Sharon Aguilar wasn’t even going to audition.
But what the heck. She was in the right place at the right time, took a chance and landed a gig playing and touring worldwide with CeeLo Green during his Lady Killer album tour. As a student at Musicians Institute, Aguilar knew going to the Hollywood-based school would give her opportunities. She just didn’t realize they'd come so soon and mean so much.
Aguilar has experienced a second world tour with K-pop group 2NE1 and is still going strong. Focusing now on her projects at home in LA, Aguilar is excited about the launch of her new group, Miss President, made up of many of her touring mates, including DANiiVORY, Goldielox and B.Brooks.
I caught up with Aguilar as she returned to the US from Asia to shoot the breeze, talk guitar and get the scoop.
GUITAR WORLD: So, you’ve been doing a bit of traveling.
Yes, yes. Just got done with a six-month tour in Asia with the K-pop group 2NE1. That was a lot of fun. It was a part of the world I’ve never got to see before, so it was definitely a highlight to be able to play a lot of the venues out there and experience the culture.
That’s a lot of traveling. Tell me why you picked up the guitar in the first place.
I started out on violin first, and it was by accident. I was in a magnet program and they only had spots left in music. So I thought, well, I like art more, but I’ll try this music thing and see how it goes. I fell absolutely in love with playing the violin. I played in the greater Miami Symphony and the Dade County Honors Orchestra.
I always thought the guitar was cool, but when I was a teenager, probably 14 or 15, it just seemed way cooler. So I decided to try picking it up, and because I had calluses and experience playing violin, it was not a very hard transition. My dad listened to a lot of classic rock, so I was always listening to Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and the Beatles. I just wanna be like Jimmy Page!
You were already able to read music, so were you able to read music on guitar?
Well, that was actually a challenge, because with the violin, you’re tuned in 5th’s, and the guitar is in 4th’s, so the fingering was different. When I did start playing guitar, I wanted to learn how to read music on it. But because I was still playing in orchestras, it interfered with my reading on the violin. I was starting to get a little mixed up. So I just stuck to reading tabs until I went to MI.
Right — it’s kind of hard to switch your brain over.
Yeah, it was. It’s muscle memory. Your fingers don’t even think anymore, they just do.
Do you still play the violin?
Not as much as I did before. I’ve really made guitar my main focus, but I do play violin sometimes. I played on American Idol with Diddy, which was a lot of fun. And I’ll do some things from time to time, but the guitar really is my passion.
So you went to Musicians Institute in Los Angeles?
Yes, I did. That was definitely one of the best things I could have done for myself. Not only was it a great learning environment, but it was a great networking environment as well. They opened the doors for me when I went to the CeeLo audition.
You were a student when you auditioned or you had already finished?
No, I was a student. I just happened to be walking through artist and career services, and they stopped me and said, “We’re having this audition for CeeLo Green, and he’s looking for a female guitarist. Would you like for us to reserve you a spot?” And I said, “Ok, sure.” I probably wouldn’t have even done it otherwise. It was just one of those things where they were really looking out.
Tell me about that tour. What were some highlights for you?
One of the biggest highlights for me was opening for Prince at Madison Square Garden. Because first of all, Prince, he’s just iconic. And then Madison Square Garden, it’s one of those venues that you dream about playing from when you’re a little girl. So that was definitely a highlight.
What made it so special was that during sound check, we were just playing a song with the girls — CeeLo has an all-girl band — and someone started playing the piano. We hear the piano playing and look over, and it’s Prince playing with us! He’s just jamming. And we’re like, oh my god, we’re jamming with Prince! Who gets to do that? And he’s just walking around with his white platform light-up shoes that are just ridiculous, and fur and stuff. It was just a moment that I’ll never forget.
There were so many great highlights, but another one that stands out to me is Saturday Night Live. That was definitely a moment. It was one of those iconic TV shows you see your whole life growing up, and then all of a sudden you get to have the opportunity to play on it. That’s just incredible.
Tell me about 2NE1.
I was playing with 2NE1 on their New Revolution Tour. It was a global tour, and we did a couple shows in the States too, at the Prudential Center and one at Nokia, which was sold out. It was a really cool show, will.i.am actually produced a lot of their tracks, and he came to the show and just started rapping over the encore and hanging out with us on stage, which was really cool.
But the 2NE1 girls, they’re a really big K-pop group. I felt bad because I really had no idea that there were other markets like that. I just felt like American entertainment was the be-all-end-all, and I feel ignorant for saying that. It just really opened my eyes to see what else is going on in the world, because K-pop is huge! These girls were selling out stadiums. It was just incredible. And they have very dedicated fans. It was a lot of fun.
What are your plans now? Do you have any new projects coming up?
Yes. I love working with great artists and being a hired gun, but ultimately, I love writing music and that’s where my true passion is. My dream is to perform in my own band. So what I’ve been doing is playing with CeeLo’s all-girl backing band. We’ve been writing original music. We are called Miss President. We wanted to have an empowering name for women. That’s our whole message: we want to empower women and show that we can create great music just as guys do. We can do everything they do, and even better, I think.
Who are the other members of the band?
Miss President’s band members are Goldielox; she’s a Universal UK songwriter and vocalist. She’s written songs that have gone up to No. 2 on the charts. DANiiVORY played keys with CeeLo and is currently playing with Beyoncé. She played with me in 2ne1 and also played with Imagine Dragons. And Brittany Brooks is the drummer, and also went to MI, and played with CeeLo, and Kelis.
