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SNL’s Cool Guitarist Is Happy to Represent the Audience

Back in October 2020, months after Diondre Cole dared to inquire “What up with that?” to viewers at home, a pink guitar beckoned from the stage as Saturday Night Live returned to its normal studio programming. There, just off to the right and in the back of the opening monologue frame, was guitarist Maddie Rice making her debut as part of the show’s live band. Young, hip, and barely 30 years old at the time, the newest addition of the Saturday Night Live Band was notable for a few reasons: the aforementioned young and hipness, as well as the fairly low turnover rate for a stable gig within one of America’s most-watched shows. (There have only been six other vacancies since the start of the millennium, and the longest-serving member, keyboardist Leon Pendarvis, has been there since 1980.) So, yeah, when someone new turns up — and appears over the shoulders of people like John Mulaney, Emma Stone, and that ée guy — you take notice.

Rice didn’t materialize from Gibson vapors. She spent a few years shredding over at The Late Show With Stephen Colbert with Jon Batiste as her bandleader, and went on to accept the SNL position after industry peers recommended her. Now, at over three years into the job, she’s found a balance between her various musical interests and welcomes her legion of monologue fans. “I have this regular gig that’s obviously guitar-focused and keeps me in shape, and much of the rest of my time is devoted to writing,” Rice says. “Both of those creative plates are filled with very healthy portions.”

I remember the first time I saw you during an SNL monologue and thought to myself, Who is this cool chick?! A lot of my friends said the same thing during subsequent episodes.
Oh my gosh, I’m gonna be a great disappointment to you all. But, seriously, that’s awesome and intimidating to know. I had seen monologues with the show’s previous guitarists, so I had a feeling that my seat was likely going to be within the frame. Yeah, I was nervous at first, knowing my face was visible. It’s different than knowing my guitar is audible.

I look at so many comedians’ stories about how SNL is a Mount Olympus–type situation for their career path, but I’ve never considered it from the perspective of a session musician. Do you view that in a similar way? What was your path for getting there?
I ended up in the live-television sphere accidentally. It wasn’t something that I deliberately set out to do. I wanted to be more of a touring guitar player, but I ended up getting a gig on The Late Show randomly, and that worked out pretty well. So when Jared Scharff, my guitar predecessor, stepped down from SNL, it felt like a good fit for me. I had two different people recommend me to the bandleader, so the fact that I had already had the television experience made him feel confident in what I could do.

Who’s the Lorne Michaels figure for the live-band interviews?
For me it was Lenny Pickett, who’s the guy you see sitting in front of me playing saxophone with great hair. He’s been around for decades. It was a little bit weird, because it was the summer of 2020. It was a Zoom interview and audition, which I did in my little walk-in closet, which doubles as the “music studio” in my apartment. He’s a chill, nice guy. I felt relaxed.

How does shooting a weekly show like SNL compare to the daily grind of your time at The Late Show? Did the expectations and freedom differ?
Yes, and that was the main difference for me in wanting this job. SNL has worked a lot better for my energy level. It takes me a long time to recharge between performances and that way I can do a lot of other work during the week that makes me feel more balanced than when I was at The Late Show. It’s been a good change for me. It’s just one day a week, sometimes two, but it’s one really long day. It’s worth it.

What’s the energy level in Studio 8H like?
Super high energy and chaotic in a really great way. I have a friend who’s an ex semiprofessional skier, and he always uses the term “type two fun,” which is meant to describe an experience where you almost died but you didn’t and that’s why it was fun. That’s kind of what SNL is like: It’s barely coming together, we’re barely pulling it off, but that’s it’s fun.

Something silly that I do while watching the opening monologues is observe how you and the other onscreen band members react to jokes. Have you ever come close to extremely losing your ****?
No, but only because by the time the show airs live, I’ve already heard the monologue at least two times. Otherwise I’d be in more danger with that. Nobody has ever told me or given me any feedback about how to look during these monologues. I’ve felt it out. Actually, I was talking to Lenny the other day, and he said something that I’ve never thought of, even though it seems a bit obvious now: We’re the only visual representation of an audience. Like, what a TV audience gets, regularly. That’s pretty cool to think about.

And have there been a few times where you thought, Oh, yikes, this monologue isn’t going too hot?
I’m not a good judge of that. Sometimes I think sketches or jokes aren’t coming off well, and then the feedback afterward seems to be that everyone loves it. And that’s why I’m playing the guitar and not writing jokes.

Photo: Will Heath/NBC via Getty Images

So the monologue ends, the host walks off, and the rest of the show goes into full swing. I realize the likelihood of “a typical episode looks like this” format doesn’t apply to you, so how do you and the band tend to prepare in the days ahead for the live sketches?
When the band is being used in sketches, that’s when we come in on Friday to rehearse with the actors. But even then, we don’t always have to come in. They try to keep us all to a Saturday-only schedule, which, again, is very chaotic, but it’s fun to figure out in real time what’s working and what’s failing. Revisions come in before the dress rehearsal, and then more revisions come in right before the episode airs. We’re scrambling. Parts are always changing. When there’s guitar involved, I’m usually working with Elijah Brueggemann, who’s the sketch music director. He’ll give me some kind of direction that I’ll try to follow, or I’ll offer suggestions, and he’ll tell me if it’s in the right direction. And then we’re scrambling again.

What have been some defining sketches for your work as a guitarist that viewers perhaps wouldn’t have guessed?
I may have a recency bias, but the episode hosted by Kate McKinnon had a sketch called “****** Farm.” I had to come in to record it on a Thursday, which never happens. Kate wrote that song on her guitar, and she came in to record it very loosely in the studio. Then I came in and recorded the guitar over her. It brought me back to my old Joni Mitchell roots. I had so much fun with that, and I love that sketch so much. It’s ******* hilarious.

Have you ever come close to breaking while shredding the guitar for a sketch?
No, I swear. I think I get way too focused and stressed out about the guitar. Whatever laughing muscle is within me isn’t online at that time. I feel it would be a problem if I was a singer, but I can hide behind the guitar.

Is there much opportunity for involvement or collaboration with the musical guests?
No, unfortunately. They always play with tracks or have their own band. Occasionally they’ll do a sketch in the comedy portion of the show with music in it, which means we’ll come in and do that. I enjoyed working with Miley Cyrus a few years ago during her cold open. She sang a Dolly Parton song, and we got to jam out with her. That was a highlight for me.

Who’s the one musical guest so far in your tenure that’s left you starstruck?
From a performance perspective, when Sam Smith came and did “Gloria,” I was blown away. It was just Sam and a madrigal choir. I was so moved at how well-done that was. It was unexpected, which made it all the better.

If the live band got to do a Please Don’t Destroy short, what ideas would you want to see realized?
You know what? I would want the older guys in the band, who have been there for so long, to see their personalities shine through in one of those videos. That’s my dream. If I ruled the world, the Please Don’t Destroy boys would give them that opportunity.


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