30 Rockefeller Center’s famed Studio 8H, where Saturday Night Live has been broadcasting for the past 42 seasons, was originally designed for radio. NBC gave Arturo Toscanini, the famed Italian conductor, his own orchestra (aptly dubbed the NBC Symphony) and the space was constructed with him in mind. From the late 30s to early 50s, live music radiated from this studio and out into the rest of the country, with cultural moments manufactured on a regular basis. Fast-forward around 80 years later and not much has changed. However, instead of Toscanini waving his baton, there’s now a different generation of artists making music.
Since its inception, the house band for Saturday Night Live has made an indelible mark on the famed comedy institution and popular culture at large. By providing the genre-spanning soundtrack, from its jazzy theme to rockin’ interstitials and even the melancholy ‘goodnight’ song, the band is an invaluable asset, and at the same time, simply part of the surroundings. Throughout its run, the legendary collective has had a knack for capturing talented musicians on the rise, kicking off with the film composer Howard Shore and Letterman bandleader Paul Shaffer in 1975. Later years saw a guy then known as Lukasz Gottwald on the guitar, preceding his transformation into the pop hitmaker Dr. Luke. These days, that pedigree has continued.
“My heart was beating a mile a minute.” That’s how the band’s current lead guitarist, Jared Scharff, remembers feeling when he got word that he landed the gig, getting the call just as he was about kick off a trip exploring Napa Valley, California. “I said this is either going to be the best vacation or the worst,” he laughs. “When I heard I was hired my first response was like, ‘Really?!’” Typically humble, Scharff was taken aback that he was about take over the reins of the coveted job. “This is the best guitar gig anywhere, period,” he notes. “With this band, we get the creative freedom to explore and put a little bit of our own sauce into this thing. I get to do lot of different things and we get to play all different kinds of styles, from Broadway to jazz to whatever. It’s just a whole vibe.”
On this particular Saturday morning, that “whole vibe” Scharff is alluding is a palpable force in the air. In 12 hours, host Melissa McCarthy will take the stage with musical guest Haim, and Toscanini’s old stomping grounds are a crowded mess of sets and stagehands, all accented by the vague smell of paint in the air, a stench somehow romanticized by just being in this space. Speaking from his dressing room, Scharff notes that the band typically hits their marks for an 11 a.m. rehearsal and jam for the next hour and a half all while getting brief, friendly notes from bandleader and musical director Lenny Pickett, the longtime saxophonist and a face familiar to viewers of the show (he’s perched to the right of where the host delivers the monologue). Some songs the group ran through on Saturday are ones they’ve performed a million times (an instrumental cover of The Impressions’ 1965 classic “People Get Ready”), while others are ones they’re working the kinks out of (Curtis Mayfield’s 1970 hit “Move On Up,” which involves an unforgiving, continuous strum that Scharff later said fatigued his hands). There’s also the sheet music for the songs the band is seeing for the first time in rehearsal, which due to the lightning-fast pace of the show makes being a skilled sight-reader a must. Ironically, that wasn’t Scharff’s strong suit at first. “I remember Lenny sending me six CDs with about hundred charts,” Scharff says. “I was completely stressed. I was never really great at reading music and didn’t have a ton of experience. It was really challenging having to look at all this stuff. Obviously, I got better at it from doing it, but the amount of songs I had to learn was in the hundreds.”
When the band is together, it feels less like a high-stakes rehearsal with only hours to go until a coast-to-coast broadcast and more like a bunch of friends having fun. For Scharff, high stakes performances are nothing new. “I remember the 40th anniversary show,” he says. “I was playing a song right up front and saying to myself, ‘Oh, there’s Jack Nicholson… Oh, there’s Robert De Niro…. Oh, there’s Leonardo DiCaprio. Just like… What?
