Yngwie, Skynyrd and The Queen of England
by Levin Sheridan
Tony Smotherman is one of the most outstanding of the new breed of guitar slingers. GRITZ caught up with Tony for this exclusive interview somewhere in Florida.
Tell me a little bit about your background. Where are you from?
Well, I am of Armenian descent, but I was born in Athens Greece and moved shortly after to Jacksonville, Florida, and then on down into the backwoods of Middleburg, Florida where I live today.
When was the first time you knew that you wanted to pursue music?
The first time I felt any kind of interest in music is when I went into a supermarket and into the magazine aisle, and there I saw a guitar magazine. I opened it up to the first page and saw a photo of Andres Segovia playing a classical guitar. He looked so cool sitting there with his classical guitar. There was just something familiar about that photo. I really wanted a classical guitar after that point.
How did you pursue music from this point on, and about how old were you then?
At this time, around 1994, I guess I was about 14, and somewhat of a late starter. I asked my mother if I could have classical guitar lessons. At this time I still did not have access to any instruments, though my aunt had given me a guitar whenI was fiveyears old. It only had one string on it, so I could never play it and was frustrated. It was a beat up guitar and the tuning keyswere broken. It is still in this condition to this day. (laughing) It wasn't long before she contacted a local Jacksonville classical guitar player by the name of Tommy Busch. Also, at this same time I still did not have a guitar suitable for classical, but I had purchased a cheap shiny black Hondo electric Les Paul styled guitar for $35.00 with a case from a kid in school. (Snapping fingers remembering that) I use to have an old Vibratone guitar amplifier that my grandfather had given me. He use to play lap steel guitar through it, and I wanted to acquire better equipment so I sold this amplifier and the Hondo guitar to someone I knew for $135.00 for the both of them, and I have been kicking myself in the ass ever since. And she will not sell either of them back to me! I don't really care about getting the guitar back, but grandpa's amp I wish I had back. After selling this gear, I had enough money to go to a local pawn shop and purchase a Harmony black strat-styled electric guitar. So I played without an amplifier until Christmas and my parents got me one at that time. Backing up a little bit, I began taking the classical guitar lessons when I still owned the Hondo guitar, and at my first lesson, my instructor said he had a Horabe classical guitar for sale for $350.00 which my mother made payments on, and so we purchased it so I would have the proper guitar for my lessons. I stayed with Tommy Busch for about two years. We did one private lesson a week for 30 minutes each for a couple of months and then changed to every other week I would do an hour lesson. And this is how I really began learning and understanding music theory and technical application. Tommy introduced me to the music of Johan Sebastian Bach. And we began working on the lutes suites which were very demanding classical guitar pieces. I practiced them sometimes over ten hours a day- disregarding food, sleep, school, and girls! (laughing) I became proficient very quickly. In only about 7 or 8 months I was playing the Bach pieces effortlessly. My advancement was very rapid at this point.
Where did you go from here?
While in high school at Middleburg, I use to bring my classical guitar to all of my classes. Literally! (laughing) I would carry it to all of my classes about twice a month, and my teachers would let me play it for the entire class period. One of the classes I was in there had a substitute teacher. She was an English woman named Mrs. Nelson, and she asked me to play some guitar towards the end of class one day, and I began playing a piece by John Dowland, an English renaissance player/composer, and Mrs. Nelson was amazed with my playing and she asked me to meet her early the next morning in the school library and asked me to bring my classical guitar again. So the next morning, I met her and began playing pieces by Bach and Mozart, and she told me that we should send some of my material to Queen Elizabeth the II. Mrs. Nelson was so impressed by my playing, that she was confident to write a cover letter to accompany a recording of this to the Queen. Mrs. Nelson suggested that I record and we should send it over to her. I knew someone who had the capability to record it in Middleburg, and so I went and laid down about 5 tracks with just my classical guitar. Mrs. Nelson suggested that we send this recording to the Queen for a possibility of playing it live before the her and her royal court. She then called her parents in England and requested the address of Buckingham palace. That same year, I was nominated as Middleburg high school's most talented senior of 1999. A photo of me was put in the yearbook as "The Most Talented" and some words about my playing. A copy of this was sent along with my CD recording and a bio to the Queen.
