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Will Larson - Interviewed

- Mitch West


Will Larson Photo Credit: @Dane Kisner


Will Larson is a professional guitar player from Lincoln, NE who's shared the stage with some of country music's biggest names including: Chase Rice, Raelynn, Avery Anna, and others. His dream of playing the big stage one day has now become a reality but it didn't just happen. Will's journey is just one of the many blueprints to follow for whatever it is you're trying to make it in regardless of whether it's music related or not. We had the chance to Zoom it up with Will earlier this year to talk about his Nebraska roots, going to school for music, having great mentors, and more.


What was it like growing up in Lincoln? In music, who were some of your biggest influences?


Will: I grew up in Lincoln, Neb., and was exposed to music. I'd hear Dad playing piano around the house and he was teaching 'History of Rock' and 'History of Jazz' classes, so I had access to his CD collection at the university. I was checking out The Beatles and Led Zeppelin, The Beach Boys’ 'Pet Sounds' and The Who. All that stuff was what I grew up being into and he was playing jazz, which I didn't like at all at the time. I took piano lessons, saxophone lessons, and guitar lessons, that was all kind of just for fun and I didn't think I was going to be a professional musician. Then it wasn't until I went to music school, probably my first semester of college at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, that I decided I wanted to go down this road.


Growing up, did your teachers paint a good picture as far as where playing guitar could take you and the different outlets? Or is that something where you just learned went on?


Will: I don't think I had any concept that what I do now was real. I always knew I could play around Lincoln, of course. There's absolutely nothing wrong with that. There are some incredible players around Lincoln. I probably thought you'd have to get rich and famous if you were gonna be a professional guitar player doing some of the things that I do now, playing big stages sometimes, doing that sort of thing. It's really hard to get rich and famous, even more so now if you're a guitar player. I think it's almost impossible – not impossible, but almost impossible. Sure, there's always going to be those rare ones that do, that's not to anyone's detriment. I don't think people in Lincoln still quite understand what I do. I mean, my dad does, but for a lot of people growing up, I don't think I had much of a concept about professional guitar players. But Nashville is a very different scene. I probably didn't realize what it was like even when I knew I was going to move here, to be honest.


You went to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln for two years then out East to Berkeley which was a pretty big move. Why did you want to go to Berklee? What made the decision to go versus staying in Lincoln?


Will: It's weird with schools and music. You get a lot of this back and forth. Some people believe in going to college for music and going to Berklee, learning your chops, and becoming that knowledgeable, professional musician. Other people say don't waste your time, just learn it on your own or have an instructor. Things didn't feel quite as connected as they are today. I knew that I wanted to be sort of out of my world. I was very lucky to have grown up in that world, of course. But I knew that I wanted to find sort of the next frontier. I think a lot of people probably have to make that choice at some point. It doesn't have to be music school. If I had just left for Nashville at age 19 or 20, I wouldn't have been nearly as good of a musician. But that wouldn't have meant that I wouldn't have been able to do the same career. Berklee is just one way to do it.


I've played with so many musicians now in Nashville, I have no idea how many it's been. I've played with so many musicians and some of them went to Berklee or Belmont or wherever and they're great. Some of them didn't do anything like that and they're great and some people went to places like Berklee or Belmont and they're OK. It doesn't mean someone's good just because they went to a place like that, in my opinion. It’s just whatever your journey is, however, you figure it out, the way you find to really kind of get your ass kicked nowadays. I think it's easier than ever to do something like that because there's so much on YouTube, and the internet in general. That stuff was probably already happening when I went to Berklee. I've known some people who really kind of trash it, who went there and didn't have a good experience. I had a great experience, I would say, and I feel really lucky that I got to do it. I benefited from the community, both while I was there and after I left for Nashville. People that I didn't even know at Berklee, moved to Nashville about the same time as me and I started running into them everywhere. So I made friends through Berklee, even after I was already in Nashville. I had a great experience and I feel really lucky that I got to do it. I know that I've gotten way better just from working. Being in a professional environment has been the ass-kicking even more so than school or far more than school, I would say.


Yeah, thats the real world. It just moves with or without you.

Will: Yeah, I mean, I don't want to make it sound high-stress because Nashville people like to be pretty chill. But, you know, if you don't do an assignment, you could still get an A in the class. If you show up to a gig and you didn't learn the songs – sometimes if you're playing for artists, which is what I like to do, there might be one song that is the only song they care much about the whole night. They might go and play for an hour or whatever, but they're just dying to get their one song out there that someone’s putting money into, you know? If I screwed up that one song, they might have felt like the whole show was ruined. And there are a lot of other people who are doing the same career as me and want to take my job at all times.


Being in Nashville now for several years, how has that experience been? What has it been like and how do you view it now as opposed to when you moved initially?


Will: They say Nashville is a 10-year town. I've been here nine years, so I'm starting to see some of my friends have great success and not just as players. I had a friend I've known since I was probably 20 who just wrote a No. 1 hit. I will say that it seems like people who are finding success, pretty much have just been doing whatever it is they're doing the entire time and are just starting to get that recognition. They were always working, always doing things and the opportunities have grown with that. I will say that in my career, I've seen the same thing. The things I've been prioritizing, are the things that are growing.


