In Expert Witness, The A.V. Club talks to industry insiders about the actual business of entertainment in hopes of shedding some light on how the pop-culture sausage gets made.
Every week or two, NBC Studio 8H lights up for a brief period as Saturday Night Live is beamed out into the world, bringing hosts, musical acts, and featured players to living rooms in real time. And while everyone knows the big names associated with the long-running sketch series—Lorne Michaels, Will Ferrell, Kristen Wiig, and so on—there’s a whole group of performers that, while they’re onstage for every show, seldom occupy the spotlight.
We’re talking about the Saturday Night Live house band, a group most recently helmed by saxophonist and longtime band member Lenny Pickett. What does it take to make that group and bring the interstitial heat to SNL? The A.V. Club spoke to Jared Scharff, the group’s guitarist, for a look into the main stage’s shadows.
The A.V. Club: How did you end up on SNL?
Jared Scharff: I was recommended by the previous guitarist, and then I sent some YouTube videos to the band leader, Lenny Pickett. The famous Lenny Pickett of Tower Of Power fame. He’s a sax legend.
That was like the first thing. He asked me to send some YouTube videos, so I did, and that got me in the door. I got my audition with Lenny, just me and him. He called me and was like, “Hey, why don’t you come in, and bring your guitar.” And I was like, ”So, is this an audition?” He said, “Well, you know, not really, but I guess.” And I was like, ah, okay, audition. So I brought my guitar, and we ended up sitting and talking for two hours just getting to know each other, and he asked me a lot of questions about my history and background and all that stuff, just trying to figure out where I came from and what I’d learned. Then we played through some SNL charts, which was kind of hilarious because I had to plug into this terrible, terrible, tiny bass practice amp that literally every knob was broken on, so it just sounded like complete shit. And here I am having to sound awesome and do all this crazy shit.
The first song we did was “If You Don’t Know Me By Now” and, as a guitar player, as a rule, we’re not really good at reading music. If you grow up as a rock ’n’ roll guitar player you don’t really read music. But I had a little bit of that experience through college, so I had to read in the key of B, and this six-eight time signature, which for non-musical people is difficult. I knew the song, and I totally fucked it up. Completely fucked it up. Total mess. Then a second song came on, and there was a solo section in that. I just thought, “I’d better really kick some serious ass because I totally messed up the rest of it.” So I did that, played a couple more songs, that was the end of the audition.
I got a call and came in a month later to do a callback, and at this point it was just down to four guitar players. We did it with the entire rhythm section, and that was pretty nerve-racking. We had almost no time to look at all the charts. It was basically like you went in and everyone’s like, “Hey, hey, what’s up, good to meet you.” Then, “One, two, three, four!” Like, ”Go!” So that was exciting, and we did about six or seven songs.
I got a call a month later after that, like, “You got the job.” My first response was “Really?”
AVC: Why do you think you got the job? What do you think they were looking for besides just chops? Or was it just chops?
JS: I used to go to the show often when my sister was working there, and I always remember watching the band and thinking, “This is something that I would really be a great fit for.” I just always had that feeling. I was always like, “Oh, I would kill this gig.” I don’t know if people believe in like visualization or manifestation, all that stuff, but I definitely put it out there like, “I would be totally awesome doing this.“
I guess the reason I thought that, to answer your question, was that I thought I was well-versed in a lot of styles of music. I did a lot of studying growing up. I went to music school, so I could read guitar music decently. Which, the whole gig is reading. We show up Saturday morning; all our music is on charts. We don’t rehearse except the day of.
So I could read music a little bit. Which, for guitar players who are not jazz players, it’s not a very common thing to grow up learning how to read music for a guitar player. So that was key.
I know Lenny once said that one of the reasons he wanted me to be in the band was because he really liked the energy that I bring, especially when I’m taking solos. It’s kind of like a fire. I just kind of close my eyes and put everything into it. He just thought that energy was really great and would be a really nice fit for the band.
AVC: What’s the schedule like for the SNL band?
JS: I call it the most consistently inconsistent schedule job ever. We show up on Saturday, but every Saturday is different.
AVC: What time do you show up on Saturdays? Does it depend?
JS: Yeah, but generally the band shows up on Saturday morning. We rehearse at 11 a.m. The band plays for about an hour and a half. We go over all the material for the night that we’re going to play as a band, like in between all the commercial breaks.
AVC: Who picks it?
JS: Lenny does all of that. And then we work on whatever sketch music that the band has to be a part of for the show that night. If there is any. Sometimes there’s not. Sometimes there is, and sometimes we play three sketches.
AVC: Sometimes you have play a song for the monologue if the host wants to sing.
JS: Exactly, exactly. And sometimes there’s pre-records—like, I’ll have to go to the music office, and record some guitars for a sketch that needs a pre-recorded track. There’s all these kinds of different little things.
Throughout the day, if we’re playing on sketches, we have to be there for when the sketch is called. We rehearse with everybody and do the whole thing. Then, usually, there’s monologues either before or after our dinner break, which is usually around 5 p.m., and then our band starts a warm-up for the audience before the show starts. We do a little set of a couple of songs, and sometimes I’ll actually even sing a song for the audience, but we do about three to four songs as a band. Then there’s stand-up comedy, and then we play one or two more songs as everything kind of slows down, and the sets are being built, and everyone is getting ready for the cold open.
