Sometimes opportunity presents itself in the most unlikely of places — as was the case for guitarist Sam Sugarman. Being a fourth-generation Los Angeleno, Sugarman grew up surrounded by talented artists and musicians. After learning to play guitar from his father and later striving to play professionally, he owes his biggest gig to date — playing alongside contemporary R&B meets soulful-rock powerhouse, Childish Gambino — to a small martini lounge in Beverly Hills. We had the opportunity to speak to Sugarman about his early days jamming with Maroon 5’s James Valentine, the experience of touring globally, and how his Ernie Ball Music Man Albert Lee guitars make him feel “inspired and excited”.
EBMM: We hear you have a unique relationship with Ernie Ball. Can you tell us that story?
SS: My parents were born in Los Angeles and so was my grandmother and great grandmother. So, I’m fourth generation which I think is pretty rare. That being said, it feels good to be a part of a guitar company that still makes instruments in Southern California. My dad was born in the early ’50s and started playing guitar right after The Beatles played Ed Sullivan. So many kids were rushing to their local guitar shops and starting bands. My dad was totally part of that wave. He started taking lessons at the first Ernie Ball shop on Ventura Boulevard in Tarzana, which is the neighborhood I was born in. He taught me how to play guitar when I was nine, and I’ve been using Ernie Ball since day one.
EBMM: When did you start playing pretty seriously? Was there a moment when you knew you wanted to play professionally?
SS: From around nine or 10 years old. I wanted to be in a band and dreamt about doing this professionally. I was the kid in sixth grade playing “Little Wing” at the talent show and wearing a Dark Side Of The Moon t-shirt. I went to a school in North Hollywood called Oakwood. It’s sort of like the Crossroads (a pretty well-known school on the west side) of the San Fernando Valley. I was so lucky, a lot of my friends within a grade or two of me became professional musicians. Chris Hartz, the drummer and [musical director] for Gambino, also went to Oakwood. I think there was so much talent at that school. Ivan Johnson, our jazz band teacher was a massive influence on all of us, and it was a great atmosphere to be in. It really gave us the education as well as the confidence to believe in ourselves and go for it.
EBMM: Currently, your main focus is with Childish Gambino, but what other projects were you involved with prior to taking on that gig?
SS: I played with a band called JJAMZ, which was James Valentine of Maroon 5’s side project. Alex Greenwald from Phantom Planet, Jason Boesel from Rilo Kiley… it was kind of this little indie supergroup. This was right when “Moves Like Jagger” came out, right before Maroon 5’s resurgence. James got too busy, and so they asked me to fill in. Also, right before Gambino, I played some shows with Albert Hammond Jr. of The Strokes. I also MD a 13 piece wedding band that plays about 40 shows a year nationally.
EBMM: So after JJAMZ, is this when everything with Childish Gambino started to take off?
SS: When I was about 20, Chris and I worked at a sandwich shop in Studio City called Artisan Cheese Gallery. The owner of the shop hired us to play Beatles covers for her husband’s 60th birthday. It went well, and we decided to call up our friend Luke, whose father ran this restaurant called Nick’s Martini Lounge in Beverly Hills. They had live bands playing there every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday night. We booked a Beatle night every Saturday, which turned into a soul night and that’s how we met everyone from Childish Gambino. Thomas Drayton, who plays bass in the band had a night at Nic’s, and so did Ludwig Göransson, the main producer who started Gambino with Donald from the beginning. So this little martini lounge in Beverly Hills ended up being a weird melting pot, and Chris and I were just in the right place at the right time. It’s a very unlikely gig that led to such amazing opportunities. It was a lesson for me to be open-minded; that you just never know where an unassuming gig or relationship might lead you.
EBMM: The band met through mutual friends and playing in these intimate venues, when did Donald Glover get involved?
SS: Ludwig was composing for Community, a show that Donald starred in. The two of them got together to make music for Donald’s new project. Ludwig put together a live band and reached out to players he had met at Nic’s Martini Lounge. Ludwig is an incredible guitar player, so he needed bass and drums, and called Chris and Thomas. When Ludwig started to get really busy and couldn’t tour any longer, that’s when I got involved.
EBMM: Did you expect the project to be as successful as it is today?
SS: No way. I specifically remember the first iteration of the band playing at The Bootleg Theater, a 200-300 cap room. If you look back at it, it was almost more experimental in a way, they had violin and metal guitar tones. The whole thing got a little bigger and I specifically remember seeing shows at USC and UCLA where things started popping off. But it wasn’t until 2015ish when I had the opportunity to write on Awaken, My Love!. Donald started singing in a way that I hadn’t heard from him before. I didn’t realize yet just how good his voice was. Atlanta hadn’t come out yet… you could see that he was heading in a direction, channeling something much deeper.
EBMM: It sounds like it all happened pretty organically.
SS: It did. But frankly, I got super lucky. Donald wanted to essentially make soul music. That’s a world I felt really comfortable playing in. Donald was inspired by records I, fortunately, knew well and really loved. He and Chris had a session booked at our studio in Atwater Village, and Chris asked me to come work. If the project went in a different direction, maybe things wouldn’t have fallen into place the way they did.
EBMM: Shifting gears a bit, let’s talk instruments. The Albert Lee is your go-to guitar, how has that instrument been the one you gravitate to the most?
SS: It’s hard to explain why something feels good. I think I wanted a guitar that played like something I was already really familiar with, but that looked unique and different; that still had something classic about it. I also liked the idea of having something fairly light. The Albert Lee comes from a sort of Strat universe, which is what I grew up playing. I have two Albert Lee’s I play on everything, one with single coils and one with humbuckers. They cover everything I need for almost every occasion. Ultimately, I believe a guitar is more personal and about feel than anything else. If you have really good pickups and know how to play the damn thing well.. the majority of the sound from that point is gonna be about the amp and pedals. So more than anything, it’s about picking it up a guitar and feeling inspired and excited. That’s what those guitars bring to the table for me more than anything else.
EBMM: 2019 was a big year for you and the band, where you guys were touring basically all year. How was 2019 for you?
SS: When you’re on the move and traveling, it can be really hard to truly savor the moment and soak it all in. It can all feel pretty normalized when you’re doing it regularly, even though you’re in this situation that is truly one-of-a-kind and super rare.
I was the nerdy kid that would wait for five hours to get a good spot to see Nine Inch Nails, Radiohead or Bjork at Coachella. So for me, I knew right away how lucky I was to headline all of these festivals and play all these arenas around the world. It’s something I’ll never forget and I’m so lucky I got to do it with my close friends.
EBMM: Is there any advice you would give to aspiring guitarists or musicians who hope to be a traveling musician one day?
SS: Well, the first thing I’ll say is that I have no business giving anyone any advice. But, if I had to give my younger self advice, I’d say, to focus on the simple stuff more. You might think playing a Bob Dylan song is easier than playing a Metallica song. You might think that practicing scales at a high bpm is the most important thing. But it’s actually really hard to make an amp and a guitar sound good in a very primal, primitive way. Even with just simple open chords. So don’t put off the “easy stuff”. Go out and actually try to play that music in front of a crowd and make it sound really, really good and have it connect with an audience. Also, just remember, more than being a good musician, if you want to get hired in a band, you have to be able to connect with the band and crew. If you’re a shitty person, you probably won’t get hired!
I’m gonna have trouble sleeping tonight if I can’t get my hands on that sparkly gold Albert Lee.
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