What were you doing when you were 14 years old? Chances are you weren’t paying your dues in the famous jazz and blues clubs of Chicago, but then Isaiah Sharkey is no ordinary guitar player. For over a decade, the now 29-year-old has been building an impressive résumé as a session guitarist in the Windy City and beyond, guesting and writing with some of the most legendary names in the business. He even picked up a Grammy Award for his work on D’Angelo’s acclaimed comeback album, Black Messiah in 2016.
Since then, however, Sharkey has been going from strength to strength, releasing his debut solo album Love.Life.Live in 2017 and becoming John Mayer’s touring guitarist on his most recent world tour. The next step is Love Is The Key (The Cancerian Theme) – Sharkey’s second solo album sees the guitarist bring together everything from jazz and blues to rock, hip-hop and R&B with confidence and clarity.
“I think it’s developing at a nice pace,” Sharkey says of his ever-evolving guitar style. “Because you don’t really see your growth a lot of times, because you’re too busy working on it. But I do feel that difference.”
And when you’ve been working on the guitar for as long as Isaiah has, it’s important to take stock of how far you’ve come – after all, he’s been playing a guitar for as long as he can remember… kind of.
“The furthest back I can remember anything was having a toy guitar,” Sharkey chuckles. “When I was three years old and there was this little guitar – almost like a Guitar Hero guitar – with the little coloured buttons. And from then on, my earliest memories are having some type of guitar in my hand.
“I got my first real guitar when I was maybe about four or five. My uncle Eugene gave me a small acoustic. And then from there, seven years old, I finally got an electric guitar for my birthday.”
Music was a constant feature for the young Isaiah and his siblings as he was growing up. His father was a professional multi-instrumentalist who played in various bands around Chicago in the 60s, 70s and 80s, and it was watching an old video of the old family band that really lit a fire under Isaiah to become a pro musician.
“We had a VHS from 1983 that they did here in Chicago,” he recalls. “That was my earliest inspiration because I would see my dad playing drums, singing lead, and my uncle’s playing bass and guitar and my aunt is singing background and playing percussion… and it really just sparked something in me – and my brothers and sisters as well.”
Let’s play out
Sharkey’s musical education was split between listening to rock, blues and R&B at home, while his family was also very involved in the music side of their church, with Isaiah initially singing in the choir before graduating to playing alongside his father and brothers.
When he was 12 years old, Sharkey had got heavily into jazz and his dad realised that it was an itch that couldn’t be scratched within the confines of church – so he pulled the family together to make an album of covers of jazz standards, Skyliner…
“I was really heavy into Wes Montgomery and George Benson at the time,” Isaiah explains. “And my dad saw that I was really into jazz, and so we did an album. That’s how I actually got into jazz clubs, because we were looking for places for me to play with the band!”
Barely a teenager, Sharkey started playing out in clubs in Chicago, particularly the Velvet Lounge, where his precocious talent soon caught attention.
“Everybody’s like, ‘Look at the little kid, he’s playing jazz and playing Giant Steps!’” Isaiah recalls. “A lot of the guys looked after me, and it was received pretty well. Then I got gigs, outside of that, started doing some jazz gigs around town and then my musical experience started to expand from there.”
Isaiah was happy working in the clubs and churches, sitting in with different bands and choirs around the city, when an opportunity to do something very different presented itself.
“Some people who worked on R&B music came to our church and they heard me and said: ‘Man, we want you on this session!’” he recalls. “So then I started stepping out into different genres of music, learning the languages of these different styles. It’s like a domino effect. You do one thing, somebody hears you and then it’s like, ‘Oh, man, I want you, kid!’”
Isaiah was soon working with the likes of gospel singer Smokie Norful, R&B artist Donald Lawrence and one-time Isley Brother, Ron, but his biggest break came when, at the age of 19, he ended up playing with neo-soul icon, D’Angelo, in quite serendipitous circumstances.
“I actually got connected with D’Angelo playing a session in Richmond, Virginia,” Sharkey recalls. “How we met had nothing to do with the session! We were basically doing a live DVD recording and we had to dress up but I didn’t have a suit. So we went to hit up this clothing store… and then right next to it was a music store… and y’know, we’re musicians, we get sidetracked!
