Mitch Holder has been honing his guitar skills for over 50 years, and in that time he has worn many hats in the music world. He has worked with a great list of artists in the studio including Neil Young, The Beach Boys, Bernadette Peters, and many more. He spent time on television with Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show Band. He has also has worked at Gibson and Guitar Center. If you are lucky enough, you can have Mitch Holder as your teacher! Learn more about Mitch below.
What pedalboard is this and what is your signal chain?
This pedalboard is the smallest I use, and it fits in my suitcase very easily for traveling. The signal chain is: tuner-RC Boost (dirty)-Vertex Boost (clean)-Korg volume pedal-Strymon El Capistan and Strymon BigSky.
Mitch’s board has now changed in 2019 and he sent this new picture and information:
In the original article you put up, there was an RC Booster and a Vertex clean boost in the photo as that’s what I was using back then. Now, with the update of the Sunset, I’ve set the Favorites on the Strymon to the same settings I had on the RC and Vertex pedals. They matched up perfectly! The Sunset now gives me four sounds rather than just the two I had with the two pedals.
You did some special modifications to your pedalboard. Can you tell us about them?
The main mod was the installation of a TRS jack on the front of the Pedaltrain that connects the Strymon MultiSwitch to the Strymon BigSky, which sits on the upper back of the board and is used for bank and patch changes. I can then plug the MultiSwitch right in the front and place the switch wherever I want. It worked out really well.
You have worked on numerous albums, the credits for which can be found here. Could you share how you prepare for a new project and what research you do before joining different groups?
For all the sessions I’ve done I was called in to play on the tracks for the records, so joining a group was never part of it. There was no research or any kind of prep before the date. You walk in, see what’s needed, and do whatever it takes to contribute the best and most appropriate parts you can. When you’re done, that’s it, you never play any of it again.
You’ve played with so many great artists. Do you have a favorite? Do you have any favorite stories… that you can share?
I don’t really have a favorite artist, they were all from different backgrounds, cultures and music. So there were all kinds of different personalities and how they worked, and I found it all very interesting and the experiences were fantastic. I’ll tell you one amusing story that may help you out sometime. As you’ll see, it wasn’t funny to me while it was happening but it will make you laugh just the same:
Gordon Mills was a Welsh record producer and his main artist was Tom Jones, famous for his first big hit, “What’s New Pussycat.” I got a call to record an album with Tom Jones with Gordon producing. It was an evening call, 7 or 8PM with a full rhythm section, and we laid down tracks to three or four tunes on that one session. One of them was country oriented and as soon as we started running it I heard a country lick that I thought worked perfectly for the intro.
Coincidentally, when the session ended, Gordon asked me to stay, as he wanted to overdub a guitar intro to one of the tunes. You guessed it, the country one. I figured I’d be out of there in ten minutes after recording my little intro part. Guess again!! I used a Strat with the out of phase middle and back pickups for the part and Gordon says over the talkback, “No, no, that’s not what I’m looking for. Try something else”. Well, I wasn’t ready for that and for the next two hours, I played every single thing I could think of. Finally, with the time getting late and knowing I had to get up for a morning session, I took a shot that Gordon might have forgotten that original part and I played it again. “That’s it, that’s it”, Gordon exclaimed. “That’s what I wanted all along.”
What I learned that night? Don’t wait two hours before playing the part that you know will work and the producer will have long forgotten. The very first. Play it sooner so you can get out of there! Some producers make you go through the gamut looking for the right thing and some producers take the very first one because it just worked. So why milk a dead cow!!
My favorite to work for was Dave Grusin. He was a fantastic pianist, composer and arranger, and to this day, I can still remember the themes he wrote for movies, etc. He can do it all.
Why is important for guitarists today to know of and learn about jazz guitarist Howard Roberts?
Howard was a huge influence on me, both in studying jazz with him for about five years and by his introducing me to studio work. I didn’t really know much about how they did movie scores, TV shows, jingles, and records before that. Howard would have me meet him at a particular studio at a particular session he was playing and I would watch and learn from what went on. It was a revelation for me and later on, when I went on the road, I didn’t like playing the same tunes every night, so I got off the road, stayed in L.A., and made myself available to accept more studio calls. You could make a real good living without leaving town and make it home for dinner. Howard was an open book, unlike most of his contemporaries. You could ask him any question. If you said you had a stupid question, he would answer, “There are no stupid questions.” He was unlike anyone I’ve ever met and I miss him every day. If you can listen to some of his Verve, Capitol and Concord albums, check him out. He was what some called a “ferocious” guitar player, not in a power rock kind of thing, but a musical sense. On the Capitol albums, they were timed out for radio airplay back when he did them and his solos were pretty short, but as you listen you will see how, in a concise manner, he could tell a perfect story and get to the next section of music effortlessly. Believe me, doing that in a live situation with the whole band playing takes a lot of focus and concentration.
