WASHINGTON — G.E. Smith has one of the best resumes of any guitar player in history.
He’s been a go-to sideman for decades, from the radio heyday of Hall & Oates to television fame as the leader of the “Saturday Night Live” band, from four years on the road with Bob Dylan to six years with Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters — and those are just the high-profile gigs.
What’s the key to success after all these years?
“Big ears,” Smith joked with WTOP. “That means you gotta hear everything … Force yourself to figure out a song you don’t like. You’ll learn something. Of course, you learn a bunch of stuff you do like — and that’s inspirational — but you have to listen to everything. You have to hear whatever’s playing on the car radio, whatever’s playing in the market when you’re waiting to pay for your food, whatever’s coming out of the ceiling. Listen. Always listen.”
This Saturday, Smith plays City Winery in Northeast D.C., alongside Jim Weider (formerly of The Band and Levon Helm Band) and D.C. guitar hotshot Tom Principato, paying tribute to Roy Buchanan and including music from Little Richard, Bo Diddley, Sam Cooke and more.
Masters of the Telecaster
The show is billed as Masters of the Telecaster, a reference to the Fender Telecaster, the first commercially available, solid-body electric guitar. Smith and Weider comprise the core of the group, then they find a local Telecaster player in each town to make it a trio.
Smith said the name of the show was Weider’s idea.
“I would never call myself the master of anything,” Smith said. “I try to see the irony in the name.”
The Telecaster has a personal meaning, as his mom bought him one at age 11 in 1963.
“I still have that guitar; I’ll be playing it at the show,” Smith said. “It’s what I learned to be me on, so to me, it’s everything. I made my whole career and living and stuff playing that guitar.”
By then, he was already a veteran guitarist. At age 4, he saw a battered acoustic guitar hanging on the wall of his basement.
“I just got obsessed with it,” Smith said. “I got fascinated by watching the strings vibrate and that it made sound, and that was it.”
This particular show gives Smith something he didn’t get in some of his more high-profile gigs.
“When I’m playing with someone else, I’m playing their music, I’m working for them, and I’m in service of the song they’re doing,” Smith said. “With this, because it’s our thing. I can stretch out. We try to pick good songs, but it’s about playing.”
In addition to the Telecaster shows, he can be found backing his wife, singer-songwriter Taylor Barton. He also has standing gigs in the Portraits series, in which Smith and one other musician get on stage together in a relaxed, small setting for music and conversation. Past guests have included Waters, Billy Squier and actor Ethan Hawke, who “plays guitar and sings. He’s quite good.” Soon, he’ll do a Portraits show with British guitar legend Richard Thompson.
“We’ll play a song and we’ll talk about it,” Smith said. “We’ll play two songs and we’ll talk about it. We’ll play a part of a song and we’ll talk about it. … It’s a real conversation.”
Despite headlining his own shows, Smith said the side of the stage is his home.
“I never really wanted to be the frontman,” Smith said. “I wanted to be the sideman.”
When he saw Elvis Presley play, he’d concentrate on guitarist James Burton. When he’d watch the Rolling Stones, he’d concentrate on guitarists Keith Richards and Mick Taylor.
“Maybe it’s just less pressure; I don’t know,” Smith said. “To me, it’s always about the song. And I love to play with good singers, and I’ve been fortunate to get to play with some really good singers along the way,” singling out Daryl Hall as an example.
Smith picked up a wide range of skills growing up as a bar-band guitar player.
“I learned hundreds of Top 40 songs — learned how to play them just like the record. … And that was a great school for me,” Smith said.
That taught him the importance of musical diversity, as well as the desire to “serve the song,” which means playing what works best in conjunction with the rest of the band.
“When (I) hear the vocal melody, it tells me what to play,” he said.
He got a different musical education in the “Saturday Night Live” band, allowing him to play with some of the best musicians in New York.
“They were real musicians; I’m just this bar-band guy,” Smith said. “I learned so much playing with them. … Very few people could afford that band. It took a corporation like NBC to pay that band.”
Playing in front of millions on television or a stadium in front of 60,000 people might sound daunting to most people, but Smith said he feels the opposite.
“When I put that guitar on, that’s the only time I’m not nervous. … The rest of the time … just walking around through life, I’m nervous. When I put the guitar on, I’m comfortable; I’m OK.”
Amid doing more than 200 “SNL” performances, “after a while, you’re just doing your job.”
On Waters’ “The Wall” tour from 2010 to 2016, Smith said he and the rest of the band would stand on their spots on stage in darkness before the show and look out at the stadium crowd.
“’OK, this is real — you’re really here, but don’t get used to it, because it’s not real,’” Smith said he would think to himself. “You can’t take yourself too seriously or you’ll go insane.”
Big ears, a calling to serve the song and a down-to-earth attitude sound like the building blocks to a star-studded career, but to hear Smith tell it, a lot of luck was involved, and still is.
“I was lucky when I started with Daryl and John,” Smith said. “I was a young man in my 20s … and they were just coming into the period where they got huge.”
While he’d enjoy a new sideman gig, he’s not grabbing for it.
“I’m not specifically looking,” Smith said. “I was never a real ambitious guy. I was lucky. One thing would end and something else would pick up. But we’ll see what comes along. Something always comes up. I’ve always been lucky.”
Masters of the Telecaster play at City Winery, 1350 Okie St. NE, Saturday night at 8 p.m. Tickets range from $25 to $35. You can buy tickets online or call 202-250-2531.
WTOP's Rick Massimo chats with G.E. Smith (Full Interview)