Back in 2011, Glide called Scott Sharrard, “Gregg Allman’s Secret Weapon.” But that anonymity didn’t last long. Joining the band in 2008, by 2011 the guitar player was feeling right at home within the rhythms and harmony of Allman’s solo band; so much so, that he has done nothing but soar ever since. Currently the Musical Director for the group, Sharrard put on a shining example this past Saturday night in Baton Rouge of what a supportive, nurturing band environment can do for a talented young man. His playing was off the hook, passionate and at times quite playful amidst a boogie woogie blues. The Secret Weapon has become 007 with a Gibson.
Hailing from Michigan, Sharrard has made his home in New York for quite a few years now, where he often plays with his own band when he’s not on the road with Allman. He has four solo albums under his belt, not to mention several records with his early band The Chesterfields, and has recently been collaborating with Allman on some original material. In fact, they have been playing one of Sharrard’s compositions, “Love Like Kerosene,” during their shows, and which is heard on Allman’s latest live album, Back To Macon, GA.
“My home musically at the end of the day is soul and R&B mixed with the blues,” Sharrard told Hittin’ The Note Magazine, and that is a big part of his flavor as a guitar player. “I grew up loving blues and soul music, especially the music of Stax Records,” he told Glide during the 2011 interview. “That’s my touchstone, especially Stax Records. Booker T & The MGs, Johnnie Taylor, Otis Redding, Albert King on Stax. That’s my concept of music I played being at its best.”
We caught up with Sharrard via phone on New Year’s Eve before the band played a show in Atlanta to find out what was coming up for him, the Gregg Allman Band and a little more about his guitar sound.
The band has changed a little since the last time I saw you guys play about two years ago. Can you update us?
Yeah, we’ve had some personnel changes. We brought in Pete Levin of the Blind Boys Of Alabama and he is playing piano with us now. He took over for Ben Stivers, although Ben actually plays on the live album that is out right now, so kind of right after that. Then in the horn section we have these two cats from Memphis that are really great: Marc Franklin plays trumpet and Art Edmaiston plays sax. They also play in a great band out of Memphis called the Bo-Keys and they’ve played with a lot of Memphis music legends. Jay Collins is still with us on tenor sax, Steve Potts is still with us on drums and then Ron Johnson is playing bass. Ron played for many years with Karl Denson and the Warren Haynes Band. Then Marc Quinones plays percussion.
You just played Atlanta last night. How is everybody sounding?
Everyone is doing great and getting along great and we’ve had some exciting stuff happen on this particular run because Don Was attended our rehearsals and we worked up a bunch of new songs and we’re ready to go in the studio pretty much. So in March, we’re booked to go in Fame Studio at Muscle Shoals, the original Muscle Shoals recording studio, with Don Was producing and we’re going to make a new record.
So you’re going to get to play on this one?
Yep, the whole band
Did you get to write any songs with Gregg for this album?
I did. I’ve got a couple songs I wrote with him that are going to be on the record and then he’s also going to record a new version of “Love Like Kerosene” that we’re doing with a slightly different feel. That’s one of my tunes from a few years ago that he’s been covering.
You know, Gregg has really taken great care of me. I’ve been playing with the band for almost eight years and the band has been kind of like, I don’t know, it’s been like sort of an incubator for me as a musician, as a songwriter, and now I’m his band leader so I’m leading the band for him, doing the arrangements, working with the guys on his behalf, writing songs with him. I mean, he’s really embraced me and helped me grow also as a person in the process. It’s been a great opportunity.
What’s coming up this year for you and your solo band?
Honestly, I’m touring so much with Gregg this year I don’t know how much I’ll be able to do but I do have some exciting gigs coming up with my band, mostly in New York City. We play every Thursday night at a club in Brooklyn called Bar Chord. It used to be a guitar store and then they changed it into a club and it’s an amazing little club. It’s like going to Chickie Wah Wah or Maple Leaf in New Orleans or something; a little smaller but great atmosphere, and we play there every Thursday and we play two sets. There’s no cover. We get different special guests every week. We get a lot of great musicians come down and play with us. So that has been kind of our incubator in New York City to develop the band. We’ve also recently started working at Rockwood Music Hall, Stage 2, which is a really fantastic room, and we just packed the place the last time we played there. It was totally sold out. So we’re going to start playing there every other month. And that’s actually in Manhattan on the Lower East Side.
