Conversations with Tony Smotherman - A RHB Exclusive, Part 2

Today is the second part on our interview with Tony Smotherman. If you missed the first part you can find it here Part 1

Rock House Blog: What was that shining moment in your career that you felt all the effort that you have put into everything made it worth while? 
Tony Smotherman: I remember a friend calling me up and he said get yourself to Jacksonville Beach right now. Buddy Miles is here…… and …….. He wants to meet you. So I headed up to the beach and  my friends were actually doing a gig with Buddy Miles. My friend was the drummer for “The Band of Gypsies”. This was also my favorite era of Hendrix.  So I get to the beach and Mr. Miles was there. The band was all set up and they had everything you could imagine, So I walk inside and there he was, this guy that I have been seeing since I was a kid and he looked at me and said, “how you doing young man”? I said I’m doing fine and he asked me if I was playing. I said well I brought my gear so, yes sir. He says well go get it. So I went and grabbed my gear and brought it in, which was just a Marshall 212 amp, my guitar and a wah pedal. So I plugged in and he says ok everybody we’re going to go around the room and we’re going to play a Muddy Waters song and everybody’s going to solo. I’m like oh God, here we go man, so we got to it and everyone got to solo and then it came to me. Well, I didn’t want to be overbearing so I had my volume down because I didn’t want everybody to say that it was too loud. But as my solo came I pumped it up and I just got right into the groove and I held this note that really just had this Hendrix feedback thing going on but it was really musical. So I’m holding the note and start bending, the feedback and all was coming  in, it was getting powerful. Then Buddy stopped everything, he stopped the whole band. And everyone is looking at me like your in BIG trouble man. He never stops unless he’s really angry. He looked at everybody and he looked over at me and I can hear people whispering that I’m in trouble. Buddy looks ant me and says, “young man”. I said yes sir? I thought he was going to say get your stuff and go. But, he says, “can you turn that amp up? I haven’t heard anybody put that kind of shit on a guitar in a long time.” And that was it, I was like lets crank it man. Buddy says alright everybody lets start again with Tonys solo. I remember going into the solo with this really modern Hendixy thing going on. After that was done he asks me if I’m in a band. I said yeah I’m in a band. Then we sat down and had a long talk. He said that he was going on  the road and he wanted me to go with him. And, that shinning moment started my career as a Buddy Miles guitar player.

RHB: I hate to move on after that incredible story Tony I could easily just close this interview out with that. But, I know your into exotic scales. I would be letting The Rock House readers down if I didn’t have you tell us about those.

TS: Well, Western music is based around the Major scale so, everything has a very common distinct sound in Western music. However, when you go to other countries they have their music built around different scales. Most of the time they are playing on different instruments. So, they are tuned a lot different and they sound a lot different. The heritage of those countries have a tradition that their music and scales are built on. For instance, if you were to hear Japanese music it has a very distinct sound like when they use the Kodo or any of the old traditional instruments. If you go to India and you hear the Sitar you will hear a different set of scales to evoke a different emotion. So from country to country you have these different scales and an exotic scale is exactly that. It’s a scale that is foreign, it’s a scale that’s not commonly used.

One thing that always fascinated me and got me into exotic scales. I’m actually Armenian, so growing up my mom would always play Greek music and I would hear Bouzouki or an Oud or a strange stringed instrument that was playing different scales. I was always interested in this but I didn’t really get into it until I got into electric guitar. I stumbled across things and then I started actually studying them.

The interesting thing about it is if for example we were going to play a Sitar, people think that you have to play all those strings that are on it. There’s like 30 strings on it but you only play one string. The rest are just there to ring out. You play that one string across the fretboard not up and down like a regular scale on a guitar. So when you start viewing the exotic scales across the fretboard like that and then all the sudden you transfer that to the guitar you are using the whole neck. If you can do that, then your using every string and every fret across the neck and so now your not playing a position any more.

Now the cool thing is you can start playing exotic scales like that but then you can do the opposite and you can start working on the more superlative scales, like the blues scale. Then you can get this really kind of bluesy singer feel ya know, if you can get the vibrato just right. So on those old traditional instruments when you are playing those scales, it’s very strict and very hard because those instruments are hard to play. When you tune to them through a guitar, now the world is at your hands because you have these really fine tuners on your guitar, you have a neck that’s set up correctly to play so that your fingers don’t bother you, so getting to know exotic scales can bring out some real interesting sounds that can really highlight a lot of different styles of music from metal, to rock, to blues if you know how to use it. How to use something such as an exotic scale is really the most important thing.

