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Shane Theriot: "The best lead guitar players, like Eddie Van Halen, were great rhythm pocket players. Everything is rhythm"

Shane Theriot
(Image credit: Greg Vorobiov)

Shane Theriot grew up “right next door to” New Orleans, where early on he absorbed the city’s rich musical heritage. He began playing guitar as an adolescent, played in bands during his school years, and relocated to Hollywood after high school to attend GIT. Upon graduating with honors, he became an instructor before moving on to session work.

While primarily known as a lead player, Theriot believes that his innate sense of, and love for, rhythm contributes greatly to his many accomplishments. It has placed him on stages and in studios with a range of artists – Willie Nelson, Beyoncé, Robben Ford, and Branford Marsalis among them. It won him a Grammy in 2015 as producer of Jo-El Sonnier’s The Legacy.

Ultimately, it landed him in the coveted slot of lead guitarist, bandleader, and musical director for Hall and Oates and Daryl Hall’s Live From Daryl’s House television show. With this, there are also solo albums, instructional books and DVDs, television scores, and featured columns in major music publications. 

His latest project is This Just In, the debut album from Ebunctions (opens in new tab). Billed as R&B/soul, the music is a groove-heavy, proudly and self-described “retro” collaboration among A-list veteran musicians: Theriot on guitar, with Forrest “Woody” Mankowski (vocals, saxophones), Jeff Babko (keyboards, trombone, percussion), Steve Ferrone (drums), and Ethan Farmer (bass). As one might expect, it’s heavy on rhythm.

Theriot now calls Los Angeles home, although he maintains a residence in New Orleans and spends a portion of his time in New York. Ebunctions is on his list as an immediate priority, as the band promotes their new album, but he also keeps busy with songwriting, production, session work, solo and band projects, and tours.

When you look at your timeline, what do you see? Who were you then and who are you now? 

“I’m still trying to get better on guitar and hold on to that passion. If I could bottle the feeling of being 13 years old, coming home from school, sitting on the edge of your bed, and you can't wait to pick up the guitar and discover something new… that's what I try to do.

“In some ways, the more proficient you get on your instrument, it sort of takes you further away from that feeling. So it’s just playing good music and trying to keep that passion going. Pet projects like Ebunctions rekindle that for me.”

You also play, or played, drums, trumpet, and piano. Do any of those instruments still factor into your work? 

There is an instrumental thing you do as a rhythm player that really can create parts of songs. It’s almost primal. You're gravitating more towards that kind of instinct

“They definitely factor in. I'm a hack piano player. I'm a hunt-and-peck-type guy. I can do voicings, I know what I'm doing a little bit, but I don't have the technique. Same with drums. I haven't played drums in years, but I still gravitate towards rhythm.

“Being from New Orleans, growing up with that music, it was sort of my 'baby food'. I'm a rhythm guy at heart. I definitely learned a lot of that when I was in the Neville Brothers. I played with them for eight years, and that was that gig. There were solo sections, but the rhythm stuff was what it was all about.

“Don't get me wrong: I love lead guitar, and I love to hear people shred. I love guitar solos, all that stuff. But there's something about rhythm, building parts, and being a supportive band member. There is an instrumental thing you do as a rhythm player that really can create parts of songs. It’s almost primal. You're gravitating more towards that kind of instinct.

“When you look at the best lead guitar players, like Eddie Van Halen, if you really listen to his parts, he was such a great rhythm pocket player. I think that translates into your soloing as well. Everything is rhythm. You could distill every branch of the musical tree down to rhythm. It's such a strong foundational thing. 

“With a band like Ebunctions, you’ve got to find your little spot. You can't solo over every song. There’s so much harmonic stuff going on already. So it’s finding those little rhythm things in there to fit around what everyone else is doing.”

hane Theriot of Hall and Oates performs during the Daryl Hall & John Oats And Tears For Fears Concert at the Prudential Center on June 17, 2017 in Newark, New Jersey.

(Image credit: Brian Killian/Getty Images)

Let's look at a few of the things you do: band member, solo artist, session guitarist, musical director, bandleader, sideman. How is each a piece of your musical vocabulary? Do they overlap?

“They all help on a daily basis, no matter what I'm involved in. Having knowledge of harmony and theory and that sort of thing helps out with all of them. If you're arranging or doing a session, you're asked to contribute something, and a sense of different styles helps a lot. I think that skill set, again, is about being a strong rhythm player, having a sense of melody, and knowing arrangements, knowing styles and songs. 

“Being a music director is all of the above, plus the psychology of working with artists. Guest artists may be nervous coming into an unknown situation with unknown musicians, a house band. So there’s the psychology of knowing how to calm nerves, work out keys on the fly, that kind of thing. It's a pretty big skill set, and it’s not all music sometimes.”

Which guitars did you use on This Just In

I think a Telecaster is one of the most versatile guitars ever, especially for rhythm playing

“That's an easy one, and it was out of necessity, because I had been in L.A. maybe a week and a half when I called Jeff Babko. We first met backstage at a James Taylor concert, and we kept in touch. When I got to L.A., we met for coffee in North Hollywood and he said, 'I was just thinking of you. The timing is perfect.' He told me about the Ebunctions project, and he said, 'Would you be interested in playing on some things?' I didn't have all my gear at that point, so I can tell you exactly what I used: a 1959 Gibson 330, a Hamer T-51 Telecaster, an old Fender Champ, a Tweed Deluxe, and some pedals. That's all I had. 

