off the record
Session ace and Supertramp guitarist Carl Verheyen offers well-chosen words of wisdom on life as a guitarist. This month: it’s all about confidence.
Befo re I became active as a solo artist, I was a studio musician. On the road, I still get asked about my years of playing in the LA studios and what it took to play with confidence every day. Real confidence only comes with experience. And real-world work experience can never be learned in the practice room or the rehearsal studio. In my early 20s, I spent months teaching myself how to sight-read on the guitar in my apartment bedroom. But I never really ‘owned it’ until I’d done a handful of TV and movie sessions involving some intense reading along with the pressure of 30 to 105 orchestral players in the room. Guitarists who can’t cut it don’t get called back; there are no second chances. That’s pressure!
Once, on a feature-film session, I pulled up a chart with 19 bars of solo nylon-string guitar before the orchestra’s entrance. It was very difficult ‘stacks of notes’ chord reading. During take after take, as I got close to bar 19, I’d see the 56 string players lift their bows out of the corner of my eye. Invariably, I’d get freaked out and blow it.
I started to sweat a bit, but soon realised this would be hard for any guitar player! You need to breathe deep in these situations and remind yourself, “Wait a minute, here! I’m the expert in the room on this instrument, and playing this intro is something most classical players would practise for weeks before performing.“A week later, I played on a movie called The Milagro Beanfield War, with a beautiful score by Dave Grusin. They’d hired Ángel Romero, one of the world’s finest
As I got close to bar 19, I’d see the 56 string players lift their bows…
classical players, to do the Spanish-style acoustic stuff. I remember the other guitarists on the session (Lee Ritenour and Mitch Holder) and I sat in front of him to watch him do his parts, but he kindly asked us to leave. Even the heaviest cats get nervous sometimes!
We all went into the booth and saw him work through take after take of this very difficult music, just like I had done the week before. Even a famous artist like Ángel Romero has to struggle sometimes, but I was inspired by his confidence and relaxed temperament.
There is also confidence that comes from realising your strengths. On my very first session with composer Graeme Revell, I was called into the studio to play on a new Brandon Lee film called The Crow. There was a gnarly scene in the movie where the Crow character is playing a heavy-metal guitar solo on top of a building and throws the guitar over the edge at the end. I noticed the music on the chart and the action on the screen didn’t really match up: his fingers were wailing, but the music Graeme had written was a slow, soulful ballad. After playing the part I told the composer, “With all due respect, I can improvise something vibier for this scene.” I pointed out that the on-screen hands of the actor were blazing up the neck, yet the written part called for whole notes. Pulling out a ‘stunt guitar’ with a Floyd Rose bridge, I played a long run followed by a huge dive bomb as he heaves the guitar from the rooftop. After, I got paid for the session as well as a very generous ‘ghost writer’ fee.
When you’re first starting out as a professional musician you don’t have the nerve to suggest something like that to a well-known film composer, but with experience, one’s confidence grows. At some point, confidence kicks in and you realise: “I know more about the guitar’s strengths and limitations than anyone here. I’m the one with tens of thousands of hours behind these six strings.”
Carry this confidence over to the stage – it will kill your stage fright dead! Realise that you’re there for a reason and, even when critical eyes stare at you, nobody in the room can play it like you. You’re rehearsed and ready. And there’s only one you. Visit www.carlverheyen.com for more about Carl and his UK tour in Sep/Oct.