a phaser or something, even in the off position it's just brighter; it sounds instantly 'transitory.'"
Except for a Goodrich volume pedal, Waddy now shuns most electronic accessories. He used to use a De Armond volume pedal but switched to the Goodrich because of it's "throw"-the synchronization between the pedal's sweep and the volume's tape rate.
For both onstage and studio work, Wachtel chooses a Music Man 210HD One-Thirty amp. Onstage he uses four Music Man cabinets with stock 10" speakers. The amp's volume knob is usually turned all the way up, with the master volume set anywhere between 6 and 10. The treble is always up to 10, and both the midrange and bass are set very low, at about 2 or 3. Waddy generally sets his guitar's volume and tone knobs all the way up. "The only time I turn them down," he says, "is on something pretty. For a Wes Montgomery type of round jazz tone, I'll put in on the bass pick-up and back everything way down." Waddy's string choice is Fender's Rock And Roll set (high to low): .010, .013, .015, .026, .032, and .038.
Though he usually plays in standard tuning, Waddy is interested in certain open tunings. "I'm into what Keith Richards does," he says. "I love that stuff. He uses a five-string open G tuning [G, D, G, B, D, fifth through first] I've gotten into that, but when I'm writing stuff it confuses me to try to improvise in a tuning. Instantly I'm lost in relation to the standard tuning."
Keith Richards once said that for him the fascination and challenge of rock and roll is in it's simplicity, and Waddy Wachtel agrees: "I think what Keith was saying is that the simplest form of an accompaniment is usually the best. It all becomes counterpoint from that point on because everything that supports the melody is counter to the melody. And the simplest way of doing things comes out to be the most effective, like the way the guitar lick works against a melody in the Rolling Stones' 'Last Time' [More Hot Rocks, London, 2-PS 626/27]."
Though he likes heavy picks, Waddy usually chooses a medium-gauge for playing. "I like heavier ones," he explains, "but I find that I break too many strings with them. I pick real hard, and when I use a heavy it just destroys. I did a rock and roll gig where I was using heavy picks, and I had all metal saddles on my tune-o-matic bridge on the Les Paul. In every song two strings would break. Also, I've noticed that the more you squeeze a pick, the harder your touch is. If you're holding it real lightly, no matter how hard you strum, you hit the string lightly. But if you're putting pressure on it, it comes down a lot heavier."
Waddy sums up his picking technique with a laugh and a single word: "Wrong." He says, "I know that my technique is anti what my teacher taught me. I was taught that the hand should not rest directly behind the saddle, which is what it does. It is supposed to be free, with the movement coming from not only from the wrist but from the elbow as well, but I can't relate to that."
Though he used to employ a classical-style, parallel-to-the-string vibrato, Wachtel now uses a bluesy, perpendicular-to-the-string technique. "The vibrato came hard," he says. "It really took me a while. I couldn't figure it out. It took me weeks to get it to where I could actually make it sound like a voice. Another thing-I used to pull notes, but I found that you can go further and be more accurate if you push them towards you on the fingerboard instead of pulling them away from you."
Waddy warms up for a gig by playing scales and running over a particular exercise that he learned years ago. Starting on the 6th string in any given location, he'll play notes on two adjacent frets (e.g., the 4th and 5th, with his index and 2nd finger respectively). He'll move to the fifth string and play notes on the same frets, then move to the fourth string, and so on across the keyboard. Then he'll repeat the whole sequence with the 2nd and 3rd fingers, then the 3rd and 4th. "Then," Waddy adds, "try leaving the 1st finger at the 4th fret, string six, using the next finger to play notes all across the board at the 5th fret. The combinations are limitless."
One of Waddy's specialties is the playing of pedal steel effects on a standard electric guitar. Prime examples are found on Randy Newman's "Rider In The Rain" [Little Criminals ]. Even though the Stratocaster actually sounds more like a pedal steel, Wachtel uses the Les Paul with its Bigsby vibrato tailpiece. He exclaims, "Gotta have Bigsby forever. I love them. I've always had one on my Les Paul, ever since my first one. There's just something about the Bigsby on the Les Paul. The spring is very short, and the bar is very close, so I don't have to make a grab for the steely things. For instance, if I'm playing an A note at the 5th fret on the first string, and I'm trying to get to a D chord, I'll take my 2nd finger and put it on the 5th fret of the second string, and I'll push that E note up a whole-step to an F#. Once I get there, if I just vibrato to the second string, then only that string will have the vibrato. So I'll bend it in tune, and then just slightly lean on the Bigsby and vibrato both notes."
It was through his work with the Everly Brothers that Waddy first became interested in pedal steel: "It was hearing Don Everly say, 'He's all right, but he can't play country music.' That made me go back and buy another DeArmond volume pedal. I had gotten rid of the first one when I threw away the fuzztone, but now I was saying, 'I'll show you,' so I got a volume pedal and I started to figure out what makes the steel guitar so pretty. You have to find the point where you use the pedal and the point where you start bending the note. I listened to country music, and I was really amazed that guitars were so predominant and that tones were so beautiful."