Then cold open starts, and then we have our practice show. It usually lasts until about 10 p.m. Then we have almost an hour break, and then we start the same thing over again around 10:55. The band gets on stage, and we start warming up the audience again and do our show. The show starts at 11:30, and yes, it is live. You would be surprised, some people still ask me that question, which is ridiculous. I say, “It’s not Saturday Night Taped, it’s Saturday Night Live.” So that’s ridiculous. But anyway, then we’re done at 1. Then there’s usually an after-party, and sometimes an after-after-party, and sometimes I get home at 5 or 6 a.m. It’s a long day.
AVC: You guys look crammed in there on stage.
JS: It’s more spacious than it looks on TV. The studio’s kind of small. I think everyone’s general first thought when they see it is, “Oh, it’s a lot smaller than I thought it was.” But I got my little station, and I’ve got a little TV, so I can watch the show or know when I’ve got to mime. When I did the Kate McKinnon cold open a few weeks ago and she played the “Back In Black” thing? That was me playing guitar. I’m watching on my screen, and I’ve got to play when she moves her hand and it’s totally not rehearsed. I mean, we rehearsed it, but it’s live, and whatever happens happens.
One of my favorite things I ever did was playing that sketch with Fred Armisen when he was in this punk band playing at his daughter’s wedding, and Dave Grohl was the drummer. Ashton Kutcher was playing in that sketch. So I was playing guitar with those guys to Dave Grohl playing drums. I’m watching on screen, I’m totally nowhere near them, but I’m like rocking out with Dave Grohl. It was so crazy.
AVC: It seems like you hardly practice.
JS: No, we do that during the day. If I am playing on a sketch, or if the band is playing on a sketch, we rehearse the sketch full-out during the day. So that sketch was played during the day, and any little things that needed to be figured out were. In that sketch, for instance, Dave needed my guitar louder in the monitor to be able to hear me. I think at one point, Ashton came over to me just to double-check where I was playing and what I was doing, and he asked me to show him something. It’s how all those things get figured out and tweaked together.
When we did the Kate McKinnon Hillary Clinton cold open thing a few weeks ago, we worked on the “Back To Black” thing, and there were conversations. There were tweaks. I initially played the whole part, but then we wanted to tweak it. Things keep changing constantly, basically, until the live show. Always. We work out the kinks and edit from there.
AVC: How many cues do you have per show?
JS: We usually have about seven or eight. I could be wrong, but I feel like, basically, as many commercial breaks as there are, we’re playing. So, what is that? Like seven? Maybe seven to nine. We do closing theme, opening theme, always a song before the [guest] band, so that’s two more. Usually about two to three before each thing, so probably like eight or nine.
AVC: And some of those are 15 seconds long, probably.
JS: Usually it’s for a commercial, so sometimes it’ll be short. It just depends on the commercial break. Sometimes we’ll play a song and we’ll have to stretch it because we need more time, so we’ll just jam. Sometimes we’ll play and for some reason it will be, like, 20 seconds. It totally just depends. But usually we get to play a good minute and a half, usually. Minute, I guess. Something like that on average.
AVC: Other than the Dave Grohl story, what are some other memorable moments you’ve had on the show?
JS: My favorite moment was this Mick Jagger moment. So Mick Jagger and Jeff Beck played a song together when Kristen Wiig was leaving a couple of season ago, and Jeff had his bass player and his drummer come up, but the rest of the band was able to stay and play with those guys. So I was playing guitar. And there was this moment during Jeff Beck’s solo—and Jeff Beck is, like, a god. He’s amazing. I’m playing and just kind of having this whole vibe of, like, “I can’t believe this, I can’t believe this, this is crazy, this is crazy,” and all of a sudden I see Mick Jagger shimmy down to one side of the stage. And he happens to catch my eye, and we kind of share this moment. I look at him; he’s looking at me. He gives me this look. This smile, this like, “This is pretty cool, huh, kid?” You know? I just laughed and smiled, and he went back into Mick Jagger land. I was just like, “Holy shit, that was so cool.” I got to have a playing moment on stage with Mick Jagger. We had some contact. That’s crazy. Never in my life would I have imagined that would ever happen. Ever.
AVC: You have a pretty weird job.
JS: Yeah. I lucked out in the music department for sure.
Another one that was kind of really crazy for me was—so when we play songs for warmup, we get to do some covers sometimes. We were playing this Led Zeppelin song, “Out In The Tiles,” the show when Them Crooked Vultures played. So John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin was in the house. Dave Grohl comes out during dress. For the live show, he knows we’re playing “Out In The Tiles” and he brings out John Paul Jones. So there’s Dave Grohl and John Paul Jones watching our band play the Zeppelin song, and I’m sitting there taking guitar solos to the Zeppelin song, having John Paul Jones watch me, and I’m literally just freaking out. Like, “This is so crazy.” That was pretty nuts.
