BY TOM GUERRA FOR VINTAGE GUITAR MAGAZINE
One of the most in-demand blues/rock guitarists of the past twenty years is GE Smith. From his 1970’s New England club work with the legendary "The Scratch Band" and his stints with Hall and Oates to his ten year gig leading the Saturday Night Live band, his resume reads like a Who’s Who of modern music. While on SNL, GE (short for George Edward) performed with Eddie Van Halen, Keith Richards, Rickie Lee Jones, Al Green, Bryan Ferry, David Gilmour, Lonnie Mack, Dave Edmonds, Johnny Winter, and Buddy Guy. . "I've been so lucky to get into these fantasy situations that happened over and over on "SNL". I got to play with everybody." Each week, guitarists worldwide would tune in to SNL to check out the GE’s incredible vintage gear including tweed Fender amps, early 60’s Gibson Firebirds, 1950’s Telecasters and Les Pauls, and the ultra rare 1959 Korina Flying V’s.
Despite the high profile SNL gig, GE says that the high point of his career has no doubt been his association with Bob Dylan. Besides being part of Dylan’s "Neverending Tour" band, GE was appointed musical director for the Bob Dylan 30th Anniversary Tribute Concert held at Madison Square Garden in 1993. "You wouldn’t believe the rehearsals for that concert…I had back-to-back rehearsals with George Harrison, Eric Clapton and Lou Reed all on the same day. One afternoon, rehearsing the finale, I had Harrison, Tom Petty, Clapton, Neil Young, Dylan and Roger McGuinn all lined up and I'm saying, 'OK, George you sing here, Eric you play now, Bob you come in here...'"
A vintage aficionado for close to forty years, GE has recently embarked on a new venture that brings together his love of classic instruments with the reach of a high profile website designed to accommodate players seeking vintage instruments of the highest quality.
TG: Way back in the beginning, who or what drew you to the guitar initially? Do you remember your first good guitar setup?
GE: I started playing when I was very little; I was born in 1952 and got my guitar when I was four. My uncle George, who I am named after, had left an old Collegiate guitar in our basement, and it had like four strings on it. I would drag it around and lay it down, and then hit the low E string, and just lay down next to it and watch that string vibrate…I just loved that optical illusion and would dream about a giant string stretching across the sky and stars, just vibrating…
Then when I was seven, the same uncle and his girlfriend came by one day, and she said to me "Would you like to have a good guitar?" And the next day, she came back with an all-mahogany Orpheum guitar, which looked like a Martin 00-17 nylon string. And she also hooked me up with guitar lessons from a 14 year old Irish girl visiting her that summer. I was around 7 at this point, and the folk thing was starting to happen, and she taught me some traditional tunes like "Mari’s Wedding." It was really fortunate for me, because besides being kind of cute, she taught me Travis picking. So there I was…
TG: Who were some of your early influences, guitar-wise?
GE: At that time, this was the early 1960’s, I was listening to all the folkies. Another early defining moment for me came when a cousin of mine got me tickets to the Hootenanny show, which was taping from Princeton, NJ. They would do it from a different college each week. Although I don’t remember all the acts on the bill, Josh White was on that show, as was Dick and Mimi Farina, so the folk thing was definitely my first big influence. Remember, I was from Stroudsberg, PA and in those days there wasn’t much going on…
As far as electric guitar, there was one guy in town named Rusty who had a black single cut Gretsch which I’d see him play at the local music store, and I thought that sounded cool…That was definitely the first time I saw someone playing through an amplifier.
A little later on I got into a band, and for my 11th birthday, my mother helped to get me an electric guitar. It was a 1952 Telecaster that I still own to this day. I also got a small no name amp that was a knockoff of a tweed Deluxe. I then started playing locally in little lounge bands. And then The Beatles came out, which I thought was cool, but I didn’t really care about playing that way. It wasn’t until I heard the intro to "You Really Got Me" by The Kinks, I said "ahhh, now I get it!"
TG: So as you got more into the electric guitar, did you begin hearing differences in the way certain guitars and amps sounded, particularly the earlier instruments?
GE: In 1965 or so, I got to be friends with a guy named Eric Cartwright, a wonderful guitar player who later went on to be an amp tech with The Allman Bros. We started hanging out a lot and I don’t know why, but we both really started liking old guitars. We didn’t want new guitars, we wanted vintage stuff, even though it wasn’t called vintage in those days. They looked cool and bands playing this stuff were making the music that I liked. When the first Paul Butterfield album came out in January of ’65 with that picture of Mike Bloomfield and his Telecaster on the back cover, the sound of it was just amazing…to this day I don’t think anyone has topped the way he played and sounded on that album. This combined with the first few pictures of Jeff Beck holding his beat up Esquire with The Yardbirds did more for the vintage market than anything until Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young came along. Although we were into the ‘50’s guitars, for some reason the amps that we liked were the blonde Fenders with the maroon grillecloth from the early ‘60’s. I got a blonde Bassman with a matching reverb unit from an accordion player, and that became our sound.