“So we go to the music store and I started picking up guitars and joking around. Then I saw this guy walking out from the back of the store where they’re giving guitar lessons and I said to my buddies: ‘Man, look at this dude, he looks like some D’Angelo lookalike!’ And I pause and look again and I think, ‘Maybe… maybe that is D’Angelo! So I go up to him and say: ‘Excuse me, I don’t mean to bother you… man… are you D’Angelo?!’ And he puts his head down and he’s like, [deadpan] ‘Yeah… I’m D’Angelo’.”
Sharkey actually had a pre-existing connection to the singer and guitarist. As a young man, Isaiah had been taken under the wing of Chalmers ‘Spanky’ Alford – a guitarist who’d worked with D’Angelo for many years and had passed away just a year or so before.
“I told him: ‘I just wanna let you know, you inspire me, and one of my biggest heroes is Spanky Alford, and we were really good friends,’” Isaiah says. “So he says: ‘Oh, man, you know, Spanky?! It was funny, y’know, I was in the back taking lessons and I heard a guitar that reminded me so much of Spanky, I thought I was daydreaming. Was that you!?’ I said: ‘Yeah, that was me.’ He smiled, heard me play again and then he pulled out his phone and got my number. He said that he’d started back up recording and touring and from there, we started working together.”
Over the following five or six years, Isaiah would tour with D’Angelo, as well as being part of a group of collaborators who worked with him as he crafted his first album in 14 years, including Pino Palladino, Questlove, Chris Dave and Roy Hargrove.
The result was Black Messiah – a critically lauded Billboard top-five album released under the moniker ‘D’Angelo And The Vanguard’ in honour of the contribution his collaborators had made to the process. It also landed Isaiah a Grammy Award for Best R&B album at the 2015 awards.
“The whole process of winning the Grammy… to include us because he felt like we were important to that sound, I thought that was really really generous,” Isaiah enthuses. “So I’m very grateful for his generosity. I learned a lot working with him, a whole lot.”
Winning Grammy awards tends to create opportunities and before long, Isaiah was playing alongside acts such as Paul Simon, Chris Martin, Patti LaBelle and Keith Urban, primarily as a result of the big-name contacts he made in the process. And working with such diverse talents certainly prompted him to up his game…
“It put me in places where I had to do my homework!” he laughs. “It taught me how to adjust, playing with different artists all the time, to make it my favourite thing and appreciate the music. Not just play the notes, but, ‘What’s their tone? How do they get their tone? What’s the guitar that they’re using? How are they playing the notes?’
“It really helped my playing out and my appreciation for all this different music in a deeper way – and it helped me with my own music, too.”
Sharkey’s biggest gig to date has seen him back up guitar superstar John Mayer on tour. The pair first met up when John sat in with D’Angelo at the Roots Picnic event in New York back in 2016.
“John comes into the rehearsal hall and says, ‘Hey, I’m John Mayer’. I’m like, ‘I know, you are!’” Isaiah chuckles. “So I said: ‘I’m Isaiah Sharkey’, and he said: ‘Oh, man, I love your work, I love your playing and I’ve been following you [on Instagram]’.
“So we got a chance to jam and a couple of weeks later, I get a call from his tour manager saying: ‘Hey, John would love for you to come play with him. And I would definitely have to give Steve Jordan and Pino Palladino [Mayer’s longtime sidemen] a shout on that, because they definitely helped with them saying: ‘Yeah, you need to get the guy!’”
Backing up one of the world’s most famous and respected guitar players is a tall order, and Isaiah always tries to let Mayer be the main man and do what he wants.
“I try to give him his space, so that he can be free to either play or not play guitar – my goal is to never be in his way,” he explains. “But he’s like, ‘Man, no, play! Play out! I know you know the parts, so just have fun with it, do your thing!’
“Just trying to incorporate my feel on top of his parts is the thing, and he’s very open with me expressing myself at the gig. He’s another generous artist who isn’t selfish or insecure at all. He’s very, very secure about his playing… I mean, he’s John Mayer!
“He’s such a, such a fan of music, such a fan of the guitar – it’s like talking to a buddy, you know, when we talk about music, he’s just like anybody else. He’s a geek like I am when it comes down to it – if not more of a geek than I am!”
Despite Sharkey’s sideman and session career taking up much of his time over the last decade, the desire to make something of his own has always burned bright and he’s fitted it in when he can.
“Even though my first album [Love.Life.Live] came out in 2017, I started writing and recording in 2012,” he recalls. “Whenever I had time or money, I would put it into studio time and record. Going back listening to some of that stuff now, I hear myself searching for some sort of sound that included everything that I love.”