I’m also going to be bringing my band out to Ohio to the Fur Peace Ranch in the summer. It’s Jorma Kaukonen from Jefferson Airplane’s annual guitar camp and the instructors for the whole weekend are going to be me, GE Smith and Larry Campbell; the three of us with Jorma. Then on Saturday night of that weekend they’re flying my band in and we’re going to do a whole show and those guys are going to sit in with us and stuff and I was told it was going to be broadcast on NPR as well.
So I’m doing that and then I’m doing a lot more guitar instructional stuff, I’m producing a couple of records for other artists and I’m getting ready to make what will be my fifth solo album. I don’t know when we’re going to do it. It keeps getting pushed back because of stuff with Gregg but I have all of the material written and I already have a plan. I’m going to record it in Memphis with a lot of the original Hi Records session guys, the Hodges brothers and Howard Grimes, all the guys who played on those Al Green records and Stax records and Hi records. We’re just getting funding together right now. Otherwise, we’ve got the whole thing lined up. We’ve just got to find the time to pull the trigger. So before 2016 is over I’ll have a new solo album out.
With Gregg no longer doing the Allman Brothers, does that mean the solo band will be doing more shows?
There’s a lot of exciting dates that are coming up. I’m not sure how many of them are public but what I understand is that we’re going to be doing a lot of double-bill tours with ZZ Top this summer. We’re definitely going to be playing some more laid back festivals. We did it in Jones Beach and it was a huge success so expect to see a few of those.
In Gregg’s band you play a lot of blues and southern sounds but you actually have R&B and soul roots in you as well.
Yeah, I’ve always loved soul music. I’ve always said that the definitive moment of my life was when I was a kid and my parents took me to see an actual showing in a movie theatre of the Monterey Pop Festival. In that festival you see Otis Redding perform live with Booker T & The MGs and the Memphis Horns. Then you see Jimi Hendrix and for me, ever since then, my sweet spot is kind of the merging of those sounds. Soul music is an unbelievable amalgamation of Jazz, blues, gospel and even country. When you hear soul singers do country tunes it’s unbelievable. It was absolutely a defining influence on rock & roll as well. So I think it’s an essential ingredient in any band. Even when you listen to the great British bands of the sixties, you can hear soul music, you hear the sounds of Motown and Stax and all those great New Orleans records. You can hear it imbued in every Beatles record and every Led Zeppelin record and Stones record and of course in all the music of Memphis where rock & roll comes from. It’s one of our main genres in American music so you really can’t play music without knowing it; that’s kind of what it comes down to.
For me, I put it to the front and I have to say that I’ve been delighted to find working with Gregg that we kind of hear music the same way in that respect. He is a soul music aficionado and one of the greatest, and I guess the term they call it when a white boy sings soul is blue-eyed soul. But if there’s any great blue-eyed soul singer, and you can count them on one hand, I’d have to say Gregg is number one followed by Steve Winwood and Michael McDonald. He’s certainly, for me, I think the best soul and white soul and blues singer of his generation.
As a vocalist, I think what really hooked me with soul music is the power of the singers because for my money, soul music has the best vocalists that we’ve ever had in American music history: Aretha Franklin, Sam Cooke, Ray Charles, Bobby Womack, Johnnie Taylor, Bobby Bland. It doesn’t get any better than these people. They are the most inspiring, of my life certainly, especially when you look at someone like Ray Charles who is considered to be one of the pioneers of soul music. What a pure combination of musical styles in his music – the elements of Jazz and blues, country & western, even Classical at times, that comes out of soul music. So I think soul and rock & roll are relatives. I always say that my band in particular we are a rock & roll band – we’re just a rock & roll band that plays rock & roll in a traditional American style, which means that it’s imbued with the best of American music, which is soul, Jazz and blues.
You mentioned how you and Gregg hear music the same way. When you first started playing with him did you have to adjust your playing style to fit his music and his rhythm?
