Prime Time Players:
The Acoustic Guitar In TV And Film Scoring
Published in Taylor Guitar's Wood & Steel
Conjure up the image of a freelance guitarist's lifestyle and one might see late nights, unkempt studio apartments, Ramen noodles and tours with bare-knuckle travel conditions for no extra charge. For many energetic, youthful souls, almost inexplicably, this only heightens the allure of such a career choice.
But there is another way. A way to wake up in the same bed every morning and actually know what city you're in and what day it is. A way to leave the cutthroat, maddening world of gigging for a living behind and still make the daily bread by picking up a guitar. An acoustic guitar, even. It's the world of composing and/or performing music for television and film.
In Los Angeles, where the overwhelming majority of this highly desired work is based, cracking the scene is tough going. One would think that in this Age of Digital Everything, a primarily acoustic guitarist would have an even more difficult road to this musical and financial promised land. But it can be done, and in the event the aspirer is fortunate enough to have landed a gig on a successful TV show - with a run of, say, at least five years - it is, in the words of one successful veteran, "the gift that keeps on giving."
Wood & Steel being the far-reaching, monolithic publication that it is, we're able to bring you the inside story on four working pros, how they came to where they are, and how they operate behind the scenes to bring you music through the tube and screen - and bring home the bacon in the process. Improbable as it sounds, one got his big break by way of a producer's curiosity of his nickname, one flew into the scene on the Wings of a Beatle, and the other two have teamed up to take over an entire network's session work by using secret, heretofore unknown Russian technology.
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If there was a gold standard for guitarists working in the TV/film scoring industry, W.G. "Snuffy" Walden just might be it. It's not enough that he's doing one of the highest-rated (and certainly most respected) network television shows, NBC's The West Wing - he won the Emmy for the composition of its Main Title Theme. Most telling of Snuffy's state of evolution in the business is that the music on The West Wing is purely orchestral.
There's not a lick of acoustic guitar in the whole show. Not like the eight-time veteran nominee is giving the award back. "I've done it both ways and winning is way more fun," he admits. "It's a once-in-a-lifetime kind of show. Such remarkable characters and storytelling...I'm blessed to be with it. It's just such a great team to be with. I don't think it was the melody I wrote that won an Emmy, I really feel like it was the show that won it."
The history is unlikely. A son of the Sun Belt, weaned on Texas blues and having already spent some time in England, Snuffy was having a good run as a Los Angeles-based freelance electric guitarist, touring with top artists like Chaka Khan and Donna Summer. But he saw the handwriting on the wall of touring life early - "a Holiday Inn at age sixty" - and decided to change course. It turned out that some producer at ABC wanted to meet a guy who willfully called himself "Snuffy," and arranged for an interview to see if he might be the right guy to work on a new series called thirtysomething. The erstwhile electric player had to borrow an acoustic guitar to track one of the most identifiable themes of the 1980's, an Emmy-nominated tune that opened the door for more acoustic guitar in prime time than since the days of M*A*S*H.
Snuffy went on to become ABC's go-to guy, working on hits like The Wonder Years, Roseanne, The Drew Carey Show and Ellen, among many others. Over time, he developed a grounding philosophy: to write music that's best for the project. Says Snuffy, "It's not about being clever, it's not about writing the newest thing, the newest inversion or the newest guitar lick. It's about serving the film."
It's also about staying fresh, not the easiest thing in the world when you've been scoring for over fifteen years. "The work I do is so varied, because I do so many different shows," he explains. There's only so many ways you can play an acoustic guitar. You can play it with a slide bar, you can play it with a fingerpick. [So] I try to create a new fabric, a new palate for each show that I do and I try not to repeat it...so that I can switch, and I don't have to worry about, ‘Am I writing what I wrote this morning for some other show?'"
The days of Mr. Walden having to borrow an acoustic guitar are long gone. More a fingerpicker than a strummer, he now sports a 912C and an 812C as his main Taylor tracking axes, though he now owns "six or seven" that meet his requirements of a proper acoustic sound, something "really responsive, that I can play super-light on and still has a pure tone." The acoustics have pickups on them and go straight into Pro Tools and Digital Performer platforms. At that point, the film rolls, the red light goes on, and the creative process begins with a scratch track that often becomes real.
"It's never thought out," he happily admits. "What I do is go ahead and play, and as I'm writing I'm performing the score. Those performances, for the most part, I keep. As an acoustic guitar composer, I just love to look at film and just play. I'm dodging dialogue, being as expressive as I can, and I'm much more connected with the film."
As if he's not busy enough scoring for both small ensemble and full-scale orchestra, Snuffy has a deal with Wyndham Hill Records and several solo releases under his belt. His track "Who Lives Up There" was featured on the ubiquitous Sounds of Wood & Steel CD, and a new solo release is due in early 2001. Excerpts of three tracks from that upcoming release can be sampled at Snuffy's official website, www.wgsnuffywalden.com. The CD will contain a suite from the soundtrack of The West Wing as well as the main title theme, a crowning achievement that's apparently satisfying for other reasons than just collecting gold hardware.
