Bass legend recounts four decades of studio bass superstardom, including the musicians, equipment, Toto and, of course, that beard!
Leland “Lee” Sklar has been a fixture in the recording studios of L.A. for over four decades. His bass playing can be heard on over 2,000 albums (so far!) for a great many music icons, including Phil Collins, Billy Cobham, Rod Stewart, Linda Ronstadt, James Taylor, Hall & Oates, Jackson Browne, Tommy Bolin, David Bowie, Ray Charles, B.B. King, The Doors, Peter Frampton, Aaron Neville, Lyle Lovett and countless others. He has also played bass for many TV shows, including Hill Street Blues, The Rockford Files, L.A. Law, Knight Rider and Simon & Simon, and has performed on the soundtracks of many motion pictures, including Forrest Gump, Ghost, Kindergarten Cop, and My Best Friend’s Wedding. He was the bass player for the band Toto in 2007 and 2008, filling in for an ailing Mike Porcaro. Lee continues to be a mainstay in the L.A. studio scene, showing no signs of slowing down.
FBPO: Tell me about your musical upbringing. Didn’t you start out as a piano player?
LS: I began playing piano at around 5 years of age. I studied classical piano until entering junior high school at 12 years old. I thought I would be “The Piano Player,” but there were about fifty others waiting to play. There was a need for a string bass player and my teacher, Mr. Ted Lynn, said that he would be glad to show me the fundamentals of the instrument. I toughed it and never looked back.
FBPO: Can you identify a turning point when your career really took off? Was there a notable event that made your realize you were going to be a professional musician?
LS: Probably the biggest moment in my career came when I started to play with James Taylor. We met casually in late 1969 or ’70, when he was offered a gig at the Troubadour in L.A. He called me and asked me to do it with him. We thought it would be a show and then “See ya!” But it turned into 20 years. Who could have guessed?
FBPO: Tell me about your longtime association with “The Section,” comprised of drummer Russ Kunkel, guitarist Danny Kortchmar and keyboardist Craig Doerge.
LS: When we first started with JT, the band was me, Russ Kunkel, who I had met years earlier when he was in a band called Things to Come, Danny “Kootch” Kortchmar and Carole King. Soon after starting, Carole recorded Tapestry, one of the biggest-selling albums in history, so she had to leave the group to pursue her solo career. I was doing an album with Tom Jans and Mimi Farina. Craig Doerge was the keyboard player. I recommended him to James and he joined forces with the rest of us. We toured as a set band and one day they recorded our sound check and a band was born! We have worked together on many, many projects and still play to this day, both individually and collectively. One of the baddest bands in town!
FBPO: What kind of basses and other equipment do you typically use in studio?
LS: In the studio I have my old “Frankenstein” bass, which is a mixture of many parts and was never a real bass in that sense. It has been my workhorse since the early ‘70s. I use my Dingwall 5-string, a Yamaha TRB5 fretless, a Hofner, when needed, and a Washburn AB45 fretless acoustic. I use my Euphonic Audio Iamp800 combo and a Tube Works DI. I bring a few stomp boxes but the most used is my BossOC2 octave divider. A Petersen tuner…that is about it. I try to keep it simple and to the point. No racks or anything like that.
FBPO: How about strings?
LS: I use GHS Super Steels: .40, .58, .80, 1.00 and 1.30 They are my favorite strings. Very consistent and good right out of the bag. I use the nylon tape on the Washburn.
FBPO: What was it like playing with Toto?
It was wonderful! I have known the guys since they first formed the band and have done tons of studio work with many of the cats. The tour was a joy everyday. I was only sad that I was there to help out Mike Porcaro in a difficult time for him. Still, I was proud to do it. They are one of the best bands one could ever want to play and hang with.
FBPO: How predictable is your career these days? Can you pretty much count on doing a certain number of record dates, movies, TV shows, commercials, etc., or do still get a lot of surprises, too?
LS: Nothing in this business is predictable. I take nothing for granted. I get a buzz every time the phone rings and I get a work call. A new adventure awaits. I am still busy, so I cannot complain.
FBPO: What’s the difference being a professional studio bass player today compared to, say, the ’70s, or even the ’80s?
LS: Today, a great deal of my time is spent at guys’ houses overdubbing bass on existing tracks they are doing on their ProTools rig. Not a lot of interplay with other guys and that I miss! That is where so much of the magic comes from. It’s a very singular existence now. When we do sessions with four or five players, we all just freak out and say this is how it use to be!
FBPO: You’ve been firmly established as an in-demand bass player for many years. Is there anything else you’d like to do with your career that you haven’t done yet?
LS: Not really. There are people who I would like to play with, but haven’t had the chance. Maybe one day it will happen. I feel very blessed to have had the career that I have and never say no to a call.
FBPO: What do you like to do that’s not necessarily musically oriented?
LS: I love to garden and work on hot rods — anything that can cause me great injury to my hands! They know me at the emergency room very well.
FBPO: I’ve got to ask – How about that beard? Is there a story behind it?
LS: Sorry to say, no story! I am an old hippie, sort of! Never got high, drank, smoked or anything, but just looked freaky. I stopped shaving when they handed me my high school diploma in 1965 and that was that. I trim it all the time, but it is here to stay, much to some people’s dismay!
Jon Liebman's 6th book, Bass Aerobics, is endorsed by Leland Sklar