After graduation I went to the U.S. Virgin Islands for three months on vacation. All of my mail was forwarded there. And one day I was very surprised, even somewhat shocked, to see a package from Mrs. Nelson. Inside was a letter from Mrs. Nelson along with another envelope that contained a letter from the Queen's lady-in-waiting. This is a woman who I guess sorts her mail and takes care of correspondences. This cover letter from the lady-in-waiting was thanking Mrs. Nelson for submitting my recording to the Queen. It actually said, she had been commanded by the Queen to send this letter of thanks. Beyond this cover letter was a gold letter head which stated "Windsor Palace" at the top. It read "H.R.H. Queen Elizabeth II, Mr. Smotherman, I would like to thank you for taking the time to send your beautiful music to me. I find your classical guitar skills highly sophisticated. I ask that you continue to keep me informed on your musical career and your studies that begin in September and should a royal ball arise, I will contact you before any other!"
A great story with continuing possibilities! When did you begin pursuing electric guitar?
After I returned from the Virgin Islands, I was hanging out at a friend's house, who's father played electric guitar, and he told me there was something I absolutely had to hear on a tape of his. What he played for me completely changed the way I
thought about electric guitar. I heard thunder and lightning, and the most incredible guitar playing I have ever heard. Ten or fifteen seconds into the recording, I was so blown away, I had to know who it was. He said "just listen, just listen!" This music was a mixture of classical music with a rock band, and an electric guitar soaring through these classical motives. This is a sound I had been hearing in my head all these years and when I started playing guitar this was the direction I was heading in, but this was a polished version of what I was hearing in my head. So I asked him one more time, 'who is this?' And he said 'Yngwie Malmsteen. At this point I was completely inspired to pick up the electric guitar and begin working in that direction immediately.
I found myself practicing electric guitar literally twice the number of hours that I would practice classical guitar. I was practicing electric guitar up to as many as twenty hours a day! Eating one time a day, and sleeping under 4 hours a night for many months. With that amount time spent with the instrument, I became very intimate with the electric guitar, and began doing things I could not believe I was doing. All of the guitars I owned to this point, minus the classical guitar were very poor instruments, and my parents thought it was time for me to step up to something I could improve on, so they surprised me one day with a cherry red Gibson Les Paul as soon as I arrived home from school. I can't say enough good things about their support. They really made it easy for me to grow musically in all the directions I had to explore.
Tell me about the Berklee lessons.
Fender Musical Instruments were giving out scholarships to a select few students, and I had received an application in the mail, I did the appropriate scales, modes and arpeggios they asked for, and they also asked me to play something utilizing lots of technique. I recorded it and returned it, and I then received a scholarship to Berklee College Of Music in Boston, Mass. So I flew up to Boston and attended this school for one semester or about 9 weeks of intensive training in music theory, electric guitar technique, and playing in the performance/ensemble class. I stayed in the school dorm. I got to meet a lot of amazing players on staff there and famous guitarists that came in for guitar clinics. The whole Berklee experience was really amazing and I grew a lot as a player in those few short weeks with the influence of the city and new surroundings, and all the amazing players everywhere. This is something I did not have all by myself in the backwoods of Middleburg, Florida. It had a huge impact on my life and playing.
What did you do when you returned to Florida?
Believe it or not, I began teaching private guitar lessons in my bedroom with up to as many as twenty students as week. So I had people coming in and out of my parents house, some of which did not appear 'all that safe' (laughs), so my parents built me a studio next to their house where I could practice, teach and rehearse with my bands.
About this time you met up with one of your guitar heroes Yngwie Malmsteen. Tell me about that meeting.
Two days before his concert at Shades in Orange Park I heard a radio ad on a local station that said the man's name you can never pronounce Yngwie Malmsteen is coming to Shades. I knew at that moment I had to go meet him. It was more important to me to meet him, than it was for me to watch his performance. So the doors opened for the concert, and I go in with my guitar to get it signed by him. Inside I met a lady selling Yngwie shirts, and I began talking with her, and I explained to her how important it was for me to meet Yngwie that night, and shetold me she was really good friends with him and she would do what she could. About twenty minutes later Yngwie's wife walked over to her and she told Yngwie's wife it was really important to me to meet Yngwie, and so she said wait one minute and went to the backstage area and about ten seconds later she looked at me and waved for me to come in her direction. I grabbed my guitar, and headed towards the backstage area and there was Yngwie sitting all by himself with over ten Molson beers lined up sitting right in front of him, he stared right at me and commented on my KISS Army shirt. He said "KISS? KISS sucks!" And laughed really belligerently loud, and I walked towards him, shook his hand and asked him to sign my guitar, and he said "absolutely" and he immediately began playing my guitar- which was an old Kramer- and asked "me if I ever played a real guitar- a Fender Stratocaster?" And he yelled to his manager who walked by for "the duck." The manager brought him the guitar and he handed it to me and said "here, play this!"
