SNUFFY WALDEN - SCORING HIS OWN SOUNDTRACK

 

His music is heard by millions each week, yet "Snuffy Walden" isn't exactly a household name. With the release of his first solo cd "Music By...W. G. Snuffy Walden" on Windham Hill Records, that just might change.

W.G. "Snuffy" Walden was raised in Texas, and attended college in Houston on a double major of Science and Math. At the time, he worked a late-night radio show and played guitar in a strip club. Then one day, like so many others in the '60's, he dropped out of school, quit his job and strapped on his guitar full-time. In 1968, he formed a blues-based
rock trio, Stray Dog, who relocated from Texas to England, and it was in the UK that he hooked up with Paul Rodgers for what would be the final version of Free, filling in for the ailing Paul Kossoff on their final album "Heartbreaker," released in 1973. He then moved out to Los Angeles and spent the next ten years performing as a solo artist, and with artists such as Stevie Wonder, Chaka Khan, Eric Burdon and Donna Summer.

It was during this time that a few television agents and producers began hearing Snuffy at his regular gigs in Santa Monica. When one agent asked if he was interested in scoring a new television show, Walden was ambivalent, but said "I could see the handwriting on the wall for touring, and it wasn't pretty. I kept envisioning Holiday Inn at age 60." That television show ended up being the hit series "thirtysomething." Shortly after the debut of "thirtysomething", he got a call asking if he would be interested in a "little show" premiering after the Super Bowl. The show turned out to be "The Wonder Years"; Snuffy scored the pilot, then went on to score the series, and revamped The Beatles' "A Little Help from My Friends" for the end credits. The rest they say is history.

Because of the popularity of the music on "thirtysomething" and "The Wonder Years", the demand for Snuffy Walden soared. Over the next few years, Snuffy created music scores for "Rosanne", "Sisters", "Ellen", "The Jackie Thomas Show", and many other television shows, more than a dozen cable films and movies for television, several independent films, and the major release "Leaving Normal". As a measure of his success, he received Emmy nominations for "thirtysomething", "The Wonder Years", "I'll Fly Away", "My So Called Life", the Stephen King mini-series "The Stand" and "Early Edition." Last fall Snuffy won an Emmy for his theme to "The West Wing".

In March 2001, Snuffy released his debut solo record for Windham Hill Records. Entitled "Music By...W.G. Snuffy Walden", it has received critical acclaim and is available through amazon.com and many other retailers. Currently scoring music for "Once & Again", "The Drew Carey Show", "Roswell", "Providence", "Norm", "Three Sisters", "The Street","The West Wing" and "First Years", Snuffy continues to be busier than ever.

Tom Guerra: First off, congratulations on your Emmy and your new record. Over the years you've contributed several tracks to Windham Hill recordings, how did this record come about?

W.G. Snuffy Walden: Thank you. Originally, about 4 years ago, Windham Hill came to me interested in doing a soundtrack to a show called "Relativity." I checked into it but as it turns out, the show had already made a deal with somebody else for a soundtrack. So (former Windham Hill president) Steve Vining, who had done an orchestral recording of the "thirtysomething" theme, asked me if I'd be interested in recording for Windham Hill as an artist. I said I'd try it, and started to record some tracks for the "Celtic Christmas" and "A Winter's Solstice" records. I really enjoyed it - I hadn't done records for years. They then asked me to perform on the "Sounds of Wood and Steel" record for Taylor guitars, which I also had fun with. I had to fit this record in between an already outrageous schedule...I had to write it two summers ago, record some of it then, and then I finished by recording a day here and a day there through the season, and finished recording last fall.

TG: Way back in the beginning, who or what drew you to the guitar initially? Do you remember your first good guitar setup?

