Saturday night fever
When most of us dream of rock stardom, it probably involves headlining the biggest festivals in the world, playing to loyal legions late into the night. Jared Scharff (aka Pearl Lion) has done it a different way: the American guitarist has built his name by headlining people’s television sets. As the lead axeman for hit comedy show Saturday Night Live for now well over a decade, you could say his routes have been... well, a little unconventional.
“I got my big break through RCA records in 2002,” he begins. “I thought that was going to be my thing, but it wasn't. Then I started my own project; that didn't work out either. Around the same time, I became friends with [pop producer and one-time SNL guitarist] Dr. Luke, who suggested I audition for the show. He recommended me to the band leader Lenny Pickett, so I sent over some videos of me playing in 2006.
“YouTube was there, but it wasn't like how it is today. Those videos got me an audition with Lenny where we met in person. Over three hours, he told me all these amazing and legendary stories. We talked about my background and how far my music knowledge went back. A few weeks later, my next audition was with the entire rhythm section of the band.”
It was this audition that tested Jared in ways that would turn most guitarist’s fingers to jelly. He was given sheet music for a piece he’d never heard before and had 30 seconds before the drummer started counting in. It was, in many ways, the moment that got Jared the gig - because, let’s face it, sight reading has been the kryptonite for many a rock guitarist over the years…
“I wasn't a great sight-reader at the time; I still wouldn't say I am now!” he admits. “They gave me 30 seconds to look at the sheets before the drummer counted everyone in. I was told to just signal whenever I was done for the solo section. I felt like it was my time to kick some ass... so I just didn't stop, haha!
“Everyone was laughing, and that was their first impression of me. You gotta go for broke, man! I knew once I was in, that was it - I'm in! It's almost human nature; we all learn from first impressions. A week later, I got the call saying I got the job and the rest was history. I just finished my 10th season, which is bananas!”
To say it's been a wild ride would be a bit of an understatement. Playing alongside Hollywood A-listers, celebrities and top-tier musician guests, Jared’s CV reads more like make-believe than actual reality - in the form of the sketches the show has been long famous for…
“My favourite was probably one called What's Up With That Keenan - a recurring one that always had guests over this really funky tune,” continues the guitarist.
“I also love the Fred Armisen one where he gets up and plays at his kid’s wedding, going from this straight-laced guy to all of a sudden in a punk band, trashing the entire set.
“One time we had Dave Grohl playing drums - never in my life did I ever think that would happen! It was a massive highlight for me. There are so many changes; we do different material every week. Sometimes I show up and get handed new music that I have to sight read for the entire gig. Which is a bit of a dying art for us rock guitar players; it can feel like a strange thing to do!”
Sight-reading isn’t the only challenge; the show also depends on its musicians being able to accommodate all styles, nailing everything from phrasing to tone - which, of course, casts an infinitely wide net in terms of research.
“It’s important to remember this is a comedy variety show; you need to be able to play all kinds of music,” he explains.
“I might go from a campfire sketch on acoustic guitar to full-on Charlie Christian jazz comping to weird trap beats. The band play everything from RnB, soul, funk, blues, rock shuffles... there's just so much stuff. You must have knowledge of all musical history.”
And yet here’s a musician with his feet firmly on the ground - considering himself more an all-rounder than some wizard master of any given one technique.
“I can't play the blues like Stevie Ray Vaughan; no-one can!” laughs Jared.
“I'm not an expert jazz or country or funk player... but many times I've played with Nile Rodgers - now there’s the master of funk guitar. It's all about covering different genres effectively and sounding authentic, even if you don't have the complete vocabulary!”
The 'Lion's den
Naturally, Jared’s gear needs to be as flexible as his chops. To sound convincing for any given style, his guitar tone needs to sit up there with the best of its kind. He talks us through the main equipment he’s rotated over the years…
“I need a compact pedalboard that can get me a good variety of classic tones,” he explains. “Though for my own music project, Pearl Lion, I can go a little bit more wild and stick on a Whammy pedal and other crazy shit.
“With SNL, I use a Goodwood Audio ’board, made in conjunction with the Creation Music guys, who do a lot of cases. I have a Keeley-modded Tube Screamer, Xotic Wah that sits off-board, an HBE Ultimate Fuzz Octave, there's a Fuzz Factory, an EarthQuaker Devices Bit Commander - which is not something I use often on that show, but I love it anyway.
“I have a Drybell Vibe Machine, an Analog Man Mini Chorus, an Xotic BB Plus, a JHS Mini Bomb, a Catalinbread Echorec delay, a Keeley Cavern… I wish there were 40 more pedals on there; I really like transforming sounds!”
“All of that goes into a 65 Amps Monterey,” he continues.
“It's all front, no effects loop, as much as I’d love one for delay, but it's perfect for this gig. The cabinet is off-stage in a wooden box, so there's no stage volume.
“I have a shit-ton of guitars that sit there that I rotate a lot. Recently, I've been using a lot of the new Supro stuff, like the Black Holiday or the Westbury or Hampton (with three pickups). Sometimes I pull out a D’Angelico 335-style axe. I also have a 1958 Les Paul reissue, as well as this Tele I've used for many years. I use all kinds of guitars, including my dad’s ’59 Goldtop Deluxe. Then there’s the Taylor acoustics for all the sketch music…”
As for Pearl Lion, the other project the musician has been also focusing on of late, Jared’s aspirations have been equally as experimental. In fact, using effected sounds ended up inspiring him to write songs that couldn't have been born any other way…
“I've always had this dream of doing modern instrumental music that was anti-shredder,” laughs Jared. “I grew up loving guitar music, spending many hours playing along to Steve Vai and Joe Satriani, watching all of their videos. But it never fully captivated my soul; I was probably more into the band thing.
“I want to combine my pop producer mind with my creative jam band upbringing, with modern influences like Bon Iver and Sigur Rós or things like Tyko or Ry Cooder – that all came together on my Light EP. My Dark EP came from my love of ’90s grunge like Smashing Pumpkins or guitar legends like Jimmy Page. Then there's my love for modern-day beat maker stuff like Kanye West or Justus.
“I like letting the effects and sounds affect the writing. The song Big Sky came after a promo video I did for Strymon for the pedal. I got home one night, kicked on the pedal and it just came out! Sometimes it might only take a fuzz pedal, like the riffs on my new single NYC. That's just how I wrote it, as this fuzzed-out thing and then built everything around that.
“The solo was actually made out of different takes all around America, comping and stitching different parts together. Why does the guitar have to be just one thing you recorded there and then? I took that dubstep concept of taking different sounds and chopping them all up!”
Pearl Lion's new single, NYC, is out now, and his Light and Dark EPs are out later this year.