When it came to studio perfectionism, nobody reached the levels of exact precision like Steely Dan. Walter Becker and Donald Fagan infamously dropped their original band of players around the recording of Pretzel Logic and began substituting in some of the best sessions musicians in the business to cover their complex arrangements. But even the best players oftentimes didn’t make it on to a record.
The peak of Becker and Fagan’s demanding nature came during the recording of their landmark sixth studio album, Aja. Although the album only has seven tracks, the duo’s desire to reach the highest quality possible meant that over thirty different musicians rotated through the studio over the course of the nearly eight-month-long production, including legendary figures like Bernard Purdie, Wayne Shorter, Larry Carlton, and Jim Keltner.
Entire bands would be shuffled in and out, with Becker and Fagan stating in the Classic Albums documentary that they eventually felt sorry for the elite group of musicians that would come in for the first sessions of the day, as the duo already knew that before they started playing that their takes wouldn’t be used. Most of those early sessions were for Becker and Fagan to workshop the song’s arrangement, picking apart when they liked and disliked to the most minute of details.
One of the more infamous compositions was ‘Peg’, the album’s first single. Although it’s less than four minutes long, eleven musicians are credited on the final take, including prominent backing vocals from The Doobie Brothers lead vocalist Michael McDonald. Although jazz guitarist Steve Kahn played the song’s intricate rhythm part, the duo let a whole slew of players attempt the song’s guitar solo. “This tune I think is infamous among studio players,” Fagan explains. “In that, we hired a couple of guitar players to play the solo, and it wasn’t quite what we were looking for”.
The duo doesn’t mention any players by name, but they estimate that the number of guitarists who came in and attempted the solo before being discarded ranged anywhere from five to eight. Those attempts were kept on tape, and the pair go through a couple of examples of unused takes during the Classic Albums documentary. In their signature dry style, they make brief comments on some of the takes, with Fagan jokingly asking Becker: “Wouldn’t you hate if someone did this to you?”.
After a couple of effect-heavy takes that ended up on the cutting room floor, the two eventually play the iconic final take from session player Jay Graydon. Becker describes Graydon as whipping off the solo “with no difficulty whatsoever”, which sounds vaguely insulting to other guitarists in the pair’s own incredibly droll way. Despite the technical proficiency of the other takes, it’s hard to argue that the two didn’t choose the perfect one. Graydon’s solo is hard-edged and dynamic in ways that make the other solos sound twee in comparison. Once again, despite the extremeness of their perfection, the results speak for themselves with another Steely Dan classic.