What was the journey to Nashville like? Did you have any assumptions going into the location change that turned out to be wrong?


Will: Berklee does a trip to Nashville every spring break. You drive down on a giant bus, it's like a 20-hour drive. Then you're staying with like four kids in a hotel room. They had all kinds of great clinics all over the place. I got to go to a recording session. I’d be about 5 feet away from Brent Mason, which if you know anything about Nashville guitar, he'd be the first one on that Mount Rushmore and he's still doing it. He's amazing. There were clinics with songwriters that had written these incredible songs and you could tour studios. I remember we went to Ben Folds’ studio at the time. It was cool.

I went to Broadway and I had no idea anything like that existed. Now, of course, I have different feelings as someone who lives here. But at the time, in some of these places, there were three bands in the same bar on a different floor each, and sometimes there were two on the same floor. It was mind-blowing that there were so many gigs going on. It was just crazy. You know, it was a little bit foolish because I still had never been to LA, which knowing what I know now, the choice would have for sure been LA or Nashville. But I think I made the right choice. I got here and realized that nobody really cares you just moved and nobody cares where or when you went to school. Nobody even really cares that you can play guitar. I mean, I would say the first year I hardly played even, which isn't the experience for a lot of people that I know, although I think it was probably a little bit different then than it is now. So it was a little bit of a tougher adjustment. I’ve really sort of felt only relatively recently – you know, as I said before, it's a 10-year town – that I'm not at the level that I want to be at forever, but I'm doing the things I wanted to be doing all along.


Will Larson Photo Credit: @Dane Kisner


You have had a lot of good mentors over the years. Growing up you had a family that was a big resource for music then there was Lincolnite and Southeast grad James Valentine from Maroon 5. How did you guys start a conversation? What were some of the things he said that resonated with you and you think about to this day?


Will: There's a lot. We got in touch because he used to work at Dietze Music where I worked back in the day. Dietze had, like, zero turnover for a long time, so he knew all of those guys. They would tell me stories about him, and then Maroon 5 was coming through Kansas City in 2008. I had just started college, so I had some friends that were going to go see him and I asked my manager at Dietze at the time if he could reach out to him and see if we could meet him. He still had his old email address. This was before James was pretty active on social media, but for years and years, he wasn't at all. We drove down to Kansas City and we got there a few hours before the show he took us around on stage and even showed us his guitars. He won the Ernie Ball Battle of The Bands with his Lincoln band Square. I told him that I got that CD they made and learned some of the guitar solos on it. I told him I wanted to play them for him sometime. He was like, ‘What!? You learned them?!’ It just blew his mind. He thought that was cool, which was probably why he stayed in touch with me, to be honest.


So I wrote him an email after and asked for his advice. He wrote this long amazing email back with probably like 20 things and little explanations. James is the best guy. He's just the best guy. You know, some of that stuff he wrote in there probably didn't make much sense for my life at that time, but I've almost grown into it now. One of the first things he said, I remember, was to learn recording software. In 2008, that was probably not a priority for someone who's just starting college, but now I would say it’s as important as probably anything else you can do. I remember he also talked about reading How to Win Friends and Influence People, which is what you need to do if you're not a Joe Satriani or someone who has a career as a guitar player who doesn’t sing. Like if you're John Mayer or something, that is different. But if you want to do what I do, it's all about your social network. We need people to play with and you need to learn how to interact with them in a musical setting. That is probably just as important as anything else, to be honest. There was a bunch of really great stuff in there.


What advice would you give to the future Will Larsons just now picking that guitar up for the first time learning to slay or anyone looking to get into this business?


Will: Seek out peers. Here's what I mean. Nobody's gonna meet you and five seconds later, bestow a gift of a career upon you BUT when you seek out those peers you can learn from them. How? They're doing well just by observation. Even how they handle themselves. That's been a big thing for me I would say.


So what's down the pipeline for you, what do you coming up?


Will: Seek out your peers. Nobody's gonna meet you and 5 seconds later bestow a gift of a career upon you. But when you seek out those peers, you can learn from them, how they’re doing well, and how they handle themselves. That's been a big thing for me.


So what's down the pipeline for you, what do you have coming up?

Will: I just got to play The Bluebird Cafe. That was cool. I played the Ryman Auditorium earlier this year with Avery Anna. It's been a great year so far, and I've got some stuff booked as far out as the end of the year right now. I know stuff will keep popping up, too, so that's exciting. It’s exciting to be a side man because your friend might ask you to sub for him on his cool gig at any given time, but I hope to someday have the stability of only playing with one person and making a good living and playing great shows all the time. I'm really happy with doing what I do and I love it. I just hope to keep growing.


So it's simple, bet on yourself, show up, share your work with the world, and always be connecting with others. Keep at it. It Will ; ) work out. We look forward to staying in touch with Will and couldn't be more grateful to call him one of our friends. Make sure to follow this legend on Instagram at @wtlguitar and catch him on stage this December 14th when Avery Anna makes the trek to the good life to play the Barnato Lounge in Omaha, NE!

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