Session Guitar: My Interview with True Studio Guitar Royalty, David Spinozza
A few days ago, in a charming French restaurant in the western corner of Connecticut, I had the pleasure of meeting one of my idols, guitarist David Spinozza.
From 1970 through the ’80s, New York City was a hot spot for studio work. I came into the game in the early ’80s. But David was one of the names I followed, along with a few others like Elliot Randall, Steve Kahn and John Tropea. These guys owned the guitar seats on countless sessions, and David happened to be in the right place at the right time.
Spinozza is not only a gifted guitarist but also a composer, arranger, producer and conductor. A very humble, funny man with an amazing amount of talent, he remains as active as he wants to be. He has no website and keeps a low profile.
Before I begin my (all too brief) interview, please take a look at this link to his discography on Allmusic.
Now kindly remove your jaw from the floor, wipe the drool, and let’s begin!
How did you get started as a studio musician?
The first session I think I ever got called for was Tommy Mottola [future head of Sony]. Tommy had a record deal, we were friends, 16 or 17 years old, and he was trying to be a singer himself. So he called me in to play on it and the producer and others said, “Well, we have studio guys, and if your young friend can’t cut it we’ll have to have him replaced.” So Tommy said, “I think you’re gonna like this guy.’ So I played on some songs and that was probably the first.
Any formal musical training?
Some formal, some informal. I starting playing by ear as a kid. Mostly Wes Montgomery records, trying to figure out what he was doing. Then I studied music theory in high school and junior high school. Then when I was already a session musician I studied orchestration. I studied how to write for instruments.
These days it’s all overdubs pieced together. How was it back when you started?
The rhythm section would play live. Sometimes the singer would be there. Or maybe they would use a “dummy” vocal. They would have another vocalist sing as a guide so at least we could hear the song.
Was there any competition with other guitarists to get sessions?
I wouldn’t call it competition. I would call it camaraderie. We all admired each other. You know as a guitarist yourself, no two guitarists sound alike, so we all learned from each other and taught each other.
Let’s talk gear. What were you using on sessions?
Same thing I use today: a Telecaster, 1951. I’m a Fender player. The only thing I didn’t like when I became a studio player was I like a Fender guitar with a Fender amp. In the session scene they had these Ampeg amps. There was this thing called The Manhattan Guitar Club. Each guy that was a guitarist had to buy two of these Ampeg amps and leave them in the studios. Nothing against Ampeg, but that wasn’t my sound. I never really felt comfortable with the sound. I like a Twin, a Super Reverb. Now I play through a Hot Rod Deluxe Reissue. I like small amps that you can break up.
Ever use any of the new modeling amps?
I’ve used the Pod for recording. The simulation stuff never sounds 100 percent real. For a recording, they’re fine.
Any memorable studio moments?
Nah. One session after the other.
Do you remember all these sessions?
Were you aware at any time that you were part of some historic moments?
Not at all. You’re like a boxer. You go in the ring, you throw punches. You don’t know what’s going to happen.
What are you up to now?
Having dinner with you! I play with a band called L’Image — Tony Levin, Mike Mainieri, Steve Gadd, Warren Bernhardt and myself. We’re thinking of doing a new CD. Between us all we’ve managed to do a lot over the years. We haven’t managed to go out as often as we would have liked to because we are so busy on our own. We actually can’t afford each other! [laughs]
I am now obligated to ask about a few momentous sessions in your career and hear what you have to say about them. Let’s start in 1971, Paul McCartney and Ram.
Who’s Paul? [laughs] Oh yeah, he was the cute Beatle! Yes I did that record with him.
But do you remember anything about it?
He was very cute. But all kidding aside, he’s as talented as he is cute. I was not a big Beatles fan, but having done the record and worked with him, he’s everything we think he is. A brilliant songwriter and singer, a very creative man.
Then you did American Pie for Don McLean.
I thought it was too long. Never thought it would get on the radio. Because that was a time when all the records were two minutes and 30 seconds. If it hit 2:40, you’d never get it played!
You did a few records with Paul Simon. How was he to work for?
He’s short. [laughs] But he’s not short on talent. A little difficult. A bit of a task master. Sessions went on for a very long time. It would get to where we wouldn’t even know how we could play it any different. But he knew what he was going for and he was gonna hang out till he got it.
