In The Tank #2: Kenny Greenberg

Kenny Greenberg is one of the most heard, yet possibly unrecognized guitarists working today, unless you’ve seen him play, in which case you’ll never forget him. As one of the top session guitarists in Nashville, Kenny has appeared on hundreds of recording by musicians of all genres, including artists such as Taylor Swift, Indigo Girls, Willie Nelson, Etta James and scores more. He can also be seen on the road on rare occasions playing with global stars like Kenny Chesney and Faith Hill.

If you’re in Nashville you’re more than likely to see Kenny flex his muscles in clubs playing with his Grammy-winning wife, Ashley Cleveland, or his band The Fortunate Sons, featuring a collection of some of Nashville’s other top session and touring musicians.

He is also a Grammy-winning and Oscar-nominated record producer and award-winning songwriter. On top of all of that, Kenny is a kind and generous human, seemingly always at the ready with some sort of encouragement and words of goodwill. I’ve been amazed and inspired by his humility, as it seems that every time I speak with him he talks about something new that he’s learned, either as a musician or in life. As someone at the top of his profession, I always have something to learn from talking with Kenny. Here are a few questions that came to mind for me to ask him.

Q: I don’t know that a lot of people have a sense of what playing studio sessions is like – can you walk me though a day doing sessions?

A: Session day. First of all, the producer or the producer’s assistant books you. They may say, “in two weeks, we need you for a 10 and 2” (session blocks are 3 hours, with a one hour break to eat, or haul ass to your next session). Then you call cartage and tell them what gear you need for the session. A lot of the time, the bigger the session, the less notice you have for a session, not sure why that is. Like, I can get a call from Dann Huff’s assistant on a Tuesday, saying they need me on Friday. If it’s a major label or a big artist, you have to rearrange your schedule to be there. Also worth mentioning, in this changing climate, budgets are small, so there might not be money for cartage. In that case, I throw my pedal board, amp, and a couple guitars in the car and I’m ready to go.

So, if I’m the leader, they send me the work tapes to chart. I can chart 4-10s songs in an hour; I might do that the night before. Then I have an idea what the songs are like, and I can think a little bit about what I want to play. But a lot of the time, I show up, have my gear turned on and tuned up, ready to play, then we all go in the control room and listen to the work tape or demo. We usually listen once, maybe twice. Then we talk about direction, style, who’s gonna play what, and the whole time, each musician in the room is thinking about what part he’s gonna play.

So, you have 5 or 10 minutes to come up with a part, a signature lick, or sound. Then if it’s a demo, we’ll be getting 4 to 6 songs in three hours, so you’re prepared to get your part right the first time through. Maybe replay or fix right after we get the track. If it’s a record date, it’s anywhere from 1 to 3 songs per session, then we get to spend more time carving out a part, experimenting, etc.

I use the analogy that we’re like writers for a TV show. You come in to work everyday, and you have to invent music to fit the artist’s song. You get used to using that part of your brain. So it’s like writing a script for a show. You get used to having a limitless supply of ideas to dress up a song. It’s actually exciting and fun.

So, as a guitar player, when the track is done, you will probably add a second part, a solo, some ear candy, etc. If it’s a demo, and you’re doing 6 songs in three hours, that means you have 30 minutes for the band to get the track, and the guitar players just about never get out of their seat, because they spend the remainder of the 30 minutes playing a solo, 2nd part, etc.

Also good to know, very few guys do three sessions a day, 5 or 6 days a week. You burn out if you do that. Occasionally I’ll have weeks where that just happens, and it’s all important record dates I want to be a part of. But most of the time, I do one or two sessions a day, sometimes three. And I try to do that just 4 days a week, because I also write and produce.

I function best when I mix it up between playing writing and producing. It seems to help my creativity, and I get juice from each job that fuels the other jobs.

But there is absolutely an addiction to recording music in a room with great musicians that is very addictive and stimulating. There’s a huge rush to getting a great track done, and I always say the first time I hear the playback, I always think that song will never again sound that good:) It’s like you just participated in giving birth to a living entity.

I also do a lot of overdubs for people at my studio. The send me files, I load them into my computer, and I sit down there by myself and record my guitars, send the files back. I LOVE doing that. I find I can be very creative with no distractions. That can also be considered a typical session day..

Q: What’s it like to come into a session not knowing what you’re going to play that day? How do you prepare for that?

A: It’s exciting going into a session not knowing what you’re going to play. I kind of look forward to that. It’s best when you don’t think about it and just play off the top of your head. That’s when the really good stuff happens…

Q: What’s the best thing about being on the road? The worst?

A: The best thing about being on the road, at least with the gig I’m on, is getting to play for really large crowds. That’s a super big rush. Nothing quite like it. The next best thing is walking around the downtown of whatever city we’re in, checking out the sights and the people. The rest of it is kinda hard, you have to roll with a lot of stuff, work at getting along, etc.

Right now I’m sitting on the bus with the band, huge storm, we’re supposed to play outdoors at a George Jones tribute TV special, but there’s tornadoes and a storm. Yeah, being on the road is great!

Q: How does collaboration with so many different musicians and producers make you better?

A: Collaborating with so many musicians and producers is absolutely one of the best things period. I totally get my juice and creative ideas from the people around me. Here’s what’s really true. I’m not really technically that good as a musician, I just sometimes have good ideas. But I get to work with some of the best musicians and producers, writers, etc in the world. So I get better, because most everybody i work with is better than me!!

Q: Where do you find inspiration to keep you growing as a player, and as a person?

A: I get inspiration from the all the great young musicians I work with. And also occasionally I work with an older musician that still has the spark, and that really inspires me too. As a person, I get inspired by older musicians that aren’t jaded and still have a good attitude. That’s how I want to be…..