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Sitting in with Tim McGraw Sideman Darren Smith

Tim McGraw''s guitarist talks to Rich about his career and his gear.

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 before Tim?

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 on guitar?

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 playing now?

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 of McGraw?

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 Eckhardt
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 and

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