We are talking in Kenny Greenberg’s home studio, where he works more often these days due to current recording budgets. Near a Pro Tools workstation are his guitar heads. Another room houses their assorted cabinets, as well as Ampeg Reverberocket and Vox AC30 combos. “I don’t like sitting in the room with the amp sound, because then I can’t tell what is going to ‘tape,’” he explains.
Born in Cleveland, Greenberg didn’t play much guitar until he moved to Louisville, Kentucky, for junior high school. By age 20, the discovery of pre-“Outlaw” Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and early Merle Haggard prompted his relocation to Nashville. There, as the sound of country music shifted from twang to grit, he became known as the guy who could deliver the perfect rock rhythms and/or in-your-face, but lyrical solos. This ultimately led to sessions for a Who’s Who of country and pop superstars like Bob Seger, Carrie Underwood, Lionel Richie, Kenny Chesney, Garth Brooks, Luke Bryan, and Reba McEntire.
But, for the undiluted Kenny Greenberg experience, check out his recordings and live videos with the Pat McLaughlin Band or with wife Ashley Cleveland. That is the best way to take in a healthy dose of the taste, tone, and aggression that make him a first-call picker in a town full of flashier players. After the studio tour, Greenberg sat down with GP to give us the 411 on what it takes to be a modern session guitarist in the 615.
When you moved to Nashville, were you playing chicken pickin’-style guitar?
I have my own way of doing it, but I have never been a super-fast player. I was inspired by the way Waylon Jennings played on a Hank Williams, Jr., record called “Feelin’ Better.” Reggie Young and Richard Bennett were closer to what I wanted to do—soulful but still country.
How did you end up playing rock guitar in Nashville?
I got into this house band at a blues bar. The bar had a songwriter round that opened for us, and the songwriters asked me to play on their demos for $20 a song. Towards the late ’80s, I started to get some record dates thanks to producer Tony Brown. He got me on Brooks and Dunn and Trisha Yearwood records. I would play on the one or two songs that needed to rock, and it just happened that I got pegged as the guy that plays rock and roll and Rolling Stones-style guitar.
The first number one record I played on was Jo-El Sonnier’s version of Richard Thompson’s “Tear Stained Letter.” I played the solo. Richard Bennett was producing. He would plug me into his gear and say, “Now this is what you want to play on the first half.” He schooled me through that whole recording and it was a great experience.
What do you get called to do these days?
I get called for a combination of things. I play on a lot of the mainstream country that is on the radio. Tonight, I am overdubbing on a song for the TV show Nashville. I made a record with Allison Moorer that is more Americana. There are so many types of music being recorded here now that you have to be prepared to do anything. If I am going to play on a Luke Bryan track, I need to be able to get big, ballsy rock tones, but because he is part of the “Bro” country thing, I need to bring in pop sounds as well—keyboard- like, echo-y sounds. They are going to want tones like on Radiohead, Coldplay, or Katy Perry records. But you still need a working knowledge of “hillbilly” guitar. They may say, “We have this hip-hop beat but we want some chicken-pickin’ guitar licks to sample and move around. Give us six of those.”
You have a very physical style.
I struggle with that. I feel like I play too hard and sometimes have trouble finessing things. Still, I figured out that’s why they call me—I get to play a lot of solos because they like that I make up a melody, but play it aggressively.
What is your gear setup like?
I use a tweed 1956 Fender Deluxe, a tweed Fender Twin, and a Matchless. They are my main recording amps. I have a Vox AC30, and if the session needs a Marshall, I have that. You can’t take everything all the time, but if you know in advance that it’s a Luke Bryan or Carrie Underwood session, you understand they like those big Marshall tones.
I use a Category 5 2x12 cabinet. They are making a signature amp head for me called the KG50 that’s like an old Matchless head. Generally, the Matchless is the sound of modern country.
For guitars, I have an old Fender Stratocaster, an old Gretsch, a Fender Telecaster, a Joe Glaser B-Bender Tele, and a B-Bender in a Les Paul Junior that Joe made in conjunction with Gibson. I still use my Yamaha AES1500 semi-hollow in the studio all the time. It has Tom Holmes Filter ’Trons.
I have a Paul Reed Smith DGT, but some rock bands don’t like Paul Reed Smiths— they want you to play a Les Paul. It’s a service industry, so I am not going to argue with them. For that I have a 1952 Gibson Les Paul with soapbars and a Custom Shop model with humbuckers.
You have to have a baritone guitar, and mine is a Jerry Jones. My lo-fi, funky, “soundtrack” guitars are a Harmony H78 and an old DeArmond—in case they want something that sounds like a T-Bone Burnett record. You also need a great acoustic, so I have a 1948 Gibson J-45.
What strings do you use?
I use the new D’Addario NY Series. They really stay in tune better.
What’s on your pedalboard?
I really like these new Rockett pedals. On my studio board I have an original Klon, but I love the Rockett Archer. I bought four of them because they sound just like a Klon.
[On his smaller board Greenberg uses Rockett Blue Note and Animal drives, a Paul Cochrane Timmy overdrive, an Xotic RC Booster, Mooer Tremocoptor and Hustledrive pedals, a Boss DD-20 Giga Delay, and Line 6 M5. The pedalboard has a loop so that for some gigs he can add a Rockett Tim Pierce, Electro-Harmonix POG, an Ibanez Stereo Chorus for Leslie sounds, and a Spring Chicken Reverb to the signal chain.] The thing all Nashville session players have is the original Nobels ODR-1 overdrive.
What is it about the Nobels?
You just turn it on and it sounds great. There is nothing else like them. I have one on both my live and studio rigs.
What other advice would you give readers who would like to become session players?
The session world is changing. It is no longer about being in a big studio and bringing two trunks of guitars and five amps. Budgets are smaller because people aren’t selling records. Now people say, “Throw an amp in your trunk and bring a couple of guitars.” I have a parts Stratocaster with a humbucker and two single-coils that I can do everything with, if I have to. We might be in a small studio, so I will have cartage bring one amp, a couple of guitars, and my little travel pedalboard. A modern session player also needs to be prepared to go direct, so a lot of us have Kemper Profilers.
Often they will just send you files and ask you to overdub. I have done that in my studio for everyone from Taylor Swift to Bob Seger to someone in Idaho whose record you will never hear. When I’m travelling, I do it on my laptop. I recently played on someone’s demo using my laptop and Native Instruments Guitar Rig, Eleven, or Pod Farm Platinum and they are using the tracks from my hotel room on the record.
Any final thoughts about the Nashville studio scene you wish to share?
There are slick records being made here that no one likes and people blame the musicians. But there are also a lot of great records being made here—and it is the same players. Also, I read interviews with great players who did lots of sessions in New York and Los Angeles in the ’60s and ’70s saying, “Nobody does what we did. We were there in the heyday.” I wonder what are they talking about. This is what we do everyday! What was happening in New York and L.A. in those days is happening in Nashville right now. Everybody plays in the room at the same time. Whether it’s “Bro” country, the latest Dan Auerbach production, or Jason Isbell, it is people playing in a room together. That’s what is special about Nashville.