John Smith Interview

John Smith Interview

John Smith is a guitarist and songwriter. He’s a fixture in the British folk scene, critically acclaimed for his unique fingerstyle guitar and slide technique, he’s accumulated over 10million plays on Spotify. John has also shared stages with the likes of Jackson Browne, Jarvis Cocker, Richard Hawley and Joan Baez, as well as folk legends such as Davy Graham and John Martyn. We caught up with him to talk about why he chose his guitars, where his musical influences lie, and what’s on his pedalboard...

[MPS]
You have so many different dimensions to your career; you’re a songwriter, performer, guest musician, and occasional sideman; what kind of work do you get the most satisfaction out of?

[JS]
I find the most rewarding work is when I’m really able to dig into a song. Whether as a writer or a performer, I love being involved in the fabric of a really good tune. Lately I’ve been rearranging my own old songs, trying different guitar effects, looking for different ways to present those songs to an audience.

[MPS]
What are you working on right now?

[JS]
I’m doing a lot of co-writing. It’s illuminating after spending a lot of time writing solo. You can learn a great deal about songwriting when you just let go of your constraints and allow someone else to help steer the ship.

[MPS]
Your most recent studio album, Hummingbird, was released last year and it has a distinctly narrative feel with shades of historic nostalgia. Can you tell us a little bit about the inspiration behind the record?

[JS]
It was about presenting the traditional folk songs that I grew up listening to, alongside songs that I’ve discovered later in life and a few of my own compositions. I focused on the acoustic guitar as a storytelling instrument, did away with adornments and tried to go for a very minimal recording.

[MPS]
Can you pick out a favourite gig?

[JS]
I think about Allen Toussaint at Billboard Tokyo, whenever I look back at the best gigs I’ve seen. This pioneering colossus with his trio. I’ve never seen such godlike command of a musical instrument, it blew my mind.

As far as my gigs are concerned, if I can walk off a stage feeling like the crowd was into it, I feel like I’ve done a good job. The first time I headlined London’s Union Chapel was a very special night. The sound in that place is ethereal and the audience were completely onside.

[MPS]
You’ve played alongside John Martyn, Davy Graham, and John Renbourn; who else would you count among your musical influences?

[JS]
Bill Frisell is important to me. The way he uses effects to shape his sound is very subtle but totally ingenious. He tricks you into thinking he needs a pedalboard, but then picks up an acoustic guitar and it essentially sounds the same, because the magic is in his fingers. He’s a truly brilliant player. I also love Kelly Joe Phelps. His sparse arrangements and direct delivery of a song have definitely informed what I am trying to do.

[MPS]
Although your musical center seems to sit firmly within the folk tradition, if you could go back to any musical era what would it be?

[JS]
I would love to have seen Little Feat in their prime, or Ry Cooder on the Chicken Skin Music tour. Late sixties/early seventies is where it’s at, for my record collection.

[MPS]
What was your first guitar?

[JS]
It was a Candy Apple Red Squier Strat.

[MPS]
What guitar are you playing at the moment?

[JS]
I have three Fylde acoustics which I rotate for gigs, they all have different voices. I’ve got a Ry Cooder-influenced Partscaster, it’s a ’74 strat neck on a simple ash body with two Lollar gold foil pickups. Heavy flatwounds, tuned low. I recently got hold of a handmade ’53 Esquire copy, heavy relic, which weighs nothing and really barks. I’m looking for a decent nylon string but I can’t find one that I like! When I’m at home I write on a 1972 Martin D-28. That guitar lives very close to the sofa.

[MPS]
Tell us about your Volante and El Cap, what made you choose them?

[JS]
I’ve had the El Cap for a few years now and it was the way you can dig into the nuances in a multi-head echo that got me hooked. When I properly looked into it I realized you can set up a very subtle double-track with a little tape wear. That little trick makes every fingerstyle tune sound better. El Cap and Blue Sky have been indispensable on my boards, I lean heavily on those two.

When I played the Volante in a guitar shop I realized it would be perfect in my touring setup. I’ve been playing it a lot these past few weeks and feel like I’ve only just scratched the surface. I’ve written new music every time I’ve plugged it in! There’s something in the echo trails, you can make them really crunched and distorted, which sounds amazing on a low-tuned acoustic.

[MPS]
We heard you have a couple of pedal rigs, can you tell us more about them?

[JS]
My setups revolve around a really good acoustic pre-amp, the Raven Labs PMB. I have two of these, one on my main board and one on my flight board.

The main board has three signal paths. The Volante & Blue Sky are wired alongside a Boss OC-3 into the acoustic and electric FX loop. Then there’s a signal path for my old DeArmond pickup, wired into on one of my Fyldes. This has a Flint and an Origin Effects Slide Rig for bottleneck playing. The Flint is such a great pedal, the trem is so convincing, that I don’t need to carry my old Vibro Champ around anymore.

My flight rig is very simple, just the Raven Labs pre-amp with an El Cap, Boss OC-3, plus TC Electronics mini HOF & Corona pedals for a touch of reverb & chorus. Both boards have a TC polytune, with its big bright display. That board is all about having something lightweight and simple to carry onto a plane and then across a festival site, that kind of thing.

[MPS]
Is there anything you have parted with that you really miss?

[JS]
Yes, although weirdly I have sold a lot of gear over the years and there’s only one that hurts when I think of it… my Parker Fly, which I sold back in 2004. I outgrew that guitar really quickly but lately I kind of miss her.

[MPS]
Can you think of anything that really changed things for you, and why?

[JS]
My first proper acoustic guitar was a £300 Gretsch. It made me want to play guitar all the time. I realized that a good instrument will inform the way you develop as a player. It made me a better guitarist. When the time was right, I gave that guitar to a friend and bought a Taylor. Then I sold the Taylor for my first Fylde, and still haven’t played anything that suits me better.

[MPS]
Is there any advice you can offer to people starting out on their musical journeys?

[JS]
It’s different now, with social media and digital platforms offering access to a potentially massive audience, early on in people’s careers. When I started out all I knew was gigs – as many as possible, every night, just trying to get heard.  However, I think what was true for me back then, is still true today: If you don’t believe in what you’re doing, you won’t get anywhere. You have to dedicate yourself to music completely. Prepare yourself for self-doubt, rejection and long periods of financial instability. If you can handle those things but enjoy what you’re doing, if you can find deep satisfaction in the rewards of your musical life, then you’re probably going to be alright. Twenty years since I was busking outside shop windows, I still don’t know any secrets. You just have to work at it every day. Try to be nice to the people you meet and enjoy the places you visit along the way.

 

 

High Resolution Images

We use cookies to ensure that we give you the best browsing experience possible. We'll assume that you are happy about that if you continue using this website or click 'read more' to see our Privacy Policy.