STRING ALONG WITH MITCH – CLASS IS NOW IN SESSION BY ED HUERTA
The “Prince of Primitive”, Jackaboutguitars.com’s Ed Huerta, has done a remarkably cool interview with Mitch Holder, Session Man Extraordinaire, that’s full of all kinds of information about how studios once operated, a look into session work concerning movies, T.V., and records, and a glimpse into the unfolding of the future at the very beginning stages of digital…way before any of us had a clue about what any series of zeroes and ones and their arrangement meant and the huge impact it would have not just in the music business, but concerning every facet of our daily lives.
Many thanks to Mitch Holder. Enjoy STRING ALONG WITH MITCH – CLASS IS NOW IN SESSION BY ED HUERTA. – Jack
THIS ARTICLE IS DEDICATED TO MISTY MARIE HUERTA 1974-2014 REST IN PEACE
STRING ALONG WITH MITCH (CLASS IS NOW IN SESSION) BY ED HUERTA
What can you say about Mitch Holder that hasn’t already been said? Sure, the man can rest on his hardy laurels. Sure, he can just be sitting back on some farm tinkering around in his garden just whilin’ away the time. Dig, you think you know Mitch Holder?? Think again!
This man has played on sessions with Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand, Stevie Nicks, Seals and Crofts, Woody Herman, Brian Wilson, Dean Martin, Cher, just to name a few…
His soundtracks include Space Cowboys, City Slickers 2, On Golden Pond, E.T., Grease, Tootsie, Pretty in Pink, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom…
Tons of TV shows including The Simpsons, King of the Hill, Family Guy, Moonlighting, Sledge Hammer, Chips, Quincy, General Hospital, Cheers…
Is this enough? But wait, there’s more…Commercials include Pepsi Cola, Coke, Toyota, McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, Coors, Honda, Disneyland, Disney World, Pabst, Sea World…Can your heart stand any more???
Dig, this is THE guy, people! If it’s out there, Mitch has probably played on it. Okay, a couple notes before we get started. I just want to add that Mitch Holder is truly a genuinely great person. We did this interview in the beginning of October.
Unfortunately, my wife Misty took ill towards the end of that month and battled illness past the middle of November. I usually do a portrait of the person that I interview and Mitch’s portrait was about halfway sketched out when life took an unexpected turn for me. Needless to say, I took care of the home front before continuing on with the interview and portrait (thanks to my brother Jack for transcribing this for me and the readers).
I wanted to apologize to Mitch for the delay and I kept receiving word from my brother Jack that Mitch was sending thoughts and prayers to me and Misty all during this time. Mitch Holder, a guitar legend, whom I have never met in person, constantly sent well wishes to my family.
I just want to send a heartfelt “THANK YOU” to Mitch for his patience and the love he sent out our way. It was a very kind and gracious gesture…all my respects to Mitch and his family..and for helping me have the courage to finish his portrait.
Peace to all of you…I hope you enjoy the article and I hope Mitch enjoys his painting…This article is dedicated to Misty Marie Huerta 1974-2014…RIP my lovely wife. – Ed Huerta
MITCH HOLDER: ONE OF THE GREAT L.A. SESSION MEN
MITCH ON DOING THIS COOL JINGLE FOR HONDA
MITCH: Here’s a bit of the scenario on the Honda spot:
“This Honda Motorcycle TV ad was done by Matthews-Griffith Music, who I worked with for many years. Mark Matthews, himself a very good guitarist, did the arrangement and it was engineered by his partner, Jim Griffith. For these kind of jingles, the calls were for one hour as opposed to three hours, which was the minimal call for records, TV and movie calls.
The first hour call was for rhythm tracking and the players were Peter Erskine/drums, Nathan East/bass, Randy Waldman/B3 and myself. I played a rhythm guitar track for that and we got that basic track done in a couple of takes.
Next, the three of them were released and I had the solo to overdub. The singer, Bill Champlin (From The Sons Of Champlin and Chicago) wouldn’t arrive until the next hour’s session, so I wouldn’t have any vocal reference to play from. Well aware of this, Mark indicated on the guitar part where specifically He wanted me to play. Mark was always very specific with what he wanted, even with something like this spot that sounded more like a record.
