INTERVIEW – CHRIS LEUZINGER
#1 – In 40+ years as one of Nashville’s hardest working session players, could you toss out a guess as to the number of songs you have played on?
I’m sorry but I can’t. And it would be hard to guess. I have been blessed to record with a lot of artists through the years on a lot of records. But I’ve probably played on more songs on demo sessions for songwriters. On a record session , which is 3 hours long, you might do 1,2 maybe 3 songs, …on demos you record at least 4,5 or even 6 songs on a 3 hour session. And years ago there were tons of demo sessions going on all day all over town 6 days a week.
#2 – When you are sitting in a studio with your guitar, on the clock in front of the who’s who of producers and artists in country music, how do you focus on the task at hand?
I have to say it was nerve wracking at first but after I did it for a while it became easier.
Our main task as a studio musician is to come up with a guitar part that is going to compliment the song and the artist. So that’s mostly what I am focusing on, what can I play and what sound can I use to fit into this song for this artist?
And the situation is always different in relation to the clock. Sometimes with certain producers you are under a bit of pressure to get things done quickly, so you really have to focus on playing your parts fast and quick and not taking too much time. You don’t want to be the guys holding things up. In other situations you are given more time to create so you can experiment more. I really love those situations as it gives you time to try different things.
Whenever we record with Garth, the clock is never ticking. Both he and producer Allen Reynolds have always given us as much time as we need to work on our parts, try different sounds, and make them as good as they can be. I think that’s one thing that makes those records special.
#3 – Is it odd mentally to go from a huge budget and arenas to a low budget and small clubs? How does a session player stay grounded in situations like that?
For me in regard to sessions it’s not odd. Most of the session players I know here give 100% all the time, whether you are recording with a famous artist or an unknown singer who is coming here to record. We always play our best. And a lot of times the smaller sessions for unknown singers or writers are lots of fun as they are very relaxed and the people really appreciate what you do. In a lot of cases it’s money out of their pocket which they’ve saved for a long time, and not a big record company budget. And it’s their life dream to record a record in Nashville so you really want to treat them right.
But on the live shows, it is a bit different for me. It’s actually much more relaxed and easy for me to play in front of a huge crowd than it is to play a small intimate room. In the large shows the crowd is more removed and not as focused on each player. In a smaller room it can be a little intimidating for me, especially if there are other guitar players there. As far as the size of the budget though I actually think I’ve had more fun playing on some gigs where I was making the least money.
But in each case when I am doing a live show I put in a ton of prep work. I like to get the material way in advance of the show. Then I make notes on my charts, write out (in numbers not notation) all the guitar hook licks, practice my parts, set up my gear and get my sounds together for each song. If there are some licks or solos I need to copy that are tough to remember sometimes I will play them into my voice memory on my iPhone so I can reference just those licks. And I will just pick up a guitar any time of day and play those parts. And I will think about them when I am doing other things like driving or walking. I guess I am a bit OCD about that but if I am really prepared in advance then I can relax and have more fun on the gig.
#4 – In your career, I am guessing you have had access to some of the best gear ever made. Please do tell us about as many of your personal favorite amps, cabs, pedals and more!
Yes I have some wonderful gear and I love it. As far as amps way back in the 70s I had some of the standards: Fender Deluxe Reverb, Boogie Mark IV, and Music Man 210 HD. Then I moved into amp heads. One that I used for a long time is a custom made Blues Maker Amp, made by Canadian amp wiz John McIntyre. But for the last 15 or so years I have two that have become my go to amps. One is a Naylor Super 60 head that is just great. And the other is a Carr Rambler 1/12 combo. The Naylor pairs up wonderfully with an old Egnator 2/12 cab with Warehouse 12s. For some reason those two together are just magic. I recently picked up a ’64 blonde Bassman head that sounds great through a 60s Bandmaster cab. I’ve owned a couple of 4/12 cabs but have always had better luck with the 2/12s. I have an Orange closed back 2/12 cab that we use on Garth’s records when we want to get a big crunch sound and it works great.
Back in the 80s and 90s my main distortion boxes were Rats. I had two, an old big box original and also an 80s model that Brian Wampler modded for me. Then for a while in the late 80s everyone got into big racks here and I had a number of different preamps I liked, Bradshaw, Demeter, Soldano and a Boogie Studio. I ran them through a Boogie 295 power amp into some small Boogie 1/12 cabs in stereo. That’s back when Nashville was trying to copy the LA pop records so we all had stereo chorus units, I loved the Roland Dimension D. And also stereo panning delays and I had both a Lexicon PCM 41 and 42.
Now things have gotten more organic again and pedals are the thing. And there are a million to chose from! But the holy grail pedal here in the Nashville studios are the old original green Nobels ODR-1 overdrive. I’ve got 3 of them. For me it’s become more like a stage of my amp and I leave it on most of the time. It works great with any amp I use and just warms things up and can add a little grit to a clean amp, or it will rock hard too. If I need more distortion I will stack other pedals on top of that. My favorite for more organic gain sounds is the Analog Man King of Tone. With 2 channels it’s very versatile. For the more modern gain stuff I like the Fulltone OCD. I have an Xotic RC boost which sounds great with my electric 12 string or my baritone guitars. And for a little different crunch I have a Boss Blues Driver modded by Brian Wampler to give it more bottom. I use two delays, a TC Flashback for some things and a Strymon Timeline for others. And for the modulation stuff I use a Strymon Mobius.
#5 – To follow that up, having worked on so many songs in so many styles, how do you go about finding the right gear and tone for a song?
I first listen to the song, think about what style it’s in, imagine the part I want to play and that will direct me to what guitar/pedal/amp combination I need. Most of the time we only hear the song once so you have to think fast on that but it becomes easier the more you do it. Some styles just dictate certain guitars. Sometimes I will initially choose a guitar and once the band starts playing the song I realize it’s not really fitting into the track and I will switch to something else.