Slide guitar playing is another of Waddy's interests. Though he now plays slide with the guitar in the usual position, he started off by holding it flat on his lap. "It helped my concept of melody by forcing me to understand the relationship of my hand to the notes on the fretboard," he says. "If you're up high and you've got to grab another note down low on the same string, you have to dampen the string before moving, because it sounds real stupid if you do it wrong. Playing standard slide guitar was some of the best education I had, because I realized how clean I had to be."
Taking up slide guitar also helped Waddy to gain his current visualization of the fingerboard. He explains, "I took at it as a keyboard; that's one of the things I learned from playing slide. To me it's just like a keyboard except you have the advantage of being able to make it more human-sounding with vibrato. When I look down and I'm about to solo, I see the next inversion of the chord in the song. If the IV chord [subdominant] is coming up and I'm on the I [tonic], I anticipate the next convenient major form, the next combination of clusters. It's funny-there are some licks that I'll play incorrectly, doing them the hard way, trying to do it all on one string, and then I'll realize, 'Wait a minute-I'm killing myself.' But then sometimes when you translate it to a logical fingering technique it doesn't sound as good. I don't know why."
Waddy uses a small steel or brass slide, which he wears on his little finger. He doesn't use glass slides because he feels that they are not loud enough and that the touch is unsuited to his technique. He likes the heftier feel of a metal slide but points out that if it's too heavy the slide will hinder his other three fingers.
Many slide players alter a particular guitar for slide playing, raising the action at both the string nut and bridge, but Waddy simply uses his standard guitars, the Les Paul (e.g., for the live version of Linda Ronstadt's "Tumbling Dice," on the soundtrack for the movie FM) and the red Stratocaster (studio version of the same song, on Simple Dreams ). On Warren Zevon's "Werewolves Of London" Waddy uses his Les Paul for the solo. "I set up for like an hour-and-a-half for that one," he says. "You know-get the tone, sit down, have a couple of drinks, then do it. I took it and that was it; the first pass was the one. Then I just harmonized a couple of the notes, and they turned out to be harmonies that sounded English to me."
On Ronstadt's version of Buddy Holly's "It's So Easy" [Simple Dreams], Waddy plays most of the tune with the Les Paul, though the overdubbed solo is the Stratocaster played through an old tweed Fender Champ amp for what Waddy calls "the cleanest Gene Vincent tone." Waddy adds, I don't own any of those little tweed amps myself, but on that night the tone wasn't right, and I said, 'Well, if you want a 50s sound, I've got to play this Fender through a Fender amp,' and there happened to be a Champ there. I said, 'That's the one.'"
Aside from recording with his Music Man, a Fender, or some other amplifier, Waddy also records direct by plugging straight into the studio's mixing console, or board. "Usually when I do that phony pedal steel stuff it's the Les Paul direct into the board," he explains. "Some players like to go for a blend, using both a direct and a live amp sound, but I don't like that specifically myself. Usually my sound calls for one or the other."
Session work sometimes has disadvantages that can offset the money and prestige. For Waddy, the main drawback is the studio's sterile environment. "The big difference," he says, "is that with a stage, you go on and whatever you do, that's it. If you're in the studio and you make a mistake, everyone can stop and do it again, recreate. As long as it finally goes on the tape right, that's all that matters. But you can spend several hours just waiting for something to go down.
"Onstage, when soloing with Linda, I will be in the middle of a solo and a string will break and I'll just have to keep going. Can't stop. In the studio, Peter Asher's approach is to go for the first take with the band. Even with Linda, almost all of the stuff we do is with live vocals, live solos, live everything."
Recording with Peter Asher and Linda Ronstadt entails a mixture of rehearsing and working out arrangements during the session. For example, the band rehearsed for about ten days before recording Ronstadt's Simple Dreams LP, and for her recent Living In The USA the band rehearsed for a week and also played in a Hawaiian club for a couple of days.
A much debated topic among observers of the studio scene involves pre-session preparation versus a more spontaneous, intuitive approach. Waddy Wachtel doesn't take sides: "The rule with me is that there are no rules. You can rehearse something ahead of time and get in there and find that it's totally the wrong approach, or you can rehearse it and know that it's just right. But it's always good to rehearse."
He is equally flexible in his approach to songwriting, explaining that compositions just come to him in a number of ways. The most important thing to him is a memorable melody involving repetitions that are accessible to the average nonmusician listener. He elaborates: "The melody sentences should be fairly short, and there should be spaces so that someone can take it all in. Plus, the lyrics have to be like a conversation. If you've got those two things happening, then you've got a song."
Breaking into the select circle of LA studio musicians was no mean feat, even for a musician of Waddy Wachtel's talents. He recalls: "For a long time I knew Kenny Edwards [Linda Ronstadt's bassist] and Andrew Gold. Kenny invited me to some of Linda's sessions, and I'd go down there and Peter wouldn't even acknowledge my presence. It was very, very trying. I couldn't even get a hello. J.D. Souther and I had become friends by that time, and I came back to the studio during the making of his Black Rose album, and he invited me to play on a tune, 'Simple Man, Simple Dreams.' Of course I said I'd love to.
