What it takes to make it as a guitar player in Nashville

Swedish guitarist David Henriksson explains how he managed to work his way to the heart of Nashville's notoriously competitive scene and the lessons he learned along the way.

Nashville is probably the closest thing you can get to the capital city of the guitar world – this place is sometimes called ‘Guitar Town’ after all! Since I moved over here from Stockholm in the summer of 2017, I have played with 12 different artists who’s had No.1 singles on the Billboard charts, I’ve played a total of 20 performances at the iconic venues Grand Ole Opry House and the Ryman Auditorium, I’ve played festival gigs in front of 30,000 people, I’ve toured in 36 of 50 US states… Basically, I’ve been a lucky bastard who ran into a lot of opportunities way quicker than I could’ve expected!

A lot of people have told me what I have done is very rare, as Nashville is generally referred to as a ‘five-year town’ or even a ‘10-year town’ – meaning that even if you’re really talented you usually have to hustle for quite a few years before you reach any success. Now, let’s rewind the tape a little…

Hello, Guitar Town!

I immediately fell in love with this place when I came to visit the first time in the fall of 2014. I was instantly hooked by the vibrant music scene and everyone I met was so welcoming. A lot of people also expressed that they liked my playing and encouraged me to try to move over as they thought I’d fit in perfectly.

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After a second trip to Music City in March 2015 I had made up my mind – I was gonna try to get a work visa and move over. Maybe not forever, but for a few years to see what could happen. I told myself I would regret it forever if I didn’t take the chance when I had made some great connections over there.

I spent a few months reading up on what it takes to get a visa and quickly realised it’s a very tricky and bureaucratic process. So in August of 2015, I got in touch with a lawyer based in Nashville to help me with this. After a lot of blood, sweat, tears, money, doubting myself and being close to giving up several times, I finally got my visa approved in May of 2017. It was such a relief and I was so, so happy. But I also realised that the hard work would now really begin…

David Henrikkson (Sonnemo)
Image: Kyle Daniel

I spent the next two months wrapping up my life in Sweden and planning the move. I resigned from my apartment lease, sold a bunch of gear I couldn’t bring overseas, and reached out to my Nashville friends (very glad I had stayed in touch with so many of them) to let them know I was gonna move over and was looking for gigs.

On 6 July I arrived in Nashville and I was fortunate enough that my friend Chris had hooked me up with four gigs already during the first week. So I more or less spent six to eight hours a day the first three days learning the material for these first four gigs! I had told myself I wasn’t gonna do okay, my goal was to deliver more than people expected so I would build a solid reputation right from the start.

The first gig was in downtown Nashville with my friend Chris’s band, The Prescriptions, and the other gigs were in Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia with a country singer named Faren Rachels. We opened up for country legend Dwight Yoakam, who’s sold 25 million records! So after a week in the US I had already played in four states, quite a crazy start if you ask me!

Setting the pace

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After this, I had nothing booked at all, but my calendar didn’t stay empty for long. During the first eight weeks, I played with at least one new artist/band every week and had to learn between five to 35 new songs every week. I constantly tried to perform at the highest possible level and even memorised 35 cover songs for a one-off gig. Most people in Nashville would’ve written charts for the songs and saved themselves a lot of hours in the practice room. But I didn’t wanna go that route.

During these weeks I was also asked to audition for the position as lead guitarist for country singer Tracy Lawrence. As I hadn’t been in Nashville for very long I didn’t really think I would actually have a chance to get the gig, I assumed they wanted someone with more experience. But I told myself that I would make sure to learn the most I could from the audition process, and that this was the most important thing here. I have never spent more time learning five songs – a few of them were even quite easy but I wanted to nail every little detail and nuance in the arrangements!

David Henrikkson (Tracy Lawrence)

During the audition, I was a little bit nervous during the first song but after that, I was able to relax and it went really well. Still, I didn’t expect to get the gig so when I got a text from the bandleader later that evening saying, “Great job today… the gig is yours if you want it…” I was rather shocked!

Two weeks later it was time for the first gig with Tracy, and I had spent many hours learning another 20 songs. Once again, I had tried to memorise it all instead of making charts. I more or less approached the first show as a second audition – I really didn’t want to be the guy who nailed the songs at the audition and then got lazy and comfortable right away just because I had the gig.