"I'm really proud of the work." Then, a standard no musician should have to live up to. "I really feel like I'm a part of something that's giving TV a good name again."
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Asked the essential question of his prime directive during a TV session, Laurence Juber replies with typically English precision and brevity: "Get the job done."
The London native Juber has been getting the job done in the studio for over twenty years. After his raucous and critically acclaimed three-year stint as lead guitarist for Paul McCartney's Wings, he settled in Los Angeles in 1981 with an eye on studio work. One could say he found it. Here's ten TV shows he's worked on: The Fall Guy, Facts Of Life, Head Of The Class, 9 to 5, Laverne and Shirley, Happy Days, Soul Man, Roseanne, Seventh Heaven, and his signature show, Home Improvement. There are at least thirty more. And that's only the TV work; the pages required to properly list his full credits could easily jam a fax machine.
"There are two different perspectives on this," Juber states. "One is what happens when I'm a studio musician. The other is what happens when I'm a composer. I like doing it as a composer because you make more money. I did a MIDI score for a show called Tarzan [that] wasn't shown much in the U.S. market - actually it was used in a lot of foreign syndication. I completed the last episode of that six, seven years ago, and I'm still getting royalties for it."
But more often than not Juber plays the role of session ace, a title befitting of someone who admits to "enjoying" fingerpicking a 12-string, dismissing the technical challenge as something "that takes a certain amount of concentration." He's a virtuoso acoustic player/composer in his own right with nine solo recordings to date. For TV session work, he primarily executes the compositions of his longtime collaborator/producer, guitarist Dan Foliart.
"He and I have been working together for nearly twenty years. I can kind of anticipate where he's going," says Juber. "I mean, for example, Home Improvement. Dan composed the show [and] pretty much established the style of it...in the pilot. It opened [with] the altered-tuning 12-string with percussion and bass clarinet, for example. It was a very characteristic sound with that show."
To say the least. Juber made the 12-string theme a personal calling card, and viewers of Improvement's eight-year run (and subsequent immortalization in syndication) grew to know its appearance meant the entrance of one Tim Allen. That 12-string in question was a Taylor 555 cutaway, a guitar Juber chose because "it's a very identifiable sound. You get great texture out of it."
Juber should know. He was a Taylor clinician for several years, primarily an 812 user, has a cut on the Sounds of Wood & Steel CD ("Liquid Amber") and could probably tell you more about the construction of an acoustic guitar than most luthiers. He also experiments heavily with altered tunings, both in his solo work and with Foliart in a most unique way - playing standard tuning fingerings on an altered-tuning guitar. Confused?
"We've worked out a system where he'll write stuff in standard notation, and what I'm looking at, I will play as though I was in standard tuning. I'll see the ‘E' on top of the treble clef and I will play the ‘E' as though I was playing in standard tuning, but it may be tuned to an ‘F', or a ‘D', or an ‘E' flat, or something different. So what I hear isn't the same as what I'm looking at." Then, as if to punctuate for those who couldn't fathom the concept, "It works."
With such technical ability at his disposal, is there anything that Juber actually has to struggle to get right in the studio? Believe it or not, yes - cartoon music. "I played on some of the Mouseworks cartoons for Disney, and those are scary because the clicks can be at breakneck tempos, and they're never stable. [They're] always changing. Just think about cartoon music, and just imagine what it's like trying to sightread when you're flailing around on a ukulele or a banjo at 260 beats per minute."
"But I think it's very important to remember that it's not just about the technique or reading what's on the page, or matching some particular compositional thing to what's on the screen. When I first started scoring, I used to try and catch every single thing. And now I'd rather have it feel like a decent piece of music, and capture the mood of the scene."
In a summit of TV session titans, Juber and Snuffy are presently working together, both compositionally and performance-wise, on a new NBC series called Three Sisters. And though Juber realizes more than most the potential financial advantages to composing, his current preference is clear. "I've made a conscious choice...really to work on being an artist, and to develop my own voice and my own sensibility as a guitar player, with the goal of convincing the community at large that I have something different to offer. That's really what happened with this show I'm doing with Snuffy-he brought me into it because he likes my style of playing and convinced the producers that that was the right kind of sound for the show. So I can sit down and be in DADGAD tuning or open C tuning and do a lot more of my thing, which is really what I always wanted to do anyway."
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Not everyone working this angle of the music business has been at it for twenty years. Take Brothers West, for example, a partnership comprised of Andrew Rollins and Jon Butcher. They've existed as a team for a mere ten months.