We’ve all played with a lot of different people and I think that is what will make the band different from other girl bands is that we already have over two years of touring worldwide together. We’re really comfortable with each other, we’re friends, and that’s something that takes time to develop.
Where can we find out more?
You can go to MissPresidentMusic.com. Right now it redirects to our Facebook page; we’re still working on the other page.
What gear are you using?
Right now I’m using the ENGL 840/50 power amp with the Fractal Audio Axe-Fx tube pre amp. I play with an ENGL PRO cab loaded with Celestion Vintage 30s. The ENGL Power Section gives my rig that truly organic tube feel and tone. The Axe-Fx allows me to expand on any idea I could ever dream of. It’s incredibly versatile. It’s just the best pre amp out there today in my opinion. I have an ENGL 2x12 cab and a 4x12 cab. They’re really warm and punchy. They’re serious road ready cabs, they can take a beating and sound great night after night. I was playing with the ENGL Steve Morse head, but I ended up going with rack gear because I’m very small in stature. I’m five feet tall, so it allows me to roll my rig around everywhere I go.
What guitars do you play?
I play EVH guitars. There’s nothing quite like an EVH neck. It has low action and no fret buzz. It’s a short scale, which is good for me, and the strings feel nice and slinky on it. It sounds heavy when I need it to, but it can also sound warm and bright. I also play my Fender guitars, too. So I play an EVH Wolfgang Special and a Fender American Deluxe Strat. For acoustic, I play the RainSong Graphite. I don’t know if you’ve seen those, but they are awesome, especially for the road. They are not made out of wood! It traveled all the way from Korea to LA and was still in tune.
Anything else you’re using? Effects?
I use TC Electronic pedals. In particular, I’ll use the ND-1 Nova Delay. It’s one of my favorite pedals by them. I’ll use that sometimes, but most of the time I use my Axe-Fx.
What have you learned on the road from a gear perspective? Any tricks of the trade you can share?
I would say you really learn what great-sounding gear is when you play with a band and hear how it you want it to sound when it hits the audience. The big thing for me is I prefer being mic’ed up over running direct any day. Not only is there no substitute for the mic picking up the speaker moving the air, but also I feel like running direct takes too much control away from how I want the amp to sound. It puts you in the hands of someone that you don’t know, that you might not have ever worked with before. On the 2NE1 tour, I had to run direct, but I did have a great sound engineer, so in that situation it’s OK.
Also, there are some tones that sound great in your bedroom that sound horrible live. You need to have a good amount of midrange frequencies in your live sound so you don’t get lost in the mix. And a manageable amount of gain so you’re not feeding back. First and foremost, a good tube power section and microphones are the most important things. I think one of the coolest things about the Axe-Fx is I can push one button on my MIDI controller on the floor, and it will switch the channels on my amp, apply all the pre-programmed effects, and it sounds just as organic as pedals. I was never able to switch on and off tons of floor pedals while also trying to have great stage presence in high heels.
See, guys don’t have to think about that! You have to wear high heels, too. But yeah, that’s cool if you take the time to set it up ahead of time.
Yeah, it’s so easy. It has five patches for every song, and all I have to do is push one button to go to the verse, chorus, or wherever in the song I’m at. It makes it so much easier.
It is kind of fun to see someone do that little pedal dance sometimes though.
It’s not fun to be the one doing it, though! When I played The Colbert Report, they got my outfit at the last minute. I’m a size 5 shoe, which is a really small shoe. And they brought size 6 ½ heels! They were so big, and I had a moment where I almost ate it, but the camera was not on me, thank god!
Yeah, people don’t realize, it’s tough! So aside from shoe issues, have you faced any challenges being a female musician?
Unfortunately, that’s a part of many career choices, and music is not excluded from that. I mean, you see it everywhere. Especially in entertainment. But I do believe this will be eliminated in the future with an increase in the number of female musicians that there are. I really hope to inspire more girls to play guitar.
I feel like there ARE more women playing instruments than ever.
Oh, absolutely! I just volunteered at a music program down in Miami called GOGO — Guitars Over Guns Organization. What they do is take high-risk kids that are at risk of dropping out, inner-city kids, and teach them music after school. So I went, and one of the girls there that was playing guitar was actually a fan of mine before I even went in there. She loves K-pop and 2NE1. It was cool to see that, and to see that she was playing guitar and doing something positive. It’s just nice to see when kids are playing music and choosing a right path.
So do you have any advice for people starting out?
Yeah. Take all your favorite players and start as early as you can to learn and transcribe riffs from them. Developing your ear in that way is super important. Learning riffs from the greats will develop technique and the skills you need to use later.
Anything else you’d like to ad?
I am working on an instrumental solo guitar album, so that’s in the works. It will be totally different from my girl band, but I think it’s cool to express myself in both ways.
Find out what’s next for Sharon right here.
Laura B. Whitmore is a singer/songwriter based in the San Francisco bay area. A veteran music industry marketer, she has spent over two decades doing marketing, PR and artist relations for several guitar-related brands including Marshall and VOX. Her company, Mad Sun Marketing, represents Dean Markley, Agile Partners, Peavey, Jammit, Notion Music, Guitar World and many more. Laura was instrumental in the launch of the Guitar World Lick of the Day app. She is the founder of the Women's International Music Network at thewimn.com, producer of the Women's Music Summit and the lead singer for the rock band Summer Music Project. More at mad-sun.com.