A lot later, when I first saw CSN&Y live at the Philadelphia Spectrum, we knew we were into the right stuff. Stills had all white piggyback Fender stuff, Crosby had some brown Fenders and white Showman heads, and Neil Young had a bunch of tweed Deluxes…wall to wall vintage Fenders…and it sounded incredible!
TG: A lot of New England baby boomers remember you from The Scratch Band. Can you tell us about that group and your years with them…
GE: Sure, those were great days. I came up to Connecticut in the summer of ’73 to live with a buddy of mine who had just gotten out of Vietnam. He had relocated to New Haven to go to school on the G.I. bill, and had a band. He asked me to come up and fill in for his guitar player, who was sick. I originally intended to come up for two weeks, but wound up staying for seven years. After going in and out of different bands, I eventually got into The Scratch Band, a popular band around lower New England in those days. We played ALL THE TIME. Recently, I was looking at my calendar from those days, and we played hundreds of gigs… We were like the B.B. King’s of New England, working constantly.
By this point, I had hooked up with some guys in Philadelphia, who were getting great instruments for about as cheap as you could get, from music stores, pawn shops, it didn’t matter. I have a receipt from this period for a Firebird III, a Firebird V, and a chocolate Princeton, all for $225.00!!! The Princeton alone would be a lot more than that these days…
TG: When did you start collecting vintage instruments, and did you have any idea of how much some of these instruments would be worth in the future?
GE: Not because of any future vision regarding the value of it, but because they all sounded GREAT!
TG: Your collection has taken on an almost mythological status…I understand that you've amassed a collection of some incredible instruments…what are some of your favorite guitars and amps?
GE: Well, you gotta remember this…I’m really an acoustic guy, it’s just that everyone has seen me playing electric because of the television gig. I did at one time have an insane collection of electric guitars, in fact one of every single American guitar ever made, except an original Korina Explorer. I had 27 original black pickguard Telecasters, Broadcasters and Esquires alone. But I’ve sold a lot of stuff, because after awhile, it becomes nuts and its just…unnecessary. I did play them though; I say this because I’ve recently heard about a guy that had close to 200 original sunburst Les Pauls, and he doesn’t even play. It’s his priveledge as a rich guy, but its made things unaffordable for guys like me. So I’ve had just about everything, but why hang onto something that at the time you could get $60,000 for, when you paid $1800 originally? Of course, I should have kept it, because now they’re like $100,000 (laughs). It’s crazy…
As I said, I have always been into acoustics, and about 10 years ago I started getting in the Larson Bros. stuff. Fortunately, just before it got really expensive. Jimmy Brown from Guitar Emporium in Louisville has sold me some of the best acoustics and electric guitars I’ve owned and I told him that I was looking for a nice Larson Bros. Guitar. So one day, UPS pulls up, and I opened up the box and pulled out a Larson Bros. Euphonon dreadnought, the hardest one to find. And I do have to say it’s the best guitar I’ve ever owned.
The electric things that I love the most are a bunch of Teles from the early ‘50’s to a ’63 Custom that is one of the most worn instruments that I have ever seen, but it is totally original including frets.
TG: How about Stratocasters?
GE: Oh, I’ve had them, but things like Strats and Les Pauls don’t really excite me these days. I mean, at this point, what’s more boring than a sunburst Les Paul or a Strat? Just a few years ago, I got a call for a session from a really well-known producer, who said "Just don’t bring a Stratocaster"…and I loved that! I’m sort of anti-Strat these days.
TG: Do you have any one particular instrument that you consider "an old friend," maybe one that you're most comfortable with or gives you the most inspiration?
GE: The ’52 Telecaster is my favorite…Its actually an Esquire that had the rhythm pickup on it when I got it. Apparently, that was a pretty popular add on from Fender in the early days. I’ve been told that if you sent the guitar back to Fender, they would add the rhythm pickup and new pickguard for $25.00.
TG: And how about any "Holy Grail" instruments…
GE: I’ve had it all, but like the more unique stuff…I had a beautiful ’59 Flying V. Years ago I was at my parents’ house in Pennsylvania, and a guy drove in the driveway, got out of his car and said "I heard that you buy old guitars" and I said, "Sure, what do you got?" He walked around to his trunk and pulls out a 1959 Gibson Korina Flying V. No case, just the V. So I bought it on the spot, and eventually got an original case. It was just fantastic, and I played that guitar a lot…One story I’d like to share about that guitar is…One night I was playing it on SNL, and that night we had Keith Richards and the X-Pensive Wino’s on as musical guest. We were going into a break, and Keith and his band were getting on the adjacent stage. The SNL band was really on that night, and that guitar sounded religious…I was playing chords and it sounded so FAT! And Keith sticks his face around the corner, gives me this big grin, and then gives me the finger! And I was so happy, it was like the Benediction. Cause he was like "How dare you get that good sound before I’m on!"
My favorite amps are Tweed Deluxes. I have three, and they are just phenomenal. There is absolutely nothing better. I also have a tweed Bassman that I’ve had forever, the tweed Bandmasters are great.
