Unsung Heroes of Americana – Leland Sklar, session musician (bass guitar)

It’s time for another article in our Unsung Heroes of Americana series and Tim Martin weighs in with this piece on an outstanding bass player who has made a number of major contributions to the genre.

It is February 2007, Colston Hall Bristol. We are there to see Toto (sorry – guilty pleasure) and my companion spots the bass player. “Ooh! I saw him with Phil Collins”. “Yes, and you have no idea how many albums you have heard him on”.

Leland Sklar was a classical pianist from an early age. When he switched to Double Bass at 11, he grew to love Jazz, Country, and Rock as well.  He has been the go-to bass player in L.A. since the early 70s and was part of the loose group of session musicians known as The Section, which as well as Sklar included guitarist Danny Kortchmar, keyboardist Craig Doerge, all-rounder David Lindley, and drummer Russ Kunkel. They worked on many of the early Asylum Records albums, becoming associated with many singer-songwriters who are now icons of Americana.

Sklar credits James Taylor with giving him his start and helping him establish a playing style that has enabled him to work in genres from Jazz to Hard Rock. Starting with ‘Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon’ in 1971, Sklar has played on 12 of Taylor’s albums. He says of Taylor: “Working with James Taylor really required a particular approach, musically. He is probably one of the most underrated guitar players ever. He plays in such a comprehensive style—with his constant, moving thumb bass going through all his songs. It was really a challenge for me to sit there and think, “What the hell am I going to do? How do I justify being here when he’s already got it covered?” And so, I immersed myself and really tried to find ways of lyrically weaving things together.”

The other artists Sklar came to be associated with, in the 70s, were Jackson Browne, playing on his first five albums, and Warren Zevon, playing on four of his albums from ‘Excitable Boy’ onwards. He estimates that he has played on 2,500 albums but unlike many session players has also toured every year since 1970. “I’ll never get sick of life on tour, although I do get tired of certain aspects of it: … That all disappears the minute you walk out on stage though, so to me, the balance is far more in favour of pleasure” In the studio, he often writes his own bass lines. “I would say 80% of the time it’s my ideas, and the other 20% is either they’ve got a chart written out note-for-note or the producer or artist has an idea they want me to try.”

Sklar’s style, like many bassists of his generation, comes from having started out on double bass. He mostly uses the first two fingers of his right hand to pick and holds his left hand loosely on the neck, rather than gripping it tightly as many younger players do. One of the things that helps a bass player out is having particularly long fingers, something Sklar shares with contemporaries Jaco Pastorius and Tony Levin. The fluid style that he has developed over 50 years of playing as well keeps him in demand for sessions in all genres.

While at home over lockdown Sklar has been posting videos reminiscing about some of the songs he has played on and playing along with them. These have been a masterclass for bass players as well as fascinating stories about his career and the people he is played with. Even if you have no interest in the bass guitar it is worth subscribing to his channel to listen to one of the great musicians talk about his craft.

A few of his many album credits. A fairly full discography is at ALL MUSIC

James Taylor
Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon (1971)
Gorilla— (1975)
Jackson Browne
The Pretender (1976)
Running on Empty (1977)
Emmylou Harris / Dolly Parton / Linda Ronstadt
Trio (1987)
Graham Nash
Over The Years… (2016)
Roger McGuinn
Roger McGuinn (1973)

About Rick Bayles 195 Articles
Now living the life of a political émigré in rural France and dreaming of the day I'll be able to sing those Cajun lyrics with an authentic accent!

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