“We started recording, and it turned out those were the perfect guitars. I think a Telecaster is one of the most versatile guitars ever, especially for rhythm playing. The 330 is completely hollow, has P-90s, and it's a really funky guitar. I used that a lot and it just sounds great. It’s got a bark to it. It was great for solos.

“I used a fuzz pedal on a few things. Ebunctions has a retro sound, so I was going for a Cornell Dupree meets Ray Parker Jr. meets Steve Cropper kind of thing, and those two guitars lent themselves to it. So it was very minimal, very simple. I just used what I had at the time.”

What about acoustic guitars?

“I do a lot of recording on acoustic guitar. Not much on the Ebunctions record, though, maybe one song. My main acoustics for recording — I have a 1953 Gibson J-45, a 1952 Martin 00-18 mahogany small body, a custom parlor guitar that I use sometimes. I have a bunch of funky oddball things, like an old Sears 1970s guitar, which was one of my first guitars, that Matt Brewster at 30th Street Guitars in New York put back together for me. I still use that one.”

Ebunctions

(Image credit: Greg Vorobiov)

Every guitarist needs “just one more”. Do you have eyes on something? 

“I've never owned a Les Paul. I had a Les Paul Studio, one of the cheaper ones, that I bought in a late night eBay thing. I only had it for two days, and I don't know, I just didn't bond with it, so I sold it. Some friends of mine have really nice Les Pauls that I have played, and that would be the only thing I want. I’m really happy with everything I have now.”

Obviously you know how to walk into a new situation and make it work. With that, was there a learning curve coming into Ebunctions? 

Music helped smooth out awkward moments in school or when meeting new people. The guitar has always done that for me

“I don’t think Jeff would have asked me, had he not thought I was the right guy for it, just because of what he was going for specifically. When we got together, he sent me some songs, I put guitar down on one thing, sent it back to him, and he was like, 'That's it. Do you want to be in the band?' He had asked me already, but that sealed the deal. 

“To answer your question about the learning curve, it doesn't matter if you have credits to your name. That helps you get in the door, and maybe I don't have to prove myself that much now, but I still have to be able to back it up. I don't know if you’d call Ebunctions a 'supergroup', but sometimes these bands full of hotshot guys don't always work because the talent cancels each other out. I think this works because the songs are so good, the playing is great, and the connections are there. To walk in and work with guys you’ve not worked with before and do it as a band, not just a session, there has to be communication as well. 

“In the end, it’s all about the music. As long as everybody's cool, the music usually fills in any awkward moments. It’s been like that for me since I was a kid. Music helped smooth out awkward moments in school or when meeting new people. The guitar has always done that for me.”

With Ebunctions, you obviously handle all the guitar work, versus sharing duties onstage or in sessions. How does each situation fulfill you creatively? 

“I've done both lots of times, and I like this because it's an open palette. The songs were brand new and it was a blank canvas, like, 'Have at it, come up with parts.' That's a different dynamic than being onstage or in the studio with another guitar player. Obviously, it gives you a lot of freedom. I like working with other guitar players too, but this was nice because all the musicians’ parts are so great, and I like the freedom of being the only guy, for sure.”

What else is coming up for you? 

“Of course we have the Ebunctions record, which I'm really excited about, and if our schedules allow, we want to play live. I go back out in August with Daryl Hall and Todd Rundgren. Daryl's doing solo shows. We just did a tour. We played Carnegie Hall and the Wiltern and some really cool places, and it was very well received, so we're going to do another run in August.

I produced a record with Dr. John called Things Happen That Way that’s finally coming out in September. It's taken three years and a lot of red tape to get it out there

“I produced a record with Dr. John called Things Happen That Way that’s finally coming out in September. It's taken three years and a lot of red tape to get it out there. Paul Brown is a producer/guitar player I work with on a lot of records. He did a smooth-jazz album called Soul Searching with Larry Carlton that I worked on. I did a lot of the bass, rhythm guitar, keyboards, and programmed drums. And Live From Daryl’s House is going to start recording again, maybe in September. 

“I also have a project called Le Combo, which is myself, Jorgen Carlsson from Gov’t Mule on bass, and a great drummer named Toss Panos on drums. We almost have the record done, and we're going to be touring in November. Outside of that, I’m writing for other people and recording here and there.”

You’re the vocalist for Le Combo.

“Yeah, I sing lead vocals. It's like a rock trio version of Ebunctions. Toss has played with Steve Lukather, Andy Summers, all these people, and Jorgen plays with Government Mule and played with Chris Cornell. We got together, started jamming, and started coming up with great songs. I sang lead and everybody flipped out over it. I enjoy it a lot. There’s a lot of freedom because I wrote the songs, so it’s more my baby. We're doing about two weeks of dates in November, maybe six or seven shows.”

You wrote something quite profound in one of your Facebook posts: “Old guitars are like old friends.” 

“I think that's true. I have a few guitars that have been with me since what I consider the beginning. Every gig you do, every heartbreak or whatever, you pick up your guitar. I guess I'm a romantic about it. I pick it up and it's a nostalgic thing. It feels like you've made memories together.”

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Alison Richter is a seasoned journalist who interviews musicians, producers, engineers, and other industry professionals, and covers mental health issues for GuitarWorld.com. Writing credits include a wide range of publications, including GuitarWorld.com, MusicRadar.com, Bass Player, TNAG Connoisseur, Reverb, Music Industry News, Acoustic, Drummer, Guitar.com, Gearphoria, She Shreds, Guitar Girl, and Collectible Guitar.