How about Dr. John? “Right Place at the Wrong Time” …
I was at the right place at the right time! I was at Atlantic working on a record with Roberta Flack or Aretha Franklin and Arif Mardin producing. I was leaving the session, a 10 to 1 to get to a jingle session, a 2 to 3, which is how we looked at them. Jingle sessions were only an hour.
So I was at the elevator and Dr. John sees me in the hall and yells out, “Hey, Spinozza! I need ya to play a little blues for me!” They were mixing the record and they forgot to put a solo on the song! So I explain I’m on my way to a jingle date and I only have 45 minutes to get there. So I went in and they had a little Fender amp mic’d right in the control room with them.
So they go to the middle of the track where they want the guitar solo and I just play what I play. Then I go, “I know what you want. Let me try another one.” They say, “You’re done.” And I’m like, “No! The guitar is out of tune.” I over-bent a note that drives me crazy to this day. I was just bending my G string and then I was gonna tune up and do a take! They loved it. They threw me out of the studio. I remember leaving feeling very dejected because I could have played much better.
Cut to three months later. I’m in a cab on my way to a session and I never heard the song. Never heard the vocals. So this song comes on the radio and the cabby must realize I’m a guitarist because I have three guitars. So he turns to me and says, “Oh, you’re a guitar player, this is my favorite! You’re gonna love this!” And it comes to the solo and he turns it up, and I hear that it’s me! So, knee-jerk reaction, I go, “That’s me!” And he turns the solo down and says, “Yeah, right, buddy.” So I never even heard it in the taxi. A New York moment!
Then we have a guy named John Lennon and Mind Games.
He worked really fast in the studio. He came in, here’s the song, let’s do a take. He liked to work quickly. We would do two, three or four takes and we would leave. Any production would happen after we left. I don’t know how he worked later, but the record I did, he worked very, very fast. I do remember thinking at the time, wow, two guys from The Beatles called me separately to play on their records. I sort of felt privileged, but at the time I looked at it like they liked me, they called me. I was happy to get the gig! And I was never into the whole war. Those who sided with McCartney. Those who sided with Lennon. I was too busy working. And later I worked with Ringo Starr, so that’s the third.
You also worked with Yoko Ono. Anything you’d like to say about it?
I certainly did and no.
Let’s move on to James Taylor and Walking Man. You not only played on it, you produced it! How did you get that gig?
I was Carly Simon’s musical director at the time. The two of them had started a romance and I was working on her Hotcakes record. James came to visit one day and was listening, and there was a song he wanted to record, “Let It All Fall Down.” He said he’d recorded it a few times, and if someone could record it and make it sound like he envisioned it, that person could produce his next record.
I gave him a bunch of names, because I wasn’t gonna be, “Hey, how about me?” Then he jokingly said, “What about you? I heard you could arrange.” Then he said, “Why don’t you record this with me, and if I like the way this comes out you can produce the next record?” I said OK. I did. And he liked it.
Just one more. Billy Joel and 52nd Street.
Who’s Billy Joel? Didn’t he play with a group The Hassles? That’s how I know Billy Joel. I played opposite Billy Joel when i was much younger in Canarsie. I knew him from way back.
Any advice for guitarists looking to become session players?
It is very helpful to learn to read music as well as playing by ear. Both skills will be utilized in many musical situations. You can’t count on becoming a “guitar god,” so some practical skills will go a long way.
Sage advice! And how about one more quick studio story!
OK. Dr. John was into this voodoo thing, and he saw me cutting my nails once and dropping them on the floor. Voodoo has this belief that magic can be done or a voodoo doll can be created more powerful to be used against you by using someone’s nail clippings or strands o hair, etc. So Dr. John sees this and yells out, “Hey, Spinozza! Pick up your nails! Someone will put a mojo on your ass!” So there ya go!
Ron Zabrocki on Ron Zabrocki: I’m a session guitarist from New York, now living in Connecticut. I started playing at age 6, sight reading right off the bat. That’s how I was taught, so I just believed everyone started that way! I could pretty much sight read anything within a few years, and that aided me in becoming a session guy later in life. I took lessons from anyone I could and was fortunate enough to have some wonderful instructors, including John Scofield, Joe Pass and Alan DeMausse. I’ve played many jingle sessions, and even now I not only play them but have written a few. I’ve “ghosted” for a few people that shall remain nameless, but they get the credit and I got the money! I’ve played sessions in every style, from pop to jazz.