The Best Steady Gig in America: The Guitarists of Late-Night TV

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Jared Scharff - Fano Guitar

Between the laughs and the celebrities, these days you’ll also hear some rockin’ licks.

Everybody’s got their own concept of the ideal gig. For some, it’s being on the road, playing for thousands of fans every night. Others might choose being a studio musician, playing hot licks on other people’s records.

Or, how does this sound:

  • You come in to the TV studio somewhere around 11:00 a.m.
  • Pick out which of your many sweet guitars you’d like to use today.
  • Learn some new tunes, maybe record a few cues.
  • Rehearse with your killer band and some other big-name artists.
  • Take a break.
  • Play an hour and a half for a live audience (during the comedian’s breaks).
  • Wrap by 6:30 and call it a day.

That’s a pretty typical day when you’re the guitar player for one of the late-night network TV shows—and it’s not a bad gig. In addition to working reasonable hours, making significant bank and rubbing elbows with the biggest stars in the business, these first-call players get to sleep in their own beds every night. Groupie fantasies aside, that last perk is nothing to sneer at.

With evenings, weekends and several weeks off every year, superpickers Sid McGinnis and Felicia Collins (Letterman), Paul Jackson, Jr. and Dave Delhomme (Leno), Jimmy Vivino (Conan), “Captain” Kirk Douglas (Jimmy Fallon), Toshi Yanagi (Jimmy Kimmel) and Jared Scharff (Saturday Night Live) can still work gigs or sessions, or just go home and join the millions of other insomniacs watching the show they just finished taping. Rough life, but somebody’s gotta do it. And these guys do it really well.

The Early Days

Herb EllisLive bands have long been a part of late-night TV, starting with the original NBC Tonight Show in the 1950s, and the role has always been reserved for a very few top-notch pros. Up until Johnny Carson handed off the show in 1992, big bands (or some smaller variation of the traditional jazz band) were the rule, performing show themes and closers, guest intros, segues and songs during commercial breaks.

While guitars figured much less prominently than they do today, the players were some of the most respected in the business, including jazz legends Herb Ellis, Tony Mottola and Bucky Pizzarelli.

To his credit, Johnny Carson was an unabashed jazz fan—and a decent drummer—and would often come back from commercials visibly wowed by the Tonight Show Orchestra’s performances. He rarely missed an opportunity to give the band props. But by the 70s, the Vegas-style swing sound was becoming old fashioned. When David Letterman debuted his late-night show in 1982, bandleader Paul Schaffer brought a tight, pop/R&B band with him, signaling the end of the dated big-band format.

Now, the musicians who perform nightly with Letterman, Jay Leno, Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel and Conan O’Brien bring years of touring and recording experience to their TV gigs. Like their jazz-influenced predecessors, these contemporary aces bring monster chops, energy, personality and vibe to the live tapings.

They also bring some nice guitars onstage to cover a range of sounds, which makes them fun to check out. Most run through fairly simple pedalboards—what you’d expect to see on a typical club date—and have more than one amp for tonal variation and as backup. Clearly, the sound of late-night TV has evolved significantly from its origins.

The Fortunate Few

Sid McGinnisThe longest-running members of this high-profile fraternity are Sid McGinnis and Felicia Collins, guitarists with The CBS Orchestra on the “Late Show with David Letterman.” McGinnis has been a part of the band since 1984 and Collins joined shortly thereafter, both replacing original guitarist Hiram Bullock. Between them, their touring and recording credits include Madonna, Dire Straits, Bob Dylan, David Lee Roth, Peter Gabriel and Al Jarreau (and many, many others).

Because this band has played together for so long, they don’t do a lot of rehearsing. Leader/keyboardist Paul Schaffer will call tunes, often on the spur of the moment.

Felicia CollinsNaturally, they rehearse with guests/artists who’ll be playing with the band, but the biggest workload is playing themes and performing songs during commercial breaks. Both McGinnis and Collins also contribute vocals, along with Schaffer and bassist Will Lee (one of the mightiest of all living bass players).

McGinnis leans heavily on his ’57 “bastardized” Strat through a SidTone amp—essentially a modified Fender Pro Junior. He also keeps a late ‘50s Tele and ’52 Les Paul gold top to cover most of the sounds he needs. Collins usually chooses between a Hamer Tele, two Les Pauls and a Taylor acoustic, all “close to stock.” She laughingly told one interviewer that she chooses guitars based on the colors she’s wearing.

Down the street at Rockefeller Plaza, “Captain” Kirk Douglas handles guitar duties for The Roots, house band on “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon” on NBC. In addition to his work with The Roots, Douglas has recorded with notables like Elvis Costello, Dave Matthews and John Legend.

"Captain" Kirk DouglasAn unabashed fan of Gibson guitars, his main axes for the show include the new three-pickup signature model Kirk Douglas SG; a gorgeous, cherry CS-356; black Les Paul Pro with Lollar P90s; sunburst Byrdland (with flatwounds); and a ’69 Hummingbird acoustic signed by Keith Richards. His main amp is a Mesa Boogie Stiletto Ace combo.

During an interview for Gibson’s website, Douglas says one of his favorite parts of the Roots’ gig is the people he gets to play with. “Every single day there’s the opportunity to meet somebody that may be an idol of yours,” he says, listing Robert Plant, Gene Simmons and Prince as high points, even though Prince nearly destroyed Douglas’ favorite guitar on the show. During sound check, Prince asked to use Douglas’ 1961 Epiphone Crestwood—but unfortunately, the Purple One failed to tell anyone he’d be tossing the guitar dramatically at the end of the song.

