The Telecaster® master talks about his new signature model and new film, 50-Watt Fuse
Smith onstage with his new signature Telecaster in
Photo by Bob Burchess
Honestly, who has had a cooler career than G.E. Smith?
He’s a fantastic musician, not only as a guitarist, but in the best general sense of the word. He’s played with almost everybody, from locals to legends. His impeccably tasteful guitar work has graced dozens of hits, hundreds of sessions and thousands of gigs, and he’s even familiar to millions of television viewers.
Born George Edward Smith on Jan. 27, 1952, in Stroudsburg, Penn., he was given an acoustic guitar while still a young child and took to it immediately. For his 11th birthday, Smith’s mom gave him a 1952 Fender Telecaster® guitar, and that was that—it was as if his entire future crystallized with the arrival of that guitar. Even at that tender age, Smith was already playing high school dances and Poconos resorts with musicians twice his age.
His career took off in the late 1970s. First came six years of hits with Hall & Oates (1979-1985), including “Private Eyes,” “Maneater,” “Kiss On My List” and others. Then he was leader of the “house band” at the historic 1985 Live Aid concert in Philadelphia, backing up Mick Jagger, Tina Turner and other artists. Perhaps most famously, he spent a decade as bandleader and musical director on Saturday Night Live (1985-1995), earning an Emmy Award and recognition from millions of viewers. Smith also did several tours with Bob Dylan and was musical director for the Bob Dylan 30th Anniversary Concert at Madison Square Garden.
And those are just the highlights—Smith has played at and directed countless special event performances, television appearances and studio sessions. Seriously, we don’t have near enough room to list them all …
Smith is widely hailed as a modern master of the Telecaster, and Fender introduced his signature model, the G.E. Smith Telecaster, in 2007. The instrument combines a ’40s-era Fender lap steel with a ’50s-era Telecaster, with features such as a large U-shaped maple neck, lap steel “oval and diamond” fingerboard inlays, custom cutoff vintage-style bridge plate and body-mounted bridge pickup.
Smith with his signature model, in Honey Blonde Maple and Dakota Red Maple, plus an old friend …
Photo by John Peden
Further, Smith and his wife, filmmaker Taylor Barton, are set this year to release 50-Watt Fuse, a film about Smith that features incredible performance footage from throughout his amazing and amazingly varied career. Smith is seen playing with Hall & Oates, David Lindley, Jack Cassidy and Jorma Kaukonen, the Saturday Night Live Band, Rosanne Cash, David Bowie, Dylan, and a few zillion other artists. Commentators include SNL producer Lorne Michaels, Michael J. Fox, Mike Myers, Dan Courtenay of Dan’s Chelsea Guitars in New York (Smith’s second home), Scotty Moore, Rodney Crowell, Charlie Sexton and, of course, Smith himself.
The affable Smith is thrilled about the film and his new signature Telecaster, and very kindly called Fender News from his home on Long Island to talk about them. Live from New York …
FN: Why is your movie titled 50-Watt Fuse?
GES: My wife, Taylor Barton, who produced and directed it, came up with that. She did all the work; all I did was live the life, which was easy. She did the hard work.
FN: She wrote, directed and co-produced it.
GES: Yeah, and that’s the hard part—calling 500 lawyers to get the permissions to use the clips of people like Aerosmith and stuff. The guys in the bands are great; they’re like, “Yeah, sure use it,” but you can’t go on that anymore. Mick Jagger’s like, “Yeah, fine, no problem,” but you’ve gotta talk to his lawyers and get them on the phone, you know. It’s ridiculous. So yeah, she worked really, really hard on it.
FN: The film shows you onstage with many amazing artists. What’s it like to look across the stage and see Roy Orbison or Dylan or David Lindley or Bowie?
GES: It’s ridiculous. How else could it be? You know, I’m a fan—totally—of the music of our time, and obviously it’s been my life. And to get to play with these people and in some cases to get to know them on some level is, uh, (pauses) I don’t even have words for it. It’s beyond fantasy or dreams or something. It’s just incredible. And you get paid, on top of it …
I mean, I’d have done it for free! I always tell people, like when they call me to hire me, that I’ll play for free, but my time is what you pay for. I have just been so lucky.
FN: That bit in the film in Dan’s Chelsea Guitars was especially cool …
GES: Good, I’m glad you liked that. I think you can see that I’m very comfortable there. Like I said the other day, that’s my office, you know. He’s like literally a block in front of where I live. I go in there almost every day when I’m in town.
FN: You’re right at home any time you have a guitar.
GES: Well, that’s it. Do you remember the Flying Wallendas?
FN: Yeah—the high-wire family …
GES: Exactly, the family of acrobats that goes back several generations. I read this incredible interview with Karl Wallenda, the father. His son-in-law had fallen and gotten killed, and they stopped working for a while, and then they went back. And they asked him “Why did you go back?” and he said “On the wire is life; the rest is waiting.” And that’s how I feel playing the guitar.
I think that demonstrates how the fact that I got that guitar when I did—that Fender Telecaster—just dictated my whole life from there. And I truly believe that if I’d gotten another kind of guitar, I would not have done what I did.
The Fender G.E. Smith Telecaster.
