An Interview with Graham Whitford of Tyler Bryant and the Shakedown

All images courtesy of Freeman Promotions/Header image credit: Michael Heeschen


By Andrew DiCecco
adicecco@vinylwriter.com

By unwittingly gifting his son Graham a Les Paul guitar for Christmas at the age of seventeen, Brad Whitford, of Aerosmith fame, started his son down the path to his own success.

With scorching riffs emanating from his Les Paul, Graham, who honed his craft on Stratocasters during his formative years – his first proper guitar was a John Mayer Fender Stratocaster Custom Shop – has since forged his own distinction within Tyler Bryant & the Shakedown, where he’s accompanied Stratocaster brandishing wunderkind Tyler Bryant since 2010.

A dual-guitar fueled rock act based out of Nashville, Tyler Bryant & the Shakedown blends together hard rock with blues-infused stylings, which complement its multilayered songwriting. In addition to Whitford and Bryant, bassist Ryan Fitzgerald and drummer Caleb Crosby complete the quartet.

Heralded among the emerging rock acts poised to carry the proverbial torch for the next generation, Tyler Bryant & the Shakedown released four studio albums – Wild Child (2013), Tyler Bryant & the Shakedown (2017), Truth and Lies (2019), and Pressure (2020) – with another, Shake the Roots, on its way.

I recently sat down with Whitford to discuss a variety of topics, including the band’s upcoming release, his indoctrination into the Shakedown and cohesive collaboration with Tyler Bryant, riff writing approach, and how his role within the group has evolved.

Andrew:
We’ve recently lost the great Manny Charlton of Nazareth. I don’t know if you’re aware of this, but Manny was a staunch supporter of Tyler Bryant and the Shakedown and was the person who turned me onto the band. He sent me the link to the Fender session video, and it was off to the races. He said (exact text), “Tyler Bryant is the best young guitarist I’ve heard in years….. kid is world class. I’d sign him in a heartbeat.” So, growing up with ’70s influences, are you familiar with Manny’s playing?

Graham:
To be honest, not really. I didn’t even know that he was a fan of the band. I’ve certainly heard Nazareth, but I feel like this is a good moment to go dig back into some of that stuff. That’s so cool. Thanks for sharing that, man.

Andrew:
Let’s get into the most recent news on the Tyler Bryant and the Shakedown front. What are the latest developments?

Graham:
Well, we’ve got some new music coming out very soon. Which I’m very excited about. We’ve been working on some stuff for the last – man, probably the past year or so – even some stuff dating back to even longer than a year ago. I’m pretty excited about this new music because I feel like it’s kind of the most authentically us thing that we’ve done in a while. Not to say that some of the records we’ve put out in the past weren’t us, but I think this stuff is very rootsy, and I think it kind of harkens back to some of the earlier stuff that we did; some of the Wildchild record. It’s kind of more in that vein, which I’m excited about. I’m really, really happy with this one. I like all the songs on it.

Andrew:
What do you attribute the band’s ability to dial in that signature sound?

Graham:
I think we were just kind of thinking about what works for us as a band, what people connect to, and what we really are as a core. I mean, we’re a rock ‘n’ roll band that has blues influence, but some of our favorite stuff is always The Black Crowes, and we’re also big fans and friends of Blackberry Smoke. So, I do love the heavier stuff that we’ve released, but I always felt like sometimes people didn’t connect as much with that side of us. Certainly, there are people who love those songs; a lot of people will say, “Why don’t you play these songs?” And sometimes, there are certain songs that we play that are heavy and still fun, and we still play them, but I think we’ve all been more attracted to making an album that is digestible in a way that you can put on at a barbeque in a sense. And a lot of our favorite music can do that; you can put on the Rolling Stones at a barbeque.

Some of our heavier stuff is cool, and there are people who appreciate it, but I don’t sometimes think it’s as digestible, and I don’t know that some people connect to it as much. But I think it’s also that we wanted to make a record that we liked, and I think that’s just kind of where we were at. We had this whole plan for a while last year where we were gonna make a straight-up blues album, basically, and I think that’s kind of what set us on this path, I think, of making something that was a little more rootsy and still has its heavy moments. I feel like our fans, and people really connect to that side of us. In fact, some of our most listened-to songs are actually some of the most chill songs that we’ve ever put out. We wanted to start paying attention to what people liked about us. What attracts people to our music? What do people like listening to?

All images courtesy of Freeman Promotions

Andrew:
Is there a timeframe for its release?