This yellow strat looked as though it had been dragged behind a car, and this guitar was the famous guitar that was photographed coming out of the fire on the "Rising Force" album. Yngwie had acquired it the same year I was born- 1979, from one of his first drummers. I immediately noticed the scalloped fret board, and a sticker on the back of the body of a horse on it's hind legs. I asked him what the sticker was, and he said "it was a Ferrari emblem. I got three of those, a Masserati, and a Jaguar. So I continue to play on this guitar and Yngwie is listening very intently to what I was doing, and immediately said "let me show you something." He took the guitar and said I would play that lick this way and continued to show me some of his ideas on the instrument in a private setting two feet away from me with no one else around. Our meeting lasted about 45 minutes while the opening band was on, and he graciously spent the entire time with just me. Just before he was about to go on, he paced back and forth. Every time he would come back in my direction, I would try to hand him the guitar thinking he was going to grab it and head for the stage, but he told me to continue to play as he listened and paced back and forth just minutes before his show.
A security guard came in and told me to leave, and that I could not stay in there because I was under the legal drinking age, and Yngwie came in and told the guard I would sit on the side of the stage, and he looked at me and said "you have to see this show." He pulled the backstage pass off his neck and put it on mine. For a young fan, you know, for your hero to do something like that for you, means alot! I have met up with him about 4 or 5 times since, and he's always cool, asking how my playing is coming along and stuff. Yngwie really had a huge influence on me as well as my playing.
Tony, on your website, I noticed that you have some endorsements. How did you acquire these, and what are they?
First of all I decided that I always wanted to have an endorsement with a string company because I went through so many strings very quickly and it became quite expensive in a very short time. So by acquiring an endorsement from a string company, I was able to get cases of strings on an as need basis. This endorsement is with DR STRINGS who are an amazing company in New Jersey. Sting, Jeff Healey, Derek Trucks, Willie Nelson, and many more famous musicians use these same strings. Check the website for details. Oh, and I use .009 gauge strings, and Jim Dunlop Jazz 3 picks. I don't use anything else. Another one of my endorsements was with Peavey, Eddie Van Halen Wolfgang guitars, that I held for two years up until recently. I got this endorsement while playing at a local music store, and a Peavey artist relations representative approached me and asked me how long I had been playing and, if I was endorsing a guitar company. I told him no, and he said Peavey likes to help out young artists. He asked me to send him a package, so I went and recorded myself playing straight through an amplifier- I did not have a band or cd out at the time- so I just plugged an old Strat straight into a Marshall and I went to town! (laughs) My demo mysteriously ended up in Eddie Van Halen's hands. Eddie had told Mr. Rogers of Peavey to endorse me with the Wolfgang guitar. There is only one other person in the world who endorses this guitar besides Eddie Van Halen himself, and that is Neil Zaza. So I was and still am honored to be the third guy who has endorsed that guitar. I got the contract in the mail soon after. "Elvira" came UPS 4 weeks later.(laughs)
My next endorsement is with LINE 6. I contacted them and told them that I really dug their gear and I would like to send them a promo. They welcomed it. I told the company rep a lot about myself and what I do. I received a phone call back from the artist relations rep a couple of weeks later telling me he would like for me to play a Line 6 Pod Pro! It was a done deal. Line 6 sent it to me, and I really dig it! It's really an amazing processor!
You had some problems with the Peavey endorsement. Did you drop this endorsement because of some limitations?
Yes, after a while I began to miss 24 frets. I really use those high register frets, and I found myself looking to reach for it all the time, and also I was starting to miss the radius of a strat style neck. The neck on the Wolfgang is like a baseball bat, but the
tone is amazing. Its just these little things were hindering what I knew I could do, so I contacted Peavey, and they advised me that there was nothing they could do about it, and also that I was not to have any other guitars on stage with me other than the Wolfgang. I asked well, what if I broke a string? I was told to change it! Anyways, I thought it would be in the best interest of both Peavey and I, for me to check elsewhere for something that was a little more suiting, as I was starting to grow as a player and I knew it was limiting some aspects of my playing.
Tony, if you had a master instrument maker ready to take your order, describe for me exactly what sort of an instrument would you want play?
Well, I really favor archtop guitars now, you know with a contour on the face of the body. I like thin necks and 24 frets. I do prefer a medium size fret rather than jumbo, and my fingers are long and slinky so that's always felt comfortable. For pickups I would have a Dimarzio "Super Distortion" in the bridge and a "P.A.F Pro" in the neck. I really dig locking tremolo systems, so I would definitely have one on there, although once I received the Wolfgang I stopped playing tremolos, and do you know what they say about that? "If your going to be a tremolo user, don't be a tremolo abuser," and trust me- it's not hard to be a tremolo abuser! (laughs).