SW: As a kid, at age 5, I was playing Hawaiian lap steel guitar, but that didn't last very long, maybe about a year. Then I played piano, trombone, baritone sax, but I didn't want to learn how to read music and therefore wasn't very good. And then I started listening to early rock n' roll...stuff like "Runaway" by Del Shannon, " and early Elvis Presley. I'd strap on broom around my neck and play and lip-synch to stuff like "Heartbreak Hotel" and "Jailhouse Rock". When I was about 13, my grandfather bought my brother and I matching single pickup Fenders. Within a few weeks, my brother had taken 2 strings off of his and began playing bass. The first two songs learned were "Misty" and "Long Tall Texan." And that was it! Then all of a sudden, The Beatles hit, and it was like a whole new world. I got a Fender Duosonic, and then a Mustang the next year. I had a Mustang with a Gibson Falcon amp, and a treble booster, and look out! I could part hairs all the way to the back of the Tiki Lounge! So it was all electric guitars for me, for years and years. Although I played around with Nationals and Dobros, I wasn't an acoustic guitar player originally. When "thirtysomething" came along, I borrowed an acoustic guitar to do the pilot, and just played electric guitar stuff, hammering and bending and snapping on an acoustic guitar. This turned into the score for "thirtysomething" and the next thing I know people started thinking of me as an acoustic guitarist. Forget the twenty years before that I spent as a touring electric guitarist (laughs)...

TG: Who were some of your early influences, guitar-wise?

SW: When I heard the first Cream record ("Fresh Cream") and the first Hendrix record ("Are You Experienced") I was totally sold. But there were a lot of other influences as well...I was listening to Lightning Hopkins as well. Everybody in Texas ended up a pickup player with Lightning at one time or another... you never knew when he was going to change chords, you had to watch him because he'd put his foot down when he wanted to make the change (laughs). We had so many great guitar players in Texas at the time - there was Billy Gibbons of the Moving Sidewalks (later ZZ Top), Jimmie Vaughan, and a lot of lesser known guys like Bugs Henderson. Bill Ham was another great, he used to play with my brother. And of course, Johnny Winter. We used to go across the border to Louisiana to watch Johnny and his brother Edgar play in a small place called "The Twin Oaks" in Lake Charles, Louisiana...where if you reached the bar you could buy a beer! So a lot of my idols were actually my contemporaries! In '67 I went to college on a double major, Math and Science, and also had an underground FM radio show. I used to play in a strip joint called "The Cellar", where they sold fake booze. If you ordered a bourbon and Coke, they would bring a Coke with bourbon flavoring. But they'd give the bands something called "The Special," which was Everclear (grain alcohol) and grapefruit juice. The music was continuous, we'd play forever and when we started playing a break song, the other band would come up and plug into the house amps, and that's how you'd switch groups. It was open from 7:30 at night until 6:00 in the morning. If a girl got up and started stripping and you quit playing, you'd be fired and barred from the club. You learned to just blow, it was the best training ground in the world. I made $12 a night, my family hated it - they thought I'd gone to the dogs. In those days, everything was exciting and fresh, it was such a different time. Being a guitarist in Texas was great...I had a band in Houston called "The Grits" and we had a sister band called "Bubble Puppy" who later had a national hit with "Hot Smoke and Sassafrass"...they were dear friends. They would come to play in Houston and stay in our house and we would go to Austin and stay in their house, and there were always great jam sessions...It was a real community and very tightly knit, a great fellowship. Of course, Texas was pretty redneck, and outside of our community we were all ostracized, which compressed us even tighter. I've never found that again since I left. I still am friends with Roy Cox, Bubble Puppy's bass player who now is with a great Texas band called "The Blues Knights."

TG: Could you give the readers of Vintage Guitar a primer in how you go about scoring films and television episodes, and how does your approach differ from project to project?

SW: The basic approach is - I watch the film or episode so I have a good sense in where the story is going, and then I sit down with the producers and go through the whole film or show. Sometimes we'll watch it and come to different areas where they believe music should be and discuss the tone of the music they want. I have a music editor with me who keeps track of all of the information, so at the end I'll have 3 or 4 pages of notes and cues. Sometimes the producers think there should be music where I don't think there should be and sometimes it's the other way around, but we generally come to a consensus. Then I go off and start the process, which consists of putting up the film and playing to the film. It's very much like what I used to do when I was playing in bands; I'm just jamming and the rest of the band is the film. Instead of playing in front of a stripper, I'm playing in front of somebody's conversation (laughs)...I don't know how other people's process works, I never go to paper. The process for me is just picking up a guitar or sitting at the piano while I'm locked up to picture, until something emotionally starts to happen in the right direction. I'm generally running tape locked to picture, so if I have one of those lucky mistakes, I've got a record of it and I can go back and refine it. Once I get a flow or a theme, then I refine and work on it so it fits the picture the best, and sketch it out and program it and overdub on it as I'm going along. Then, once I finish the whole episode or story, I hand it to someone who works for me, usually Joey Newman, who does a "take down" of all the stuff that I want to replace with other musicians. Then we'll go in and work the score, sometimes with other musicians, or sometimes just painting and creating texture. Although the specifics are different for every cue and for every show, the basic process is just seeing the film, deciding where its going, and just kind of playing the picture until something happens. That's universal.