When I was traveling with Bob Dylan in the late eighties, I picked up a bunch of the chocolate Fender amps with the backward controls (Bass, Treble, Volume). These sound great, and that was probably the last period that you could get good vintage stuff for reasonable prices. During those tours I got all the chocolate amps that Fender made. The Concert and the 3x10 Bandmaster I have are insanely great amps.
TG: You have had such an incredible career in terms of the people you’ve played with, from Hall and Oates, to your years on SNL, to leading the Dylan Tribute band…What period do you look upon most fondly, and can you share an anecdote or two?
GE: Definitely all of my time playing with Bob Dylan. Those four years were the greatest period for me and it all prepared me for that one night of the "BobFest." He was a huge influence to me; I got his first album when it came out cause it was just a young guy with a guitar on the cover, and I’ve always loved Bob’s music. So when I joined his band, I already knew a lot of his material inside out including the lyrics. It was the greatest thing I ever did, I wish I was still doing it but I quit the band…
The rehearsals for the Dylan tribute were as amazing as the event. In one day, I played with George Harrison and Eric Clapton and Lou Reed right in a row. Those guys were wonderful, George calling me asking "Want me to come in at 10:30? Sure!"
TG: Regarding your SNL gig, I think every guitarist in the world was convinced you had the best job in the world…what was that like?
GE: It was a real cake job, I gotta admit. I had a lot of fun and got to play with a lot of great people. Pretty early on in the week, when people were coming to town, I’d invite them to sit in with the band. And they generally would. We always had a great time, some of the highlights were playing with Lonnie Mack, Eric Clapton, David Gilmour, Eddie Van Halen. Finding yourself playing next to Eric Clapton is humbling. Buddy Guy was another, and as a result of that, we ended up doing an album with Buddy. And I found that almost every single one of the well known guys are generous and friendly!
TG: Now onto your latest venture, what can you tell us about what you’re doing on your new website (www.gesmithguitars.com)?
GE: (Laughs) I can’t tell you much about it because its kind of getting a slow start. A friend of mine named Larry Schmid who lives out near me in Long Island is a really talented computer guy. Larry’s been the impetus behind getting this website going, and we’re in process of putting stuff up on the site.
Probably because of the maturation of the vintage market, the days of finding great instruments at great prices is almost over. Lately its just been really hard to find good instruments at fair prices. But that being said, there is still good stuff out there, you just have to look a little harder. In fact, just recently I found a beautiful late ’57 Gretsch 6120 right in the town that I’m currently living in, so anything can happen… And eventually, we are planning on getting some of this good stuff up for sale on the site, although I always have such a hard time selling anything! (laughs).
TG: Why do you think that so many people opt for vintage guitars and amps?
GE: Now there are several reasons including the way they sound, but I think the main one these days is the hipness factor. You know, "Clapton plays one, and I’ll sound like Clapton if I get one." But you have to be careful because there are so many fakes out there. I mean, technically, "Blackie" was not at all original, but just a collection of Fender parts. And even if it is all original, you take certain guitars, like a 1930’s Gibson ES-150…They are mostly hard to play, and even if you can play one, you ain’t gonna sound like Charlie Christian.
But people should take a look at some of the new stuff being made, especially by Fender and Gibson. They are making some GREAT guitars again. And I believe that Seymour Duncan is making the best pickups ever made, not just as good, but BETTER! If you take a matched set of his Antiquity pickups, they are better than original Gibson PAF’s, I truly believe that.
TG: What are you working on musically these days?
GE: I’ve been doing a lot of teaching, and last year I toured with Jorma Kaukonen playing mandolin exclusively, which was a treat. I’m always putting together bands for events, I have a little blues band and we go out in the clubs. I just finished putting another band together with three friends that’s gonna be an original band. My wife Taylor Barton is out promoting her fifth cd called "Dry Land" so we try to do gigs together. So there’s always stuff going on…
TG: Is there any modern music that moves you?
GE: I don’t listen to anything that was recorded after World War II! (laughs). Actually, when I’m in the car I listen to a lot of stuff like Foo Fighters, Audioplay, and some of the insanely heavy stuff like Godsmack and Marilyn Manson… those bands are tight and their ensemble playing is great…! I don’t know if I’d buy the cd, but I love listening to it in the car.
As far as guitarists, I just saw John Hiatt and Sonny Landreth playing live, and I think Sonny is one of the most talented guitarists out there today. He really has got his own original thing going, and he’s somebody that I really admire.
But what I listen to mainly is the crudest blues and country music that I can find. PBS just ran an amazing Muddy Waters special, that was great, but they should have run all of the songs instead of cutting them though. I mean, I know about timing things to fit into a TV show, but we’re talking about vintage, 1950’s Muddy Waters here…you just can’t get much better than that!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Tom Guerra’s new cd with Mambo Sons entitled "PLAY SOME ROCK & ROLL!" was recently named among the top indie releases of the year by NYRock magazine. Check it out at www.mambosons.com
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