Waddy Wachtel Reflects on Working With Warren Zevon, Keith Richards

Session pro seeks donations for a documentary about his life

Waddy Wachtel performs in Mountain View California.
Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images
Waddy Wachtel performs in Mountain View, California.
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Waddy Wachtel may be the greatest session guitarist of all time, with a resumé including classic work from the Everly Brothers, Warren Zevon (he co-wrote "Werewolves of London"), Jackson Browne and Stevie Nicks. Now Wachtel is stepping out of the shadows in the career-spanning documentary King of the Sidemen, directed by friend Gary Simson, with guest appearances from friends including Nicks, Browne and Keith Richards. "He is a natural maestro," says Richards, who played with Wachtel in the X-Pensive Winos. "He can take a song to further heights than you expected, beyond expectations. I envy him, quite honestly." A Kickstarter campaign for the film wraps up today; at press time, it was just a few thousand dollars short of hitting its $32,500 goal. Fans can pledge here.

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The film began when Simson – who has worked on shows from Deadliest Catch to A&E's Biography – approached Wachtel at The Joint in L.A., where the guitairst has has held weekly jam sessions for several years with fellow pros like Bernard Fowler and Blondie Chaplin (the Rolling Stones), bassist Rick Rosas (Neil Young), drummer Phil Jones (Tom Petty), guitarist/keyboardist Brett Tuggle (Fleetwood Mac, David Lee Roth), singer Jamie Savko and guitarist Keith Allison (Paul Revere and the Raiders) – along with surprise guests from Richards to Robert Plant. "Basically we do two sets of the finest rock & roll tunes that there are," Wachtel says. "We do a combination of great Stones tunes, AC/DC tunes, Led Zeppelin tunes, Hollies songs. . . . [Gary] got the idea that this is a historic event happening, and it'd be a great thing to start documenting." 

In addition to footage of the Joint jams, the film will also include stories from Wachtel's key sessions – one already-available 16-minute clip tells the story of his partnership with Zevon and how they made "Werewolves of London," trying the song with multiple musicians before finally settling on Fleetwood Mac's rhythm section. "It's the most difficult song to play but that's what makes it so elusive and hard, you've got to lay these same three chords over and over and make it feel important each time around," Wachtel says. "Mick [Fleetwood] and John [McVie] laid down that fat, beautiful groove and all of a sudden the song had a serious foundation to it."

Wachtel also singles out Richards' "Take It So Hard" as a career highlight. "The level of musicianship in that band was really about as high as it gets," he says, remembering the song was the first the band ever cut. "It was take one and we were all standing there going, 'Oh, my God, that was pretty amazing.' I don’t even know if we really rehearsed. We went over a couple songs and headed up to Canada. It was magnificent. Really incredible."

Wachtel has a good idea why artists still rely on him above all others. "I've been able to find things that go well with the melody being sung by the singer, things to counterpoint that melody, rhythm parts that work against it, things like that. My ear and my sense of counterpoint I believe are whats kept me floating."

And having worked with everyone from the Everly Brothers to Linda Ronstadt, Wachtel is also a pro at navigating larger-than-life personalities. "Extreme personalities are something one comes to know, love and deal with in this business," he says. "You get in a room full of musicians everyone's talking at once interrupting each other, but everyone keeps the same thread – the object is to get something recorded that sounds like the fun it was."