Interview: Josh Smith: Artist vs. Demo Artist
How the L.A.-based bluesman balances demo videos, sessions, tours, and a rejuvenated solo career.
Josh Smith’s career is emblematic of the YouTube age: The Los Angeles-based guitarist gets as many hits for his product demo videos as for his live gig posts. He spends hours on tour buses answering gear questions from fans in awe of his magnificent tone.
But endorsing a piece of gear doesn’t mean Smith uses it for every gig. “Sometimes guys get mad because they see me on TV, and I’m not using their gear,” he explains. “But if it isn’t right for that gig, I won’t use it. They didn’t hire me—the artist did, so I have to use what’s right for the artist’s sound.”
Still, Smith is loyal to the people with whom he works. “The companies I get involved with are my friends, and I go out of my way to help them. I don’t just take free gear. I try to be involved with guys who make the gear I use.”
First and foremost, though, Smith is a player. A blues prodigy, he was gigging steadily at 14 around his hometown of Pembroke Pines, a suburb of Fort Lauderdale. “Back then I only knew blues, blues, blues,” he recalls. “I wanted to be the next Kenny Wayne Shepherd or Jonny Lang. Until I was 22 all I did was put out records, travel in a van, play clubs 300 days a year, and not make any money. Then I decided I wanted to be able to pay bills and not live in my parents’ house, so I took a break and a leap of faith.”
Shifting gears. The leap of faith involved moving to L.A. and shifting gears from solo artist to sideman, including work with American Idol winner Taylor Hicks and former Tony! Toni! Toné! member Raphael Saadiq. “It turned out to be a good move,” says Smith. “It took 10 years, but we just bought a house. Also, doing sessions and sideman gigs couldn’t help but expand my horizons. You learn new stuff all the time, and it sneaks into your playing.”
Both old and new stuff were on display for Smith’s 2009 instrumental record, Inception. “I think of that record as a business card,” he says.
Among other things, Inception displays Smith’s formidable country chops. “When I was 16, a dude handed me a tape,” he recalls. “One side was Danny Gatton, the other was Roy Lanham—an old school country-jazz player. Gatton is one of the greatest, and Roy Lanham playing triple stops and four-part chord melody over simple country changes blew my mind. Overnight I went from anchoring my hand on the pickguard to free-floating hybrid picking. Everything I play now is hybrid picked, even B.B. King licks. People say, ‘You sound so clean and precise!’ That’s the hybrid picking. I don’t play as fast as I did when I was younger, but I’m way cleaner!”
Soon after Inception came out, German label Crosscut re-released Deep Roots, an older Smith blues record. “They renamed it I’m Gonna Be Ready and repackaged it,” says Smith. “It started doing well, and for the first time in 12 years I toured playing blues for a month straight. My own music, full rooms, selling CDs—I realized how much I missed it. I could see things building over there and started going over once or twice a year.”
Crosscut’s desire for a new blues record led Smith to record Don’t Give Up on Me. But he says he found himself uninspired by the current crop of blues records: “Ninety percent of the records were guys playing museum-quality blues—brilliantly, I might add—but not breaking new ground. Or else it’s heavy blues, like Joe Bonamassa. He’s an amazing guitar player, but I did that style when I was a kid. What’s the point of making another blues record unless it’s something special? So I wrote 40 new songs, and then whittled them down.”
Smith’s goals were to write the next “The Thrill is Gone” or “Crosscut Saw,” and to make a record that stood out from the low-budget productions he heard on blues radio. “I’m a blues guy who does sessions,” he says. “One of my favorite blues records, Bobby Bland’s Dreamer, was cut with Larry Carlton and Dean Parks—top session guys who play blues. On this record I wanted to play the solos like Albert King, but play the rhythm like Larry Carlton. I wanted strings, like blues records had back when there were big budgets. By the grace of my wonderful musician friends I was able to pull it off.”
Backed by a swinging organ trio, Smith lays down spanky, soulful blues licks in B.B. King’s “Payin’ the Cost to Be the Boss.” Smith starts his extended solo at 3:03 by paying homage to King and then gets increasingly jazzier with each chorus, playing across the bar lines and coaxing sheets of altered tones from his heavy-gauge strings.
Smith is a relative latecomer to Tele-style guitars. “I realized I’d been a Tele guy in denial my whole life,” he says.
Tele visions. Like hybrid picking, the Tele-style Chapin T-Bird Smith now plays almost exclusively was an epiphany. A Strat player for most of his life, he was getting calls to do rhythm sessions à la Tele masters Steve Cropper and Cornell Dupree. This prompted a call to Bill Chapin, who had made Smith’s custom Stratahoula Strat-style guitar.
“He put together my black maple-neck Tele,” says Smith. “When I got it, every other guitar was put aside. I realized I had been a Tele guy in denial my whole life. It’s the only guitar you can play every gig on. No other guitar is as expressive. That’s the way it is with all my gear, whether amps, pedals, or guitar. I want as much expression as possible. I use little or no compression—I want to do it all with my fingers. I want every nuance of picking to come through, and no guitar does that like a Telecaster.”
Smith feels this way about Teles in general, but he insists that his T-Bird is special. “It has a great bridge pickup, wound by Bill,” he explains. “It’s slightly hotter than stock, with flat pole pieces. He wound it to be fatter than normal, but still twang. I could play an entire night on my bridge pickup—I can make it sound like I’m on the neck pickup just by varying my attack. On other guitars, I switch pickups constantly.”
You could have Chapin build you a T-Bird with that pickup and buy a Lovepedal Tchula overdrive pedal and be part way to “the Josh Smith sound.” Harder to mimic might be the heavy strings—they’re gauged .013–.056 and tuned to standard pitch. “I’ve been using really heavy strings since I was 13 or 14,” says Smith. “I’m so used to it, I can’t play other guitars. I break my friends’ strings all the time.”
Besides the aforementioned Tchula, Smith uses many other Lovepedal effects. His main travel board also includes a Believe Octave pedal they built for him, as well as Trombetta Mini-Bone, Arion Chorus, and Eventide Time Factor pedals. “All my boards are wired by Mason Marangella at Vertex Effects,” says Smith. They have an interface box with a breakout loop so I can insert another pedal, usually my wah.” The breakout box is positioned between distortion pedals so Smith can filter distortions placed before the wah or drive ones placed after it.
Also on the guitarist’s board is a J. Rockett Josh Smith Tremolo. “I needed a trem pedal for a gigging musician,” explains Smith. “But every trem pedal I checked out was either too simple or had a million options. I just needed the ability to switch between fast and slow tremolo.” The signature pedal features two Fender blackface-style trems, each with its own speed and depth control. It also has a volume knob with enough boost to counteract the perceived volume drop created by many trems. “It had to sound and feel like it’s in your amp, not a pedal,” Smith insists.
He also has a signature Morgan Amp: the GOAT. “I said, ‘If I’m going to have a signature amp, it has to be the greatest amp of all time,’ so Joe Morgan named it the GOAT—‘Greatest Of All Time,’” laughs Smith. “It’s a Fender Super Reverb-style amp. It even has a 2 ? speaker out so you can run a 4x10 cabinet and sound like a Super. The built- in reverb tank has three knobs, like on an external tank, but the signal runs in parallel.” Smith uses his signature amp in tandem with an AC40, Morgan’s Vox AC 30-style head.
Josh Smith obviously loves gear, but in the end, his instruments are tools to help him make the music in his head. His demo videos are a way to help out the manufacturers who help him realize his vision. They also garner new fans. “Guys are looking for a certain sound, and they stumble across me demoing a pedal,” says Smith. “After hearing me play, they might order a CD.”