RHB: I’m pretty excited about the concept Tony, I ready to start to them!

TS: That’s the beauty of it, I’m really into complex-simplicity. It is so complex but you can make it so simple that anybody can do it, it doesn’t mater what level you are at. You can really start to sound like yourself, an individual very quickly. You know, if you take the western approach where everybody listens to other guitar players and then everybody wants to sound like this guy, you want to sound like that guy, oh no I want to sound like him, no I’m not quite as good as him yet. Why not start to sound original right way? All you have to do is approach the instrument from another direction. If you approach it differently well then now, you don’t sound like everybody else. Now, when somebody hears you after you’ve been playing for 8 months, as a complete beginner, people listen and say that’s Curt, there is no doubt about it. I new it from the first 2 notes I heard. And, that’s hard to do if you take the traditional route.

RHB: I think that’s exactly what people are looking for is their own style. I mean everyone wants to sound like someone or play like certain people but I think as we progress as musicians what we are really after is our own sound, our own style.

TS: That’s really the key to it man. Most guitar players sound so cloned. All they do is listen to each other all day long. And that’s ok if all you want to do is play. There’s nothing wrong with that at all man, if that’s what you want. But if you really want to do something and have your own voice on that instrument then it’s imperative that you approach it a little different. There’s really no other way around it.

RHB: So when you jam with a group of musicians are you just like playing exotic scales then?

TS: Well, ya know, the roots really never leave you so when it comes down to it the classical roots are still deep. Even if I’m not playing traditionally on the instrument. It might be the way I come up to a note or the way I feel influenced at the time, but nobody would ever know that. I could be playing blues but, you will still get that feel and emotion and people will say wow that was really interesting how he hit that note. So there might be some classical influence in a very unobstructed way.

But then it really comes down to the roots of the rock, to the Jimi Hendrix. I get really tired of one thing pretty quick so I jump from rock to funk to jazz to blues. So as far as jamming with other musicians I don’t really try and go at from this angle or that angle. I totally try and let all that stuff find it’s own voice and let it come out however it may be. If we were jamming on some blues I’m not going to veer off and play Indian type things because you will lose everybody. So very important to feel everything.

There are so many different styles of music, world  music is incredible and there’s so many rock guitar ideas in world music. But people aren’t using it because they don’t know about it, they don’t understand how to get to it. But it’s a whole ‘nuther world man, and it is so fun and it’s not what you would think, like it’s a whole different way of playing. It’s really not. It’s just borrowing ideas and putting it into what you already do. It’s not changing what you already do it’s just spicing it up with some new things that are going to make you sound so much different than everybody else. And that is the ultimate goal.

RHB: This is really good stuff Tony I should just end the interview here but I have a few more questions for you.

TS: Sure go ahead.

RHB: Earlier in the interview we talked about those influences that got you interested in playing. Are there any current influences for you?

TS: As far as guitar players there are some guitarist that are doing some really interesting things on the guitar. I would totally say that Mattias Eklundh is an amazing guitar player. His playing is like a lot of peoples I’ve heard. It’s so home grown ya know, and that’s what I really like. I like guys that can the instrument and really create new sounds. Bumblefoot is another highlight guitarist, who approaches the guitar from such a different direction that it’s impossible to sound like him if you wanted to. But probably the biggest influence for me today is the music of India. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking in a blues sense or rock sense, it has nothing to do with the style. I’m influenced by the approach of Indian musicians to their instruments because, that style of music is based upon making your instrument talk. It’s about emoting a sad felling or happy feeling depending on the raga. If you can get the basic concept of how a raga works and what it’s supposed to do. You see an Indian  musician or a singer will wake up to different ragas of the day. For instance if you’re an early riser, like 5 AM then you have a particular raga that you start on to start your day and it emotes a particular feeling of inspiration or happiness. If you’re a guy that’s up late, if you’re a night owl then you have your own special raga for yourself. That would be a raga of artistry, a raga of approaching the day in a creative way because you are up late and you are sleeping the part of the day that the whole world is going. Those things influence me, the sounds of those ragas I find really inspiring on the guitar because you can approach that from the blues and from rock and from any other style of music. That to me is the biggest inspiration.