"I hadn't heard the song, and when we played it I heard my entrance coming, and when I did it I knew it was right. Peter Asher was producing J.D. and also Linda Ronstadt. You know, I had been waiting so long to play for him that it was annoying me. As the space in the song was coming up I knew exactly what I was going to do, and as I played it I turned my head and looked directly at Peter through the glass. So I did that song and they called me back to do a couple of others, and then about a week later Peter asked me to come and play on the Hasten Down The Wind album for Linda. And then everything started happening at once."
Linda Ronstadt's mix of country, rock, pop, and ballads might seem to be foreign territory for a straight-ahead rocker like Waddy, and in fact he found the music so tame that he almost quit after two performances. "I felt very unnecessary and very strangled," he explains. "The whole band was very low-key, with no rock and roll, no energy. I have to be really active onstage-that's what you are there for-so we did two shows and I called a band meeting and said, 'You guys don't need me. I can't stand being on a stage that's like a morgue. I don't need this.' I had just come from a different scope. I learned how to play at dances my whole life, so I just kept drumming that into everybody-get some uptempo songs into the set. I was always saying that we've got to do some rock and roll."
The Wachtel attitude that Linda Ronstadt found appealing extends beyond a commitment to rock and roll, encompassing a positive interaction among band members and producers. For Waddy, the most important aspect of making a successful record is communication. He says, "Over the years, while working on sessions, I've been able to observe people. And the difference between a good producer and a bad one is communication. Like in the booth there's a little switch called a talkback, and someone can say [curtly, gruffly], 'All right, let's run it down.' Or he can go [gently, softly], 'Let's run it down.' Just a subtle difference in the tone of voice can either inspire or kill the session. It's the way you talk to people. Because what the musicians have to relate to is the voice. If it's coming across uptight at all, there'll be problems. I've had that experience myself when producing for someone else. You get to places where you want to ill somebody, but you have to say patiently, 'OK, can we try it again?' That's why I try to do all of my overdubs in the control booth, where we're all together, rather than out in the studio by myself.
"One time I was doing 'Poor, Poor, Pitiful Me' on Linda's Simple Dreams album. There was something about the solo on the live track that I wasn't crazy about, so I wanted to do it again. From my amp out in the studio we ran into the booth, but it lost some of the highs because of the length of the cord. So I had to go out and sit by my amp. I was getting all bummed out, and Peter came out and sat with me. It was great. But I've seen producers just kill sessions where they'll request too much. One time an engineer was talking to Russell Kunkel, and he said, very rudely, 'Gimme some snare!' I grabbed him and said, 'Listen, you say please. You treat these guys like men.'"
Record production involves long hours in the confines of the studio, and it can take it's toll. Waddy has just finished coproducing Warren Zevon's Excitable Boy album when his friend J.D. Souther asked for production help on his third LP. Waddy says, "Record production is a total commitment. I had just spent a year in the studio-not as me but as Warren Zevon, so when J.D. asked me I had to refuse. It was terrible."
In terms of production values, some of Waddy's favorite recordings among recent releases are "Roxanne" by the Police [Out-landos D'Amour, A&M, 4753] and records by Supertramp (particularly the latest album, Breakfast In America [A&M, 3708]) and the Cars.
After playing together for a year, Waddy and other members of Linda Ronstadt's group have decided to make a go of it on their own, tentatively dubbing themselves the Boys. The current plan is to have Stanley Sheldon (from Peter Frampton's band) on bass. "Stanley and I worked with [drummer] Rick Marotta, backing up Warren Zevon," Waddy says, "and it was the best rhythm section in the world. That act was kill. Rick and Stanley are just this unit that you couldn't stop with a truck. All I could say after we did the Zevon thing was that we're going to make a band. The other personnel choices were real apparent. We decided that Linda's steel player and guitarist Dan Dugmore would be perfect for us; he's just so laid-back and so beautiful. And Don Grolnick will play keyboards. Rick and Don and I instantly played the same way together. The music will be nothing like Linda's. It'll be dance music, rock and roll music, straight-ahead stuff with some ballads, too. We want to make those kids in Iowa dance. We feel that that's our role. We won't continue to work for Linda. There may be a gig here and there, but as far as extensive touring goes, we won't be involved. We just want to record and live on the road."
In looking ahead, Waddy Wachtel will carry with him the attitude that has thus far served him well. "My attitude is just a dedication to rock and roll," he says. "A band is a serious venture, and every person in it has to have a lot of respect for what he's about to do. I know that every time I look at Rick or I look at Dugmore, these guys are putting out the same attitude that I have, which is like this [extends a clenched fist]: fist in the air, and nothing else matters except that you guys are together, and everything is strong."
Steve Fishell is an LA-based pedal steel guitarist currently with Commander Cody and the Moonlighters.
Thanks to blackcat for the transcription and submission.