TG: I understand that over the years you've amassed a collection of some incredible instruments, including several ancient Martins...Do you collect?

SW: I'm not a collector, I could never just buy guitars to hang on the wall or just for value. I want to play them. I probably have 40 or so guitars, and I feel guilty about not playing them enough. My favorite guitars are a 1945 Martin Dreadnought herringbone D-28, which is a mainstay guitar for me. I've got a 1936 000-42 (Martin), which is a delightful instrument. Somebody actually stepped on the top of it and broke some bracing, which was repaired, but it has such a beautiful, sweet tone, not as vibrant as the '45. I actually played it on the new record when I had to play with an orchestra. It's so controlled; it's almost like a nylon string in some ways. It's not as twangy as a normal steel string, but softer and richer. I chose this guitar to play with the orchestra, because I needed to play very lightly, with both my fingers and sometimes a pick. All of these guitars are like people, they all have their own personality. I use a bunch of old, small body acoustics too. I have some early Washburns, a 1915 and a 1917 that I used on a lot of the early "thirtysomething" stuff. Those small body guitars are great for playing blues; they have a particular personality too, although the intonation is sometimes nightmarish on some of them... Sometimes I pick
up my 1898 Martin, that the only thing I can really do on it is play single notes, real lyrical melodies. It's a 100+ year old guitar that will never have the Buzz Feiten thing (perfect intonation), but it just sings with those single or double note melodies... Each guitar is there for a reason. I still have my first Les Paul, a goldtop 1952 model that I bought in Denver, Colorado in 1971, that I put humbuckers in. That's the guitar I played on the Free record and toured extensively with it throughout the '70s. That poor guitar was so trashed, I sent it to Mike McGuire at Gibson, and they redid it for me and they did a great job with it. I sold my whole collection in 1977, toward the end of my drug heydays - I had doublenecks and triple resonator Nationals...all that stuff I picked up over the years...it was kind of like I sold my children. As far as electrics go these days, most of the time I just play a Strat that I just picked off of a rack. I have a few Valley Arts guitars too, one I use for slide. I also use Taylors and Collings too.

TG: Tell us about the selection process you use in deciding which instrument to play for each piece of music?

SW: Generally I'm sitting out there in the studio with four or five guitars, and its really just about picking up a guitar and playing. Sometimes I use two guitars for one piece just playing the melody, because in a certain register, one will sing better. If I want to make a real tonal change in the piece, a real mood change, and I don't want to be as dramatic as changing from steel to nylon, I'll go from a Martin to a Taylor. Sometimes I like to play guitars that are hard to play, if it's a simple melody, because I have to work harder to play something simple. And that makes the expression different. You make every vibrato and note count more, if it's hard to get there!

TG: Do you have any one particular instrument that you consider "an old friend," maybe one that you're most comfortable with or gives you the most inspiration?

SW: Probably if I'm stuck, I go back to the old Dreadnought...but I bought a reissue Jimmie Rodgers Martin about a year ago, and its an amazing instrument too. It is so loud, I haven't used it for recording yet, because I'm still trying to figure out where it lives. Besides the Martins, I use Taylors and Collings all the time. I've got 3 or 4 Taylors, which I use with the Sunrise pickup...I love the small body cutaways, nobody else makes them like that. I got hooked on little guitars (small-bodied) when I lived in England in the Stray Dog / Free days, and I picked up a late 1800's lady's guitar in a mart shop for L50. A great guitar for just lying in your bed and playing it! These small guitars project a really nice midrange reminiscent of the old Robert Johnson records, just really pointed. Plus, they record really well.

TG: For "Three Sisters," you collaborated with former Wings guitarist Laurence Juber. How did you decide who was going to play what?

