By Ken Micallef
In the history of ’70s rock the guitar solos of Steely Dan loom large. On such albums as Katy Lied, Pretzel Logic, Royal Scam and Aja, the odd-looking masterminds — guitarist/bassist Walter Becker and singer/keyboardist Donald Fagen — found ways to coax blistering performances out of bored session guitarists who had typically just arrived from a jingle or perhaps a Barry Manilow session. Beginning with Elliot Randall’s scorching fury on Steely Dan’s first 1975 single, “Reelin’ In The Years,” Becker and Fagen helped turn the era of the studio musician into a personal textbook about what can be achieved when dogged persistence meets chops, talent and a desire to please employers.
Countdown to Ecstasy featured Rick Derringer’s drunken slide guitar on “Show Biz Kids,” while Denny Dias contorted his fingers on “Bodhisattva.” Pretzel Logic showcased the acetylene comping of Dean Parks on “Night by Night,” and some beautiful country licks on “Any Major Dude Will Tell You.” As a player, Becker began to come into his own on Katy Lied with the howling blues of “Chain Lightning” (he would come into full fruition on Aja’s “Josie”). But the diabolical duo pulled out all the stops on Royal Scam, coercing Larry Carlton’s hair-raising picking on “Kid Charlemagne,” Dean Parks’ ominous growl on “Don’t Take Me Alive” and his herky-jerk movements on “Haitian Divorce.” However, the best known SD solo remains Jay Graydon’s western twang on the big hit, “Peg.”
Now, 20 years after their swan song, Gaucho, SD return with Two Against Nature, a personal guitar showcase for Becker that proves hot shot session players aren’t what they used to be, but also that Becker has turned into a stunning blues player whose cagey fits, starts and yelps are the perfect complement to the Dan’s weird take on a weary world, one where young women look better day by day, and where the songs of Steely Dan still hold a place in many people’s heart and wallets.
Guitar.com: Legendary session musician Bernard “Pretty” Purdie once said that you guys were like good cop/bad cop — that Donald would be supportive of the musicians and you would be the guy to tell them what they were doing wrong.
Becker: (laughs) That is true with the additional observation that who was the good cop/bad cop changed from day to day. And as with most good cop/bad cop routines it is just an artifice to help you deal with people. Actually, both cops want exactly the same thing. Back in the ’70s, I was more interested in drumming and the mechanics and details of drum parts and how they were put together than Donald was. Probably the reverse is true now, where Donald, because of working with sequencers is much more focused on how the beats are put together.
Guitar.com: You all do a lot of digital editing now with….
Becker: Schmuck Tools! Yes, ProTools. We do. And we are doing essentially the same things we have done with other devices before, like Roger Nichols’ program called Wendel. In the ’90s it was overtaken by commercial programs.
Guitar.com: You play most of the guitar on the new album, which was a growing trend on Aja and Gaucho. Is that a result of your own proficiency or are the session guitarists today not as unique as in the ’70s?
Becker: That is just a rigorous application of the Peter principle where someone who is competent at one job is promoted to another job where they are incompetent.
Becker: Ya know what happened? Donald and I produced the album ourselves. Donald is always encouraging me to play; I have been doing it onstage and so on. We would get to a point in a song where we needed a guitar part but not having planned well enough in advance, we hadn’t booked a guitar player. And there I was with my guitar and all my stuff, so I ended up doing a lot of it.
Guitar.com: That sounds so uncharacteristic. Steely Dan seem so methodical.
Becker: We are sort of plodding and methodical, but we’re not necessarily very well organized.
Guitar.com: But you play brilliant solos.
Becker: Thanks, but the bluesiness of the material that we are working in here lent itself to my playing. We’ve been switching around from guitarist to guitarist the last couple of years and we finally ended up with the guy we are going to be playing with this summer, Jon Herington.
Guitar.com: On the DVD of Aja, there is a point where Donald brings up the faders on different guitar solos for “Peg.” To my ears, the choice of Jay Graydon’s solo sounded obvious.
Becker: It’s not like any of the other good ones was left on tape. I am not sure why, the only thing that was left on the tape was some random passes by the last guy to try it before Jay Graydon. So there were probably better ones, but there was nothing that really worked until Jay came in. We had a lot of trouble with “Peg,” I tried it twice. Four or five other guys tried. But Jay got it. That happens a lot. You’ve painted yourself into a corner and you need somebody to do something either as a solo or a part. A lot of perfectly good guys will not know how to handle it or won’t be able to solve the problem you have created. Then for no reason the next guy who comes in will know exactly what to do.
Guitar.com: Were there ever instances in the old days when the choice of solos was not so obvious?
Becker: Certainly, we would go back and forth with tracks. I remember we would play one take against another take. I remember when Jeff Baxter was in the band he had originally done a completely different take of “My Old School,” which was a feature for him. We had something that we liked on there and I remember listening to it and thinking, “I know he can do better than this. Why don’t we try it again?” He did it over and that is the one that is on the record now. Stuff like that would happen where you would get something that was good enough to use but you knew it could be even better.
Guitar.com: Did the best solos happen quickly?
Becker: Sometimes it would be the first few takes, other times we would spend all night. Larry Carlton played a great solo on “Kid Charlemagne.” Larry’s takes didn’t take that long to do. Every take that Larry played was good.
Guitar.com: But it’s you on “Haitian Divorce” doing all the talkbox stuff.
Becker: No, that is Dean Parks playing the guitar and me doing the talkbox stuff later.
Guitar.com: On the track “Two Against Nature,” is that played bass or sampled bass?
Becker: No, that is a bass synth that is being triggered by a sequence. That is the only track where we actually used a sequence for anything.
Guitar.com: Did you use all the machine elements in that track to confer a play on words?
Becker: Partially. We had a percussion sequence that we liked. There was something good about it, something a little hokey about it, something sort of like Hollywood session players. There used to be an album I loved called Daktari. It was all this African-sounding stuff played by Hollywood session players. And it was a great take on African music because it sounded vaguely African but there was nothing truly African about any of it. I always liked that kind of African music a lot. And so the original sequence that we had was in that vein.
Guitar.com: The drummer, Jim Keltner once said that with a song like “Josie” you created the guitar solo one lick at a time.
Becker: (laughs) That is true, my guitar solos from those days had a lot of punches in them. I still do it just as much now.
Guitar.com: Is that part of the perfectionist…
Becker: I dunno, it is part of the insanity. Part of the madness.
Guitar.com: Do you hire your female vocalists for looks or talent or both?
Becker: Yes. We have an obligation to our fans and we take our aesthetic obligations very seriously.