Allow me to introduce Val McCallum; Val is one of the most sought after session guitarists in California. He has worked for Lucinda Williams, Sheryl Crow, Randy Newman, Gregg Allman, and The Neville Brothers, just to name a few. He is currently on tour with Jackson Browne.
Val's journey to becoming a professional musician was perhaps slightly different from yours or mine. Val is the son of actress Jill Ireland and actor David McCallum however he was raised primarily by his mother and step father, legendary movie star Charles Bronson. As a result, Val spent much of his childhood traveling with his family to various filming locations around the world. With this sort of upbringing, one might assume he would grow up to be an actor. But Val's love for music captured him at an early age and the rest, as they say, is history.
Session work is often one of the most difficult and demanding gigs in the music business. Val's skill, ability to adapt, relentless pursuit of tone, and overall likable personality is what have made him an elite figure among the industry's hired hands – a guitarist's guitarist of sorts.
A near death experience prompted Val to finally record his first solo album earlier this year. Some guitarists might take this opportunity to produce an over indulgent, self-serving testament to their guitar virtuosity. Val may be a guitar virtuoso but he is anything but over indulgent. Val offers up instead, a collection of deeply personal and moving songs. The guitar playing is beautifully modest and complements the each song's mood very well. This is a far cry from his work with the Californian hillbilly rock super group Jacksh-t, where Val has the opportunity to let his finely tuned soloing skills shine.
In the following interview, Val opens up about his childhood on the road, the inspirations for his solo record, his session work and his tools of the trade. As you'll soon find out, Val has a staggering collection of vintage gear. I met Val on a stop on his tour with Jackson Browne. During soundcheck, as I browsed the racks of vintage guitars and amps, I thought to myself, "I'll bet this is what Guitar Centers look like in heaven." Meet Val McCallum.
UG: What first inspired you to pick up a guitar?
Val McCallum: My three brothers and I all got nylon string guitars for Christmas one year. I was seven. My older brother Paul and I got right into it. We played constantly. Paul was a great teacher. He taught me the basics which soon led to Beatles and Stones songs. I was a pest and would spend hours in his room sponging everything I could off of him, but it was when he showed me Chuck Berry's opening riff to "Johnny B. Goode" that I was hooked. That was the gateway riff for so many.
"I am so lucky to have worked with some of my favorite artists and writers."
What are some of the highlights of your extensive session career?
The first recording session I did was with Harry Nilsson around 1980. It was for a Yoko Ono album of various artists doing her songs. I did a number of sessions with Harry and cut lots of different Yoko songs. It was a great experience. Jim Keltner was on drums, Bobby Keys on sax. Harry was one of my mother's favorite artists so his voice was kind of the soundtrack of my upbringing. So having those as my first recording sessions was kind of like a golfer hitting a hole in one with his first swing of the club. It just never got any better than that from an excitement level. I spent a lot of time with Harry recording just the two of us in his demo room at his house which was around the corner from where I grew up. He was a good friend and kind of a mentor to me back then. But really the highlights for me are any session that I come away from feeling really good about what I played whether it be a demo or a record project. I am so lucky to have worked with some of my favorite artists and writers. Playing with Jackson Browne night after night is incredibly satisfying. He has such a deep catalogue of great material and he can actually remember all of it. It blows my mind. The setlist changes every night so you've got to be on your toes.
Tell me a bit about Jacksh-t. It seems like a rather lighthearted project with some serious talent.
Jacksh-t is a great little outfit from Cochtotin California. That's 90 miles south of Bakersfield. Pete "Piece O Sh-t" Thomas on drums & vocals, Davey "Shorty Sh-t" Faragher on Bass & vocals and they call me "Beaush-t". Davey and Pete are Elvis Costello's rhythm section. It doesn't get any better than those two. I love them like brothers. We have a great time. We'll be doing our "Very Sh-tty Christmas Show" with special guests at McCabe's in Santa Monica on December 14th & 15th 2012.
You're background suggests that you'd have become an actor. Have you worked on any television scores in your session work?
I did a lot of work on "Alley McBeal" with Vonda Shepard. That's how we put Jacksh-t together - hanging around the set waiting to do our on camera bit. I don't do much of that kind of work anymore. George Deering seems to have cornered the market and deservedly so.
Did you ever give acting a try, and was your family supportive of your decision to become a musician?
