Tommy Tedesco’s list of credits remains remarkable. As a go-to player for artists of the day, he played on hits by Elvis Presley (‘68 Comeback Special), The Beach Boys (“Fun Fun Fun” and others), The Monkees (debut album), The Mamas & the Papas, The Everly Brothers, Barbra Streisand, Sam Cooke, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Zappa, Ricky Nelson, Cher, Nancy and Frank Sinatra as well as Richard Harris’s “MacArthur Park,” The Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” and scores more. He was the guitarist on TV themes for Bonanza, The Twilight Zone, Green Acres, M*A*S*H, Starsky & Hutch, Kojak, Batman and many more. Tedesco’s movie credits include The Godfather, Jaws, Mission: Impossible, The French Connection and The Deer Hunter and numerous others.
Tedesco revelled in the pressure of these ever-changing gigs. “When that red light goes on, whether it’s running a race or playing guitar, whatever it is, all the adrenaline goes through the body,” he remembered. “Some guys are at their best then, some say they’re at their worst. I’m at my best with the pressure.”
As part of the fabled Wrecking Crew team of session players, Tommy Tedesco is the most-successful guitarist you’ve never heard of…
The Famous Backroom Boy
Tedesco, who died in 1997, was no faceless sessioneer, though. For a “backroom boy,” TT was famous. His Studio Log column in Guitar Player magazine was a must-read for guitarists hungry for knowledge in the ’70s and ’80s. Tedesco not only transcribed his week’s session parts in the column, but gave technique tips and was candid about the business, too. A random Studio Log intro from ’79 revealed…
Project: movie – Heart Beat
Leaders: Jack Nitzsche and Shorty Rogers
Hours Worked: 19
Wages Earned: $1248.66
That’s $4000 dollars in 2012, a financial return many modern-day jobbing guitarists can only dream of for two days’ work. But Tedesco was good, very good. In a fascinating 1980 article with Jas Obrecht, his main editor at Guitar Player magazine, Tedesco talked about changing life on the session frontline.
“It changes every few years, and whoever’s hot is going to work. It has nothing to do with the old musicianship or reading. You can be the greatest reader in the world – it ain’t gonna mean anything. If you don’t get the sound, forget it. That’s why you’re going to find so many older violin players around. All they are required to be is great musicians, and they stay on from year to year. In a rhythm section, you can forget it. A rhythm section will stay hot for three or four years, and then it’s who are the next musicians? And then a few years later it changes again…
“With the guitar you gotta be a rocker, a fusion [player], or whatever. Whatever style is in, that guy’s going to be hot and just tear it apart for a few years.”
Of his own considerable talents, Tedesco told Mix magazine: “I feel what I bring in is warmth. I bring warmth on all these parts. If I’m playing pretty Spanish stuff on guitar, I’m bringing the full warmth in. If I’m playing Greek, I’m bringing in the warmth of the Greek player. I’m bringing all these various things besides being able to play.
“Recently we did this picture, Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom (1984), and for one part Johnny Williams did the score, and there was a scene where people are sitting there at a banquet of ants and weird things, and they asked me to play some sitar stuff. Well, I have an electric sitar, and I looked at the movie and tried to get the feeling of an Indian sitar player, playing while people are having a feast. And I did certain things that were kind of authentic from what I’ve heard in Indian music, and then I put in my own thing.”
And Tedesco strongly disagreed there was no “art” in sight-reading and playing someone else’s music. “I don’t think of it as written music – it’s written notes – you make music out of notes that are written. That’s the creativity. They put these notes on a piece of paper, and I’ve heard guys play that, exactly like that, as notes. When I see a bunch of notes, I try and make music happen. That’s my creativity. No matter what I do, I try and make music happen.”
On his solo albums, Tedesco veered towards his heartfelt love of jazz and nylon-strings.
Here’s TT, playing jazz on a classical.
Tedesco the Teacher
Tedesco’s For Guitar Players Only is a “how-to” book without getting hung up on gear or tone. After all, Tedesco had to be ready to play anything. But it was inspirational for many who wanted insider knowledge on how to succeed as a pro guitarist.
His Anatomy of a Guitar Player delved into his skills of sight-reading and being ready for any gig you might get. His Confessions of a Guitar Player memoir lifted the lid on his numerous pop, rock, TV and movie sessions.
Steve Lukather, who claims to be have played on over 700 albums, is probably Tedesco’s heir, but in Confessions of a Guitar Player “Luke” remained in awe of TT. “Once you’ve worked with Tommy and have gone through that experience and if he gives you the thumbs up, your happening,” he said. “He’s a really serious musician, he helps out everybody, and it’s just great to know someone like that who’s been doing it for so long and has a great attitude about it… he has so many friends and is so well-respected.”
Larry Carlton pays tribute to Tommy Tedesco.
As Larry Carlton relates, Tedesco’s greatest lesson was possibly humor. Tommy Tedesco was noted for bringing fun to any session, even if parts had to be recorded quickly, and he flourished as a “hustler” (his word) that no-one ever disliked.
Tommy Tedesco’s Tips
As someone who was ready – and willing – to play whatever his employer wanted, Tedesco was never arrogant or dogmatic about guitar. If anything, For Guitar Players Only is a book about the philosophy of being a successful working musician. Some advice includes…
- “As a youth, form your own band. No matter how bad it is, it will get better. Start playing jobs as early as early as possible. Money – no object. Learn, learn, learn.”
- “Sit in with strange groups when you get a chance. It provides more outlets for getting future work.”
- “Meet guitar players. This is more likely where your start will come from. Don’t be overbearing and too cocky.”
- “You get nothing out of practicing while being fatigued.”
- “Don’t make fun of any style. Nobody wants to be criticized for what they do well, regardless of style. Keep your mouth shut about players.”
- “Do not anchor the wrist to the bridge to enable the hands to be free to pick near bridge or neck pickup for different tonal variations. My wrist is very loose when I play.”
- “Try different picks for tone quality. Each different pick thickness gets a different sound. Many time I am asked to get a soft sound on the classical guitar. I go to a heavier thick pick. This creates a sweet and mellow sound.”
Don’t “Practice”… Play
As a session player, Tedesco didn’t have a signature sound. As well as guitar, he played mandolin, sitar guitar, banjo… anything with strings, Tommy could play. “My dad was thrilled to be able to make a living at guitar,” says his son Denny Tedesco, director of The Wrecking Crew biopic from 2010. “To make a living at an instrument puts you in a small minority. But to record as many hits as they did, they were even part of a smaller minority.”
“Practice is a word I don’t use,” Tommy Tedesco said in the ’80s. “I use ‘play.’ If you play, you get better. I’m playing a lot, so I see myself getting better. There’s things I do now that I couldn’t have done three years ago. There are other things I never knew until now. At my age, I’m still progressing, and I see no let down at age 55...”
As befitted Tommy Tedesco’s worldview, you can take what you want from any of his advice. But the words of “the most recorded guitarist in history” still carry weight.
More session stars and advice:
The Gibson Interview: Larry Carlton
Slash as a Sideman
Arlen Roth: Thoughts on “Being the Sideman”