Douglas was crushed when the Epi hit the ground. But as bad as the moment was, he told Epiphone’s website, “Prince totally made good on it and took care of it. I don’t regret Prince borrowing the guitar.” (But don’t look for him to offer Prince another one.)

Paul Jackson Jr.With the exception of “Saturday Night Live” (we’ll come back to that), the other major late-night shows originate from Los Angeles. The long-running “Tonight Show with Jay Leno” still tapes at NBC’s Burbank Studios, as it has since 1972. The band, under the direction of ace bassist Rickey Minor, is made up of seasoned L.A. studio players, including Paul Jackson, Jr. and Dave Delhomme on guitar. They replace former leader and fusion-meister Kevin Eubanks, who anchored the Leno-era band for 15 years.

Jackson has impressive credentials. He started his recording career at 18, working with a “Who’s Who” that includes Michael Jackson, Steely Dan, Whitney Houston, The Crusaders and Elton John. He’s also done extensive TV work and recorded six solo CDs, in addition to being part of The Tonight Show Band since 2010.

Jackson leans toward Paul Reed Smith guitars, including a PRS 250 (with 245 pickups) and a custom PRS JA-15, which he helped design. He keeps several PRS electrics and Takamine acoustics set up for various tunings. While most of the late-night players use simple pedal boards, Jackson uses an L.A. Sound Design custom MIDI pedal board to control a series of rack-mounted effects and pedals, into a Bob Bradshaw-designed preamp, then to a pair of amps (Fuchs ODS amp and Evil Robot).

Delhomme plays keyboards, but also picks up a guitar frequently. His usual choice is either a PRS single-cutaway with dual humbuckers and a piezo bridge pickup, or a Line6 VariAxe, run through an EVH 5150 or Marshall JVM 410.

In February of 2014, The Tonight Show will be moving back to New York, when Jimmy Fallon takes over. Fallon is expected to bring The Roots with him, which will bring the current Tonight Show Band era to an end after nearly 50 years. Still, something tells me these studs will find other gigs.

Jimmy Vivino has been playing on Conan O’Brien’s shows for 19 years and is now the leader of the Basic Cable Band. His experience includes being a musical director for a Broadway show, touring with Al Kooper and playing with Letterman bassist Will Lee in their Beatles cover band, the Fab Faux.

jimmy-vivinoAccording to Vivino, Conan is also a “guitar nut … so, everything is about guitars.” Vivino keeps road cases full of beautiful vintage axes all over the band’s backstage rehearsal area and dressing rooms at the Warner Bros. Burbank studio. He has too many to mention—which makes tuning into “Conan” fun, just to see what he’ll be playing on a given night.

Vivino generally runs through a few basic pedals into either a recent-issue Vox AC-15 or Fender Eric Clapton signature Twinolux 2×12.

Compared to some other L.A. players, Vivino retains a live, club-band approach that makes the Basic Cable Band one of the more fun late-night groups to watch.

toshi-yanagiToshi Yanagi plays guitar for Cleto and the Cletones, house band for “Jimmy Kimmel! Live!” After arriving in the U.S. from Japan in 1985, Yanagi studied and taught at Musicians Institute, making a name around the L.A. club scene and touring with several rock, jazz and Latin acts.

On the show, he uses mainly stock Gibsons, including: Flying V; Les Paul gold-top; Angus Young SG; 64 Firebird I; and a Taylor acoustic. He runs through a Morgan AC20 head or a PRS 50-watt head into either a Star or Morgan cabinet with 2×12 Celestions. Yanagi points out that his amps and pedals are set to emphasize mids, so he can cut through TV speakers without fighting the bass and other instruments.

Last, but certainly not least, “Live, from New York …” its Jared Scharff rocking the guitar chair with the “Saturday Night Live” band. SNL is a bit different from the other late-night gigs:

  • It’s typically only one day a week
  • It’s all sketches and musical numbers
  • It’s an intense sight-reading and live-cue gig

Jared Scharff - Fano GuitarScharff’s SNL schedule calls for a two-hour rehearsal on Saturday morning, followed by a full dress rehearsal with audience. Then following a break, they do it all again for the 11:30 p.m. broadcast, which makes for a long, intense day. But playing with an outstanding band—and sometimes backing musical guests like Mick Jagger or Jeff Beck—makes it all worth it.

To accommodate the necessary variety of tones and styles, Scharff plays Fano guitars. He has three, but generally uses a JM6 model (with two P90s) into a 65amps head with offstage 1×12 cabinet that’s fed into his in-ear monitor mix. He uses a simple PedalTrain board with a variety of pedals that he swaps out as needed.

At 33, Scharff is the youngest and most mobile of the late-night guitarists. With his one-day-a-week, schedule (he’s also on call Thursday and Friday for any cues or sketches that need to be pre-recorded), Scharff is able to spend time in both New York and L.A., writing and producing for other projects.

But like all these post-prime-time pickers, he loves what he’s doing: playing with the best musicians, working with some of the world’s biggest names in front of millions of Americans every week—and never having to get on the bus after the show. It’s a pretty sweet deal.


Ronnie Brooks

Ronnie Brooks can be found lurking around Nashville, TN, where he writes magazine articles, Web content, songs, ad copy, jingles (little songs), and the occasional thank-you note. His songs have been recorded by Kid Rock, Joe Perry and Molly Hatchet; he’s played bass for Chuck Berry, produced Dolly Parton, performed on several Super Bowl ads, and seen the Beatles play live.

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