Graham:
We haven’t actually announced the release date yet, but it’s gonna be – let’s just say very soon. It’s gonna be in the next few months.

Andrew:
I wanted to revisit the Pressure album for a moment. Although that was recorded in Tyler’s home studio, Bombay Palace, it was during a period when the pandemic was at its peak, so I’d imagine that wasn’t the most conducive time to create. During those initial sessions, where were you creatively?

Grham:
Yeah, it was really interesting. I mean, we literally jumped into that record essentially at the top of the pandemic. We had plans to make the album, and we were working on the songs – I think we started in late March, which was just kind of right at the beginning of all that – and it was just a weird time because no one really knew what was going on and we didn’t know how bad it was going to get. We worked with our good friend Roger Nichols – who we’ve worked with a lot on different things over the years, whether it’s albums or writing – and he was of the idea of the four of us getting together. We had just parted ways with our bass player, Noah Denney, kind of right before that, so this was just a record that Tyler, Caleb, and I decided to do, and Tyler’s a pretty darn good bass player. I think we just wanted to try and keep the ball rolling, and we knew that if we were able to get together and also quarantine, it could be kind of safe. It was a really fun experience; it kind of gave us something to look forward to and something to be hopeful about in a very scary, unknown time. That was a really fun record to make.

The pandemic offered Tyler a lot of time to – he’s always been really great in the studio since I’ve known him as far as making demos go, and he has the mind for it and the ears for it – but the pandemic offered Tyler a lot of time to invest in his studio. So, his studio at home has grown so much since we even made that Pressure record. And the latest record that we’ve been working on was also done there. This will be a completely independent release for us, too. So, we’re kind of doing it on our own now, which gives us a lot more freedom, and I think we’re excited about that.

Andrew:
That’s a big plus. You can create music the way you envision it without any outside interference.

Graham:
Yeah, outside input and scheduling stuff. We’re just able to put out what we want when we want. It’s pretty liberating, to be honest, because it does get tricky, and timing and stuff gets weird. So, I’m looking forward to just kind of keeping it in-house – at least for this one – to see how it goes. I feel really good about it. I think it’s gonna be a positive for us.

Andrew:
As you look back on the past ten-plus years in the band, Graham, in what measurable ways have you seen your role evolve?

Graham:
Well, I’ve definitely become, I think, a better writer over the years. As much as I love guitar playing and all that, I’m really attracted to songwriting and crafting songs. I get really excited when I listen to something that I really like, and I think, “What is it about this that makes this work?” In the writing process, Tyler’s a really prolific lyricist. He goes to someplace where things just come to him. A lot of times, it may start with the title or idea that I have, and then he’ll kind of do his thing. I feel like sometimes I have a bit of a producer’s brain, in the sense that I kind of hear something and go, “What if we do this instead? What if you sang this here?” I like kind of looking at the big picture of a song and figuring out what makes it work and how we can make what we already have better.

I also think, too, Tyler, Caleb, and I have been doing this for such a long time now that I think over the years, we’ve just gotten closer and more comfortable and more open with each other, and that’s made our songwriting better and our communication as a band better. The cool thing about our band that’s kept me inspired is that, yes, it’s been a slow build, but I feel like each year, we’ve continued to build a little, and it hasn’t declined. It’s a slow build, but each year, we’re pushing a little further; the songs are getting a little better. There are more listeners. I am of the belief that if you keep working at something and keep pushing it along, eventually, you will see some greater success at some point.

All images courtesy of Freeman Promotions

Andrew:
What is your recollection of how you first met Tyler?

Graham:
So, basically, what happened was I was in high school at the time, and my father was out touring with The Experience Hendrix Tribute tour. They came through New York, where I was living at the time – I was seventeen – and I went to the show, and I was asked to get up. My dad kind of invited me to get up and play with him and Johnny Lang, which at the time was just about the coolest thing I’d ever done. I got to get up and play; I think it was “Rock Me Baby.” I can’t remember if that was the only one; we maybe did “Spanish Castle Magic,” too. It was at the Beacon Theatre. Then fast-forward, I believe it was the next tour he did the following year; my dad called me – I was in school – and he said that they were doing some shows on the west coast in Vegas and at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles. He said, “I was talking to Johnny, and if you want, it would be great for you to fly out to Vegas and get up and play with us, and then ride the bus to L.A. and play with us there.” I think it was the first time I took a flight by myself, and it was just such a cool experience to do that, and I was so excited about it.

