Dan Smith Will Teach You Guitar
He is arguably the most recognized musician in New York City. The slight smile, patient and reassuring, that greets you every morning as you wait in line at the corner bodega for your coffee and bagel.
Regardless of socioeconomic class or race, from Bed-Stuy to The Bronx, from East Village to the Upper East Side, all New Yorkers know: Dan Smith will teach you guitar.
It is a simple and honest advertisement. Like most good advertising, it is very memorable. Maybe it is so memorable because these flyers seem to be everywhere! Who is this Dan Smith whose iconic message has become so ingrained into the pop-culture fabric of the city? I wanted to find out.
Hello Dan Smith! Last week I had to get a key made. There on the counter in this claustrophobically small Upper East Side locksmith was your flyer. I then walked a few blocks north to a health food store and I saw you again. The next day I was downtown getting a coffee and I saw you again. This has been going on for years. And I've always wondered: who is Dan Smith? Where are you from?
I was born in Boston and I grew up in Newton, Massachusetts where I went to Newton North High school. I came to New York in 1988 to go to NYU where I studied acting. I've been here ever since. I love it here.
When did you first become interested in music?
I don't think there was ever one big moment. It was always a given in my mind that I would do it. The earliest music that I remember was a Ray Charles record that my parents had. I remember listening to What'd I Say a lot. I loved the call and response part. They also had a best of Aretha Franklin record that really pulled me in. And Meet The Beatles with songs like "I Saw Her Standing There", "All My Loving", and "This Boy". I sang those songs a lot. That was when I was maybe six or seven. From there I got into a lot more Beatles - Sgt. Pepper's, Magical Mystery Tour, Rubber Soul, etc. - Then Jimi Hendrix, The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and The Who. Later on, I got into more current music of the day like The Clash, Talking Heads, and U2.
What was your first concert?
The first concert I ever went to was U2, The Unforgettable Fire tour, when I was fourteen.
When did you get your first guitar?
I started playing an old classical Yamaha that was laying around the house when I was thirteen. The first guitar of my own I got when I was fourteen. It was an electric red Fender Duo-Sonic with a Fender Sidekick Amp. Not sure what happened to that guitar. I think I traded it for my first Telecaster.
What was the first song you learned? Are you self-taught or did you take lessons?
The very first thing I learned on guitar was the riff to "Satisfaction" by The Rolling Stones. It was great because it sounded like the song. My teacher at the time taught it to me. He also taught me how to use my ears and teach myself. Ultimately, everybody who plays guitar teaches themselves how to play. But having a teacher who can be a guide and point you in the right direction is invaluable.
When did you start teaching?
After NYU, I had been working in restaurants - waiting tables and eventually managing a place. Pretty early on I decided that teaching guitar would be a much better thing for me to do.
How did the flyer campaign come about?
I had found my teacher by way of a flyer and I knew it could be a good way to create a low over-head campaign that would really penetrate people's consciousness. I knew it would require a lot of intensity and I also knew I was willing to put that into it. The more I flyered, the better it worked. So when I wasn't working at the restaurant I was teaching more and more. Eventually I had so many students that I decided to leave the restaurant and teach full-time. That was around the mid 90s.
What styles do you teach?
I tend to focus on rock and blues, but as I've gotten into different kinds of music, it comes out in my teaching. For example, I love jazz artists like Ella Fitzgerald and Chet Baker. So I might use a song like "My Funny Valentine" to open things up in that direction. Or a bossa nova song like "The Girl From Ipanema" to expand into more complex chords.
Very often, one style can lead to another. There's an old country song called Ghost Riders In The Sky. I have a great live version done by Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson. So we might try it like that and from there, I might introduce some surf guitar - via the Dick Dale version of the same song. Surf guitar has been a big ingredient in my playing. I've learned so much from playing songs like "Pipeline" by The Chantays or "Penetration" by The Pyramids. You have to be so relaxed and yet so engaged to play that music. If you get tense, or try to approach it from a head-oriented point of view, it won't work.
I also love country, folk, and bluegrass artists like Doc Watson playing "Deep River Blues" or more recently Ryan Bingham doing "The Weary Kind". Playing songs like those is a great way to bring your finger picking to a new level.