You know what, it was seamless because as a kid I learned to play the guitar listening to the Allman Brothers. They were one of the most influential bands. I always felt that the Allman Brothers were the most soulful of all the rock bands, in my opinion. They were the closest of all the rock & roll bands to the roots of what that great American music is; certainly because they were from the American south. But then they had the ability to explore all these different genres of music and they had the courage to present it in a way that it hadn’t been done before. So that has always been an inspiration for me.
When I joined Gregg’s band it was sort of a continuation of that education that began for me when I was a kid. I remember vividly when I was ten, eleven, twelve and listening over and over again to Allman Brothers records and practicing with them over and over and over and over again, learning every lick, every song, every chord, every lyric, just memorizing it. In fact, the first time I ever heard of King Curtis was from an Allman Brothers record. When the Dreams box set came out when I was a young kid, I got it as a gift and there’s that track where they play “Soul Serenade” into “You Don’t Love Me” and I remember there was that whole speech that Duane gives on it about King Curtis being killed and talking about how much King Curtis meant to them. As a young kid, that just sent me running to the record bins to educate myself. You know, who is King Curtis? I find him and then the rabbit hole just deepens. So I had always been educated by the band and the style of music from the earliest age. So when I joined Gregg’s band, it was almost like playing in my bedroom as a kid again when I was playing some of the songs.
When did you start creating your own songs?
Right away. One of the first things I got, and again this goes back to being probably around twelve or thirteen years old, my dad got me a 4-track cassette recorder. My dad is also a musician, a singer and songwriter and guitar player, and he was a professional for a long time. He’s actually back to it full-time again now. He was out of the business for many years but he was an inspiration for me to kind of find my own way. I was already putting bands together when I was twelve. I was always the kid who was going out and corralling a bunch of kids and at our house we had a drum kit, a bass, a keyboard and guitars. So we had like a full band setup and I’d be bringing kids over and teaching them to play every instrument.
Then I got the 4-track and I was doing the 4-track recordings when I was playing every instrument. In fact, on my first two solo albums I play all the instruments – bass, drums, guitar and keyboards. So I’ve always been heavily into the whole creative process – the arranging of the music, the writing – and I started writing songs then, although they weren’t really anything serious and some of it was like sort of a deconstruction. I’d take a popular song and deconstruct it and then try to come up with my own way to do it and I was recording all of it and multi-track recording all of it at that young age.
I think I’ve always been conscious of trying to be as creative as possible and challenging myself but also I’ve memorized and played so many songs over the course of my life, thousands and thousands of not just guitar solos but horn solos and trumpet solos, keyboard solos. I made a big point of memorizing as much of the great music as I can so that I have it at my disposal when I need to be creative. So there’s a lot that goes into this and basically that’s the method that all these guys had back in the day. Someone like Duane Allman was certainly a voracious interpreter who translated that into being a bandleader and ultimately he was an innovator musically.
As a composer, do you have a lot of riffs stored up to fall back on when you’re creating new music or do you prefer that spontaneity?
Well, I’ve gotten to the point, and I’d say it’s more recently, where I just try to let everything flow. Because I’m lucky enough to be in the spot now being the Music Director and guitarist of Gregg Allman’s band and writing songs with him as a creative outlet to my own band where I do the same but at an obviously higher level of responsibility but it’s a similar muscle cause I have to lead the band, arrange the band and for that group I write all the music, which is a more intense function, and there’s also all the economic risks and insanity to traveling (laughs). But basically I spend all my time doing those two things and then occasionally producing an artist, which also basically uses the same muscle. And then teaching, which is kind of like a conduit of taking all those experiences and sharing those experiences with other people and helping them to use the knowledge you’re sharing to change what they do hopefully for the better.
So I feel that everything works as one piece right now and I feel very lucky for that. I don’t have a disjointed sort of sideman musical mentality right now where it’s like, “Okay, I guess I’ll do this gig and then I’ll do that gig and I’ll be this guy.” I feel like I get to be the same guy at work every day, whether it’s Gregg’s band or my band. That’s a pretty amazing place to be in and I wasn’t able to do that until recently. So everything is just all about a flow for me right now. Whether I’m writing or playing a gig or teaching one of these guitar clinics or producing another artist, whatever it is that I’m doing, I just let it flow and I see where it takes me. I still practice all the time and listen to music all the time and I’m constantly learning.
