From Chik’n Pick To Grip & Rip | Adam Shoenfeld Shares His Advice On Gear, Tone, And Sticking To Your Guns Stylistically
Millions of guitar players have the dream of living in Nashville and finding success as a full-time touring musician for a major artist. Not only did Adam Shoenfeld leave the east coast for the south to make that a dream his reality, but he also found great success as a session player, writer, and producer. Born in New York, and raised in Jersey, Adam introduced a new edge to the country music world that brought out the rockers in red necks and had fans trading the two-step for devil horns. His unique sound has landed him gigs playing on albums for artists like Jason Aldean, Florida Georgia Line, Blake Shelton, Luke Bryan, Jake Owen, Little Big Town, Rascal Flatts, Faith Hill, Martina McBride, Big & Rich, and the soundtrack for the hit ABC show, Nashville- just to name a few. That’s My Gig caught up with Adam, between his busy tour dates with Tim McGraw, to find out how he broke into the world of country with ambitious fervor, and found the key to success.
By: Josh Mockerman
TMG: So Adam, how did the guitar first become a part of your life?
ADAM: I started taking guitar lessons when I was about 4 years old. My parents bought me my first guitar because I spent so much time jumping on my bed, playing air guitar to “Frampton Comes Alive”. I kept taking lessons on and off until high school, and I started writing songs when I was 14.
TMG: Were you playing in a band at that point?
ADAM: At first I spent a lot of time locked in my room with my Tascam 4-track cassette recorder. I was BIG into Yngwie (Malmsteen) and the Shrapnel Records guys, and I would spend hours harmonizing sweeps and two hand licks, bouncing track after track. I was crazy about that stuff. I was in a couple of bands around the same time. Predictably, one was a metal band, but one was a very hippie band that played Bob Dylan,The Grateful Dead, and U2.
TMG: So you were playing mostly covers?
ADAM: I probably played less than 25 cover songs growing up. In both of those bands, half our tunes were originals. I didn’t really learn a lot of other people’s licks because I always thought, “Yeah, I can play that, but they already did.” I was trying to do my own thing at an early age. Looking back now, I wish I had learned some more songs. Of course it’s a lot easier to learn tunes now with a mature ear.
TMG: Did you have formal music education in high school as well?
ADAM: Definitely.The high school I went to was called Blair Academy. It was a private high school in Blairstown, NJ. The music department there had some really great instructors, like my guitar teacher Scott Pensack. They were all professional musicians from New York and the Delaware water gap. I learned a lot from those guys, especially about improvisation. We had a jazz-rock ensemble that was amazing. In fact, my senior project was a fully scored jazz piece. I was a big music nerd and I loved to physically write down music.
TMG: Did you attend a music school after high school or did you jump right into the gig circuit?
ADAM: My senior year of high school I started playing with a group called The Nathan Lee Band. It was a very Richard Marx/Billy Joel-inspired type of project. We spent a couple years playing around, going into New York to play The Bitter End and a few other clubs.
TMG: What made you decide to move to Nashville?
ADAM: Nathan was spotted by a manager from Nashville, and he promised to make us all big stars. So we packed up and moved south. We all shared one house. We nicknamed it “The Lime Green Love Shack”.
TMG: What ended up happening with that gig?
ADAM: I don’t think we lasted more than six months. According to that manager, I was never going to work in Nashville again.
TMG: How did you make a living during that time?
ADAM: I had a brief stint bar tending and waiting tables. Whenever I would get a gig, they’d let me leave for a little while and come back. They were really gracious about it.
TMG: And you were still playing?
ADAM: Oh yeah! During those first few years I played with a great guy named Todd Cooper. In fact, Todd plays sax and sings with The Alan Parsons Project now. I was also a regular at the blues jams in town. It was my bag at the time. I even had a roommate who followed me around and tech’d for me for a little while. It was a fun time.
TMG: Were you auditioning as a sideman at that point, or were you focused on band projects?