Stepping back into the frontman role over a decade after he’d last been at the head of his family band, Isaiah Sharkey & The Family Tree, was definitely an adjustment, however.
“It’s definitely an adjustment,” he admits. “Because I’d sung at church, but never lead vocals. I thought about going down the route of getting featured singers. But then I was like, ‘Well, if I start travelling, who’s going to sing these songs!?’ So I kind of put myself in a pickle, and I had to make myself say: ‘You know what, you got to sing now, dude. You got to be the frontman now!’”
Isaiah has followed up Love.Life.Live in short order with his second full-length, Love Is The Key (The Cancerian Theme) and it certainly reflects the expansive array of genres he’s found himself working in over the last few years.
“It kind of sums up all my influences,” he confirms. “The things I grew up with and the music that I learned in the church, the jazz, the hip-hop, the R&B, the soul, the funk, everything!
“I know what I like a lot more. I know what I liked from the first album, what I knew that I could adjust so that I can make it a little better next time. I won’t say it was easier, but I think that there was more certainty about what it was I was going for.”
His guitar style has also been evolving as a result of his recent collaborations. “Playing with John Mayer, there’s a lot of different things about blues that I’ve learned,” he explains. “I listened to Albert King, but I didn’t really listen to Albert King like that. And I listen to Stevie Ray, but I didn’t listen to him, y’know? So I’m like, ‘Man, let me go back and check some stuff out, I gotta see what’s up.’”
Like many virtuoso guitar players, Isaiah is also a keen teacher of guitar, and he’s found that showing others has helped him further evolved his guitar style.
“I don’t really analyse the way I play, so it forces me to sit down and say: ‘Okay, what is the concept behind what you’re playing?’” he reflects. “That helps me. I guess that’s why I like, teaching – the joy of sharing.”
As befits a man with eclectic musical pursuits, Sharkey’s guitar collection is suitably broad and varied, playing everything from vintage Gibsons and Fenders to guitars from Framus, Fodera, D’Angelico and even cutting-edge new brand Abasi Guitars. For the longest time, he was exclusively an ES-335 aficionado, but his session life put paid to that…
“I used to just be like, ‘Oh man, I only play 335s…’ and then we’d get on a gig or a session and they’d be like, ‘Man, you got a Strat…?’” he chuckles. “And I was like, ‘Crap, I’ve spent all this money on this one guitar to give me one sound,’ and so that was a lesson learned! You know what? I need to get a really good Strat!”
Choosing his favourite guitar from his current crop, however, isn’t an easy job… “It’s a toss up between two… actually man, three guitars?” he ponders. “Okay, four. Okay, alright, maybe five!”
Picks of his rack are a 1964 Jazzmaster, his PRS Silver Sky (“It’s beating all my Strats right now – I hate to say that, don’t tell Fender I said that!”) and an Abasi Larada Space T, but his favourite instrument is one he’s had a long, long relationship with.
“I have a 1963 Epiphone Casino that was a gift from a friend of mine,” Isaiah explains. “We grew up in the same church and his grandfather used to play at church with the Casino. He’d sit it on the stand, and when I was little I’d go into the pulpit and try to touch guitar, but he’d say: ‘Ah! Don’t touch it!’ [laughs] I never knew that 20-something years later, I would have that guitar as part of my collection!”
The kids are alright
Playing guitar for a living is all well and good, but for Isaiah it’s just as important to use his privileged position to pay it forward and to be a role model for the next generation.
“I come from not such a great part of Chicago, you know? That neighbourhood wasn’t the safest,” Sharkey reflects. “I’ve seen a lot of kids that have talent over the years that have passed on due to being involved in street activity, or some other sort of thing that will put them in danger. I was very fortunate to have great parents that really protected me and my brothers and sisters from the streets.
“There’s so much trouble that I could have been in, but music kept me from all that. At the age of 12, I was making a few dollars playing music, so I didn’t have to sell drugs or anything like that. So I want to always get back to where I come from, and encourage people – if you’re into it, you can you can do it! It’s possible. You can stay positive and do what you love to do instead of what you feel like you’re forced to do.”
Isaiah Sharkey’s new album Love Is The Key (The Cancerian Theme) is out now on SDM Entertainment. Grab a copy at isaiahsharkey.com.