Imagine covering one of your favourite artists night after night in a local club. Now imagine getting a call to board a plane, and 12 hours later, starting rehearsals with that artist in preparation for a major tour. For Toronto-based guitarist Nathan Whitney, this dream for many became his reality. Over the past year, Whitney went from playing Thomas Rhett covers to playing with the man himself on stadium, arena, and festival stages throughout North America.
After graduating from Humber College, Whitney played in a plethora of bands in a range of styles including rock, metal, and jazz; however, like a lot of guitarists these days, he found something special in country music. Since joining Rhett’s band, Whitney has played Good Morning America, The Tonight Show, Country Fest at Gillette Stadium, and Rodeo Houston for a crowd of 75,000.
I had the opportunity to sit down with Whitney and ask him about country guitar performance and more.
JG: How have your musical influences changed over time?
NW: When I first began playing guitar, my influences were Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, and John Petrucci. When I first got into playing country gigs, I liked artists and bands like Paul Brandt, Rascall Flatts, and Johnny Hiland. Since then, I discovered Dan Huff, an incredible country producer and hugely influential session guitarist. In fact, spending time in Nashville has pushed me to improve my playing abilities. Everyone there is amazing at what they do. The current crop of session players like Derek Wells, Tom Bukovac, and Justin Ostrander make me want to get better everyday. As for the artist-players, I really like Keith Urban’s melodic playing and Brad Paisley for his unconventional use of pull-offs and open strings.
JG: What differentiates country guitar performance from other genres?
NW: For starters, it’s one of the last bastions in popular music in which the guitar is featured prominently. My first love was rock music and I have been into metal for a long time. Country music is very much connected with other musical styles such as rock, folk, and gospel. When I started playing country, especially “new” country, I was able to draw on elements from all of these styles and others. In terms of improvised solos, you can create very interesting solos and licks that use chromatic runs and large intervals that sound good but come from a very different place musically. Studying jazz music fostered my ability to learn new musical vocabularies. Country has its own vocabulary. For me, country guitar is its own language, but is very similar in approach to rock and jazz soloing. Ultimately, you want to serve the song.
JG: Describe the preparation process for learning songs for a major tour.
NW: You have to do what the job requests and what the job requires. In the case of my gig with Thomas Rhett, it’s about playing the songs as close to the record as possible. I was sent studio recordings with the guitar parts isolated, and [recordings from past live shows] for all of the songs. I was already familiar with many of the songs from playing country gigs in Toronto and had previously charted out the songs using the Nashville number system, so I was prepared when I got the call. In all cases, knowing the parts as well as possible before rehearsal is essential, but you also need to be open to direction from the musical director or artist, who may make adjustments.
When it comes to tones and sounds, all songs are different. In most cases, different amp tones and effects are used for different parts of the song. A verse may require a clean Fender-type sound while a chorus might be a distorted Marshall. Delays and reverbs may come in and out. Being familiar with various genre-specific gear and how to duplicate recorded tones is a huge part of the job.
JG: What have you learned about performance while on tour with Thomas Rhett?
NW: I’ve learned that we, as musicians and guitarists, are here to entertain. We help the artist tell the story of the song. Every chord, note, or solo I play helps propel that story. We are helping to entertain and enhance the audience experience. I want to ensure the audience and the other musicians on stage experience the music as fully as possible.
Apart from playing on stage, I have learned the importance of exercise and having a healthy body. Working out has made me a better guitarist. It’s affected my cardio endurance and ability to perform with more energy. I want to play music for as long as I possibly can and being healthy helps me do that.
JG: How does venue impact gear choice?
NW: Playing in clubs requires different gear than playing an arena or stadium. In clubs, I tend to use small amps and use a pedalboard to get various sounds, usually revolving around a few different overdrives, my MXR Phase 95, and Line 6 M9. On tour with Thomas Rhett, it is a silent stage concept with no live amplifiers. To get the tones I need, I use a Line 6 Helix and Kemper Profiling Amplifier. Guitar wise, I play a few different Yamaha Revstars and Pacificas, as well as my Fender American Stratocaster and Telecaster, all loaded with MJS Custom Pickups. I play a Yamaha ACM1 acoustic. Ultimately, it depends on the music and what that music requires.
JG: Describe your practice routine.
NW: On the road, it’s daily maintenance, ensuring I can perform everything for the gig at 100%. It’s hard to get a lot of time to practice on the road, so I try to be as efficient as possible and utilize any time I get. I keep a guitar on the bus and a guitar in the greenroom so I’ll always be able to warm up or review.
When I’m at home, I will practice for a couple of hours every morning. The first 20-30% of my time usually starts off by warming up with some funk rhythm guitar or bluegrass rhythm exercises and then moves into more technical practice a la Paul Gilbert. The remaining time I try to spend transcribing. It doesn’t have to be the whole song or solo; I transcribe what I find inspiring. It also forces me to learn to skills and improves technique and vocabulary. I find learning licks off of Instagram has been very helpful. There are so many great guitarists that I consider peers and heroes sharing licks and riffs online. It has become a central place I go to for ideas.
JG: How has the skillset for guitarists expanded in the past decade?
NW: It has changed immensely. When I was growing up, it was just about playing the guitar. You played guitar in a band. You went to a studio. An engineer recorded your song, then the song was mixed and mastered by a professional. While these jobs exist and still require highly skilled individuals, the responsibility for all these individual tasks has largely shifted to one person: you, the working guitarist. These days, you need to be well-versed in computer technology. You need to know how to run recording programs and know how to mix. You will create more opportunities if you can perform on multiple instruments or know how to program drum loops. Beyond performance and recording, you have to also remember that this is a business. It’s not essential to know everything about everything, but you need to be aware of the impact of social media and the opportunities that are available for you to grow and promote your business. It’s important to find others with complimentary skill sets that you can help and that can help you.
JG: Why is it important to know how to play with backing tracks?
NW: Almost all major touring artists use some form of tracks during their shows. Some people wonder why backing tracks get used. The reasons are simple. The audience is expecting that the show, for the most part, sound like the album. Even subconsciously, it can be distracting for an audience member to not hear the sounds that they are used to hearing on the record. Think about all the songs with orchestral sections in them. It would be financially and logistically impossible to hire, feed, and move an entire orchestra to play on one or two songs in a set. That’s why backing tracks are used – to provide the full musical experience to the audience in a practical manner. Playing along with tracks and making the groove feel good is essential. You want to make the track groove just a like a live musician.
JG: What advice do you have for up and coming guitarists?
NW: Be a good person. Care about the people around you. Practice every day. Find the music that you’re most passionate about but immerse yourself in all music. Be practical and smart with your money. Do your best to avoid debt, as it can come back to haunt you. Be sincere and honest in your interactions with other people in life, and especially the people you work with or want to work for. Manifest and visualize what you want for your future. See yourself in your desired role. Find friends and mentors that can help you to remain positive during the dark times. Remember, this career is not a straight path, but a winding road.
Jeff Gunn is a contributor with Canadian Musician, a Juno-nominated songwriter/producer, author of the Hidden Sounds Guitar Series, and musical director/guitarist for Emmanuel Jal. Visit him on Instagram @jeffgunn1 and Twitter @jeffgunn1 or at www.jeffgunn.ca.
Photos by Josh Gilligan.