By Vincent DeMasi
Make a list of the most iconic rock guitar solos of all time, and you’d be hard-pressed not to rank Elliott Randall’s scorching mixolydian mayhem on Steely Dan’s “Reelin’ in the Years” somewhere near the top. Beyond his legendary work with the Dan, however, Randall has performed and recorded with dozens of artists ranging from the Doobie Brothers to Asia to James Galway, as well as producing myriad TV and radio jingles, serving as a technological consultant to major musical instrument manufacturers, and touring the globe as an in-demand teacher and clinician.
Randall currently splits his time between New York and London, performing regularly with Randall’s Rangers in the former, and Posse in the latter. On his latest EP, Still Reelin’ [elliott-randall.com], the guitarist’s signature hi-octane fusion riffage is presented within a unique and compelling Celtic and Afro-Cuban musical environment.
GP: On your new CD you re-invent “Reelin’ in the Years” with a decidedly world music flair.
ER: Just doing a “cover” version of the original didn’t make sense to me. The original sounds like a bunch of young guys hell-bent to prove themselves, and that’s the magic of it. But for this recording I wanted something a bit more groovy and laid back, so I invited drummer Bernard Purdie and bassist Chuck Rainey – featured on the Royal Scam album, to be my foundation. Also, I’d always heard the harmony guitar lines in the song as having a Celtic flavor, so I decided to have Irish fiddle, pipes, and boudhran play the part. I also wrote the Celtic “Overture to Reelin’” as a surprise-the-listener tease.
GP: You stay faithful to your original solo. Was that solo worked out in advance?
ER: No. I never plan a solo in advance. If I did, it wouldn’t be improvisation, which to me is one of the most exciting things about being a soloist. What you hear on the Steely Dan record is the first recorded take of my response to the track. I did an earlier run-through that many people in the studio felt was even better, but the tape machine hadn’t been armed and put into record mode. From then on, Katz [Steely Dan’s producer] never let a run-through go by without ensuring that it was being recorded.
GP: What rig did you use to record it?
ER: That was my ’63 Fender Stratocaster with a PAF humbucker in the neck position, straight into an Ampeg SVT amp. The SVT wouldn’t have been my first choice for an amp, or even my fifth choice—but it was the only amp in the studio that night. My Strat has been my #1 axe since 1965.
GP: When you are asked to play on a recording, do you strategize your playing towards what you think the artist wants, or do you go in with the attitude that “they hired me for me” and do your own thing?
ER: My job as a studio musician is to facilitate the making of the best possible recording. As I’ve also been a producer since the ’60s, I have specific ideas about how to do that, but if I’m not the producer of a session, it behooves me to make my clients happy. And if they are asking for “classic Randall,” I have to determine what their concept of that is. Of course, I do love when someone wants me to be “collaboratively creative”.
GP: Were there any artists/producers that pushed you in a direction that you normally might not have gone?
ER: I’ve some grief lately from a fan who hates my solo on “Fame” [from the motion picture soundtrack]. But there were a few elements in that recording that were simply beyond my control. First, on the harmonized intro and interlude guitars, the producer requested an exaggerated style of finger vibrato that’s just not me. I’m also not big on harmonizing lines in thirds. I suggested an alternative approach, but hey, he was the producer.
The other issue was that the solo on the full version is quite long, and had to be phrased to facilitate a number of ‘not-as-yet-determined’ edit points for the film. At the end of every eight-measure phrase, there needed to be a conclusive line, and this hampered the creative flow of the solo. I still find it slightly disturbing [laughs].
But speaking of being pushed in new directions – modern technologies give us whole dimensions that were unimaginable not very long ago! The perfect example of this would be the remote sessions facilitated by the Internet.
GP: Having worn both hats, how would you compare being a bandleader to being a sideman?
ER: I started the live music program in NYC’s China Club in the early-mid ’80s, doing my own shows there on a bi-monthly basis. Great fun – with a good budget; I was able to put together bands of musicians I really admired as both players and friends. The mutual admiration manifested itself in the playing. On the other hand, there are other situations, where a leader has a certain stigma to bear – where if anything goes wrong or if someone is unhappy because the bus is late or the Perrier is warm, he/she bears the brunt of the dissatisfaction. Being a good leader is about communication—being honest and diplomatic at the same time.
Being a sideman can be infinitely easier. Somebody picks you up. There’s an amp waiting for you at the gig. You plug in, you play, and at the end of the evening – hopefully you’ve had a really good time!