Your first band was BRAIN STATION. Who all was in it, and what direction did you head in?
I began working with a drummer named Bruce Royal who's played with many national acts and had extensively toured the US and Japan. Bruce is by far "THE" most incredible drummer I've ever heard. We just connect so well as friends, and musically we are into the exact things. I was working with Yngwie Malmsteens bassist for a while, Barry Dunaway, and that was a real pleasure, however he was traveling so much that it was impossible to get in enough rehearsals over a period of time to get this record recorded, and I wanted it done soon. We were long over due. As cool as it was playing with him, I had to move on. So Bruce called a friend of his named Andy. We rehearsed 6 times and recorded! It was cool at first, however I had problems with the bass players work ethic, and I made it more like a hired gun kind of thing instead of working with him in a band situation. I'm very critical and hard on myself, and I expect no less out of the guys I'm working with.
Your first album is called "Embracing The Spirit." What is this album about?
Well "Embracing the Spirit" was written as a concept album, in that there was a whole story behind it. The idea was for the listener to pop it into the cd player when they had time to sit and listen to it all the way through, and to not skip from track 1 to 6 and then 4, and so on. It was made to sit in a relaxing atmosphere and listen to it front to back nonstop. My idea was to bring the listener on an emotional rollercoaster ride. The album is quite relaxed sometimes, and sometimes kind of intense, but it was done in a way that by the end of the recording you really feel- or so I am told- there is a sense ofserenity and calmness. There are elements of everything from world music to classical music to blues. I play a sitar on there too. It's available at http://www.guitar9.com, http://www.cdbaby.com, and at my website http://www.tonysmotherman.com
You now have a guitar instructional video. How did this come about? And are you going to expand on this project as time goes on? Seems to me it could be a continuing project for you.
There is a company on the internet called "Chops From Hell" which has a list of about 12 technically brilliant players who have CD-Rom, DVD, and VHS videos you can order. Chris at Chops from hell asked me if I would be interested in joining in. I thought it would be a good move since I've been asked so many times by fans if I would ever do one, and here was a way to have it available not only in the U.S., but in Asia and Europe also! I cover lots of different subjects on there from the scales I use to my favorite licks and chop building techniques. The video has sold quite well. After the next cd I will definitely do another. There's lots of ideas I'd like to explore for instructional material, and I may end up doing a couple of them.
I have noticed in your music a heavy middle eastern influence. What are your musical influences?
Well I have always loved eastern music, and I'm a big fan of Ravi Shankar. I guess it was about 2 years after I started playing electric guitar when it started showing up in my playing. I listened to lots of Ravi Shankar and Indian sarodist Ali Akbhar Khan at night while sleeping, so a lot of it was subliminal I think. Now its all over the place in my playing. I have a guest on my next cd from India, Vishwa Mohan Bhatt, who plays an instrument he created called a Mohan Veena which is an acoustic guitar fit with drone strings and sympathetic strings just like a sitar that he plays on his lap with a slide, and he does everything from traditional Indian music to blues to avante garde stuff. He did an album with Ry Cooder called "A Meeting by the River," and he's quite famous in the far East and now in the U.S he seems to be inspiring a lot of slide players. For electric guitar these days ,..Shawn Lane(who recently passed away) Mattias IA Ecklund, Ron Thal, and a good buddy of mine Rusty Cooley is doing some amazing things on the instrument .
Tony, you have come a long way in your short 23 years. You have a new band and heading off in new directions. Can you tell me about it?
Well I've been working with Bruce for about 2 years now and he is just amazing, it's like when we're playing music we hit another plane, and he knows what I'm going to do, and I know exactly what he'll do to follow it. Rob Scavetto plays keys,he toured with Molly Hatchet for quite a while and he is an amazing classical pianist. I've been playing with him now for about 8 months, and he still kills me with some of the things he plays. Kenny Mussleuh, the bassist, is by far the coolest guy on the planet, and he has a very melodic style, which is very important in the style of music I write, and he adds so much to the band. Most importantly he knows how to play in the pocket, and is a very solid player. He's played and toured in a RUSH and AC/DC tribute band, and his voice is amazing too. He is very diverse. I'm so fortunate just turning 24 to have an incredible
line-up like this!
You have already begun recording with this band on a new album project? Can you share some of the details of how it is coming along?
Yes, everything is going good. We're doing all the drum tracks now and making sure everything is on the money. We're going to have a great time recording for the first time together! I was asked to play on a tribute album for Shawn lane who recently passed away. He was an amazing person, and he lived in Memphis. He died of lung fibrosis. The album will be released on Lion Records in Sweden. We're working in the studio on that track.
