Session guitar legend Michael Landau reveals what it takes to play with the biggest artists of all time and explains why “Strats are the ultimate couch guitar”

Michael Landau
(Image credit: Fender)

There are plenty of professional session guitarists out there who have impressive resumes, but Michael Landau’s seemingly endless list of collaborations and genre-crossing discography reads more like a fairytale.

Over his career, the 64 year-old Californian has appeared on some of the biggest albums of their time – from famous releases by Michael Jackson, Stevie Nicks and Rod Stewart right through to modern-day A-listers like Michael Bublé.

You’ll find his name on the inlays of albums by Donna Summer, Chaka Khan and Joni Mitchell or pop legends like Cher, Mariah Carey and Celine Dion, as well as more modern artists like Anastacia and Beth Hart. He’s even been credited for his contributions to albums by other famous guitar players such as B.B. King, George Benson and close friend Steve Lukather and, perhaps most impressively of all, ended up playing guitar on a Pink Floyd track (One Slip from 1987’s A Momentary Lapse Of Reason) right in front of David Gilmour himself.

It doesn’t end there, either – over his many prolific years, he’s worked with household names like Ringo Starr, Miles Davis, Glenn Frey, Bonnie Raitt, Joe Cocker, David Crosby, Alanis Morissette... the list goes on and on and on.

It should, therefore, come as no surprise that this year Fender announced that it will be awarding him a signature instrument through their Stories Collection, based on the highly modded 1969 ‘Coma Strat’ that’s been in his hands throughout the decades and ended up on many a hit record.

The faded red satin guitars will feature his ML Ultra Noiseless neck and middle pickups, plus a custom Wide Range humbucker in the bridge, along with a six-screw vintage style tremolo and Floyd Rose route. There will also be a limited-edition relic’d run through the Custom Shop, fitted with what Fender are calling “elevated features”.

The new instruments are currently being promoted by a video in which Landau chronicles the story behind the instrument he’s become closely associated with, decorated by some of the moody blues and wonderfully atmospheric leads often found on his solo releases.

When Guitar World connects with him on a breezy early spring afternoon, our first question is perhaps an obvious one... what is it about Strats that allow him to execute his musical ideas better than any other kind of guitar?

“It just comes down to that body and those contours,” he admits, in a slow and softly spoken drawl that’s charming, almost hypnotizing, to listen to.

“Strats are like the ultimate couch guitar and that’s probably where I’ve done most of my playing over the years! They just seem to fit. I love the balance, too. Sometimes a Gibson can get a little top or bottom heavy. I find Fenders always play great if you get them set up right.”

And, as those of us who have experimented will know, hours of fun can be had on a Strat with a floating bridge, provided it’s been set up well. In this case, even more so, given the new signature’s recessed Floyd route...

“I know, I agree!” grins Landau. “I’m kicking myself because that’s one of the things I really love about the guitar and I forgot to mention it in the video we filmed. When you pull up or do a really wide vibrato with the tremolo, obviously the bridge doesn’t bottom out on the body. It’s cool you picked up on that! Having said that, I’m very proud of how the video came out. We worked on it for a while. I did all the music here at my studio and then went and played on top of it at Fender.”

Tonally, this looks like an instrument that can cover a lot of ground – from the more dynamic Noiseless pickups in the neck and middle positions to the extra roar available through the humbucker in the bridge…

“It does roar! Though what’s cool about the Wide Range humbucker is that it really does match well with the Noiseless pickups. It’s a little brighter than a normal humbucker. There’s a different hump there in the upper midrange, but it works very nicely with the neck and middle pickups. It doesn’t have a really high output either, so altogether you can get a nice blend.

“I’m super-excited about the noiseless pickups we designed together. I usually have a love/hate thing with things like that, because they do cancel some of the tone there. But these ones are incredible. I don’t know how it was done, but they’re super-lively and have a lot of output. They sound the closest I’ve ever heard to a single coil in terms of the snappiness.”

Michael Landau

(Image credit: Fender)

You were 16 years old when you found the original ‘Coma Strat’ at an LA guitar store. Which shop was it and what do you remember about the experience?

“It was called Sol Betnun’s Instruments in Hollywood and it was pretty much just this old house some guy converted into a music store, with all these different rooms. Technically, it wasn’t a vintage guitar shop, but he had mostly used gear in there. Once we got our licences, me and Steve Lukather used to drive down there once a week... a very cool place!”

We’re curious – how did you know it would be an instrument you would be taking home with you?

“It looked really cool. Someone had stripped the finish off, I guess to do the John Lennon Epiphone thing. I kept it that way for a long time. It was a super-light guitar when I picked it up, so I think I appreciated that.