RHB: I got to be the most creative guy there is then. I’m always up late at night.

RHB: Tony what was the hardest technique for you to learn?

TS: The hardest thing for me was tapping with all the fingers. Because, like a piano player has his hands straight out. As his hands are stretched out over the keys he has all this energy flowing through his arms. With a guitar it’s constricted, you have your hands twisted and the energy can not flow correctly like that. As a guitar player we’re used to using 3 fingers of one hand and a pick in the other. Or may 2 fingers of one hand and a pick in the other. To use all my fingers to play scales and things like that was probably the most difficult thing to get clean. I still work on that stuff. I still work on everything all the time.

RHB: What about your musical goals right now?

TS: I have a really incredible group of guys that I have put together and I love playing live. To me that’s where it’s really at. Playing in front of people with energy and bring an emotion across to those people is really the goal.

So I guess in the future the goal is to continue to play live and to play in as many places in the world as is possible. You see, with instrumental guitar music it’s very difficult. People think you need a singer and you got to do this way. But for the instrumental player, although I do sing a couple songs at the end of the show that’s like a Hendrix medley. Most of the show is instrumental. So I found that if you go out there and you start ripping people heads off it won’t work, because they won’t get it. Some of them might not even play guitar and won’t understand it. So, in order to do that you have to hand feed them first. For instance I might have the bass player hold an octave and the drummer splash some cymbals. Now you have this bed to play over. They hear that and all the sudden you come in with this heavenly Lydian scale or something like that and feed them some beautiful volume levels into some nice notes and they understand that, they can feel it because it’s music. Once you have that set up you can play anything you want the rest of the night because now they’re into it.

The goal of a musician is to reach as many people as possible that don’t understand instrumental music and have them enjoy the show. So playing as many gigs as possible and growing as a musician and learning. Learning, everyday there’s something, we have so much to learn everyday. I want to continue to share my knowledge and share things that I’ve stumbled across and getting that out to people that are interested in learning new things.

RHB: What’s your favorite gear Tony?

TS: Halo Guitars has built me a guitar and it’s a great guitar. I’ve been playing them for quite awhile so that’s my main axe. As far as acoustic guitars I play Ovations. I think they are incredible. I playing through a Revolt amp, again an incredible piece of equipment. The president of the company built the amp for me. I told them I was looking for something that I could play rock, blues, jazz, everything but I wanted to get  the sound by just turning my volume knob or cranking it and it needed to be subtle to every nuance. Incredibly enough they did that. The Revolt Barbarian amp is unreal.

RHB: Well Tony I better get this wrapped up. Can you give me your thoughts on Rock House?

TS: Sure, I only recently found out about Rock House a couple years ago when I was reading about the company. Some friends I know have gotten involved with the company. Rusty Cooley got involved and he told me “these guys are such a great family”. So I started to get to John McCarthy and Joe P and wow what inviting, family oriented people. I said to myself, you know for a company to be in the right state of mind they have to be family oriented people, you have to like people. I think that’s why the company is so great is because of their attitude toward this business and their love for music. And if you don’t have that you can’t have a good company. That in fact is what it’s all about. I think John and Joe are true fans, as well as John being just an incredible guitar player. I think because of all that, that is what brings greatness to Rock House.

I saw the DVDs, they are unbelievable, they are just unreal! The feeling you get from the DVDs is that it’s not just a guy that came in and sat down started playing. It’s someone who is comfortable right in front of the camera, there’s no other way to that unless you’ve been there for a few days getting to know everybody and hang out and you can see that on the video without even knowing it.

I wanted to thank Tony for an incredible interview and taking time out of his busy schedule so we could get to know who he really is and what he represents in this the greatest business you could ever dream to be a part of. The music business.

Here are the links to Tonys web sites for further reading:
Tony's web site - http://www.tonysmotherman.com/ 
Halo Guitars - www.haloguitars.com/ 


Unknown said...

Tony will make a great addition to the RHM Family

Sarge said...

What Tony is going to bring to Rock House is going to be incredible.

Anonymous said...

I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.



Anonymous said...

Thanks for the interesting interview, I love the idea of "complex-simplicity".

Devotional music CDs said...

Yes, complex simplicity was what made me read on, too.