Having worked with Bill Champlin before and knowing his style and sound, I dialed up a sound with the neck pickup on a Strat with what I called a 1/2 Crunch sound on my rig for the solo overdub. It was basically the Strat through an Egnater ie4 preamp and a VHT 250 power amp (which was one of the first ones Steve Freyette had built and I had to have him tame down, it was so LOUD!!). So, I played the solo part making sure to play everything exactly indicated and, as I recall, did it in a couple of passes and I don’t remember which take was the one they picked. Bottom line is that the whole track with solo was done in that first hour. When I was getting ready to leave, Bill walked in for his hour to do the vocal and the rest is history.
Jingles were done pretty quick. Sometimes a radio spot could be on the air later the same day. TV took a few days. Needless to say, this one was a very fun session and a nice opportunity for me to open it up a bit.” – Mitch Holder
MITCH HOLDER…THE INTERVIEW
EH: Whats your first known recollection or memory of music from your childhood?
MH: Oh Boy, my first recollection. Id have to say nursery rhymes. My mother used to sing nursery rhymes to me and I distinctly remember that. So whether or not I had probably heard some music before that but thats what I recollect.
EH: Your mother singing It must have been sort of a calming type of influence the first times you really heard music.
MH: Yeah, absolutely.
EH: As a youngster growing up, who were some of your favorite recording artists?
MH: Well, going back what got me into the guitar was actually two artists, Duane Eddy was one when he recorded Rebel Rouser and several other hit tunes he had, Because Theyre Young was one and Link Wray – Rumble. Those two artists, when I heard the electric guitar, it just picked my ears up. And I just liked the sound.
EH: Yeah, those are two great guitarists. Link Wray definitely. He was great and he had the menacing look too.
MH: Thats right…the menace came from the speakers listening to that record.
EH: At what age did you decide that maybe music might be a career option for you?
MH: Well, probably by the time I was 12 I knew thats what I wanted to do.
EH: Wow. Very early on.
MH: Very early. I had been playing 4 years at that point.
EH: Who are some of your major influences in music?
MH: Initially it was the two that I mentioned. But going forward and actually when I started to play, I was between 8 & 9 when I started, and the first teacher that my parents got for me, turns out that he was a jazz player.
At the time I was listening to Link Wray and Duane Eddy like I said, and pop music. Can you imagine my teacher leaving an 8 year old two of his own 10″ records that he wanted me to listen to? One was Barney Kessel and the other was Johnny Smith. I dont know if youre familiar with those two.
EH: Yeah. I know of Barney Kessel.
MH: And Johnny Smith was great, actually almost a melodist. He really put guitar chord melody on the map and was the smoothest technician probably of anybody before, since or thereafter. But it was Barney, when I listened to Barney, he had a more bluesy sound that attracted me & just a cutting edge kind of sound that I really liked.
Johnny Smiths sound was so smooth that as a child that young it didnt hit me as hard. It hit me more later when I got to be a bit older. But Barney Kessel hit me right away and I started at 8, 9, 10 years old, listening to Barney Kessel records and that perked my interest in jazz.
I continued listening to pop music. I always liked all kinds of music. As a child I liked country music, rock and pop, and some of the r&b that was going on back then. It was really more blues than r&b but r&b evolved out of that, and classical music. I listened to that too. I more or less liked all of those different types of music as how they affected my moods, whatever mood I was in.
Sometimes Id be in a mood to listen to classical and I didnt want to hear rock and roll. Kind of like that. It was kind of a benefit I think cause I kind of went with how I was feeling.
EH: So being that well rounded in music really helped you a lot to be a studio musician with all the variety of people that youve played with. It sure didnt hurt you being versed in all that type of music.
MH: No, it didnt back then, but when I was going forward, I really focused on jazz. I wanted to be a jazz player and I focused on jazz and I really didnt know. I didnt have any inkling as to what studio work really was until I was probably 16. At that point I started taking lessons with Howard Roberts who was not only one of the most in demand session players at that time, but he was also one of the foremost west coast jazz guitarists.
So I knew him primarily as a jazz guitarist but here I was 16 and my father set it up. Howard, he told my father to have me meet him, I think it was on a Tuesday, he said just be waiting outside Universal Studios at 1:30, just be by the gate, and I said okay (laughing) I dont know what this is all about, but, okay.