ADAM: I was taking auditions as well. I even took an audition to be the singer with Kenny Wayne Shepherd. Thankfully I didn’t get that gig; I don’t think I could have handled not being the guitar player.
TMG: Did you want to be a studio musician at that point and how did you get called for your first sessions?
ADAM: After I had been in town a few years, I was fortunate enough to get a job answering phones at Woodland Studios, which at the time was one of the main studios in town. There were three studios, and as long as I picked up the phone when it rang, I was permitted to be in any studio working on tunes. Bob Solomon, the owner, is still a good friend of mine. He had publishing aspirations, so he started using me and my friends as his house band. That was where I cut my teeth, and also when I really got the fire to be a studio musician. I met a ton of people at Woodland, and I finally got a couple calls for what I considered real sessions.
TMG: What kind of sessions were you getting calls for?
ADAM: They were all rock bands! I had never really considered playing country music. I had no idea at the time that I’d end up in the thick of it. I was still playing live all the time as well. I somehow was able to convince local indie artists that wanted me to play with them, that I should be paid.
TMG: Was there a particular gig that made you think, “Wow, I’ve made it”?
ADAM: One gig that really made me feel like I was getting somewhere was with Millard Powers. He came up with Ben Folds, I think, and now he’s the bass player in Counting Crows. He played great power pop stuff, and he was kind of a hero on the local scene. I was playing with him and some other guys at writer’s nights every week. I got another break in ’97 or ’98, when I was asked to audition for Big Kenny, who was signed to Hollywood Records at the time. His solo record was killer, it reminded me of Queen, so I was excited when I got the gig. Gary Burnette, who is still one of my favorite guitar players, produced that record and played on it, so of course I had to learn all his parts! There were a ton of great licks on the album, and I had to condense it so I could play it all on stage. I really credit Gary’s playing on that album for helping me to improve, and it’s a challenge I’ll always be thankful for.
TMG: Did that project turn into Big & Rich?
ADAM: Not right away. Unfortunately Big Kenny lost his record deal, but we really enjoyed playing together, so we pretty quickly formed a band called luvjOi. All we ever really did was sell out one club in Nashville and one in Knoxville, but we made two killer records. When that project fell apart I started another band called Stroller. We had a little bit of success, but I had my first child on the way, and I was starting to make a pretty solid living doing sessions in town. I couldn’t really justify doing a van tour for fifty bucks a day when I could charge $150 for a session and still get to hang with my little girl afterward. In the midst of that, John (Rich) and Big Kenny got their deal as Big & Rich, and they asked if I would play on the record.
TMG: Were you comfortable going into that situation because of your previous experience with Big Kenny?
ADAM: Kenny’s record was more of a rock record, and the Big & Rich project was going to be a country thing. At first I told them I had no clue how to make a country record. But they told me to just play how I played, and it turned out great. Because of those sessions, there was about a 2-year span before Big & Rich even hit the radio that I was working all the time in various studios.
TMG: A lot of people are familiar with your work because of the Jason Aldean records. How did you get involved with him?
ADAM: I actually played live with Jason before he even got his deal. I was part of his “showcase band”, which might be a term that’s used only in Nashville. I had played electric on his demos, but at first I was only slated to play acoustic on the actual session. I had finished my tracks and I was actually about to walk out of the studio, and Michael (Knox, producer) asked me to play electric on “Hicktown”. He loved the demo and wanted to keep the same sound, and I was the guy that played it.
TMG: That’s still one of my favorite Aldean tunes. It sounds like you were still playing rock and roll guitar, you just brought that flavor to your country sessions.
ADAM: My friends joke that I’m the guy that ruined country music. I mean, the sound that we found for Big & Rich and for Jason kind of opened the doors for people to rock out a little more and use some heavier guitar tones. But there were a ton of great players, like Kenny Greenberg, who were playing rock riffs on country records long before I came along. The Aldean stuff definitely opened some doors for me, and I’ve been fortunate to be called by people who appreciate my playing style and the flavor I bring to a track.
TMG: In your mind, what are the characteristics of a good session player?