I can't leave out R&B, funk and soul acts like The Meters, James Brown, and Sly & The Family Stone. There's a great Sly song called "If You Want Me To Stay" on an Album called Fresh. That whole album is very cool.
I'm sure I'm leaving a lot out, but that should give a sense of the range. At the end of the day, the way I teach goes beyond any one genre of music. All these styles are just a jumping off point for students to find their own style.
So, if picking musicians for a "dream band," who would you choose?
I don't know. I don't really think in those terms. Because, to me what makes a band compelling is something that comes organically from a moment in time. I don't think that kind of thing can be manufactured. It's like a marriage. You could get great people together but there's no guarantee they're going to fall in love.
One of my all-time favorite things ever recorded are those first ten notes from Bills Evans' solo, starting at about the 5:56 mark, in "Flamenco Sketches" from Kind of Blue. Do you have a favorite musical moment?
I don't think I could narrow it down to just one. I've always liked the guitar solo in the live version of "No Woman, No Cry" by Bob Marley. That's pretty hypnotic. I also love the opening to "If This World Were Mine" by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell.
Is there any other music that influences you?
Lately I've been listening to Rage Against the Machine. I really like their version of "Maggie's Farm" by Bob Dylan. Another band I really like that's around these days is Cage the Elephant. They've got an awesome song called "Ain't No Rest for the Wicked". It evokes the same mood in me as songs like "Black Jesus" by Everlast, or the Spiderbait version of "Black Betty".
In regards to your students, is there a "first song" that is more prevalent among beginners today?
It definitely helps to start with a simple song that you know. And one that you like. One song that virtually everybody knows is "Stand By Me". Either the Ben E. King or John Lennon version. Another good one is "Love Me Do" by the Beatles. Everybody can relate to both those songs subject matter-wise and they're technically accessible at the same time.
Songs that have an identifiable riff are great. They have immediate gratification built in. Like "Seven Nation Army" by The White Stripes, "Sunshine of Your Love" by Cream, or "Blister In The Sun" by Violent Femmes. There are also songs that can be easily recognized by just playing the chords—like "Wild Thing" by The Troggs, or "Rocky Raccoon" by The Beatles.
Some of the more recent songs are "Good Riddance" by Green Day, although, now that I think about it that song's more than 15 years old. There's also "Just The Way You Are" by Bruno Mars and "You Belong With Me" by Taylor Swift. It just depends on what you're into.
The music industry has changed a lot over the past ten years. How has the increases in resources and information in this digital age effected how students learn or how you teach?
I use recording programs like GarageBand and ProTools and I encourage my students to take advantage of whatever is available technology-wise. And while the equipment has changed, the process of learning is the same. The music is still the music. Because music isn't defined by anything outside of you. It comes down to you and your vibe. Keith Richards is Keith Richards whether he's working in ProTools or recording on a Radio Shack cassette recorder. One piece of equipment that hasn't changed is the guitar. It is what it is. It can't be improved on.
Many branches of The New York Public Library have weekly teen video game programs. Have you ever played Guitar Hero?
I've heard a lot about it but I've never played it. I'm more into the real thing. There's no doubt that it's a testament to the power of guitar, and if it inspires people to play for real, then that's great.
What neighborhood do you live in?
I live on the Upper West Side and I tend to use the St. Agnes Library at Amsterdam and 81st. It's one of the few places in the city to go for some peace and quiet. Awesome resources like CD's and free WiFi too. Sometimes when I'm downtown I'll use the Muhlenberg Library on West 23rd across from the Hotel Chelsea.
I'm glad you make use of the great resources The New York Public Library has to offer! Have you read any good books lately?
The last book I read was Save The Cat! by Blake Snyder. One book I want to mention because it has a lot of meaning for me is Blues People by LeRoi Jones. It gave me a deeper insight into the experience of people like Muddy Waters, Elmore James, Howlin' Wolf, and John Lee Hooker. To me, blues is the seed of everything, and that book speaks to so much that's at the center of what I teach. It's a pretty deep book, but one of the main ideas that I took from it is that music doesn't start when you pick up a guitar—it comes from a way of living your life.