Recording with the Big Dogs before You’re Ready, And the Longest Hour of My Life
It was sometime late in the summer of 2002 and I had already been in Nashville for a couple of months when I got a phone call from my friend “D”. He had been hired by a producer at a recording studio on Music Row to lay down some lead guitar tracks on a couple of songs and, as he was trying to help me become established in the Nashville music community, thought this might be a good opportunity to break me into the world of professional recording. Apparently there were two songs that would be in need of lead guitar, one being an original by a Nashville writer, the other being a cover of the Bonnie Raitt song “Something to Talk About”. As I had some experience playing slide guitar, and he had some pull with the producer, he thought it would be a good idea for me to learn the slide parts and sit in on the track. Piece of cake, right? I had a couple of days to prepare, so I began wood shedding the song.
A couple of days later I met D at his house and we drove into town, arriving at a large, nondescript looking white building on Music Row. We carried our guitars in and walked down a long hallway past several recording studios, the activity inside them visible through large plexiglass windows. Whatever small amount of the jitters I was feeling in the parking lot was now replaced with intimidation and a growing amount of “freakedoutedness” as we entered a large control room with several gold records on the wall. D introduced me to Greg (the engineer/producer) telling him “My friend Eric here is a decent slide player and I brought him along to play on the Bonnie Raitt song.” “Sounds good.” he replied. He then introduced me to Donnie, the only other person present in the studio, telling me that he was a great song writer and that I had probably heard some of his songs on the radio over the years. I was also informed that he had written one of the songs we were working on today and both songs were demos for a female artist he was working with. Can we add a little more pressure here please?
Greg led us into a large live room adjacent to the control room which was visible through a large Plexiglas window and pointed to an old Fender amp stating “After you tune up you can play through that.” After tuning my old Strat I plugged in and grabbed a pair of nearby headphones. By now Gregg and D had returned to the control room and I could hear Greg’s voice coming through the headphones “Play a little so I can get a level on you.” I started playing some slide licks and quickly realized the amp had little to no sustain. “Okay, I’ve got a level. Are you ready to make a pass?” “Okay” I sheepishly replied, and with that the count off to the song began. All the tracks to the tune had been previously laid down except for the lead guitar and I began playing the opening riffs at four bars in, just like the record. Or so I thought. The audio in my headphones seemed to stop almost as quickly as it had started, interrupted by the sound of Greg’s voice “It sounds like your intonation is off a little. Why don’t you check your tuning.”
“This is just great!” I thought as a little sweat broke out on my forehead, “Okay, give me a minute” and I proceeded to plug into a tuner and retune my guitar. “Okay, I’m good to go” and with that we were on to take two. This time Greg let me get a little further into the song before again shutting me down, “Your pitch is still off. Try it again.” Okay, this is getting ugly. After a couple more failed attempts ended in a similar fashion, D entered the tracking room to help me out. “Show me what you’re playing on the intro?” he asked, and I proceeded to play the intro. “No wonder it sounds out of tune, this song is in Ab. Let’s try putting a capo on the first fret.” Of course I should have known this, and this was perhaps the first moment I began realizing I wasn’t as prepared for this world as I thought I was. I put on the capo and D returned to his vantage point next to Greg in the control room on the other side of the Plexiglas window.
Apparently my attempts with the capo weren’t much better as take after take continued to end prematurely. One more time D came back into the room to offer advice. “Try putting a slow vibrato on the end of the long notes. It will help you be more in tune.” While his advice was correct, I was still unable to deliver what was needed and my passes continued to fall short. Each take continued to end abruptly with me looking up to see Greg lightly smiling and shaking his head saying things like “Intonation”, “Try it again”, or “Sorry, it still sounds out”. D was standing next to Greg at the control board with similar facial expressions, and while they both exuded great patience, the look on Donnie’s face from his seat directly behind them was that of annoyance and frustration.
Finally, after about an hour of this, probably the longest hour of my life, I had made one complete marginal pass on the tune. “I think we got it as good as we’re going to get it.” were the last words I heard through the headphones and, in a state of total defeat and exhaustion, I took off my guitar and walked into the control room to face what I expected would be an execution squad. “Don’t worry, you did the best you could, it’s your first time recording in Nashville and you were nervous.” said D trying to comfort me. “You could tell I was nervous?” I asked ignorantly. “We could see you sweating bullets in there.” he said with honesty. “Your asshole puckered up so tight you couldn’t have shoved a number two pencil in it.” Yeah, that about sums it up.
As it would turn out, the tracks I laid down that day were completely useless, and they re-recorded them after I left. Looking back on that miserable experience, by far one of the most difficult and embarrassing moments of my musical career, I now know I was far from ready to work in a professional recording studio. Of course hindsight is 20/20 and it’s easy to look back and know what could be done differently. On the other hand, that recording session was a great teaching moment for me as before that day I had very little experience in recording studios. That day taught me that I still had a lot to learn and made me all the more determined to learn it.