I consider myself fortunate to be among a
select group of guitarists who make a living following
their passion of creating music. Less than
two percent of all the players in the Nashville
Musicians Union make 100 percent of their
living playing music. When you remove the
drummers, bassists, keyboardists, fiddlers, and
members of the Nashville Symphony Orchestra
from that two percent, you’re left with a very
small group of guitarists. We’re not household
names like Eddie Van Halen, Les Paul, or Eric
Clapton, but we’ve dedicated our lives to the
craft of playing the guitar just the same.
Guitarist Darren Smith lays it down onstage with Tim McGraw.
Every year as summer hits I have the distinct
pleasure of sharing the stage with some of
the best of the best. As skilled masters of the
instrument, they make me envious of their
talents and inspire me to work towards being
a better player. One of those unsung heroes
is Tim McGraw’s longtime bandleader, co-producer,
and guitarist, Darren Smith. Darren
and I have been friends for a frightening two
decades. Often jamming together on the
same stages of the Nashville club scene, as
well as going riff for riff in arenas and festivals
across the country, we’ve developed a friendship
and respect for each other as musicians.
After performing together for McGraw’s
Nashville Rising flood relief concert, I sat
down with Darren and talked to him about his
years on the road with country superstar Tim
McGraw as well as the early days of his career.
Darren, we’ve been friends for over 20
years. Early on we were both playing the
clubs around Nashville. How did you go
from there to a gig with Tim McGraw?
I was playing a regular gig at Skull’s Rainbow
Room in Printer’s Alley and Tim used to
come down and sit in and sing. This was prerecord
deal. He asked me if I wanted to go to
Delaware and do a honky tonk for a of couple
weeks and I said sure. We hit it off and had a
great time. He told me he was on the verge
of getting a deal with Curb Records and that
when he did, he wanted me to put a band
together for him. Having heard this story a lot in
Nashville I was not too convinced. But a couple
of months later he called and said put something
together, we are going on tour with Joe
Diffie. So I did and I’ve been there ever since.
How long ago was this?
That was 21 years ago, come September.
What other bands did you play with
David Frizzell, Shelly West, Helen Cornelius,
and endless club bands.
So you played with a lot of the traditional
country stars. Who were your early influences
Early on my influences were Johnny Cash, the
Allman Brothers, the Eagles, Wynn Stewart,
Buddy Holly, and Elvis.
What’s the first song you remember learning?
I was 7 or 8, and it was “Milk Cow Blues” by
Jimmie Rodgers. I learned it on an old Sears
nylon-string my mother got me.
What gear were you using when you first
started with McGraw?
I had an old Fender Strat I used to call
“Blackie” and a Peavey Stereo Chorus 2x12
amp. That was it. No pedals except for a tuner.
Back in the day I always saw you with a
hollowbody Tele with f-holes. What are you
Now I have numerous G&L, Gibson, PRS, and
Gretsch guitars. I guess my favorite is a green
G&L Legacy Special. It was the first one I got
from G&L and it can do almost anything I need.
I play it the most. As far as amps, live I use two
Peavey Classic 50s in isolation boxes. On Tim’s
records, my amps include a ’65 Fender Deluxe
Reverb and an old 50-watt Marshall.
I’ve used the same pedalboard for years. It
includes a Line 6 delay and chorus, an old
green Ibanez Tube Screamer, a Fulltone
Fulldrive 2, a Boss Blues Driver, a ProCo Rat,
an MXR DynaComp, a Dunlop Jimi Hendrix
Crybaby wah, and an Ernie Ball volume pedal.
My guitar tech, John Prestia, and I experiment
all the time with new stuff, though.
Do you find time to do any projects outside
Not so much nowadays. I’ve done some projects
for Lofton Creek Records and I’m still
co-producing Tim’s records. Touring keeps
me pretty busy.
What are you listening to these days? Who
do you draw inspiration from now?
Call me old-fashioned I guess, but I still listen to
Stevie Ray Vaughan, Danny Gatton, Eddie Van
Halen, and ZZ Top. Although I do like cranking
up a good Kid Rock song every now and then.
Do you have any advice to anyone who
wants to jump in and try to do what you do
for a living?
Yeah, just a little advice for the newbies to
Nashville: Stick with it, play wherever you can,
to whoever you can, whenever you can.
Rich is a highly sought-after Nashville guitarist who has
performed with singers ranging from Steven Tyler to Shania
Twain. He currently plays lead guitar for Toby Keith, and
also works as a spokesperson for the Soles4Souls charity
). His new album, Cottage City Firehouse, is
available at richeckhardt.com