The ‘SNL’ Guitarist Says the ‘SNL’ Saxophonist Is the Lorne Michaels of the ‘SNL’ Band
As is the case with the cast, the Saturday Night Live Band has a hierarchy — and the man with the sax sits in the big chair.
The relationship between the long-running sketch comedy institution and its live, in-studio music accompaniment is one of those understated aspects of Saturday Night Live that is inextricably tied to the history of the show. Legendary composer Howard Shore originated the role of bandleader, first laying down the theme music that’s still in use today. G.E. Smith, the bandleader and lead guitarist from 1985 to 1995, was even married to SNL giant Gilda Radner for a short period of time. And, today, the group is led by Smith’s successor, the iconic Tower of Power saxophonist Lenny Pickett, who, like show creator Lorne Michaels, wields his seniority with awesome authority over the rest of the music act.
Since 2020, Utah-born Maddie Rice has been the Saturday Night Live Band’s lead guitarist, holding a prominent position in both the ensemble and the stage picture as she and her hot pink guitar can be seen onstage behind the host during each Saturday’s monologue. In an interview with Vulture Rice gave a behind-the-scenes account of life as a musician in Studio 8H, which included the entirely predictable admission that, to both current and aspiring SNL band members, Pickett is their Michaels. I imagine he’d fire the entire Season 11 cast with a burnin’ solo instead of a literal fire.
“For me it was Lenny Pickett,” Rice plainly answered the question of who in the band is the most authoritative and positively patriarchal. Rice described the bandleader as “the guy you see sitting in front of me playing saxophone with great hair. He’s been around for decades.” Rice recalled the process of auditioning for Pickett in the early months of the pandemic, saying, “It was a little bit weird, because it was the summer of 2020. It was a Zoom interview and audition,” but Pickett’s presence but her at ease. “He’s a chill, nice guy. I felt relaxed,” she said.
For that reason, Pickett seems like a poor comparison for the SNL founder and producer — of all the words that SNL auditioners have used to describe their first meeting with Michaels, “chill,” “nice” and “relaxed” aren’t in the lexicon — even Tina Fey, his possible successor, wrote in her autobiography Bossypants that, upon entering Michaels’ office, she struggled to “remember how normal human speech patterns worked.”
Still, with almost 30 years of experience leading the SNL band under his belt, no one else in the history of the show could come close to the title of “Bandleader Lorne” — assuming, of course, that Michaels' purportedly imminent retirement isn't so that he can spent more time with his sax.