When I was in Vegas, I was backstage, and this man approached me. Turns out he was Robert Knight, the photographer, and he introduced himself to me and asked if I knew who Tyler Bryant was. My response was, “The name sounds familiar. I think I may have seen a YouTube video or something.” Anyway, this guy gave me his number, and I ended up looking up Tyler and realizing that I had seen him before and immediately kind of became a fan of the music they were making. Like, I really almost became obsessed a bit with what Tyler was doing. I was just very inspired. I didn’t know that I wanted to be in the band or anything like that; it was just kind of like, “Wow, this is really cool. I wanna be doing that.” Then I ended up meeting Tyler – I did this King of the Blues Guitar Center competition – which is so funny to think about. I’m not really sure why I did it; it was just kind of one of those things where there was a blues competition, and I didn’t really expect much of it. I did the first round at the Guitar Center on 14th street in New York, and I won that round, and then suddenly it’s like, “Oh my God. I won?” Then I went to the next round, which I think was at a Guitar Center in Brooklyn, and then I won that one, and then it was like, “Okay, you’re going to the finals in Los Angeles.”

Tyler was there at the finals; he was invited out by Joe Bonamassa – he actually was a guest judge of the competition – and I guess at that point, he saw me play. That was kind of the first time we connected. Later that year, I was getting ready to go to Berklee College of Music, and a couple of months prior, Tyler messaged me on iChat and asked me what I was doing that summer and if I wanted to go on the road. They had a guitar player at the time, and he said things weren’t working out. They were going on the road with Pat Benatar and REO Speedwagon. It was gonna be amphitheaters, and I was just absolutely over the moon. We had some posters made for that tour, and it said: Graham Whitford, special guest. So, we didn’t really know where it was gonna go, if I was gonna be a member or anything like that, we just connected in such a big way, and I fell in love with Nashville. After one semester at Berklee – I intended to stick it out for the whole year – and December rolled around, and I thought, “Man, I gotta go to Nashville. I gotta jump into this thing.

Andrew:
Describe the cohesive collaboration between you and Tyler, as the chemistry only seems to grow stronger with every album and live performance.

Graham:
Kind of as our relationship has evolved over the years; we’ve gotten more comfortable with each other. It’s so weird because I’ve played with Tyler and Caleb for 12 years now, and I can sort of reading their minds, and I think they can read mine, especially when we perform at a show; I can sort of anticipate what each person is going to do. I think while Tyler and I’s style is different as guitar players, we’ve played together for so long now; there’s this fabric that we’ve weaved together almost subconsciously. There’s this tightness that we have when we play together that’s very cool and inspiring to me when we do play. It’s a very cool feeling to have this connection with another guitar player that’s that strong. You know, a lot of people earlier on in the years of us as a band would say, “Graham, I wish you’d play more guitar solos,” this and that. While I do love to play lead, to me, it wasn’t a thing where I was trying to push for that or anything. For me, it was the band; that was the main focus. It was the songs; it was just trying to get this thing off the ground. But I think Tyler and I have, especially in the last couple of years, we started to have more fun jamming in songs. I do have some more guitar solos and stuff on these new records, which is fun, and I enjoy it, but that hasn’t really been a focus for me. I’m a huge fan of Tyler’s playing, he’s a great guitar player, and there are things that he can do that I can’t, and I think there are things that I can do that he can’t. And that’s kind of what makes it fun.

Andrew:
It’s evident that you and Tyler complement each another quite well and showcase distinctively different styles. Who were some of the influences that shaped your sound?

Graham:
I think initially, some of the stuff I was listening to – I grew up playing drums – and it wasn’t until I moved to New York when I was thirteen that I really started gravitating towards the guitar. Some of the first stuff that I was listening to and kind of learning and absorbing was Jimmy Page. And Stevie Ray Vaughan was just a massive influence for me; I was just so captivated by him, and I still am to this day. Also, Jimi Hendrix. And it’s interesting because as I was learning guitar, my father was living in Charlotte at the time, so I would kind of see him a few months out of the year at that time. I was kind of teaching myself in a way by watching YouTube and listening to things and just figuring it out on my own. For me, I didn’t have any sort of goal in mind at that age; if I walked into a room and there was a guitar sitting on a stand and I saw it, I was gonna pick it up. And that’s kinda always been my thing ever since I was a little kid. I walk into a room, and there’s a drum set; I almost can’t sit still; I’m essentially drooling looking at it. And that’s kind of always been my thing. It’s never been like, “Oh, I need to get two hours of practice in today.” It was never that. It was just, “Oh, there’s a guitar? I have to play it.