I was just in Nashville and every time I’m there I track down Jack Pearson and I hang out with him and it’s always inspiring on so many levels as a creative person. He’s definitely my favorite guitar player that’s with us at this point and he’s also a great singer and songwriter and artist. He’s really inspiring and so much better than all of us. And to play with Gregg every night too. It’s important to be around those people. I’ve been extremely lucky to be in this position where I can know these people and have the opportunity to learn from them and get to know them as human beings, cause you find out also that they’re just these fascinating people with a lot of really interesting life experiences and musical philosophy. It’s a great world to live in. If you love music, it doesn’t really get any better than playing with Gregg Allman.
When you first started learning to play guitar, what was the most difficult part to get the hang of?
That’s an interesting question. I still struggle with trying to get what I hear in my head onto the instrument (laughs). Obviously, it sounds like a really basic answer but that’s always sort of been the challenge. The first thing I learned on the guitar was a Jimmy Reed shuffle blues pattern and I still think it’s the best thing I ever learned on the guitar. I mean, everything in that Jimmy Reed twelve bar blues shuffle pattern, all the lessons of what you need to do on the guitar, are in there and you can do things that are infinitely more complex, obviously, but playing a solid rhythm guitar part that grooves and sets up a mood and creates this vibe, that, as a guitar player, I think is your ultimate goal and that translates into complexity as you get better and you get more versatile on the instrument. But you’ve always got to have that in the back of your mind. The simplicity of a Jimmy Reed blues pattern is one of the best sounds, particularly on an electric guitar. And that stuck with me throughout everything.
In terms of being challenged, I always challenge myself to play more proficiently. I went to a high school of the arts where I studied Jazz, I played with a bunch of virtuosic musicians. I’ve had the good fortune of that throughout my life in all kinds of genres. But simplicity is what wins at the end of the day. I like to say as I get older I try to subtract more notes. That’s probably the most difficult thing about playing an instrument is to communicate a universal message in a simple way that doesn’t look or feel complex but is. I think I’ve been struggling with that since the beginning, since I got baited and the bait for me was once I could hold that rhythm guitar part and my dad could solo or sing over it, and I felt that I was accompanying him and I was the band, that was the moment that hooked me for life.
It’s translated itself into many ways, to playing with bands and all these different situations musically I’ve found myself in. But it always comes back to that moment where you can hold down the fort and I think a lot of guitar players forget that with all the soloing and the rock guitar and the blues guitar virtuoso thing. That’s all great, I love all that music and I love to play in that style, but my favorite thing at the end of the day is locking in with the rhythm section and playing a fucking great song. That’s the reward that will keep giving night after night after night after night. And that’s what I get on Gregg’s gig and luckily enough on my gig we have elements of that as well. But with Gregg, you have these iconic amazing songs and this amazing singer and a great band that interprets the music correctly. That’s the gold standard: great songs, great singer, great band. That comes first. The soloing is like the icing on the cake. Even though I love to do it and I study it endlessly, I just don’t think you’re anywhere without those other elements, at least as far as I’m concerned. Being part of the band is important.
What guitar do you use primarily nowadays?
Well, for years I’ve been using this Gibson custom shop 336, which is like a slightly smaller version of a 335 with a special tone chamber inside it. I’ve had it customized to a certain extent but it’s like a 335; it’s a semi-hollow Gibson.
Are you still using the small pick?
No, I went exactly in the other direction. Back to Jack Pearson, he turned me on to these Wegen picks, which are huge and they sound unbelievable. You’ve got to order them though from this guy in Norway and they’re like $12 bucks a pick or something.
As you’ve developed and grown as a musician, have you found that where you find inspiration from has changed?
Yeah, I mean you have to. That’s what makes you get better. You just have to constantly change.
As a guitar player listening to another guitar player what is it that perks up your ears up the most?
Well, the biggest thing for me is tone and feel and rhythm. Those are the things that hit me first when I hear any musician play. What is their sound and what is their feel? It sounds really basic to say that but the most complex element, you know, of playing an instrument is having a voice. It’s about having a voice and then putting the dance into it with the band. You have to make it make people want to move, either emotionally or physically; kind of like being a shaman or something. So at the highest level, that’s what I’m looking for when I hear any musician and you never know where you’re going to find these players.
