“Music is a sanctuary from the heaviness for a musician,” says Scott Sharrard. “We are all country preachers trying to help people and ourselves get through.”
When it seems that, each week, another rock legend moves on to the great gig in the sky, Gregg Allman’s passing from liver cancer on May 27, 2017, is particularly notable for the indelible imprint his music made on the guitar community. Allman was a straightforward acoustic strummer and organist, but he had arguably the all-time hottest lineup of dual lead-guitar players by his side with his older brother Duane and Dickey Betts in the original Allman Brothers Band. And throughout the band’s incarnations that spanned generations, outstanding string-slingers included Dan Toler, Jack Pearson, Jimmy Herring, Warren Haynes, and Derek Trucks. Allman’s solo outfits always featured gifted guitarists, as well, but in his ultimate nine-piece ensemble, Allman settled on a single player with singular skills—Scott Sharrard.
“Gregg and I were meant for each other, because I understood how to convey what he meant,” says Sharrard, who brought a Swiss army knife sensibility when he joined Allman in 2008. His broad stylistic range, as well as a strong knack for songcraft, earned him musical director status in 2013.
What was your original audition with Allman like?
The audition was pretty crazy. My friend Jay Collins played sax in Gregg’s band, and he arranged for me to sit-in with the Allman Brothers at a sold-out shed in Camden, New Jersey. Luckily, Gregg and I hit it off immediately over our mutual obsession with the blues. He was very happy that I knew Wayne Bennett’s guitar playing from all those Bobby “Blue” Bland records. Gregg loved Wayne’s playing, and he was one of only a handful of players Gregg would bring up when he was looking for something specific. His brother was essentially his father figure, and he would always speak with overwhelming reverence for Duane’s artistry on the guitar and beyond. For tone, his man was David Gilmour. Gregg was one of the biggest Floyd fans I’ve ever met.
You were one of the few people who knew about his advancing liver cancer. How did that affect the way you went about making his last album, Southern Blood?
Making a great record is what you do while you’re waiting for the barbeque to arrive. It’s all about chemistry, and being comfortable to let loose. If we dwelled on the reality that this was Gregg’s last will and testament as a musician, we’d have simply broken down. The vibe starts at the top. Gregg was having the time of his life making this record, and Don Was did a masterful job at keeping the production moving—making sure it was loose, but controlled. The vibe at FAME studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, was incredible, and the talented staff there has soul to burn. How could we lose?
Can you offer some insights about working at FAME?
FAME is a church of sound, and it was very significant for us, as Gregg and Duane started out recording there when they were kids. Rick Hall has some amazing Allman Brothers demos, and early Duane Allman sessions that will blow your mind. Of course, Duane went on to become a studio player there on so many great sessions for Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, and more. They have a couple of amps that Duane used—although I’m not sure if they still work. The Hall family has done an incredible job restoring and updating the place. It’s the best place in the world to cut tracks.
How did the sessions go down, and what did Don Was do to capture great guitar tones?
The band up in a circle with Don in the middle to help direct, and we cut live using isolation booths for everything except drums and percussion. The guitar amps were in a storage closet. I requested the specific mic set up I always use—a stereo ribbon mic out in the room, and some Cascade Fat Head Ribbon mics or anything comparable to close mic the speakers. I detest the sound of an SM57 pointed at the speaker cone for what I do. I didn’t spend all this time and money on guitars and amps to stick an $80 mic on them! Don and I thought the tone we got with the room reflections in the closet at FAME sounded like B.B. King’s sound on his early Memphis sessions.
What gear did you use?
I used my touring rig. The amp was either a Fender Super Reverb reissue with Celestion G-10 Vintage Ceramic speakers and vintage tubes, or my trusty ’65 Fender Vibrolux Reverb with the same Celestions. On a couple of tunes, I also added a Supro Thunderbolt 1x15 combo running parallel. My main axe is a Gibson CS-336, circa 2002. Paul Schwartz at Peekamoose Guitars in New York City heavily modified it with locking tuners, new frets, a master volume, and Seymour Duncan Antiquity pickups. I played all the electric slide stuff on a 1965 Harmony Bobkat with those amazing gold-foil pickups. Rhythm guitar was mostly my trusty mongrel Telecaster that has a maple neck from an old Danny Gatton model, and a Warmoth body. It’s as light as a feather, and the tone is spectacular. I use La Bella HRS Series nickel-plated strings, gauged .009-.046 or .010-.050, depending on the guitar.
What about effects?
I’m not much of a pedal guy, but I would use the Xotic Effects Soul Driven live with Gregg because the sound is impeccable, and it truly delivers the right tone at a lower stage volume. In the studio, I used a Fuzz Face on “Blind Bats and Swamp Rats” to get that squealy feedback. Otherwise, I just cranked the amp to 7 or 8, and used my guitar’s volume to clean it up for rhythm. I also employed the vibrato effect in my Fender amps on a couple of tunes to get that “soul glow” rhythm bed.
How did you come up with the hauntingly beautiful intro melody that kicks off “My Only True Friend”?
I was staying at Gregg’s house one day about three years ago. The place was full of memories, and we stayed up late telling road stories. I awoke from a vivid dream about Duane and Gregg the next morning at sunrise. I ran to a guitar downstairs, and as the sun came up over Gregg’s boat slip in the delta, I started playing the intro exactly as it wound up on the record.
How did the lyrics come?
