International Musician And Recording World
Volume 3 Number 2
By Scott E. Kutina
A conversation with ace L.A. rock session guitarist and "sideman-to-the-stars" Waddy Wachtel.
The name "Waddy" listed on the session credits of an album is no longer a mystery to those outside of the anonymous world of the LA session player. "Waddy" Wachtel has become synonymous with the hottest of Los Angeles' red hot Pop and Rock session guitarists.
Wachtel's credential cover everyone from the Everly Brothers to Warren Zevon, with heavy doses of Linda Ronstadt, James Taylor, Carole King, Jackson Brown, Fleetwood Mac, Bob Weir, and John David Souther, in between.
He is also a successful record producer (Warren Zevon's Excitable Buy, which he co-produced with Jackson Browne), a songwriter ("Werewolves of London" and "Maybe I'm Right", recorded by Warren Zevon and Linda Ronstadt respectively), and most recently, he has returned to the roots of rock & roll as the member of a recording and touring band known as Ronin, which also includes such Ronstadt alumni as Rick Morotta on drums and Dan Dugmore on guitar and pedal steel, along with former Peter Frampton sideman Stanley Sheldon on bass.
Born Robert Wachtel on May 27, 1947, in New York City, Waddy's career reads like a Hollywood movie script. He has paid his dues by playing in bar bands throughout New York City and New England, and starting as a singer/songwriter/session player in LA.
Wachtel's love for the guitar and music started at a very early age, and while his parents always encouraged him, his first stringed instruments were actually ukeleles. He didn't receive his first guitar until the age of nine or ten when his parents gave him a Gibson L-7 Archtop. He studied formally with a teacher named Gene Dell until the age of 13 when he suddenly discovered, to his great delight, that he could pick tunes right off of the radio by ear.
"When I became aware of my ear being that good, my reading became less important because I was so blown out that I could learn and retain pieces by ear," Waddy recalls. "I used to play these Bach pieces when I was studying with this teacher, these two-part piano inventions. I'd play it through and by the time I'd be at the end of a piece, I'd have learned it."
Waddy's first bands were essentially garage and bar bands working the New York City high school teen dance and bar circuit, playing every kind of cover material, from surf music to Rolling Stone and Motown, as well as an occasional wachtel original.
Eventually he and his band ended up in Newport, Rhode Island where they gigged as the house band in a bar for a year. Around this time, Wachtel was also taking lessons from jazz master Sal Salvador, who taught him more about improving and soloing than he had learned anywhere else.
"When I studied with Sal, I studied from nine different books each week. I had to learn from 'Johnny Smith Scale Studies,' 'Johnny Smith Interpretations.'-both of Sal's books and 'George Van Eps Mallet Method.' Of course they all had these very hip scales in them and my reading was quite good by then."
"After a while he would just want me to sit with him and read. We would sit and I would read these arrangements with him, just trading back and forth, rhythm and leads. That really opened me up to what improvising was all about."
He and his band finally decided they were ready for the Big Time, so they packed their bags and their equipment and left New York for Smog City, USA, better known as Los Angeles.
They arrived in LA in 1968, ready to burn the town down, but after two discouraging years of managerial problems and ephemeral recording contracts, Waddy disbanded the group in order to further pursue his career as a sessions player and singer/song writer.
Back in New York City, Waddy had always hated Country music. Having moved to LA, he found it slowly beginning to innundate his brain until he finally began to admit to himself that he was essentially a frustrated pedal steel player.
"I was being hypnotized by these gorgeous sounding guitars, and I just finally said to myself, 'Wait a minute. Hold on. If you do this, you're never gonna stand up again. You'll just sit there with a bottle of Scotch, drink it all, and play beautifully all night long. You gotta stand up again.' So I caught myself drifting off the track, and then I jumped back into just wanting to rock & roll."
With all of this acquired knowledge and all of these influences behind him, it wasn't too long before Wachtel started landing steady gigs with "important people." One of the first of these gigs was touring with the Everly Brothers in 1972. It was during this tour that he and the keyboardist, a cat with the unlikely name of Warren Zevon, became close friends.
After finishing up the tour with the Everly Brothers, he and a duo named Buckingham/Nicks attempted to form a band which never quite jelled and, in 1974, Waddy was called in to work on Carole King's Thorobred album and subsequent tour.
An invitation in late 1975 from singer/songwriter/guitarist John David Souther to work on his second solo album, Black Rose, proved to be the "big break" that Waddy was looking for. The session was being produced by veteran producer Peter Asher who, after hearing Waddy's tasteful playing, invited him to play on Linda Ronstadt's album Hasten Down The Wind. Since then, things haven't been quite the same for Waddy Wachtel.
He was soon holding down the other guitar slot on Linda's band along with Dan Dugmore, as well as playing second guitar behind Danny "Kootch" Kortchmar in James Taylor's band. He even managed to squeeze in a tour or two with his old sidekick Warren Zevon, whose career had also prospered by this time.
And things haven't been the same for Wachtel in the studios either. He's had so many session calls that, about two years ago, he decided to take some time off and head out on the road with a band of his own, playing his music.
So in 1979, along with Dan Dugmore, Rick Marotta and bassist Stanley Sheldon, the band Ronin was formed. Their initial Mercury album and subsequent tour opening for the Rossington-Collins Band has been met with a favorable critical and audience reception and things look exceedingly bright for the group's future.
