Al Pepiak interviews Elliott Randall for Guitar Digest
AMP: Surfing the web is a strange pastime and yes, I have become addicted. The vast information available and the amount of music related websites are overwhelming. On one such visit to a news group, a name jogged my memory. The exact nature of the response is not important but the person who answered was Elliott Randall.
I immediately recognized this name as belonging to the famed New York Studio guitarist. There was a website address printed under his name Almost instantly I went to the website and was pleasantly surprised that it was indeed “the” Elliott Randall.
The website contains music clips, pictures, a biography and other interesting data. Since the biography said he was now living in London, I thought a cyber interview may be interesting. I emailed Elliott and received a message that he would be delighted to take part in the process.
The task of assembling questions was rather tedious. Although known to many guitarists for his work in Steely Dan, I didn’t want the interview to solely focus on this aspect of his vast career. As a result, I developed a rather good cross section, along with a few obligatory Steely Dan questions. Off they went into the nether-lands of cyberspace.
I almost immediately received a response that the questions were received, considered good (hey, I’ve done this before) and answers would be provided in approximately two weeks. So, I waited……sometimes checking my e mail 4 and 5 times a day. ( Yes, I am obsessed, or as my wife puts it “possessed”.) After the Long Island guitar show, I came home to a message that Elliot was still in the process of completion, and that he had to take time out to go to a guitar show in New York. Yes, you guessed it. We were at the same event and didn’t even see each other. I didn’t have to go to London to do the interview. It could have happened in person.
Both amazed at this cosmic coincidence, we continued with the cyber-interview process. Elliott was both gracious and exhaustive in his answering of the questions. I’m positive these are his thoughts and words-not those of a publicist. These questions focused on guitar collecting and the current status of studio guitarists.
AMP: Your Website features your famed ’65 Strat. The instrument is highly altered in the eyes of the vintage guitar market. What is your feeling on the altering of vintage instruments?
ER: A lot of ‘hardcore’ vintage collectors consider an instrument less valuable when it isn’t 100 percent ‘stock-from-the-factory’. I can understand that. But some collectors go for instruments that have ‘histories’. The two factions overlap. Incidentally, the neck on my strat is ’65, but the body is ’63. (…talk about a mutt!)
AMP: What is your take on the current status of the vintage guitar market?
ER: If you’re referring to prices, they sure have gotten higher – but then, so have prices on virtually everything else. I shake my head when I think that I paid $175 for my ’63 Strat (used) in ’65. But let’s face it, that was a long time ago! I think I paid the Barney Kessell Guitar Shop (in L.A.) about $75 to install my front Gibson ‘Humbucker’ in ’69 – that included parts and labor – even routing out the body to accommodate the larger pickup.
AMP: What other guitars do you own other than the strat and the Brian Moore featured on your website?
ER: I have another ’63 Strat – a pretty rare one, without the trem assembly; a Fender Jazzmaster (late 60’s); a Sears Silvertone with the amp built into the carrying case. Also a fine PRS; an old Guild Starfire III with a Bigsby, which I’ve had since 1962; a real rockin’ Hamer with a metal bar going through the body, designed by Rick Excellente, a telecaster-like Giulano… and some others. My favorite acoustic is my Martin D-28 (early 70’s). Oh yes, and my Harmony ‘Roy Smeck’ ukulele.
AMP: Do you use or collect any effects? And if so, which do you feel in particular are most useful?
ER: Yes, I have loads of vintage effects boxes. I would never give up the Mosrite Fuzztone I got back in 1966. Been through quite a few wah wah pedals… I used to work for Musitronics, and have several Mutron IIIs (the first commercial ‘auto-wah’ – actually an envelope follower), Mutron Bi-Phases (a unit with two 90 degree phase shifters, which, when ganged together give you the most beautiful figure-8 stereo phase – reminiscent of a Fender Rhodes), and all the Dan Armstrong mini-boxes (Orange Squeezer, Red Ranger, Purple Peaker etc).
Then I worked for a while with ElectroHarmonix. So that gave me a good stock of Electric Mistresses, Big Muffs, Memory Man(s), Small Stones, Golden Throats, loads of stuff! They were cheap, they were undependable, but they sounded great – and still do!
In the 80’s I consulted for Korg, Akai, and Roland, and collected a number of the more modern digital boxes. The two boxes I use most are:
– the Korg PME-1 pedalboard for live appearances. It’s analog, a bit noisy, but warm-sounding and responsive to my instruments.
– the Korg A3 digital effects processor for recording work. It will chain as many as six digital effects per patch, and it’s a great ‘quick-fix’ when working within time constraints. Korg hired me to write software for that machine, and consequently, I’ve got a lovely library of sounds that’s quite personal-sounding.
AMP: What is your feeling on the current stomp box craze and their constantly rising prices?