Another interesting story involving you recently was about an imposter band who asked you to perform with them? What happened and how did this come about?
Well I was playing in a local club, and this huge black guy came up to me and introduced himself as one of the original "Drifters." I remembered a couple of tunes from them, but you know it wasn't like I listened to these guys every day. He told me he would be honored if I would play with them the following evening. I did. Soon word got out I was playing with "The Original Drifters," and the next thing you know its out in the open these guys call themselves "The Original Driftors," not "Drifters." I don't know what the hell they were doing calling themselves that but I didn't think it was cool. They could have done something under their own title. They weren't bad at all.
I have noticed lately you are playing many different instruments and even singing on stage.Are you still looking around for the right gear as well as kind of exploring new possibilities beyond the guitars?
In the last few years more than ever, I have really wanted to explore as many different instrumentsas possible and apply those ideas to guitar. When you play for example a sitar, you have such a primitive instrument, and the strings don't easily glide over the frets as our guitars here do. So you have to change your technique of bending notes, of holding notes, of doing pull-offs and hammer-ons. When you go back to the guitar, its really cool seeing how you can mimic those other instruments like the sitar. I think that's the best music lesson anyone can take. I got into indian music and purchased a sitar and a sarod. Then I started playing the lap steel my grandfather left for me when he passed away, and I've been playing banjo for a while now too! I've started exploring the possibilities of what's beyond the fretboard, and I mean the notes continue on past the frets themselves. I've found a way to actually fret these notes, no need for a pitch shifter anymore. I'll be using this cool technique on the new cd.
Jacksonville has a history of producing fine guitar players and bands. Have you been well received by the older generations?
I have met most of the veteran players in Jacksonville, and all of them are really good players. Some of them are really excited about what I'm doing- actually, it's very rare for me to go into a place where a band is playing, and not have to get up and jam some- I'm always invited up and I get a really cool introduction from the leaders in all those band before I play. I've had a couple of bad attitudes around town, but its rare and few and far in between. Everyone is pretty cool .
I think you once shared a story with me about a little run-in you had with a local guitarist. Without naming names, can you describe what happened that night and how did it affect you, or did it?
I think the only one I can remember is when a local guitarist was asked a thousand times to let me up, and eventually he invited me to play - I guess to humiliate me in front of everyone. I realized right away from his actions - I think what was supposed to be a really cool blues jam turned into some kind of head-cutting contest. Well, I was backed into a corner, and I think he obviously needed to be put in his place. So for the morale and good of mankind, (laughs) I started on my wacky video game licks where I mimic arcade games using 8 fingers on the fretboard. I knew there was no possible way he could recreate in any way shape or form what I was doing being that he was a blues guitarist primarily. It was a Kodak moment when his face turned red, his eyes bulged, and sweat was pouring off of him. After the cheer I received, I kindly unplugged after the jam, shook his hand, and said thank you for the jam bud! He said "Oh My God no! Don't go anywhere!" I declined to play with him ever again. Had I known it would have gotten crazy I would have never played to begin with.
You have a Skynyrd connection don't you?
I worked with Timmy Lindsey who toured with Skynyrd on the "Last Rebel Tour." He was playing bass for me in my original project and had lots of work coming up with Artimus Pyle, so he needed to go and do his thing. I've played a couple of gigs with Arty too, as he kindly invited me to play with his band APB at the fair grounds a couple of years back, and I played with him in a few local gigs. Tammy Van Zant has been a close friend of mine for a while now. She married one of my best friends from long ago. I've also played with Robbie Morris a few times from the Johnny Van Zant band. Randall Hall is another cool cat that welcomes me on his stage where ever he's gigging, and he is very supportive of what I'm doing. Usually before we begin, he invites all the guitarists and musicians in the room to come to the front of the stage.(laughs) He's a really good guy. All of them are very cool people! In Jacksonville you dare not get on stage not knowing all the Skynyrd classics! (laughs)
Lots of musicians have big egos. I've seen you perform live several times and the crowd response is amazing. People approach you and say to you things like you are the best guitarist in the world.' How do you react to those things?
Well, it's so endearing to hear those kind of things,and although I'm always conscious of it, it's very important to realize why we're here, and that's to share music. If you forget that, or think you've learned all there is to learn, then your done.You might as well not even play. You won't grow with that kind of mentality- spiritually, or musically...
What is the future of Tony Smotherman?
My dream is to tour the world, and share music with as many people as I can. I want people to come and see the show, and to forget about all the bad things happening in the world. Leave it at the door before they come in, and leave with a warm feeling from an intimate show. That's my dream...