Please tell us about your current projects and about your teaching.
Presently, I’m working on a recording project with a quartet: myself and Eddie Arkin on guitars, Abraham Laboriel, bass, and Paul Leim, drums. We originally got together in 1977, and Eddie and I wrote all original tunes for the band. We played at a very coveted jazz club in North Hollywood, Donte’s, and played regularly there until about 1982. Abraham started getting busy doing sessions and we had to find a sub for him. We heard a bass player who had just come up from San Diego. His name? Nathan East; and Nathan subbed when Abe couldn’t make it. Unfortunately, we never recorded all the original tunes we were playing. Last year, I talked to Eddie and threw out going in the studio now and recording the tunes we thought had held up over the years, plus a couple that were written after we broke up, and I wrote a brand new tune for the project. We recorded the tracks, all live, and Eddie and I have one more tune to record, just the two guitars. So, we’re working on that and I’m involved in a few recording and live things.
As far as teaching, I have an adjunct position at California Lutheran University, and I also teach privately out of my house. I’ve always had some students, even in the real busy studio days, but with the downturn in session work, I have more time now for teaching. It’s always great to see how my students grow musically. I’ve had many over the years go on to successful careers of their own, which is very rewarding after working with them. It also clarifies many things for me by having to verbalize them. Sometimes it’s harder to talk about it than it is to play it!
Do you have a favorite style of guitar, and if so, why?
I would have to say jazz, which is a term I don’t particularly like. Over the many years it’s been around, trying to explain jazz to someone now is quite difficult. There’s Dixieland jazz, traditional jazz, bebop jazz, mainstream jazz, contemporary jazz, avant garde jazz, smooth jazz. In the classic sense, jazz was referred to “improvised music based on a set harmonic progression.” To me it’s all music, and my real favorite is that: music. I’ve also liked about any kind of music there is, and it’s been very helpful to me being able to play in all the different styles you encounter in freelance music work.
What is an important tip for guitarists that want to continue to improve their skills?
As musicians, we all need to remember that moving forward in music never ends. If someone says they know every conceivable thing about music, they’re liars. It’s endless. In my case, probably on my last day on earth I’ll be thinking about a new chord shape or a particular melody that’s buzzing around in my head. My good friend, Ted Greene, summed it up. He knew more chords than anyone on the planet, as far as I knew. I asked him one time if he knew every chord on the guitar. He smiled at me and said, “Are you kidding, I’ve forgotten more chords than I know.” That’s all you need to know on that subject. No, it never ends.
Here’s a Woody Herman track I played on from the album Chick, Donald, Walter & Woodrow. The album was comprised of tunes written by Chick Corea and Steely Dan (Donald Fagen and Walter Becker). Woody’s band was in town, so they had booked two days of sessions. The band was augmented with L.A. players Tom Scott/sax, Victor Feldman/synth & percussion, and myself. This YouTube video is the Steely Dan tune, “Aja.”
In it you won’t hear any big guitar parts or solos. What you will hear is a couple of little bends in the intro (they were written out in the part), volume pedal fills, double bends, etc., in the first section of the tune. Those were not written out; I reacted to what I was hearing and had the chord symbols with their rhythms on the part. I was improvising those fills as we went. Since it was recorded live, everyone was in the studio at the same time and if another take was needed for some reason, I would wind up playing something a bit different in each take. In the transition to the next part, you’ll hear a rhythm guitar (with the chord symbols and corresponding rhythm on the part) with a two hit dead string. The dead string was my idea. I heard it immediately and just played it. No one said a word. If the producer doesn’t like something, they’ll tell you, otherwise, just do it. As I said, I’m a reactor and that’s a perfect example of what I’m talking about. Nothing complicated—I felt something was needed there and I added it.
That was the day to day business of session work: be a good sight reader, be focused, play any style and be able to react and improvise when needed and have the right equipment. The most important thing, though, is a good attitude. People don’t want to be around you if you complain or are generally negative. They’ll pick someone over you, maybe not as good a musician even, but who has a good, positive attitude. You want to be on your best behavior at all times.