ADAM: Every time you end up in a studio in Nashville, you’re sitting in a room with three or four of the best musicians on the planet. In the Nashville studio environment, things move really quickly, and it’s all about the song. So creativity is definitely important. But it’s also key to not take anything personally and be willing to try different things. You’re playing on someone else’s record, not yours, so go with what the artist or producer thinks and don’t get too attached to a specific part, even if it’s great. Obviously you need your basic skills, like being familiar with the Nashville number system, but it’s just as important to be a ‘good hang’ and be able to get along with whoever is on the sessions, because sometimes you don’t know what you’re going to walk into. Oh yeah, and have great tone!!!
TMG: On the subject of tone, how much gear do you typically bring to a session and what are the most important pieces of gear for a session player to own?
ADAM: It’s key to have that one amp and speaker combination that you know really well. I have four or five amps that I switch between at sessions, but I almost never come off of my main speaker cabinet, which is a 2×12 Bandmaster cabinet with Tone Tubby speakers. I’ve had that cab since “Hicktown”. If you have a good amp, each guitar can speak for itself. The guitars can be anything that works for you, the key is to cover as many different sounds as possible. My main guitar, the last couple of years, has been my (Gibson) SG Junior, which is a P90 guitar, but I also carry a Tele for some twang, a Strat, a Gretsch for those big, plush diamonds, a Les Paul for some beef, and a few others that rotate out. It’s good to cover a lot of colors, but if you’re just starting, it’s important to have that solid guitar/amp/speaker combo you can depend on.
TMG: And what about pedals?
ADAM: The more the better! Seriously, I have SO much stuff on my new studio board, and I still want more! One of the things that kind of set me apart when I first started in Nashville, was that I was coming in and doing some freakier stuff compared with other guys. I had a Boomerang on my board for a long time, and that was a big part of my sound at first, the Boomerang with a Memory Man and a Boss DD-6. I used them all at the same time: got some wacky sounds. I definitely wasn’t the first guy to make weird noises on a guitar, but I guess nobody was really doing that on country records at the time.
TMG: What is one record you’ve played on that you’re particularly proud of?
ADAM: When I first got to town, I did a record with a friend of mine named Rob Giles, that I was really proud of. Rob’s an amazing guy, and he just made a really cool record with Andy Summers. I think we did that record in his living room on a Roland VS-880, but I got to do some really cool and experimental stuff that I wouldn’t necessarily play on a country record. I’m also really proud of the last Jason Aldean record, “Night Train”. We’ve used pretty much the same band since his first record, so when you get to play with guys that consistently, you really get to watch it grow. Also the luvjOi records were really cool. I actually played a bunch of different instruments, and we were just having fun and being creative. You can really hear the excitement and energy in those records.
TMG: What advice do you have for players who want to do session work?
ADAM: Forget it, it’s my gig! Just kidding! Other than having your chops and your tone together, you have to be willing to go and hang out and meet people. It doesn’t happen overnight. But you never know what session is going to lead to all the other sessions. No matter how good you are, you still have to be in the right place at the right time, so it pays to meet as many people as you can. If you can afford to, play for free if it means meeting people and showing them what you can do. Once you start getting the calls, don’t get too down on yourself. I’ve definitely had days where I’ve walked out of the studio thinking that person would never call me again. Usually they do, and usually it’s just me making it up in my own head. Just remember that if they hired you, it’s because they like what you do and how you play.
TMG: Can we expect an Adam Shoenfeld solo record at any point?
ADAM: I hope so! Right now I’m so busy playing with other people that I haven’t had a chance, but it’s definitely on my wish list to do someday.
TMG: What’s another item on your ‘musical bucket list’?
ADAM: I’d like to play Royal Albert Hall. And also, I’d love to jam with Clapton. He was one of my favorites growing up, and he seems like such a laid back, cool cat.
TMG: Maybe on stage at Royal Albert Hall?
ADAM:That would be awesome! Seriously though, just to keep doing what I’m doing is a blessing. I’ve been able to contribute to some really great records, and I’m thankful that I have that opportunity.