I never wanted to act. It was clear to everyone in my family that I was going to do music. I did get the "you've got all your eggs in one basket" lecture when I was a teenager so I took a job cooking fish in a restaurant. I would come home oozing the stench of that kitchen. It was pretty bad and my parents begged me to quit after a while.
Do you have fond memories of being on the road at various film locations in your youth?
Yes, as difficult as it seemed at the time to be taken out of school away from my school mates every year for months on end, as I look back I'm happy to have had those experiences. We were in Spain a lot as that was where most westerns were made back then. I have great memories of trampolines on the beach in Nice, France or riding my tricycle down the hotel hallways and into the elevator out the front door on to the side walk in London or Skiing in Zermatt, Switzerland under the Matterhorn. I always had a tutor to attempt to keep me up to speed with school. Most of them were total nut jobs. The people my parents entrusted us with is kind of mind blowing especially now that I'm a parent myself. Once we stayed in a hotel in Istanbul, Turkey in the late 60s. It was a brand new hotel in a very impoverished part of town. It had a swimming pool with no water in it when we arrived. A few days after we arrived they put water in the pool, that evening the towns people came and washed they're clothes in the fresh water and turned the pool black. Apparently someone from the village went missing that week and they eventually found him in the bottom of the pool.
"I have the Green Line 6 Delay pedal, a DOD Reverb pedal, a Tremulator, a Menatone Red Snapper, Foxy Brown pedals, a volume pedal, and a tuner."
Did Charles Bronson play guitar? I’m curious as to what that may have sounded like.
It would not have sounded very good. Charlie was pretty well tone deaf but loved music and really appreciated anyone who could play an instrument. He loved the harmonica which is why I learned to play. He used to pay me to play tunes for him like "Red River Valley" and "El Paso". I played "Shenandoah" at his funeral. He was an awesome guy and a great dad. The music gene came from my biological dad David's side of the family. His father, my grand dad, was David McCallum Sr. He was a heavy weight violinist in London. He led the London Philharmonic Orchestra in the 1930s and during World War Two he led the National Symphony Orchestra as well as did studio work. He played on The Beatles track "A Day In The Life". Jimmy Page once mentioned in an interview that my Granddad suggested he try a violin bow on his electric guitar. He might have later regretted that suggestion. Apparently he collected violins, so we had "acquisition syndrome" in common too.
You've got a solo album out now ("At The End Of The Day"). How was the recording of this album different from working as a session musician and what were some things you learned about the recording process?
When I do session work I'm focused on playing what the producer and artist wants to hear. I work with the same producers a lot and I've learned what they want from the guitar which is not to say that I’m not doing my thing, I'm just giving someone else the wheel for a while and it's always fun and a learning experience. I love working with talented producers like Mitchell Froom and Tony Berg. They are great musicians themselves. If you don’t have a good idea of what to play or are having trouble coming up with a part, guys like them will always have a suggestion for you. It may be some subtle phrase you played five passes back that they made mental note of and will have you develop on - something that I would have never noticed myself. Good producers can bring out the best in you if you're open to it. Making my own music was quite a different experience for me in that I tracked the album by myself, live vocal and acoustic guitar. I played the songs for my friend and producer Tony Berg in his living room and he said "Let's make a record exactly like that". It’s really intimate and inviting for the listener. Tony makes so many records a year. He really knows what he's doing. The sounds he got on my guitar and voice made it easy for me to get what I was after. Getting believable vocal performances for me really comes down to how comfortable I am and in this case with the material being so personal, I learned that doing it unaccompanied was key. I do plan to write some more when I get off the road.
What took you so long to make your own record?
"When I do session work I'm focused on playing what the producer and artist wants to hear."
Well, I have tried and failed to come up with anything that I actually considered worthy of releasing. I've scrapped a few over the years. In this case it was a fairly serious health scare that spurred me on to finishing the record. I had a benign tumor in my noggin that had to be removed a few years ago. It was considered a brain surgery as it was located right under my brain in the middle of head. They took it out endoscopically through my nose like Arnold Schwarzenegger in Terminator - very sci-fi like. I feel really lucky to be alive. So feeling a need to leave something of quality behind, I enlisted two great song writer friends, Dillon O'Brian and Danny Peck to help out. Dillon is one of the best song writers I know and he's a good friend. One year recently he was nominated for all the music award shows, Grammy's, Oscars, Emmy's, ect, and he didn't win any of them which I think deserves an award in itself - "The Golden Bagel" perhaps. We love to give him crap about it. So at the end of the day I think this is a great record because the songs really came from the heart.