And so I had seen Howards picture so I knew what he looked like and a little car drives up and the door flies open, and I recognize its Howard and he says,hop in. So I get in the car, this is my first meeting with him, and we drive on the lot at Universal and Im kind of looking out the window and going, Wow, how did I get here?
So, that was my introduction to what studio work was. He was doing a T.V. show. We went on what was Stage 10. It doesnt exist anymore well it exists but its a post production. They closed the music studio down quite a number of years ago. We went to Stage 10 and I watched a session that Howard was on and it fascinated me. I said,”Wow this is something.” This is before I even had taken any lessons from him.
So from there he took me, and he would say, “I think you should come to this.” He would call me up, “I think you should come see this session.” So that was a T.V. session. I went on some record dates with him, some jingles, commercials that he did, a couple of movie soundtracks, and subsequently we were talking about it at the lessons and the thing that attracted me was the fact that you could actually stay in one place and make a living without having to go on the road.
I had never been on a plane even at that point. I didnt get on a plane until I was 20 or 21. So I didnt do any traveling. My father was a doctor and he had to stay put and we didnt travel.
So when I started traveling, I left college. I got a call to go with a group called Sergio Mendes. He was a Brazillian artist. So I left college and went on the road with Sergio. I worked with Sergio for about three quarters of a year and then after that I got recommended to Peggy Lee and I was in her rhythm section for a year doing that. That was the opposite.
With Sergio I learned about Brazillian music and that was fascinating…cause I liked the whole Bossanova movement and all of that. And then with Peggy it was the opposite, it wasnt what you played, it was what you left out. There was so much space in her music that you really wanted to make sure that you had something that was worthwhile to fill in empty space. You know what I mean? So through that I started to really learn what was needed in the area of recording.
Then after that I left Peggy, and almost immediately I got called by Ed Shaughnessey the drummer with the Tonight Show and they were looking for a guitar player to go on the road with the leader Doc Severinsen. So I did that and the deal was Bob Bain was the regular guitar player and he did 3 days a week and I did 2 days a week, and then I went on the road with Doc on the weekends. So now I was in the T.V. business. I was seeing how live T.V. is done. I was the youngest guy in the band, so that was an education.
Sergios Band had been an education. In fact I said somewhere in an interview in some magazine or something that I learned more in those months that I was with Sergio than I probably learned in all of my grade school, you know just traveling with those guys. When we started to do the Tonight Show that was the first strides towards the studios which I had learned about from Howard. Howard had introduced me to that world and I was attracted to it and I also liked the fact that you were doing something different all the time.
I liked playing jazz but Id get tired of it after awhile. When The Beatles came out I got into that and The Stones and all that, and I loved all that music. So in one way I was a typical teenage kid growing up and in another way I was learning jazz which I feel had a lot to do with being able to handle the different styles of music that you need to do. Cause really what youre doing if youre not just flat out reading, youre going to come up with something to improvise, and you have to improvise within the style of whatever it is thats called for. But, its improvising and I loved it and I loved playing live with rhythm sections and all that…Maybe I over answered the question?
EH: No. You know what, the funny thing is you answered my next question also because I was going to ask you how did you get your big break because studio musicians to me seem like a tightly knit community and you answered that with “Howard Roberts got your foot in the door” and you just took it from there.
MH: Youre absolutely right and the other thing about it is yes it is a tight knit community, but the other thing is if you ask 5 players how they get in the studios, you get 5 totally different answers to the question. Its never one thing..you do this and you do and its not that you have to be at the right place at the right time and be able to do what’s called for. Its kind of a series of fortunate events. Put it like that and then theres some luck involved too
EH: I bet. Yeah. I bet there is.
MH: Theres always luck involved.
EH: Ive read your bio and the legends youve worked with, Sinatra, Dean Martin, Barbra Streisand, Tom Jones, Smokey Robinson. The list goes on Youve worked with one of my all time heroes – Brian Wilson. I just love the man and his work. To me hes amazing. If I can ask you a personal question How was it working with Brian Wilson? Is he totally in charge or does he let you guys do ?