Also on lots of sessions here now there are two electric players, so you want to find a sound that is different than the other guy. If he’s going to play a Strat I might pull out a Paul Reed Smith, Les Paul or Gretsch. If he turns on a vibrato pedal or chorus pedal I will go with a dryer sound.
As I have been recording with Garth for 30 years now he knows all my guitars, amps and cabs really well. When we are overdubbing sometimes he’ll make suggestions like “so do you think this might be a Les Paul through the Naylor kind of part?” So I will always try that first.
#6 – Having backed such a wide range of artists, do you cater setup to the artist you happen to be playing with or does your setup stay fairly consistent?
When we do record sessions most of the time we will use a cartage company to bring our gear. A large case full of guitars, all my amp heads, cabs, and a couple of combos are in a storage locker and the company will deliver it. So I will bring pretty much everything. If it’s a smaller budget and they don’t want to pay for cartage I will ask the producer in advance what the main style of music is and if it’s a male or female artist. While my pedal board is pretty much the same I might take different guitars to fit the session I am going to. On the smaller sessions I will just take the Carr Rambler combo amp and with all the different crunch pedals I have I can get it to sound like a wide variety of amps.
#7 – What tips can you give on how to record and mix a really solid country guitar tone? Perhaps some of the mics, mic positions and various techniques you have found success with over the years?
Usually the go to mic is the old standard, the Shure SM57. I usually like to put it just off the cone of the speaker so it is not too bright. The Royer 121 ribbon mic is great too. They are a bit darker. We’ve used them together with a 57 and it gives a really full range guitar tone. You just have to make sure the phase is correct. And if you can do it on separate channels it’s nice as the engineer can change the blend as needed when he mixes.
In the past we’ve put a mic in the back of an open back cab and just blend it in a bit with the front mike. It’s really bass-y sounding and can kind of give you some of the “thump” you get out of 4/12 bottoms.
When we overdub it’s also nice to use a room mic placed up high and a few feet back from the cab. Adds some natural ambiance.
The size and construction of the recording space make a difference too. Sometimes when you are tracking they need to place your cab in a small iso booth or room that might be really padded down. In that case it really compresses the sound and I try not to play to loud as it compresses more. When overdubbing though it’s nice to be able to put the cab in a big room and give it room to breathe.
Mic pres make a difference too. In my home rig I have a stereo Brent Averill API copy which sounds great. For the past few years when we record with Garth they’ve given me the luxury of renting a stereo Fairchild tube compressor. It’s really sweet and even if you don’t use the compression just running the signal through all the tubes gives it a beautiful warmth and depth.
#8 – Everyone has a favorite personal effort. In your opinion what song or album features the best country tone you ever recorded?
There are just a few that I would lke to mention if I may. “The Dance” by Garth on which I played my 60’s Gibson ES 345. “The River” also by Garth which I played slide on a custom made Jerry Jones Strat. Also “Small Town Saturday Night” by Hal Ketchum and “High Powered Love” by Emmy Lou Harris. On both of those I played a vintage Dan Electro Guitarolyn, twanging on Hal’s song and slide on Emmy Lou’s. I can’t really remember what pedals or amps I used.
#9 – What qualities does one need to have as a player and a person to have a long career as a session musician?
On the playing and gear side it’s really important to stay current. Since I started in the studio in the 70s styles have changed dramatically. In the 70s it was pretty traditional ( you had to have a Dyna Comp and a Phase 90) J, then in the 80s it went to pop and big racks, after that back traditional for a while. Then the ladies took over and everyone wanted to sound like Sheryl Crow. Then the guys came back and it was southern rock and big crunch for a while and then later mostly U2 The Edge atmospheric stuff. Now there is loops, rap and a little R&B. So I would say it’s just important to be able to adapt to whatever is current. And in some cases, like in the beginning with Garth, we got to experiment and create what was current. J
One the personality side it’s most important to be a good team player. You have to play well with others. Some days you get to shine and others you take a back seat to what someone else is doing. I’ve been included on some great projects because I love playing rhythm electric, and don’t really care about whether I get to play a solo or not. Other guitar players that like to shine have recommended me because of that and I am just happy to be there.
Another thing that has worked well for me is always keep my head in the session and not on my phone checking Facebook or chatting to much. And also be willing to throw in some free overtime. It only takes a few extra minutes to add another part or make a solo better and the people I am working with really appreciate the extra thought and care for their music.
And most important…always give 125%. Besides it being a good work ethic, you never know what will come of even the smallest gig or session. The inexperienced songwriter you are working with today could become an in demand record producer or artist in a few years and they will remember you.
#10 – What does 2019 have in store for you? Any projects you can tell us about coming up?
We have been working on new music with Garth with is always fun. And he’s stated that at some point on his stadium tour he’s going to bring each one of the G-Men, our studio band, out to play a show. That will be a blast as he’s selling out everywhere!
And I am also actually working on an instrumental CD of my own. I’m very excited about it. It’s more based on melodies and grooves and not so much on hot licks or long solos. I am trying to reach a more general audience and not just guitar players. I hope to have it done by the end of the summer and it will be available at www.chrisleuzinger.com.
Thanks very much for asking me to do this. I am very grateful for the opportunities I’ve had to play some wonderful music. I am very grateful and hope what I shared will be of value to some guitar players out there.
We have no words for our gratuity in this situation. To have such a well known player talk to us after a career of backing Grammy award winning artists, playing countless legendary venues and recording in the most famed recording studios on the planet is surreal. Chris is the definition of staying humble folks and his model can be followed by any musician in any style or genre. Please do check out Chris’ work, it sure won’t be hard to find!!