What Makes a Great Producer? He Orders Lunch and Lets Us Get Back to Work: Bassist Leland Sklar Explains What Session Work is Really Like

Bassist Leland Sklar, who’s well-known as one of the most prolific session bassists of all time, shared a few interesting stories from his career while chatting with Rick Beato. As Sklar explains in the interview, some of these also prove that his line of work is “the craziest business in the world.”

During the interview, Rick directly asked Sklar to share some funny stories of working with producers. The bassist then recalled an old story that involves another great session musician, guitarist Tommy Tedesco. Although he didn’t really share any particular details on what the exact project was, Sklar said that it was a film for Universal Studios.

In the Room with Bass Legend Leland Sklar

When asked to share a story and if it often happens that producers are not realizing that the musician is doing the same thing, Sklar replied (transcribed by Killer Guitar Rigs):

“Well, not all the time. But that’s also where my producer switch came from. I was doing a movie. Universal Studios used to have a really great studio on the Universal lot. And we did tons of TV and movies on that.”

“And I was on a session there. And I am sitting here and right next to me is Tommy Tedesco. And there’s baffles set up so we all look like Killroy. And it was a pretty good-sized orchestra.”

And then the guy in charge wanted a different sound. And while Tommy was asked to try out different instruments, all he was doing was going down, hiding, and pretending that he was picking up other stuff. In reality, he was just pulling off different sounds on his guitar, all with his pure technical skill:

“So across the room, the guy who was conducting the things — they were curious for different things. And they go ‘Tommy, you got a mandolin?’ And so Tommy is like ‘Yeah.’ He plays again. ‘No, that’s not it. Do you have a bouzouki?’ ‘Yeah.'”

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Meanwhile, Sklar was laughing all the time. And, as he also recalls, he learned so much about the business in these few minutes sitting next to Tommy Tedesco:

“And I’m sitting here, crapping my pants, laughing because all he had was his acoustic guitar. So he would just keep [bending down] and sit up. But he was so good, he would play in all these different positions until they finally heard what they wanted.”

“And so when that session ended, I looked over at him, I said ‘Tommy, I just learned more in five minutes how this business works than all through school.'”

“Tommy was the greatest person in the world, the funniest guy you would ever want to meet, the most brilliant musician.”

Leland Sklar Cam - Inside Out (live 1990)

In case you’re not familiar with his work, Leland Sklar is kind of famous for his so-called “producer switch.” Essentially, it’s a toggle switch on his bass guitar that’s not doing anything. Well, nothing except for making producers believe that he changed his tone. All Sklar does is make sure that they saw him flip the switch. And, as it turns out, it was this experience with Tommy Tedesco that made him introduce this useful new feature to his instrument:

“So I immediately went home and took my bass and I drilled a hole in it and put a Switchcraft toggle switch on it. It had no wires or anything like that. So when a guy would say ‘Can you make it shimmer?'”

“I mean, if a guy really asked me a technical question, I knew he knew he had ears. And we could all fall prey to this. But I would make sure they saw me flip the switch and then I moved my hand and they go, ‘Man, that’s great.'”

Leland's Producer Switch

However, as he also adds, it goes the other way as well — producers also have a similar method of dealing with some demanding musicians:

“But there are times… It’s like so many of the studios also have like that producer module on there so that they can be involved in it but this doesn’t do anything. But they’re hearing it because they’re moving it, so…”

Going more into the matter, Sklar also went into more details about what, in his opinion, makes a good producer:

“It’s the craziest business in the world. But I always tell people — they say, ‘What’s your definition of a great producer?’ And I’m kind of going… Okay, well, I’m not going to be talking about George Martin or anybody like that.”

Lee Sklar's Custom Producer's Switch

“And I say, ‘Well, maybe he’s quiet and then he can see the band’s hungry so he orders lunch and puts his plastic down.’ That’s a good producer right there. And lets us get back to work.”

But jokes aside, Leland also adds that, even though some producers may not be as technically skilled, they do possess many other talents that, ultimately, help them create a successful final product:

“I mean, they’re all funny. And some of them, they have different talents. Some producers have really no skills in the studio but they know songs. And they put together the right songs, they know the right person to put together the right band for it.”

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“Because there are some producers that I’ve worked with over decades that I still have no idea if they know what’s going on in the studio, but they’ve made great records.”

“They have a great engineer, that whatever this kind of mumbo jumbo that they’re spewing out — this guy knows what it’s supposed to be. And then you listen to the record…”

“And I’ve worked on things that I thought, ‘This has got to be huge, this is so good.’ Never gets released.”

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“And other stuff that you think, ‘Oh, God, really?’ And it’s the number one record.”

“So you take every day for what it is. It’s a constant adventure every day. And that’s the thing that keeps it exciting to me that you just don’t know what tomorrow holds. So you want to be there for tomorrow.”

Photo: Magnushk (Leland Sklar August 2007)

  • David Slavkovic

    David always planned for music to be nothing more than a hobby. However, after a short career as an agricultural engineer he ended up news editor at KillerGuitarRigs, senior editor at Ultimate-Guitar.com, as well as a freelance contributor to online magazines such as GuitaristNextdoor and brands like Sam Ash.