MH: Well, Ill clarify that whole thing by saying that I literally worked with him on probably 3 sessions the first 2 were in the period when he was involved with that psychiatrist (Dr. Landy). It was not a good period for him. Those 2 sessions were extremely difficult with him and it wasnt totally his fault, it wasnt his doing, it was just a result of what was going on at that time. We had a hard time getting through those.
However later, 1997 I think or six, six or seven, I got a call to work with the Wilson Sisters. And Brian was there. Brian was working with them. We were recording a tune that Brian wrote. And it was like the difference between those two epochs was night and day.
Brian in that nineties session, it was Brian. Brian was back. Okay! And yes he did take charge! And he knew what he wanted, and he knew what he wanted to get out of the musicians. It was back to the kind of Phil Spector kind of scenario in which I think there were four guitar players on that session, but he had the big rhythm section. There were strings and horns. Everything was live. He was very explicit in what everybody should play. It was Brian.
So in that light, I guess I got to see two different sides of his life. I didnt get to see when he was primarily in The Beach Boys. Howard worked with him back then. But I worked with Brian first in that not good period and then actually I felt fortunate I got to see him how he wound up being. Fortunately he got his life back. That was a pretty positive thing and I was happy to see that boy hes back and full of life and it was a good experience for me in that light.
EH: Thats cool. Just reading the names of the people you worked with is just a virtual Whos Who of Hall of Fame Recording Artists basically.
Youve worked on many T.V. shows and many movie soundtracks. I saw you worked on one of my favorite T.V. shows and Im not joking – named Sledge Hammer. That was one of my favorite shows. That was a great comedy.
With soundtracks and such, is there a certain vibe that you as musicians come up with or does the producer have notes written down, or the composer have notes written down? Do you guys have a vibe?
MH: Most of the movies, not all of them, but primarily the bulk of them were orchestral sessions. Ive worked with composers Hans Zimmer, John Williams and Alan Silvestri, Dave Grusin, and Lalo Schifrin – a lot of different orchestral composers. Mostly on those kind of sessions theyre reading dates. Theres no coming up with anything.
It could be a multitude of instruments. It could be electric guitar, acoustic guitar and acoustic could be 6 string steel, 12 string, nylon string, high strung, you name it, Dobro and then you get to mandolins and bouzoukis, balalaikas, and all these what we call miscellaneous instruments that are called for maybe the storys taking place in Russia or theres some inflection of that and they need a balalaika or bouzouki or some sound like that. Well you have to be able to have those instruments and play them.
But mostly those sessions were reading, just reading following a conductor. Its all written out.
EH: Not too many people have a guitar named after them, Les Paul of course comes to mind But you have a Gibson ES-357 thats known as an “ES-Mitch“?
(Editor’s note: For more info on the ES-357, check out Vintage Guitar’s article right here.)
MH: Well, yeah, to the intimates that know that instrument thats from one of the owners of one of them – he came up with that subtitle. That was kind of an interesting scenario because that model was only made in a very small number.
That came about during the late 70s going into the early 80s. The electronic keyboard instruments the sounds were changing. They started to change quite a bit.
Just to kind of put it in perspective, every instrument is in a certain frequency range and the 335s we were playing were very low mid-rangy kind of instruments and some of the synths that were coming out were falling right in that range and what was happening was wed go into the booth to listen to playbacks and the guitars were getting obliterated. They just werent there anymore cause the keyboards were wiping out those frequencies.
So there was a run to find out what we were going to do. We’ve got to get some other kind of electric guitar to get another sound. It turned out that what worked was a Strat with the 3 pickups.
The middle pickup put the guitar in a higher midrange that would pop out in the track. It would appear in the track again and that solved our problem. And thats where you get that kind of out of phase sound say when you have the back pickup and the middle pickup on or the front pickup and the middle pickup on.
You get that out of phase kind of sound, ya know somebody hears it and they say, “Oh thats a Strat, that Strat sound,” and that cut through. We would play with all those synths and it would cut through.
So I always liked the feel and sound of the 335 type and I thought well if they could put a middle pickup on it that would more or less help out. It probably wouldnt sound exactly like the Strat but it would probably cut through that frequency that we needed to do.
