Note 12/10/18 12:25 AM: This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
This is Mustafa Abubaker. This is Daily Chiefers. Today, I’m here with Sheldon Ferguson, session guitarist, producer, and professional musician in Atlanta, GA. Most recently Sheldon recorded guitar on the Grammy-nominated Astroworld’s song “Yosemite” featuring Gunna and Nav. I caught up with the Colombia, South Carolina native and session guitarist at Octane in Atlanta’s West Midtown district to get to the root of the placement, his formative years in music, and how to move and what to understand upon landing a placement on a Grammy nominated album.
DC: My first question, Sheldon, is what is your earliest memory of music?
Sheldon Ferguson: Being in the car with my family. Riding home late at night sitting in the backseat. They would always have the old school R&B station on. I was always hearing Michael Jackson and The Isley Brothers — all that old school, “Quiet Storm” music. It was always so soothing and soulful. That is definitely my earliest, most special, musical memory – just riding in the car listening to music with my family.
Do you have a musical family?
There are music lovers but not musicians. It’s funny, my dad is a music lover. But, no. Actually, my sister plays piano. My brother just started playing piano. I have them. Outside of them, they are the only ones. I have a few cousins that play. When I was coming up and learning, it was kind of just me.
What do you remember about your first record placement?
I remember being excited. I always wanted to hear my guitars on a platform with a major artist. It definitely felt like a dream being fulfilled. I wanted more and more. Bigger artists. Chart positions. All that kind of stuff.
Where did the inspiration to pick up the guitar come from?
From being in my home church in South Carolina. My mentor Terrence Young. It stood out to me… the guitar is such a special instrument — all the different sounds you can make with it, all the effects. The way you can really express yourself.
What are the makes and models of your instruments?
Fender all day. I have a Fender Stratocaster. I also have a Fender Telecaster. The Stratocaster is actually a 1950s reissue. My other Stratocaster is a standard but it was modded by Ed Stroud here in Atlanta. My Telecaster that I used on Yosemite is a 1972 reissue.
How long have you had the 1972 reissued Telecaster?
Only a couple of years. It was a graduation gift from my grandparents.
What is the most difficult part of learning the guitar?
Getting past that first year. Getting your hands physically strong enough to play. Learning scales, learning notes, and learning chords is a lot of it but just the physical aspect of getting your hands strong enough to play. I think that’s the most difficult part. So many people start learning then they stop, but once you get past it, it’s pretty much smooth sailing from there.
What are your thoughts on albums like Rebirth and Speedin‘ Bullet 2 Heaven?
I think it’s great. I came up on classic rock. When I started playing, I was learning Guns N’ Roses, Aerosmith, and Led Zeppelin and stuff.
Honestly, I’m super grateful. There are certain artists you hope to work with. There are certain artists you dream to work with.
Did you seek him out?
Not him specifically. The cool thing about it is that I always wanted to be a part of a highly anticipated album. When I found out we had a shot at being on Astroworld — we being June James, the producer, and I — it was a dream come true. It’s one thing to be with a big artist, but to be on a big album with crazy features and you know it’s going to go down in history, it’s a big honor.
What do you remember about the moment placement was confirmed?
I was at home. I got the call from someone who was handling the business. You would call her an A&R. She is from Think It’s A Game. She handles June’s placements. She sent me the e-mail that had the song title on there and Travis Scott’s name on there. I think it was something about seeing it. I was in my room and was like, wow, I can’t believe we’re going to be on his new album — Astroworld, at that. I didn’t know how to react so I really didn’t.
How much time passed from recording to placing?
A couple of months. We were over at Music Box in Atlanta recording it. We were in the studio with Rich Homie Quan at that time. At the time, we weren’t thinking about Travis. We were trying to get Rich Homie some dope records. It was 2 AM. I was super tired. I got an idea, I got back up and recorded some more. Later, June sent me some beats to the guitars I had recorded. I remember thinking it was dope. We had so many beats. Our catalog was huge at that point. When we found out we got the Travis Scott placement, I asked June which beat we used. I was like oh wow, that’s the one from that night we had a session with Rich Homie. It’s crazy.
Have you heard from Travis?
I haven’t. The way things work today in this business, it’s not always face to face like you would think. When I recorded my guitar part, I was here in Atlanta. June was there, and actually met Travis. He was the one that got the record to him. I hope that one day I will get the chance to meet him, but I haven’t had the pleasure of meeting him yet.
Would you play the song live if given the opportunity?