But when I did get to go visit my dad, he would show me some things here and there, but for me, I would learn so much watching him play. He taught me how to play a 12-bar blues, and that was kind of the thing that got me obsessed with guitars. Once I learned that, I was off to the races. I still, whenever I get a moment to watch my dad play the guitar, I learn so much just listening and watching him, whether I realize it or not. So, he’s certainly an influence. To be honest, when I was 16 years old, I went with my mom to a John Mayer concert at Madison Square Garden; he had just come out with his Continuum album. He walked out on stage and played this blues guitar solo, and I was absolutely enamored with his playing. So, early on, he was a fairly large guitar influence for me, too. I loved his touch and his tone. It was very inspiring for me as a young guitar player.

All images courtesy of Freeman Promotions

Andrew:
What guitar were you learning on as you honed your chops?

Graham:
Stratocasters. To be honest, a Les Paul felt weird to me when I was younger. Every time I picked one up, it was like, “I don’t know, this just feels different. I don’t really get it.” I actually still have it – my first real guitar was a John Mayer Fender Strat, his custom shop guitar. I got it when I was fourteen, and that was kind of what I really learned. Actually, when I joined the Shakedown – which was just the Tyler Bryant Band at the time – I was playing a white Custom Shop Strat with Lipstick pickups, which I also still have. The first couple tours we did, it was just Tyler and me on Strats, then my dad bought me a Les Paul for Christmas when I was seventeen, and there was just one day I think I brought it to a rehearsal, and I just had a moment where I was like, “Okay. This is cool. I like this.” And kind of from there on out, I just realized the combination of me doing the Les Paul thing and Tyler doing the Strat thing is really cool. And it kind of gave me a different identity in the band, which I liked. People still to this day always come up to me and go, “I love the dichotomy between Tyler’s Strat and your Les Paul and the way they complement each other.” I still love Strats, but I’ve really become a Gibson guy at this point.

Andrew:
What’s your amp setup like?

Graham:
In America, I’ve been playing an Orange AD30, which is a great amp. My friend Pat Foley works with Orange, and he used to do Orange relations at Gibson for years; and he let Tyler and I try some amps, and we were like, “These sound great.” And they’re also extremely durable; knock on wood, I’ve never had one die on me or anything like that, which is very encouraging, especially the way we have to tour sometimes. I have a Marshall JTM45 in Europe, and we were just in Europe two weeks ago – we were over there for a week – and I was just like, “Man, this amp sounds so great. I need to get one in the states.” So, my plan is to keep that AD30 and incorporate the JTM45 and kind of have both of them running at the same time. That would be the dream rig at the moment.

Andrew:
Walk me through your creative space in terms of writing riffs, if you could. What is that process typically like for you?

Graham:
To be honest, it’s kind of a mysterious one. If I sit down and go, “Okay, I wanna come up with a riff,” a lot of times, if I’m forcing it, nothing cool happens. Usually, if I do come up with something interesting, it’s like the first two seconds I pick up the guitar when I’m really not trying to make something happen. Something that’s kind of an inner battle for me is trying to be more present with music and life in general and not try to force things. I believe when you try to force something, it doesn’t really come. And also, if I’ve got a cool sound or something that’s usually pretty inspiring, plug into an amp that I really like or a guitar pedal or something that evokes some sort of inspiration for some kind of riff.

And sometimes I’ll hop on the drums and start playing a groove that I really like, and then I’ll record it on my phone or something, and then I’ll sit down and try and come up with a riff over that. That can really be fun sometimes. But it’s funny; a lot of times, I will come up with something and record it as a voice memo. And then maybe six months later, I’ll either be in the van or in a plane with no Wi-Fi, and it’s like, “What do I do?” And I start listening to things, and I go, “Oh my God, that’s cool!” Sometimes reflecting on something that you did a while ago that you maybe didn’t realize was cool at the time, you hear it with fresh ears and think, “Oh, that’s interesting.” Sometimes, in retrospect, you can kind of hear things differently, or it’ll trigger another idea or something like that. So, that’s really fun for me to kind of take a look back and think, “Oh, that’s actually really cool. I should work on that more.”

All images courtesy of Freeman Promotions

Andrew DiCecco (@ADiCeccoNFL) is the Senior Editor for vwmusicrocks.com and may be reached at adicecco@vinylwriter.com.

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