“The neck was great, the original one was made out of maple, then I modded it and kinda destroyed it by putting a Floyd nut on there… but I’m glad I did. I actually still have the original neck here, it’s just sitting on my wall. I was just 16, I didn’t know a whole lot about specs and stuff like that. It just sounded good and played good. That was the main thing.

“In the past, I’ve always just taken my time and tried to find a private room in one of these music stores. Just play it for a while and it will eventually reveal itself as either the right one for you or not. I’ve played heavy Strats that I’ve loved as well… so I’m not sure about the whole debate about weight when it comes to tone. As far as standing up and holding one, I much prefer a lighter one, but heavier guitars can sound great, too!”

Modded or not, a 1959 Strat would fetch a handsome price now...

“I know! But in 1974, they weren’t that much. I guess I was lucky!”

So what kind of things are you plugging into at the moment? Talk us through the rig...

“There’s an old Roger Mayer pedal called the Voodoo-1 that I’ve probably used for 30 years now. I’ve tried to take it off my ’board but it always goes back on. There’s also a DOD Looking Glass overdrive, a Drybell Vibe Machine, a Vemuram prototype distortion and a Way Huge Blue Hippo going into the amp head.

“From there I take the speaker output and go into a Suhr Reactive Load, then a custom Dave Phillips Small Buffer, a Boss expression pedal, a Strymon TimeLine, a Strymon BigSky and finally a Seymour Duncan Power Stage 170 which feeds into a cabinet fitted with Greenbacks. I’ve used all kinds of amps in the past, like 1964 Princeton Reissue, a vintage Deluxe Reverb, a vintage Plexi Marshall JMP 50-Watt and a Suhr Badger 18.”

Your approach to the guitar is a unique one. There are elements of blues, jazz and psychedelia – welded together in quite often unpredictable ways...

“Everyone my age grew up with the blues. We had The Beatles, Hendrix and Clapton, so that’s kinda like my core. I became a jazz fanatic in my late teens, almost becoming an anti-rock guy. I loved Weather Report and Pat Martino, who is a tremendous player. You could spend a whole lifetime trying to figure out that guy.

“I actually had one lesson from the master Joe Pass. Somehow I got a private lesson from him and he gave me too much stuff. I was in way over my head! I guess I have a mixture of influences, a bit like Robben Ford and how he stretches out. I’m a huge fan of his and it’s all basically blues.”

Michael Landau

(Image credit: Fender)

Larry Carlton must be another one then, given how him and Robben almost seem to come as a package!

“Yeah, Larry Carlton was another, for sure. Me and Steve Lukather would go to watch Robben and Larry play a lot in a small club in North Hollywood called Donte’s. Those guys were playing on all the cool records at that time and we’d see them live whenever we got the chance. It became a thing for us!

“I was a jazzer… or at least trying to be. I used to struggle with navigating through altered chords but once you figure out the code, you can play more freely and go with what’s in your head rather than worrying about all these changes.”

Your resume is unlike any other we’ve seen. What have you learned along the way, from all those hit records you’ve played on?

“The main thing for me is just playing for the song. You want to stay out of the way, but at the same time you want to make a bit of a statement, either sonically or melodically. I was always a gearhead, so I would have everything together when heading into a session. So you definitely need to have all that stuff in order. It doesn’t have to be a complicated setup – it just has to work really well. You don’t want hums or buzzes. Just be respectful of the song.”

So how exactly did you get your big break?

“As far as the amount of sessions I’ve done, the timing was perfect. In the ’80s there was a lot going on in LA. Lukather had just started Toto, so he kept passing things over to me. It kinda snowballed, you know? I never intended to be a studio musician, but it’s been great. Working with Joni Mitchell was one of my favorite things ever… I was such a fan of hers.”

Would it be fair to say the biggest record you played on was Michael Jackson’s Bad – with you handling the guitars on Stevie Wonder duet Just Good Friends?

“It was an unbelievable experience. I’ve always been a massive Stevie Wonder fan and he is still one of my favorites. The thing about this record is that they were doing it all so hectically. Michael had three or four studios going at the same time.

“I did that one tune pretty quick because it was all happening so fast. Michael popped in for a minute but Stevie wasn’t there. But before that, I had done one Dionne Warwick session where Stevie Wonder came in and played piano with us. I think Steve Gadd was on drums. This was very early on for me, so I was kinda freaking out.”

How exactly did you end up playing guitar on a Pink Floyd album, and was it just the track One Slip, or were there any other contributions?

“I think I might have played on one more, though I’m forgetting the title of it right now. It was crazy, David was right there! I’d been working with Bob Ezrin on several other records, and he ended up producing that Pink Floyd album. I think they brought in a couple of outside guitar players.