Who is the female voice on the album? Your voices complement each other very well.
Her name is Z Berg, the daughter of Tony Berg. She is as good a singer as I've ever worked with. She gets right inside the song and taps into the emotion, she's got great ideas and takes direction really well... unless she doesn't like your suggestion... then she rips you a new one. The dynamic between her and her dad in the studio is hysterical. There's no sugar coating with those two. It was all in good fun. Her tracks are amazing and the fact of the matter is that Z really doesn't give you any bad takes. She feels everything she sings and that really comes across.
You've got an amazing rack of guitars on the road. Could you tell me a bit about each of the guitars you've got on the road with you on this tour with Jackson Browne?
Jackson is calling this "The Comforts of Home Tour". He wanted us all to bring as much gear as we wanted so I've got a dozen or so guitars out with me - mostly vintage. I have a '59 Dot Neck 335 that I got from my friend Mike Landau tuned to E-flat. It's completely stock and the PAFs sound beautiful. I have two Les Pauls out with me on this tour - a '54 Goldtop (in standard tuning) and a '55 Custom (tuned up a half step) with an Alnico front pickup that sounds incredible. Both of those are stock. Then I've got a '63 Fiesta Red strat that I got from a guitarist friend Freddy Koella. It's one of the best strats I've ever played and I use that one a lot on stage. I've got a 60s Dan Electro Baritone and a '59 Martin D-28 with Flat wound strings that I used to make my CD. I've got a couple of Jackson's guitars out as well. A custom Telecaster built by our friend and Heartbreaker Scott Thurston (tuned to D) and a "Coodercaster" slide guitar built by Flip Skippio (tuned open F). It has the Tiesco pickup in the front position and a Supro lap Steel pickup in the back. And lastly I've got my green telecaster copy (Willie) that's been one of my favorite workhorses for years. It's tuned to E-flat.
"Jacksh-t is a great little outfit from Cochtotin California. I love them like brothers. We have a great time."
Has anyone ever given you a hard time about taking vintage guitars like that on the road? I'm sure there are certain people who would put them in a glass case and never touch them for fear of damage or lessening the value of the guitars.
I bought them to play them. I can't leave them in the closet. That just doesn't work for me. If you don't play an instrument, you'll never really understand the instrument... you have to learn where its magic lies and what its quirks are. I love old guitars. I love the feel and sound of aged wood. I love the smell. You should stick your nose in the f-hole of that 335 before you go. You won’t be sorry.
What are some other highlights of your guitar collection? You've got some amazing stuff out on the road with you, so I'm curious as to what you've got at home.
I've got a '57 PAF Goldtop, a '58 Fender Esquire, a '59 Jazzmaster, a '63 SG Les Paul, a '61 ES 330, I have a couple of '64 Firebirds, a Guild Duane Eddie, a '67 J200, a 1930s Roy Smeck, a 30s LO - my favorite recording acoustic, and a 1920s Martin D21. That's about it. I do have a few new things that I use for studio tools. I love my Jeff Beck Signature Strat. It's really in tune and has silent pickups.
What do you use for amps and pedals on the road with Jackson Browne?
My amp setup is a '64 Deluxe Reverb and a Leslie Cabinet. The pedal board is small and relatively simple. I have the Green Line 6 Delay pedal, a DOD Reverb pedal, a Tremulator, a Menatone Red Snapper, Foxy Brown pedals, a volume pedal, and a tuner.
"I don't do exercises or scales or any of that. If I pick up a guitar at home I'm usually learning material for a gig or a session."
How have you managed to become so well-versed in so many different genres of guitar playing? When you practice playing at home, what sort of exercises or scales or songs do you play?
I don't do exercises or scales or any of that. If I pick up a guitar at home I'm usually learning material for a gig or a session. I also spend a lot of time trying to write songs or learning songs to sing at Jacksh-t shows.
A little birdie told me that you went to school with the entire Jackson Five. Did you know them well?
My brother Paul went to grade school with the Jackson's back in the 70s. My first gig was a recital at that school. Michael Jackson and I arranged the tables in the auditorium that day. The band was called The McCallum Bros.Band. We played "Why Don't We Do It In The Road" "As Tears Go By" and "Every Body Needs Somebody To Love". My brother Paul played lead guitar and took really long solo's... It was like running a marathon playing bass behind it, especially for an eight year old. I played a Conqueror bass that was given to me by producer Bones Howe. His son Geoff was our drummer. I felt like the Conqueror!
Interview by Justin Beckner
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