So I called them up at the time when I was an endorser (Gibson) and I asked them, I flat out told them, you need a middle pickup on the 335 and they said, “What?” And I told them the scenario I just told you. They said,”Well weve got enough and were trying to fill the orders we have.”
“We cant take on another model of it,” and I said, “Would you build me one?” and they said, “Sure.” So they built me the prototype. I got it in 1983 and I started using it in the studios and it didnt sound exactly like the Strat but the middle pickup in combination with the others, I got a Fat Strat kind of sound. It wasnt as bright as a Strat but it was in the same frequency. It was just a little bit fatter sounding. So I used that.
There were certain sounds that I couldnt get with a Strat, and I used it and some of the other players, (at that time there were 2,3,4 guitar players on every session and theyd here the sound of this 357) and I’d see these heads come up over the dividing sound baffles between us to cut down leakage. They’d say, “What is that sound?”….”What is that youre playing?” So they got inquisitive and they said, “Gee, are they gonna make any more?” I said, “I dont know. They said no.” But then eventually I thought I better get another one because if I break the prototype, or if it gets stolen, itll be gone Id better get another one.
So the other guys got wind that I was going to order another one and they said, “Oh, if youre gonna get one, can they make two?”, and another guy would say, “Oh, can they make three?” so it wound up they made six more.
They were a little different cosmetically and the pickups, originally it had three humbucking looking cases that had the screws down the center. They were actually single coil P-90s that they put in humbucking cases. So thats what my prototype has.
The production model that came out, the six production models had soap bars. Everyone decided oh those P-90s sound fine. Lets just put stock ones in. They dont have to make special pickups. So they put in black soap bars. They were really beautiful guitars and that was the run of 357s.
Guitar Player did an article and there was a picture and several people ordered them through Gibson Dealers and Gibson, I guess at the point they made the six, they figured we better call it something, so thats where the 357 they had been making a 347 and this one was kind of like the upscale model of the 347 so they called it the 357. Kind of like a 345 and a 355, it was the same kind of denomination. So thats how that came to be.
EH: I think that by the picture that I saw theres no F- holes.
MH: Correct. I had my semi hollows I had a couple of 355s and I had a 347, and when I had to play high volumes, especially the 347 seemed to feed back more than the other ones. And when I ordered the 357, I asked them – Lucille had just come out I think in 1980 and it didnt have F- holes and B.B. specified no F – holes because of the feedback and I thought that was a good idea so we incorporated that. I wanted to incorporate things that they could actually do in the production line.
One of the things about ordering custom instruments from a big maker is that you have to remember that if theyre going to change something, it messes up their tooling, and if theyre going to make a one off or a two off, you know whatever, its difficult for them to do that. So I wanted them to be able to build this thing without changing too much in their production and we were able to do that. Thats one of the reasons I think they were able to do it all. Since then theres been talk about bringing it out again, but boy I sure havent heard anything lately. The last I heard about that was probably 3 years ago. I havent heard anymore so I dont know what their plan is.
EH: They sound like a pricey guitar, are they? Theres not too many made.
MH: You mean pricey as far as collectible? Well interestingly, Gibson put up a ten rarest Gibsons page on their website. In fact if you Google the 10 rarest Gibsons, that post will come up and the 357 is #10. So I have the prototype. The prototype is a one off. The other ones arent like it. I play it a lot. I just used it. I did some sessions on Neil Youngs new project. Its coming out next month (November) and I played the ES-Mitch on one tune. So I got it on there!
EH: Thats cool! Thats way cool!!! So this leads us to the question, are you a guitar collector?
MITCH ABOUT PLAYING ON NEIL YOUNG’S LATEST ALBUM STORYTONE
EH: Okay. Thats fair enough. Youve most recently worked with Neil Young, and Ive seen Neil play live, and he loves playing guitar. It seems like he keeps pushing the creative envelope where a lot of the older musicians are sort of content just to play the hits all the time. What was it like to work with Neil Young?
MH: Well I have to say, and Ive talked to the players on there. He had done a session actually the day before one of the sessions I did. They had done a session at Sony which is one of the big, its the original MGM Sound Stage. Huge sound stage with a 92 piece orchestra and I think if Im not mistaken a 60 voice chorus, vocal chorus. So that was orchestral. And thats