SW: He is such a remarkable guitar player, he does all of the guitars on that. Actually, on the main title tune, it's both of us trading back and forth, a conversation between Laurence and me. On everything else on the show, regardless of who wrote it, he performed it. Laurence and I did some work on "Once and Again" and tried to find more. My engineer Avi Kipper had done records with Laurence, and played me his records. I was like "How did he play that?" We tried to find a project together for awhile and when "Three Sisters" came to me, I knew they wanted an acoustic guitar, but I had made a commitment to myself not to do the "thirtysomething" score over and over again. I pitched to the producers to let me bring in Laurence, because he is such a unique fingerstylist. I played them some of Laurence's records and they agreed. He's got such a remarkable facility, so lyrical and such a wonderful guitarist. It would have muddied the waters for me to play. For me, its very important to give a show a signature sound and Laurence has done just that (plays the
title tune to "Three Sisters" on his acoustic)...and his instincts are so good, that it works perfectly.

TG: Are there any other guitarists that you'd like to collaborate with in the future.

SW: You know, I would have carried Eric Clapton's guitars around for him...probably still would (laughs). Everything I've heard about Eric is that he's very accessible and a real guy. A funny story...I went to one of Eric's concerts here in L.A. about a year and a half ago, and I saw the opening act and when they were done, I turned to my wife and said "maybe its over for me. I remember going to concerts and they were magical. They were EVENTS, and it's just not that way anymore"...which made me sad. But he walked out on stage, and he played one lick, and the hair on the back of my neck stood up! And for the next hour and a half, I was mesmerized. The funny thing about it is, that over the years, I can visualize everything he's doing. There are no tricks...In the old days, when I'd see Hendrix, I'd wonder how he'd do it. With Eric, I can visualize it, I can see his hands even though I'm not seeing his hands. The pure emotion and getting to the heart comes through. It speaks to me. There are some great guitarists out there, some are great technically and some are great in other ways. Eric, though, you just love him... If I had the chance to collaborate with any guitar player, it would be Clapton. Ry Cooder is another that comes to mind, a genius. I introduced myself at a benefit we did together. Bonnie Raitt is another great one. The people who do what they know and have a voice that's so unique and undeniable inspire me.

TG: What are you listening to these days, and what are some of your all-time favorite "Desert Island" guitar pieces, and what is it that you like about them?

SW: Right now the new Clapton record is in my car, I got an early release and I really love his version of the old James Taylor tune "Don't Let Me Be Lonely Tonight"...its just honest and straight ahead. Sounds like just a bunch of guys in a room.

I try to listen to some of the more modern stuff, because my kids are into it. Part of the nature of my job is to be somewhat versatile...If a show needs a rap tune, I have to be at least able to cast it, or be versatile enough to do it myself. Sometimes, because I make music 12 hours a day, I just listen to talk radio or just roll the windows down on my drive home. I am very fortunate to be surrounded by such wonderful guitarists like Dean Parks...if you need a gunslinger on your side, who is better than Dean Parks! On the other side I have George Doering ...George is my "Swiss army" knife...he plays hammered dulcimer, he plays mandolin, he plays Hammond for me, he can play bass, he'll play with a bow, he is so creative. And I don't have that kind of facility - never have. It always makes me feel humble, especially since now I split my time between being a guitar player and being a composer. So in some ways, having less technical facility forces me to be more to the point as a composer. I do always love going back to the things that inspired me first - the
early Cream and Hendrix records...we have all of those things here in the studio. It was a time of virtuoso playing. Over the past few years, I've really gotten into Robert Johnson.

TG: One more thing, do you think you have the best job in the world?
SW: Darn near! If I could take these scores out on the road, it would be complete. When I was 15 years old, I went out on the road for the first time, with B.J. Thomas, and I stayed there for literally for the next 25 years! I've stopped for the past 13 years because I had a great opportunity. I found something that I loved to do and was successful at it, but it is so demanding that I had to give up the live playing. The one thing that I do miss is the instant contact with the people in a live audience. To hear that yelling and applauding, you get so "in the moment" and that I miss. The thing I'd like to do, and that's why doing the
record was important, was to not let that (live music) muscle subside. If I can spend a little time just playing live just communicating, moving people like I was moved when I was a kid, that would make it complete. I have been so incredibly focused on one thing for the past 13 or so years, it would be nice to have some balance. The balance of doing different things really revitalizes me. I have a great family, I have a great life, and I have the job to die for. I get up every morning and get to play guitar and get paid for it. How bad can that be?

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: East Coast guitarist/songwriter Tom Guerra is working on the follow-up to his debut cd "Mambo Sons" on The Orchard Records.



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