ER: Well, the prices have gone through the roof, haven’t they? I guess if you MUST have that sound, and you’re willing to pay for it, then go get ’em! That’s the comment about price. As for the ‘craze’ – well, these boxes are only textures / colors for the artist’s palette. They don’t make you play better, although they can be the source of some interesting inspirations. But on the other hand, they generally don’t hide incompetence. I really enjoy hearing them used well, but I border on homicidal when they’re abused.
AMP: I share your affinity for old Fender amps with 10″ speakers, and have for years been in vain trying to convince other guitarists of their merits. How would you describe their sound and why you are so passionate about them?
ER: It’s purely subjective. I find that in many cases, 12 inch speakers can be a bit bottom-heavy, and my playing feels less encumbered with a ‘lighter’ low-end output. But the next guitarist may tend to favor that tonal area, so it’s just a case of different strokes…
AMP: Are there any others amps that you own or particularly like?
ER: My Fender Super Reverb is still an all-time fave. But I use a Marshall Valvestate 80 most of the time now. It’s got plenty of power, and a very wide tonal spectrum. The Marshall engineers have made some really high jumps with their technologies over the last eight years. I also use a small (50w) SovTek that I like a lot. In addition, I’ve been very impressed with some of the high-end ‘Class-A-components-all-the way-through’ amps. They tend to be very pricey, but the sounds are usually pretty extraordinary.
AMP: Guitarists mostly associate with your work in Steely Dan, but you have many sessions logged through the years. Is there any one particular session that stands out for you for any reason? Or which one would you consider most memorable?
ER: Gee, I can never answer this question by citing just one experience. There have been so many! Obviously, the ones with Walt and Donald are always challenging and exciting, but it sure don’t stop there. I’ll always get a warm feeling remembering cutting Bobby Darin’s last record. We recorded live at Media Sound (a now defunct New York studio – and one of the best ever!) – There were approximately sixty musicians in the big studio. It used to be a church, and it was BIG) – I’ve done a fair amount of orchestral stuff over the years, but this was just a notch or two above most. He sang live; Charlie Callelo was the arranger, and Bob Crewe produced. Strings, horns, several percussionists, Gordon Edwards on Fender bass and Richard Davis on acoustic bass… I could go on and on… But there are dozens of sessions that I remember just as warmly. And I could get into a whole dissertation on the most memorable live gigs as well, but I’d better save that for the next interview.
AMP: Is there a session you would want to forever forget and why?
ER: If there are any of those old sessions worth forgetting (and there are), I’ve forgotten them. It’s the good ones that stick.
AMP: Are Becker and Fagan as infamously difficult as so many portray them?
ER: There has never been an occasion in my personal experience with them, where we haven’t had loads of laughs at work. I think we have a healthy respect for one another’s artistry (or craftsmanship – call it what you like), and it’s always been a lot of fun!
AMP: Everyone loves a good story, could you give our readers your best Becker and Fagan story?
ER: …pass on that one ;-)
AMP: Any advice for the aspiring studio guitarist?
ER: Perseverance and sense of humor! Regrettably, the studio guitarist’s world has shrunk drastically over the past ten or fifteen years. Live studio recording just ain’t what it used to be. Before the mid-eighties, twenty or thirty New York guitarists could find themselves working five to eight dates (apiece) in one day. Now there are a handful of ‘really working’ studio guitarists left there. The job market, and even the job description has changed. The advent of midi and digital sampling has cut down drastically on the numbers of musicians being hired.
BUT – as I said, ‘perseverance and sense of humor!’ Just because it’s harder to break in doesn’t mean it’s impossible, just harder. If you’ve got something good to offer, then you stand as good a chance as the next person. NY, LA and Chicago still have some of this craft being performed, but the one remaining real bastion of studio-muisiciandom is Nashville, where it’s very alive and very well.
AMP: What are your current projects?
ER: Well, I’m a small record company president now. (Actually, I’m not that small – the record company is!) We’ve been compiling some really interesting archives of performances I’ve done over the years, and have released the first of a trilogy of CDs going back to the 60’s. It’s been a lot of fun putting it together – loads of good memories – and good performances. The first one, recently released, features performances with Steve Gadd, Tony Levin, Eric Mercury, Willie Weeks, Carson Whittsett, Jeff Baxter, Chris Bishop, Michael Dawe, Phillip Namanworth, Paul Fleisher, Allen Herman & Bob Piazza, and more. The next one that we’re currently assembling has The Doobie Brothers backing me up, John Belushi ‘bluesing it up’, and some more neat surprises.
Once that one’s done, I plan to go into the studio with my ‘Royal Scam’-mates Bernard Purdie, Chuck Rainey and Paul Griffin; then record some new tracks with Steve Gadd and Tony Levin, and some other old friends.
I also compose, and I produce other records, and have recently been working on several multimedia projects.
AMP: Any parting words or comments?
ER: Yes – it’s just one world, and we’ve not treated it very well over the last century and a half. So let’s clean it up! Recycle, and treat the next person as you would like to be treated, musicians and audience alike.
AMP: Thanks, Elliott-I hope this process was relatively painless for you.
ER: My pleasure.