I’d written down three lines Duane spoke to Gregg in that dream: “You and I both know/This river will flow to an end. Keep me in your heart/Keep your soul on the mend. You and I both know/The road is my only true friend.” Eerie stuff, right? That became the start of the first verse, and the last line became the chorus, but it needed more. Luckily, Gregg loved it. Months later, he came up with the prechorus—around the time he shared his terminal diagnosis with me. It was real emotional. Gregg thought the song was missing something all the way up to the last minute when were at FAME. Marc Quinones [percussionist] encouraged me to write a third verse, which I somehow did at my hotel that night. I gave it to Gregg the next day, and we cut it live right then and there.
What guitar did you use?
My Gibson CS-336 into the cranked Super—nothing else. I layered the harmony on the main lick a third above using the same rig.
The solo is like a little song with some Gilmour-isms in the phrasing, and hints of jazz harmony.
Bravo on picking that up. Gregg instructed me to think about David Gilmour and Kenny Burrell! I knew exactly what that meant.
What’s the story on your other original tune, “Love Like Kerosene”?
I first recorded that song on my 2011 solo album, Scott Sharrard & The Brickyard Band. Gregg first covered it with us on Gregg Allman Live: Back to Macon, and it became a concert staple. We cut a swampy, Howlin’ Wolfstyle take on this record. I used the bridge pickup on the CS-336 to get a snappy tone from the Super.
Can you detail the resonator guitar on the Dylan cover, “Going, Going, Gone”?
Taj Mahal gave that Dobro to Gregg as a present, and it was my pleasure to play it on that tune at Gregg’s request. I tuned standard, and I used my usual slide—a Pyrex Dunlop Blue Bottle. They stuck a mic on it in a booth, and we rolled.
What are your overall thoughts on playing slide?
Playing slide is like flying a helicopter. I still don’t feel like a natural with it, because there’s so much muting to do, and pressure means everything. Intonation is very delicate. Duane was the master, and now it’s Derek. Besides Duane, my influences growing up were Lowell George, Bonnie Raitt, Robert Nighthawk, Tampa Red, Warren Haynes, and, of course, Elmore James. Start with Elmore, and you can’t lose.
Did you or Gregg play acoustic on Jackson Browne’s “Song for Adam”?
I played acoustic on that, but Gregg was a great acoustic guitar picker. He used his thumb, and fingerpicks.
How does it feel to look back on Southern Blood?
Southern Blood is a beautiful farewell letter to my man’s friends, family, and fans. He lived for music. We wrote one song that we didn’t have time to cut. It’s a good-time funky blues, so it probably wouldn’t have fit anyway. It will be a bonus track on my solo album Saving Grace, which is due for a spring release. I recorded part of it at FAME, as well. It’s also worth mentioning that I got to use Duane Allmans ’57 goldtop Les Paul on my record.
What are your thoughts on being an Allman torchbearer?
Gregg changed my life a couple of times over. His band gave me the courage and drive to play this music—real rock and roll—with blues, jazz, soul music and its many tributaries as bedrock. Writing with him, helping lead his band, and taking the stage was a finishing school for me. I’m at an absolute peak as a player, writer, and singer. I intend to use Gregg’s passing as fuel to be better. The bar is very high. Every legend that passes leaves an enormous hole. It’s going to take elbow grease, desire, humility, fire, and passion to pull us out of the musical tailspin of the past 20 years. I intend to protect traditions while also pushing forward. As we mourn the loss of our hero and my friend, you can trust that I’m just getting started.
SPEAKING OF THE ALLMAN BROTHERS LEGACY…
“We’ve known each other since we were kids hanging around on tour with the Allman Brothers Band,” says Gregg Allman’s son Devon, who is gearing up to tour with Dickey Betts’ son, Duane. “The easy way out would be to join up with Berry Oakley Jr. and someone named Trucks, and play all Allman Brothers Band songs. But our dads always wanted us to make our own marks. It’s a delicate balance. We want to make people happy playing some familiar music, but we need to forge our own paths, as well.”
When the combined tour launches this spring, the sons plan to perform their own material with their own bands, and then tip their hats to their fathers for an encore set of familiar favorites—possibly filled with guest stars.
“I’m going for a more of a ’70s Tom Petty or Jackson Browne kind of sound playing acoustics, Telecasters, and Stratocasters,” reports Allman. “Losing both of my parents in the past year factored into the songwriting of my latest record, but it’s a celebration of life, and that’s a good place for me to go. I’ll play through Victoria and Orange rigs for the tour. Of course, I’ll whip out the trusty Les Paul I’ve been playing for the past 15 years for the encore set with Duane. We’ll keep it true blue [laughs].”
“I’m looking at having a five-song EP released by tour time,” says Betts, whose guitar and vocal styles naturally echo Dickey Betts, as well as an array of classic rock and blues influences from Mick Taylor to the three Kings—B.B., Freddie, and Albert. “My main guitar was the prototype for my father’s signature Les Paul that was given to him around 2001. It’s modeled after a ’57 goldtop, and he played it for years. A blackface Fender Super Reverb is my tonal home. I’m not much of a pedals player—although I’ll use a boost or a slapback echo now and again.”
Both Allman and Betts cite Duane Allman as a major inspiration, and although both dabble with playing slide, neither is a true enthusiast.
“I grew up watching my dad play with Warren Haynes killing it on slide,” says Betts. “And considering Derek Trucks—well, I kind of stayed away from playing slide until recently. I’m getting better at it now, and playing slide is truly a nice tool for any guitar player to have in their belt.”
So who’s going to play slide when they team up to play, say, “Statesboro Blues”?
“I may wind up playing some of Dickey’s parts,” says Allman, “and he may wind up playing Duane Allman lines.”
“We’ll have to wait and see what happens naturally for the Allmans material,” adds Betts.