Recently I went to see John Scofield play with Jon Cleary. They were doing a duo gig and I was absolutely blown away by it. It was just amazing. I’ve always highly respected John Scofield and I see him as being a really brilliant and innovative musician but I was never a fan per se. I’ve never learned any of his stuff. I’ve just always kind of appreciated it from afar. And I’ve seen him live before and it didn’t strike me the way this particular gig did. Maybe I’ve reached this point now where, oh, this makes more sense to me now than it used to and now it’s really blowing me away. So you can’t always be so definitive as to say, “I know what I’m looking for,” because that can evolve also and maybe he was filling a spot sonically and harmonically and rhythmically where it wasn’t as predictable to me as what I am around usually these days. But then, as I said before, there are musicians out there and there are not many, like Jack Pearson and I would put Pearson in the same genre as someone like Wynton Marsalis, where it’s like you can go see him and no matter what situation he’s in he sounds like him but he pulls some other stuff out of himself that you haven’t heard him play before. That’s a whole other level of mastery and that’s where I would like to get with everything.
What about Jimi Hendrix?
Jimi Hendrix to me is the pinnacle of achievement for what I want to do because he was one of the most innovative guitar players in history, certainly in the top five, right there with Django Reinhardt and Charlie Christian and BB King and all those guys who changed everything. I mean, he is one of them because no one did the shit he did on the guitar before, to the extent that he did – the feedback and the effects – but then he could also turn around and play an amazing slow blues or he could turn around and play a really funk and soul inflected tune or he could turn around and play something that was really psychedelic and out there harmonically. Then he eventually evolved into doing something like “Machine Gun,” which Miles Davis called one of the best solos of all time.
Then the guy wrote these amazing songs and then he did all these iconic arrangements. Like, you never want to hear any version of “All Along The Watchtower” but Jimi Hendrix’s version. Or for that matter, “Hey Joe.” I mean, he did the definitive version of those songs, in my estimation. I go could go on all day about Hendrix. He did all these things in recording that broke all the rules on the same level as The Beatles. And meanwhile when you put his music on, it doesn’t sound like anybody else – the guitar playing, the singing, the songwriting. He was completely an individual. I don’t think it’s possible to have another artist like that. He’s like one of our Beethovens or Mozarts. I’d put him in with people like Stevie Wonder and I think Prince is one of those artists, Sly Stone. I feel like Led Zeppelin is like that. I feel like they made records that don’t sound like anything that’s ever happened in music before or after. So that is what we all strive for, I guess is what I’m trying to say. You’re always striving to be as much of an individual as possible.
But we live in a strange time right now. I call this era the post-Renaissance living for music because there was this time in the sixties and seventies when music was the answer. An album coming out was an event and music was the number one most profitable form of entertainment in all entertainment, more than movies, more than anything else. The financial success continued through the eighties but the inspiration started to diminish. We had some great artists in the nineties but they all kind of flamed out and never got any due, people like Jeff Buckley and Chris Whitley; I really love Paul Weller and I think he did some amazing work in the nineties. All those guys did stuff that was very individualistic and beautiful but they never really crossed over into any kind of status.
Since then, I think we’ve been kind of treading water, to be honest. But I’m hopeful to see some changes in the next generation. I think maybe people are going to have to get back. It’s kind of like how people are getting back to eating food organically and trying to find a middle ground between all this technology that we’ve come up with and what’s actually good for us as human beings and for our souls. I think music is always at the heart of that solution cause it is the universal language of the soul no matter what genre it is. So I’m sure we’ll see something change but I think it’s been a really rough time for music the last twenty years. I think it’s been the Dark Ages, if you will. But I’m optimistic. I see changes coming and I’m just trying to be an arbiter and a translator between Gregg’s generation, which is the generation that started the musical Renaissance, or really capped it off, if you will. It certainly started in the twenties in America and just picked up steam and spread to England and did all these amazing things through the seventies and Gregg was right in the heart of that. I’m trying to learn as much as I can from him and try and translate that to the next generation and hopefully they’ll come up with something that’s totally original and blow us all away. I’m hoping I’ll pass down some tools and some music that inspires them in some way. That’s my ultimate goal.
Live photographs by Leslie Michele Derrough