I’ll give you another one. The first concert I ever went to was Eric Clapton’s Journeyman tour. My parents took me to that when I was a kid. I’m a huge Clapton fan. And I always remembered the drummer. I never knew who he was, but he really stuck out in my head, because I was a drummer originally. I just remember this amazing drummer with this sunburst drum kit—I totally remembered his face and his vibe. I remembered everything, but I didn’t know who he was. And then years later, he ended up joining Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers, and I learned that it was this guy Steve Ferrone. So I knew who he was for many years. Huge Tom Petty fan as well. One day Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers are playing the show. And who comes up and sits in with the SNL house band? Steve Ferrone. That was my first full-circle moment on the show, where I was like, “Holy shit. This dude who I remember from my first concert as an amazing drummer, I’m now playing with.” That was a pretty nuts moment.
AVC: How many seasons have you been on the show?
JS: This is my ninth season, which, I don’t know how that happened. I don’t know how time has flown by like that. But it’s my ninth season, and it’s as unpredictable as it ever was. That’s what makes it really exciting, you know?
AVC: Can you hang in there forever? Can you become the new Lenny Pickett?
JS: I don’t know. It really depends on how long this show decides to continue on and what happens. Who knows? In theory, yeah. I could do this forever. You know, if the show continues on forever. But it remains to be seen, I suppose. But right now, it’s pretty special to be a part of that band playing with these guys. They’re all world-class musicians, and they’re really great dudes, and we just have such a blast. The hang is great. The music’s great. You know, you can’t ask for a better scenario.
Part of the thing that I love the most in playing with the band is I get to be very free and creative. I do a lot of guitar solos. I don’t have anything written out for that. I can just solo. I can just do whatever. Obviously you’ve got to stay in the confines of the style of the song, but I love to play guitar solos and I love to create and be free, and just to be able to do that in this scenario is really cool. Sometimes you do these other gigs—like, you do some pop gigs, or you do some other stuff. You’re just playing guitar parts, and there’s not much to it. That’s fun too, in its own way, but I love being able to just do whatever I want to do and really just jam out. It’s really open and cool in that way.
AVC: Can you talk about the projects that you do on your own on the side?
JS: Through SNL I’ve gotten some great recommendations. Now I’m part of the Sting rainforest—you know the Sting and Trudie Styler rainforest benefit show they put on at Carnegie Hall every other year? I’ve done that three times, which has been totally bizarre, me playing a guitar solo to “Don’t Stop Believing” back-to-back with Sting. Like, literally, Joe Perry and Steven Tyler. Guitar dudes, back-to-back with Sting, next to Elton John and Bruce Springsteen and Lady Gaga at the same time. You’re just like, “What is going on?” So there’s been some cool things like that.
I’ve done more house band gigs, like I did CBS’ Fashion Rocks back in the day, which was with M.D. Steve Jordan, and we played a duet with Justin Timberlake and Beyoncé. Shit like that. Where you’re just like, “This is crazy.” I’ve done a lot of things like that since I started the SNL thing.
I still do a lot of session stuff. I just played on the entire Sara Bareilles Waitress album this past year. I played the guitars on that whole album, which was really cool. That was a blast. That was a bunch of days at Electric Lady Studios.
I just did a song for Zayn Malik, so, recorded a track for him a couple of months ago. That was cool.
AVC: How do you get hired for that stuff? Is it just friends of friends?
JS: Yeah, the producer and Sara both knew me and knew what I do and my playing, and other people had recommended me as well. So that’s how I got that job. The Zayn thing, one of the musicians thought I would be good for it, so I got hired. It’s all usually word of mouth or recommendations, or knowing the people and them knowing that you would be good for it.
The majority of my time is spent doing Pearl Lion, which is my producer project, and just my music. I’m putting stuff out for that now. I just released my first video last month, which is a collaboration with Fox ADHD. It’s a very unique experience to do a half-animated, half-in real life video. That’s my main focus for the most part, and then when I get these really fun gigs, I’ll do them. I do all these little odds and ends whenever something comes my way that I think will be fun and cool musically.
AVC: So you’re just hustling.
JS: I just want to make music and be creative every day. I want to be at that top level. Musically as a guitar player, doing the SNL thing and the type of gigs that I’m getting, I feel like I’m kind of in that place. But the next step for me is getting the producer thing and my artist project off the ground, and that’s something I’m really interested in pushing.
AVC: And do you think SNL can help with that?
JS: I think it’s a great foot in the door. I think that that title at least gets someone’s attention. I think the rest is entirely up to what the music is and what the caliber of what I’m doing is. That’s not an issue because I really believe in what I do, I believe in myself, and I believe in the music I’m creating. If SNL is what grabs people’s attention, that’s great, and if that starts the conversation, that’s great. But SNL is one thing that I do, and I have a lot of other things that I do outside of that. I think slowly but surely those things are going to get out there. People are going to start hearing and seeing and knowing and loving, hopefully, like the other things that I do as well. At least that’s my desire. That’s the hope and dream. And even if it doesn’t happen, so what? SNL is a dream job, and I’m happy to be there, and I’m happy to be a part of that. Everything else on top of that is gravy.