That's not to say they don't have experience - quite the contrary. The two guitarists came together from wildly different backgrounds. Rollins did it the hard way, working a day gig at Guitar Center before traveling to the Phillippines and finally landing back in L.A., where he began scaring up work as a record producer and independent scorer for TV and film. Butcher first achieved solo artist notoriety in the 1980's as the leader of The Jon Butcher Axis, a searing, critically acclaimed blues/rock project that earned a Grammy nomination. But after fifteen years of roughing it on the road, he felt a now-familiar sentiment creeping in.
"I toured around the world I don't know how many times," Jon recalls. "I got burned out, and my right ear started giving me trouble, and I started thinking, well, let's try something different."
That something different was a total de-electrification of his sound, style and writing habits. He attributes it to the heavy influence of one artist - Leo Kottke. "I picked up a Leo Kottke [Taylor] because of Leo Kottke. Specifically. I love him, and I love what he did. And the guitar's deep. One thing led to another and it turned out that [for] a couple of years, I didn't play electric guitar at all."
Rollins had his own Taylor insights along the way; at one point he was the leading Guitar Center salesman of Taylors in the country, and remains a devoted user of several models (915 limited-edition maple, 815 12-string, 910) to this day. But while Butcher underwent his metamorphosis, Rollins was busy acting as Musical Performance Supervisor for the CBS miniseries Shake, Rattle & Roll, a project enabling him to work with the likes of B.B. King, Terence Trent D'Arby and Graham Nash. Having made other inroads into TV scoring for several projects at HBO, perhaps it was only natural that Rollins and Butcher's stars crossed when both were called to work on Showtime's The Jimi Hendrix Story. As Rollins recalls, something magic happened when they recorded tracks together.
"It was kind of strange," Rollins admits, "because I've always liked what he's done. We hit it off right away. I was playing the part of Eric [Clapton] and he was doing the Hendrix stuff."
Butcher finishes Rollins' thought. "At one point we went out in the parking lot and talked in the back of the studio."
The riffing begins. Rollins: "So Jon called me the next day, and I said, ‘Let's get together.' ‘Cause I had a really good feeling."
Butcher: "Without really knowing why! It wasn't like there was a plan."
But shortly there was. They named themselves Brothers West, and decided to pool their musical and networking resources into obtaining TV and film scoring work. It didn't take long.
"We got our first gig within two or three weeks, and that was a spot for UPN's Freedom," Rollins explains. "Then we took a meeting with a guy over there who Jon knew. And we approached him [and said], ‘Give us all the stuff you have for UPN. We want to be your in-house guys." The aggressiveness paid off in two more shows - Star Trek: Voyager and The Hughleys, for which Brothers West wrote the theme.
Also on the current working slate for the Brothers is a full-length film, a horror movie called The Dollhouse, which begs the question-which would they prefer, TV or film? "In my mind," says Butcher, "I see us doing film. Because the possibility for expression is much wider. Television pays great, but film, you get to be who you want to be."
"In a lot of ways," Rollins adds, "the hardest thing to do is when someone gives you thirty seconds to create something for film. Promo spots sometimes are the hardest. Because you got to get everybody hot, excited, and - "
"Close that bad boy out," says Butcher. "On the thirtieth second."
The interplay - and sometimes good-natured ribbing - between Rollins and Butcher is a key element to their creative process and "comfort zone," as they call it. For instance, Rollins on practicing: "As cliché as it is, practice makes perfect. You can always learn new stuff."
Butcher: "I try and teach him as much as possible. I do everything that I can."
But more than anything, the two guitarists with similar CD collections, a shared passion for The Beatles and a strong sense of melody are on a joint mission to incorporate real music back into a world where all too many sampled guitar sounds rule the day. And they're doing it together, as partners.
"It's great," Rollins gushes, smiling contently. "I've never been happier working with someone as with Jon." Butcher replies, "It's a band. We've got our band. Brothers West."
And how does Brothers West track those great acoustic guitar sounds producers keep calling for? "We've been using this little Russian mike." Rollins pauses and gathers his thoughts. "I hate to tell anybody, because...it's just a small...it's a condenser mike. And then we run it through...I'm not telling. I'm not gonna!"
Butcher laughs. "It's a big secret, man."
Some things, apparently, stay inside the family.
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There's a lot to consider in the world of scoring for television and film-making the right connections, befriending producers, technical ability, studio experience, and a practically undefinable creative intelligence and inner sense of what works and what doesn't for different scenes, different moods, different formats. But it's refreshing to know that an instrument as classic as the acoustic guitar is still considered an essential element in the composition of many of today's top network shows and studio releases, and that there are professionals out there working to keep that authenticity alive in an age of samples, Britney Spears and re-re-remixes. And for those who achieve success, the ultimate reward is the same as for anyone who picks up an instrument in the first place.
As Laurence Juber puts it, "The thing never to forget is, you're playing music."
Reprinted with permission from the Winter, 2001 issue of Wood & Steel. Please visit http://www.taylorguitars.com.