As a leading session guitarist, Waddy is often called upon to play with someone that he is not entirely familiar with. His attitudes towards these sessions lends insight into the character of this not-so-typical session player.
"I go into a session expecting to be communicated to," Waddy explains. "If I go there assuming, 'If I'm being called, they want methere.' So I want a little respect, and I want them to convey to me what they want, because I will convey to them what I want on the first take, because I'll just play what I'm hearing.
"From there, it's either, 'That's a good direction,' or 'Nah, I'd like it to go a little slower,' or 'A little prettier sound. Don't use that dirty sound. Clean it up a little.'
"Also, in dealing with people in a session, it's not who you know but how you go about learning what to do in situations with the people that you're going to meet. You go into a session open-mindedly, ready to deal with words and music, and you do your best to understand the situation involving the music that you have to work on."
Waddy's involvement as a musician has also brought him into the studio as a producer. One of these projects was Warren Zevon's second album, Excitable Boy, co-produced by Jackson Browne.
During this period, he spent most of his time in the studio, working and playing with the muscians, while Browne was in the control room working the board. "During a take, I'd usually be communicating with the drummer, who is the backbone and therefore the key member of any group of musicians. I've found that since I'm a musician, actually being there and playing, there is closer communication with the band. As a producer, this gives me direct control on a more personal level.
Wachtel's well-developed sense of rhythm usually casts him in the role of a rhythm player, filling in chord riffs similar to those of his main rock & roll influence, Keith Richard, of whom he says, "His accomplishment concept is amazing."
Waddy's own approach to chording is pretty basic. "I usually prefer to play from first position chords, mainly because they sound the best." He has also developed a few inversions of his own that he likes to use whenever they seem appropriate. These inversions include muting the fifth string (A string), and a four interval stretch between the root note and the fifth of the chord, from a 1st position on the "A" chord form.
Another of Wachtel's trademarks is his slide guitar playing. Using a metal slide on his little finger while muting with his ring and index fingers, his searing licks have often made the difference on stage or in the studio.
He uses a standard guitar tuning because when he first started to learn slide guitar, he had a difficult time learning to play in the open tunings. One of the first of these that he tried out was a 7th tuning that John Lennon used when he played lap steel in the movie "Let It Be."
Waddy's difficulties came from having a hard time visualizing the tonal relationships between the notes and their positions on the open-tuned guitar. "I first started playing slide on my Les Paul which I played flat, like a lap steel, with a steel bar. But then I learned about bottlenecking. I started having a hard time because I was approaching it as more of a keyboard set-up then.
"When I took it into my hands, I couldn't relate to the tunings because they threw off my sense of logic. I would look down at my E string, and all of the sudden my E string is a D string! And that meant if I was going to play a melody, I'd have to compensate a step. So now I just use standard tuning and play melody lines. I don't do that much chordal bottlenecking. Just single note, funky melody lines."
Wachtel's inventory of guitars includes a 1958 sunburst Les Paul (complete with the original Bigsby vibrato), a 1956 sunburst Stratocaster, a '64 Strat, a Gibson Super 400 archtop, a Rickenbacker lap steel, a Gibson J-200 acoustic and an Ovation electric/acoustic Adamas. None of his instruments are modified, though he will have the action adjusted because he likes his strings set low on the neck.
"I buy my guitars because of the way the strings feel on the neck. I don't know very much about adjusting or modifying guitars. I do know how to adjust the saddle on a Tunamatic bridge, and I do know how to adjust the string height. So I'll just sit there all day until the tension on the strings against the fretboard feels right. Yeah, all of my guitars are 'straight-ahead,' stock, the way I bought them."
Waddy strings his guitars with Fender "Rock & Roll" strings, regular light gauge (.010, .013, .015, .026, .032, and .038). He likes heavy picks but usually ends up playing with mediums because of the strength and ferocity of his attack. He tends to vary the high right hand technique between straight up and up and down strokes, as well as alternating combinations of the two according to his needs.
His playing style also entails a lot of pushing and pulling strings, as he sometimes strives for a pedal steel sound. "I've learned that there's only so many moves that you can do that will make a guitar sound like a pedal steel. I'll use a lot of unison bends, and I'll push and pull my strings way up and down. If you get your hands to make the bends at just the right speed, not too slow and not too fast, the sound will be there."
Unlike many of his contemporaries, he likes to keep his effects simple. He actually uses just one effect, a volume pedal plus the Bigsby vibrato tail piece, and he only uses these when playing for pedal steel effects. When he's recording in the studio, he'll run his guitar directly through the board instead of his amplifier. "The amp just doesn't give it the same sound."
His amplification system consists of a Music Man 21HD 130, which he uses both in the studio and on stage. Again, it's a stock amplifier with no modifications whatsoever. On stage, his system is augmented by an additional Music Man cabinet with four 12" speakers to it.
To achieve the overdriven sound he favors, he'll turn the Master Volume, Volume and Treble Controls all the way to 10 while keeping the bass and mid-ranges down low at about 2 or 3. He'll also keep his guitar's volume and tone controls wide open.
Although touring and recording with Ronin has been taking up a great deal of Waddy's recent time, he hasn't turned his back on studio work or his touring commitments with people like James Taylor. And even though a recent hand injury during a New York club date with Ronin may keep him sidelined for a while, by the time you read this he should be back on the stage and in the studio, doing what Waddy Wachtel loves and knows best. Rocking & Rolling.
-Scott E. Kutina
Thanks to blackcat for the transcription and submission.