“There was that delay part I did, that dotted eighth kinda thing that was very popular back then, and for some reason David didn’t want to do it. He wanted to bring someone else in. I’m sure he didn’t specify me, but Bob suggested it and yeah… playing guitar for Pink Floyd was one of the most bizarre things ever.”

Given his own brilliance, it’s hard to imagine David Gilmour needing the services of any other guitar player...

“I was in a studio looking back into the control room and there was David Gilmour saying, ‘Hey, this sounds good!’ I hung out for a minute afterwards… actually, I was there for a long time, because David had this huge rig setup and he was super-sweet. He took me through a lot of it and played me a bunch of stuff on all his Marshalls that were lined up. It was an amazing afternoon. Again, it was pretty quick. They specified what they wanted and I did a few passes. That was it!”

That’s not the only guitar legend you’ve worked with. There’s B.B. King and George Benson – arguably two of the most influential guitarists in their respective genres…

“Absolutely. B.B. has always been the king for me. The raw power of his vocals and guitar playing was unbelievable. Have you seen the Mohammed Ali movie? That’s one of the greatest blues performances ever. B.B. was at times a minimalist but he was also fiery back in those days. He was a musical force and the whole package too, when you factored in his voice.

“And when I was working with George, I noticed he was the most natural jazz guitar player of them all. He makes it sound like the notes were just flying off the fretboard. I’ve never heard him come remotely close to struggling with anything. He’s so fun to listen to.”

Both you and Steve Lukather have worked with Ringo Starr, which is interesting given how long you and ‘Luke’ go back...

“Steve’s been in the All Starr Band for quite a while now. Those two guys have become really good buddies. It’s hilarious to me! They go to the movies together and hang out. I did a few songs with Ringo on that one [Time Takes Time] record. The producer Don Was brought me in. Ringo was right there, man, playing 20 feet away on his Gretsch kit. That was another moment where I had to try to maintain, you know?!”

You’ve also worked with soul and pop singers like Whitney Houston, Barbara Streisand, Mariah Carey, Celine Dion and many more – many of whom aren’t hugely associated with guitar music. How did that happen?

“In the ’80s, they were definitely mixing it up more. Guitar was just popular back then, even heavier sounds. With Joni Mitchell, when she stopped doing her thing with Jaco [Pastorius] and Pat [Metheny], she joined up with [bassist] Larry Klein and wanted to do a complete 180 with some young dudes in a rock band. She wanted to have fun! I think the ’80s were more accepting of rock guitar. Maybe they were trying to stay hip, I don’t know.”

What were the challenges bringing guitar into some of these productions? Were there any you took more pride in or required more guesswork from you?

If you know everything gear-wise is working nicely, that will always help your confidence. I’ve seen a lot of people bring stuff into the studio and struggle with their equipment

“Joni was the most enlightening because she was so creative. We did a long run together in the ’80s. All in all, I think I’ve always managed to find my place on sessions – if I’m struggling, I’ll just kinda sit back and really check out what everyone else is doing. Eventually I’ll find something to contribute to the song.

“Some are easier than others. Some artists are more fun and have a looser vibe in the studio, which always translates well into the music. But under pressure, I was always okay. I wasn’t afraid, I didn’t have Red Light Syndrome and would always be ready to record with stuff I’d spent time figuring out.”

Well, that can’t hurt when you find yourself in high-pressure environments around big-name artists...

“If you know everything gear-wise is working nicely, that will always help your confidence. I’ve seen a lot of people bring stuff into the studio and struggle with their equipment. It puts them in a state of panic. If you work all that out before, it really helps because then all you have to do is concentrate on the music. You need to have good people skills and let the artist or producer rule for the day. You don’t want to step on any shoes… it’s all about contributing to the music.”

  • For more information on the Michael Landau Coma Stratocaster, head to Fender.com.

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Amit Sharma

Amit has been writing for titles like Total GuitarMusicRadar and Guitar World for over a decade and counts Richie Kotzen, Guthrie Govan and Jeff Beck among his primary influences as a guitar player. He's worked for magazines like Kerrang!Metal HammerClassic RockProgRecord CollectorPlanet RockRhythm and Bass Player, as well as newspapers like Metro and The Independent, interviewing everyone from Ozzy Osbourne and Lemmy to Slash and Jimmy Page, and once even traded solos with a member of Slayer on a track released internationally. As a session guitarist, he's played alongside members of Judas Priest and Uriah Heep in London ensemble Metalworks, as well as handled lead guitars for legends like Glen Matlock (Sex Pistols, The Faces) and Stu Hamm (Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, G3).