After the show, the bandleader Joe told me, ”I’m not sure it’s possible to do a better debut gig than you just did.” Mission accomplished, they didn’t second guess their choice! My approach has been that I’m not happy enough to get a gig, but if I can show that I deserve to keep the gig by always showing up on time, being prepared and a good hang with an easy-going and positive attitude – then I might be on my way to building that solid reputation that is so very important.

Over the following 16 months I toured with Tracy Lawrence, got to play the Grand Ole Opry House 14 times and Ryman Auditorium six times, some huge festivals, backed up guest artists such as Luke Combs, Justin Moore, Craig Morgan and others. I can’t express it in any other way than that I was living the American dream!

But how did all this happen so fast? There are a few main factors I’d like to mention:

Networking

When I visited Nashville the first couple of times I was out networking more or less every day. I went to gigs, introduced myself to the musicians, told them I was visiting from Sweden which in many cases piqued their curiosity. I went to guitar shops during the days, this also proved to be a good way to meet people. I attended a lot of open blues jams, this was more or less the only way to put myself on a stage legally since I didn’t have a work visa yet.

I took guitar lessons with Guthrie Trapp and Jack Pearson to pick their brains about playing and also about how to get my foot in the door in Nashville. Guthrie ended up being the sponsor for my work visa – so paying him for a few guitar lessons and getting to know him definitely paid off. Without knowing a lot of good people, your level of chops won’t matter.

Persistence

It was a very tricky process to get the visa in my hand, and persistence proved to be incredibly important. Sometimes the process stood still for a month or two because I was waiting for a couple of people to sign some documents, and even if it was frustrating I told myself it didn’t matter if it would take two months or two years. As long as there was a chance to get a visa, I wouldn’t give up.

Focus

I had already played in a covers band for a living, so I knew my goal wasn’t to play full-time downtown on Broadway – which is usually the way a lot of players get their foot into the door. I knew my time here was limited and I wanted to go out on tour and travel through the US. So I tried to hang out around touring musicians whenever they were in town.

Nashville is a place where you can party every day of the week if you want to; there’s always plenty of stuff going on. Quite early on I decided that after fighting so hard to get a work visa I was gonna focus on work. If partying was more important, a regular tourist visa or ESTA would’ve been good enough. Yes, I go out and yes, I enjoy a beer and a good time but the balance is very important for me.

Being yourself

If I’m asked to replicate the parts exactly from a recording, I’ll do that. And I enjoy going into detail and learn all the nuances. But if I’m not specifically asked to do that I’ll try to add a lot of my own personality to the songs I’m playing. Of course, while keeping in balance with the standard/traditional characteristics of any given genre I play.

I’ve also chosen to play a bunch of unusual gear. My main Fender Strat-alike, my two amps, the pickups I’m using, and even my gigbags, are all from Swedish companies. That’s definitely helped me to stand out from the rest. Very often people will say, “Hey, you sound great but I don’t recognise the gear you’re using?” I’ll usually say, ”I’m from Sweden and I play Swedish stuff!”

In January of 2019, I decided to move on from the Tracy Lawrence gig. I felt like I had squeezed out most stuff I would get from it, and knowing that my visa would expire in early 2020 I wanted to give myself a chance to pursue some other dreams as well. I left a steady, well-paid gig and joined country/southern rock artist Kyle Daniel. At the time he had only released one EP. But I like his music and he’s one of my best and first friends in Nashville. And I wanted to be a part of building someone’s career instead of mostly maintaining it.

David Henrikkson (Olsson Combo)

So in 2019 I’ve played for smaller crowds and made less money, but it’s been very fulfilling in other ways. It’s been nice to play with people in my own generation. Growing up listening to a lot of classic rock and blues it’s always also been great to be out with a more rocking act. I also recently teamed up with TrueFire and recorded my first course with them back in October. Keep an eye out for that – it’s called Elektrik Blues and features a lot of cool concepts and approaches I use in my playing.

In February 2020, my work visa expires and it’s getting harder all the time to get a new one, but I’ve been fortunate enough to have legends like Brent Mason and Vince Gill helping me by signing recommendation letters. I don’t know what the future will be like, but I know that spending the last two and a half years of this decade in the United States will be something I’ll cherish and be proud of for the rest of my life. Follow your dreams – you’re the only one who can!

Follow David on his Instagram @davidhenrikssonmusik.

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