FN: Do you really think so? That’s a bold statement.
GES: Oh, absolutely. There was something about that Telecaster. See, after all these years and owning all kinds of guitars, that Telecaster, when I put it on, it’s just “Yeah, OK—I get it.”
FN: That’s amazing. Your mom got you that guitar when you were 11 …
GES: Yeah, for my birthday.
FN: Were you even big enough to play it?
GES: Yeah, I was one of those people that grew to grown-up size right away. I weighed about 12 pounds (laughs) at the size I am now, you know, at age 12 or 13. And the sound of that guitar—I still hear it. I hear it all the time.
FN: That’s where it all started.
GES: Yeah. I’d been playing acoustic for several years. I was lucky, when I was about seven, in this tiny little town in Pennsylvania; it just happened that that summer there was this Irish girl there, and she was probably 13 or 14, but to me she looked all grown up. And she taught me how to Travis-pick—to play with my thumb and fingers.
FN: You were just a little kid!
GES: Yeah, a little kid, but I’d already had a guitar for three years, and I was into it. I knew some chords—I wasn’t a champ or anything, but I knew a few chords. And she taught me how to finger pick, and she really must’ve taught me right, because I got pretty good at that. I was already playing with other people on acoustic guitars; older people, because there weren’t a lot of kids playing yet—that didn’t start until the Beatles. But the folkie thing was happening big-time about ’59-’60, and I got to see some of that.
So then, when I wanted to play in a band that needed an electric guitar player, then I got the Tele. And I was born on Jan. 27 of ’52, and the guitar was made Jan. 14 of ’52—that’s the date on the neck, which I didn’t find out ’til, like, ten years later, when I found out you could take the neck off and see the date.
So I’ve always looked for one with the exact date of my birthday; I’ve never found one. I found one dated the 24th, but never right on my birthday. I’m sure there’s one out there somewhere. It was kind of meant to be, I guess.
FN: What are you working on lately?
GES: I’ve been working with a group of musicians in the Bay Area, and I’ve been doing some recording and producing work in Los Angeles. And I play all over the place. You know, I often get called to put projects together, because that’s something I’m kind of known for. You know, put a band together for a specific event or recording project or something.
FN: How do you like your new signature model Telecaster? You’re happy with it?
GES: Yeah. Are you kidding? My name and “Fender” on the same instrument—it’s incomprehensible to me that that could ever happen.
FN: Oh, c’mon …
GES: Well, you know, no matter what level of success or whatever you want to call it that people reach, they’re always still themselves, and I’m still that 11-year-old kid with the guitar going (breathlessly) “Oh, this is the coolest thing I’ve ever seen—this guitar—look at it!”
I’d say, to me, that shape of a Telecaster is just a perfect thing. Like, at the NAMM show, Jimmie Vaughan and I got up and did a couple of things. And everybody who played, from Eddie Van Halen on, played some form of Stratocaster®. And I got up there with Jimmie, and he of course is playing the Jimmie Vaughan Strat. I figured I was preachin’ to the choir, so I said, “You know, before they had the double-cutaway three-pickup model, there was a single-cutaway two-pickup model,” And everybody kind of looked at me and laughed—(slyly) yeah, yeah, they got it. I’m a big proselytizer for the Telecaster.
Bridge pickup detail from Smith’s signature model.
FN: Your signature model certainly is distinctive. It’s got your stamp on it.
GES: Well now, that’s not my stamp; that’s Leo Fender. I didn’t do anything on that guitar that Leo Fender didn’t think of.
I have a couple of the first Champion lap steels, which he made in ’48. I have No. 22 and No. 85, And if you look at that—I don’t have any factual evidence for this, but I know it in my heart—he was sittin’ there one night, and he looked at that, and he grew it into a Telecaster. Especially if you look at that very first prototype that he made—the white one with the three-on-a-side headstock—it’s the same headstock as the lap steel; he just expanded it, and the way the pickup is in that lap steel is the way I put the (bridge) pickup in this guitar—into the wood. And it’s the same pickup. And the inlays that I have in the neck are exactly what’s on that lap steel, but they’re just spray-painted on the steel.
The guys at Fender did a beautiful job with those inlays. I’m really happy with it.
FN: What sounds were you shooting for with your signature Telecaster?
GES: What I’ve tried to do over the years, and in particular with this guitar, is to make it capable of being really fat-sounding, as well as doing all the chicken-pickin’ and the classic Telecaster things that you think about. But with that pickup in the wood like that, you get this resonance and this fattened-up lower end and low midrange that’s really cool. As long as somebody’s willing to do the digging in that you’ve got to do to play a Telecaster anyway, it really responds, and that’s something I’m really happy with.
It also does some interesting things that I didn’t even think of. Just having that short bridge base seems to loosen up the string tension a little bit. I don’t know why that is; it doesn’t make any sense. But I’ve played four of them now, and every one of them felt that way. It’s kind of neat, and you can really get all those popping, twanging things. And it responds really well to fingers as well as a pick; because I play with my fingers a lot—I use a pick maybe 25 percent of the time and use my fingers the rest of the time. It’s very, very responsive, and you can do all kinds of cool tricks with it.
Visit G.E. Smith online at www.greenmirror.com.