“I’m still like, ‘Wow.’ It’s my work, so it’s not strange… But it’s always like, ‘Holy shit.’ I’m so happy to be able to make music for a living first of all, because that’s next to impossible to do. And to not only be able to do that, but to do it with your heroes and people you’ve always dreamed of playing with?” Scharff has examples for days. Like the time he played a Led Zeppelin song in front of Zeppelin’s own John Paul Jones. (“Never in my life did I ever think I’d be in the same room as a dude from Zeppelin, let alone play for him.”) Or when he was jamming backstage with Steve Martin on banjo. Or a moment, the moment, with Mick Jagger. “He’s shimmying around the stage as Mick Jagger does, and he walks back to one side of the stage and I’m watching him. He turns and we catch each other’s eyes and I’m kind of laughing and smiling at the intensity of what’s happening, and he gives me this shit eating grin of a smile like, ‘This is pretty awesome, huh kid?’ and turned back into Mick Jagger land.”
Meanwhile, back in Jared Scharff land, things are busy. Aside from his association with Saturday Night Live, his main calling card, the forward-thinking Scharff has, like many castmembers and writers, a voracious appetite for growth and creativity. That’s part of the reason why he launched the YouTube series Unnecessary Shredding, which features Scharff in a variety of locations doing what he does best. “I was thinking that a lot of people don’t get to see me rock out because I don’t play live really unless I’m at a benefit or they come to the show.” As a result, a series was born that finds him ripping his guitar to pop hits. One finds Scharff in front of the Eiffel Tower playing along to Major Lazer’s “Lean On,” while another sees Scharff skating around the ice at Chelsea Piers, guitar in hand. In fact, it’s that video that led Scharff to another gig that whets his appetite for his other love, hockey — he’s also a part of Madison Square Garden’s quasi-house band during a spate of recent games for storied New York Rangers. “We’ll play full songs during pregame and intermission,” Scharff says of the gig. If SNL is the number one job for a musician in New York, playing at The Garden has to be number two. “It’s me and the organ player who’s always there, and sometimes their regular guitar player will come in and we’ll do songs like ‘Crazy Train’ or ‘Frankenstein.’ We’re working our nuts off out there.”
So with SNL, Unnecessary Shredding, the Rangers gig and his session work (like when he’s playing on a recent Sara Bareilles album, for example), that about covers it all, right? Not quite. Lately, Scharff has also sunk his time and resources into an artist project dubbed Pearl Lion (see the trailer below). “The goal is to be someone who’s creating, pushing boundaries, and doing interesting things that are still accessible.” Pearl Lion checks all those boxes, with the guitarist crafting original instrumental tracks (an upcoming video of one such track features the model Ashley Smith). The entire venture was influenced, in some way, by the revolving door of the top-charting artists in the country who grace 8H’s musical guest space just few feet from where he sits. “I’d see all these bands and say, ‘What makes them so unique? What makes them special? Why are they here?’ It took me a long, hard look about what I was doing to realize that I think my truest form of creativity and self and expression and magic is through my guitar and creating with that. That’s my biggest strength.” As such, he’s doubling down on Pearl Lion. “I initially started doing this for fun, writing these ideas and recording. I remember hearing the first full mix of a song and I just thought, ‘Holy shit, this is real.’ I want (this project) to be the most true and most honest as I can be.”
That honesty is at the intersection of great comedy and meaningful music. Both art forms hold a mirror to the culture at large and can be cathartic, fun and thoughtful. And like a song that hits No. 1 on the charts, a sketch on Saturday Night Live that winds up in the cultural lexicon is not much different. Both share a special quality, both unmistakable yet simultaneously mysterious. With this in mind, back in 8H, rehearsal is over and Scharff has some downtime, the perfect opportunity to tell another story. “Once Lenny called me in to record some guitar music for a sketch,” Scharff recalls. “So I do this little thing and leave. The show airs and I hear my guitar and it’s cool, but then I watch the sketch it was for and I’m like ‘Wow.’” The bit Scharff recorded as an afterthought was for the now-legendary soap opera parody The Californians, with his riffs creating the foundation for its entire silly premise. “You just don’t know sometimes.” For Scharff, it’s just another facet of the job that he’s both wowed by and accustomed to.
“It’s fun. We’re getting paid to play music. What is there to complain about? We’re lucky. I think everybody understands how lucky we are to play in this band.”