I would love to. It’s definitely something I would be open to doing. The recording aspect and the live aspect are two totally different things. Most artists today are not using a lot of live instrumentation. Personally I would love to hear live guitar on Yosemite at the shows, and if I could go play with them, that would definitely be an honor.
What is your label situation?
I’m completely independent right now. I have certain producers I work with, I have certain labels I work with, but I haven’t signed to anyone. Keeping it independent and keeping my options open. Producers have approached me and people have approached me about publishing deals but as of right now I’m completely independent. If I were to sign, it would have to make sense. I’m not saying I wouldn’t sign one in the future. There’s pub deals and admin deals, that’s a little more likely to happen. Not really looking right now but it’s definitely not impossible.
What does a session instrumentalist need to know to get their royalties from a song like Yosemite?
The important thing is to handle your business upfront. If you’re in my position where you’re a guitar player or if you’re a producer and you’re looking to get royalties, you have to be very vocal about that upfront. If you meet a new producer or someone, you got to sell them like x-y-z, this is what I want, this is what I need. It doesn’t have to be overbearing, but you have to make it known that you know the game. People are going to assume that you don’t know what you’re doing. They’re going to try and get over on you. You can’t allow that to happen.
How much time passed from placement to release?
It was close. I found out three weeks before the album came out. That’s typically how it goes.
What do you hope for Yosemite?
I really want Yosemite to go platinum. It’s cool Astroworld has gone double platinum but I would like to see Yosemite by itself go platinum.
Would you work with Travis again?
Of course. I hope to be on all of Travis Scott’s next projects.
Would you say this is a life-changing placement?
Definitely. Just with the notoriety that comes with this. This is a really special album. Outside of the numbers, considering the personnel, you have John Mayer on the album. You have Stevie Wonder on the album. Seeing my name next to John’s. Travis. Drake. Stevie. I’ve gotten to work with my heroes on this.
What is your advice for aspiring session guitarists?
Hone your craft. Practice. Take lessons. Put in that time and effort. Continue to grow and get better. Learn the business side. Learn the promotional side. When you’re an artist, you’re essentially an entrepreneur. You have to create a platform for yourself, a career for yourself or else you’re going to be waiting around for opportunities forever. When it comes to placements, the reason why that happened is because we were going hard in the studio all the time. I work on a lot of stuff right at my house. I’ll wake up and go record guitar loops, piano loops. You have to put in the work.
What song should every self-respecting guitarist know how to play?
I have to break it down in two. If we’re talking about soloing, I always reference Purple Rain. I’m all about simplicity. I love the solo is only a few notes and it’s so powerful and memorable. Other than that, Little Wayne by Jimi Hendrix. That guitar intro — I’ll play it over and over in my room and never get tired of it.
What are your thoughts on the music industry today?
It’s definitely an interesting place. Things are looking up. We’ve got a handle on streaming. There’s a system that’s starting to work. We’re figuring out how to make real money off of streams. Music is a cycle. There’s talk about how music doesn’t sound the way it used to and this and that but music is always a cycle. You go through phases where music is just fun and that’s an okay thing. But even in the last couple of years, we’ve been hearing songs that have a little more substance to them, even the production. You’re hearing live instruments on songs again. I’m excited to see the cycle continue.
What are you working on for 2019?
I have been working with a lot of artists for 2019. Mostly from Atlanta. I have been working with Jacquees’ producer a lot. He’s working on another album. He’s already made that known.
Do you often work with executive producers?
It depends. Working with Quay — Cook That Shit Up Quay, Quay Global— he’s pretty much Lil Baby’s main producer. Working with him, you’re really in there with the artist. Whereas with others, there are guys who have that plug and placements on a certain record even though they’re not the executive producer.
Who do you want to work with?
Right now, I’m really excited about working with Drake. I do want to work with the Migos. I want placements with them in the next couple of years. John Mayer. Eric Clapton. Someone like that. Ernie Isley. Stevie Wonder. Working with them directly is a goal of mine.
If you weren’t in the music industry, what would you be doing?
My dad’s an engineer. I’ve always had interest in engineering. I’ve always had interest in architecture. Even then, it’s hard to imagine. I started playing when I was 11. I knew I wanted to do this for my career when I was 16. It’s crazy to even think about.
Would you ever part ways with the guitar you played on Yosemite?
I don’t think I could do it. The guitar was a gift. I definitely couldn’t let go of that guitar. Even for a million dollars, I couldn’t do it.