BASSiSTS
LEE SHEAR
I
The m ighty Lee S klar has played m ore stadium s, w ith m ore m egastars. than
m ost of us could hope to dream of -
and yet he's s till the nicest man in rock
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'
Words: Mike Brooks Photography: eckie
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s a breed, bass players tend to be
tucked away at the back, cast in the
shadows. Yet this man is instantly
recognisable, both visually -
thanks to the greatest beard in
music, bar none - and musically.
When I told my niece I was
interviewing Lee Sklar, her response was “He's the guy
that plays for Phil Collins.
.. and Toto.
.. and Richard
Marx.
.. does he play for everyone?” In a word, yes!
There's no denying that Sklar has covered serious
ground since the mid-60s: a look at his list of credits is
enough to put even the busiest session player to shame.
But not only has he forged a career as an A-list, first call
studio bassist, he's also the 'go to' player for many artists
and bands when it comes to touring, the archetypal
sideman who gets the job done time and again. Sklar's
first major break came as part of James Taylor's band:
did Lee foresee the musical journey he was about to
embark on?
“I had always been in bands since I was a kid,” he says,
“but I never really thought I would make a career out of
it. When I met James Taylor, I was a student in college
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and was thinking about a career as an illustrator. I had
only been in the studio one time in 1967 when I was in
a band called Group Therapy, and we weren't allowed to
play, only sing. I met James when I was in a band called
Wolfgang, and we cut some demos - but that was the
extent of my studio work.”
He adds: “I never really pursued studio work, but
when James hit it big, suddenly singer-songwriters were
being signed to record companies and when they looked
at JT's album, they saw myself and [guitarist] Russ
Kunkel on there and hired us. Overnight, I was doing a
couple of sessions every day, six days a week, with more
work than we could fit in. It totally blew my mind. So I
had to get it together and figure out how studios really
worked. There were still all the guys from the Wrecking
Crew working, and suddenly I was with them: a few
years before I was looking through a window at them!
Yet, if I had to make a choice between live work and
studio work, I would always choose live work. I'm so
happy that I have never had to choose one or the other.”
Having performed on over 2,500 albums and on
somewhere in the region of 22,000 songs, how does
Sklar approach each studio call? Is it difficult to remain
fresh and alert after so many years working in studios?
“The numbers sound impressive,” he replies, “but each
one is an individual experience - and that's all I think
about. We used to be hired for full album projects
and we might be in the studio for a week or more, but
nowadays they might cut a couple of songs so you
spend a day or two and then you're gone - or it might
just be one day. I always liked having the time to go
beyond what was a fine performance of a song and
find something special, but those days are pretty much
gone. Budgets are limited, and they want you in and
out quickly. I love working, but it's a drag that time has
become such an issue.”
With such a wealth of experience to draw on, across
so many musical genres, how does Lee construct his
bass parts in the studio? “The most important thing is to
listen to the song and see what it wants of you,” he says.
“I don't impose myself on a song: I've been lucky that my
instincts seem to work and people have been happy with
what I've come up with. I'm always logging ideas, both
mine and others, and I do draw from them. I don't like to
be repetitive but if something works and it fits, I use it! I
face different demands every day, and different styles of
music.
.. The job requires being on your toes all the time,
that's what I love and hate about it!”
How does he deal with musical roadblocks in an
environment where time is money? “It's just experience.
As a studio player, you're not allowed to be blocked.
If you're in a band and things aren't going well, you
might say, 'Let's get some pizza and see a movie and
come back tomorrow'. My world isn't that! There's a
blank canvas in front of you, and it's expected that
there'll be a masterpiece on it at the end of the day. It's
really a stressful gig but I love it. There have been many
times where I wish I'd been in a successful band and
only really had to know our music, but I'm constantly
having to create and learn new material - which can be
exhausting.”
Does Lee have a practice regime? “I really don't
practise very much,” he admits. “I stay busy enough to
keep my chops up, I listen a lot to be aware of what's
current and try to assimilate as much as I can. Most
of the time, I have no idea what kind of music I'll be
working on, so I have to be ready when I walk in the
door to jump head first into it. On my way to a job, I say
to myself 'Please don't suck!' You want to do the best job
you can, and hope they're happy at the end of the day.”
Despite wearing many musical hats, Sklar has a tone
all of his own. His feel, choice of notes and bass parts
set him apart from many players, which is why so
many producers and artists turn to him for his talents. I
wondered if he had consciously worked on this over the
years. His response is expectedly modest: “It was never a
conscious thing, it's just what I do. I'm not an intellectual
player, more of a 'fly by the seat of your pants' player.
I use the same bass when playing with Billy Cobham,
Phil Collins, James Taylor, a country artist or a movie
or jingle. I seem to have found a common-denominator
sound and style that seems to have a signature and style
B A S S G U IT A R M A G A Z IN E
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