10 questions for John Smith: "When you’re 11 and someone hands you a Stratocaster, you feel like you’ve been handed the key to a big shiny door"

(Image credit: Rose Cousins)

He’s a rising star in the firmament of folk, but how will John Smith fare with the 10 questions we ask everyone?

1. What was your first guitar and when did you get it?

“It was a Squier Stratocaster, given to me by my dad when I was 11 years old. It was red and I think it was a Mexican build and just a really basic practice guitar. It was perfect for me at the time. I think when you’re that age and someone hands you a Stratocaster, you feel like you’ve been handed the key to a big shiny door and everything is on the other side. I was obsessed with Led Zeppelin, Clapton and Delta blues and Chicago blues - I was listening to a lot of Muddy Waters.”

2. Suppose the building was burning down, what one guitar would you save?

My spruce top Fylde Falstaff. That’s the guitar I play the most

“Whichever one was hanging on the wall nearest the door! If I knew the sprinklers were going to kick in and I had a minute to spare, I think I’d grab my spruce top Fylde Falstaff. That’s the guitar I play the most. It features most heavily on the new record [Hummingbird] and in all my shows. It’s the only guitar I’ve ever picked up, played and bought on the spot within five minutes.”

3. What’s the oldest guitar that you have in your collection?

“I’ve got a 1936 [Gibson] Mastertone Special that I bought in Runcorn for a couple of hundred quid in Frailers guitar shop. It’s set up for slide, so at some point it has been un-fretted and it has a massively high action. I use it for lap slide and it sounds great - really mellow and resonant.”

4. When did you last practise and what did you play?

“I’ve just been away for the weekend without my guitar and so it must have been Friday. I think I picked up my SG and just played bottleneck slide for an hour. I’m really into slide guitar lately and I’ve been working on an arrangement of The Late Show by Jackson Browne, but just for slide guitar. And it’s quite difficult. I’ve just bought this Strymon Flint pedal with tremolo and reverb and I think I went into spaceytremolo world.”

5. When was the last time you changed your strings?

“I change them as little as possible, to be honest. I like the sound of old, dead strings and I use Elixirs, which never break no matter how much I beat them up. I think I changed a set recently just before a flight - you always have to detune and retune them - and it’s an ideal time to put some new strings on. But I would say, on my main guitars I change the strings three times a year.”

6. If you could change one thing about a recording you’ve been on, what would it be and why?

“You take songs you’ve recorded in the studio, then you play them live and they find their voice. You go back and listen to the album and realise you recorded it too slow or too fast, or whatever. There have been times when I’ve wanted to go back and revisit the Great Lakes session and speed something up or change the sound because it turned out so different live.”

7. What’s the worst thing that’s happened to you on stage?

I came in with a lovely guitar lick, but it was a semitone flat. The whole room went, ‘Uhhh…’

“I had a gig with Lisa Hannigan and it was in a very hot room in Boston. Somehow the banjo that she was playing and the guitar I was playing ended up a semitone apart. She did the first verse and it sounded great and at the chorus I came in with a lovely guitar lick, but it was a semitone flat. The whole room went, ‘Uhhh…’ and she looked round at me and went, ‘What?’ and I was looking at the guitar going, ‘I don’t know!’ And the guitar tech looked up and went, ‘Sorry…’ It was terrible. It all happened in slow motion and I just wanted the ground to pull me in.”

8. What song would you play around a campfire?

“Normally Beeswing by Richard Thompson. It never goes wrong; it’s always a song that people respond to and I really enjoy playing it. I never cover it in gigs because it doesn’t need to be covered, but if ever I’m around a campfire, I have a really good time singing that one.”

9. What aspect of playing guitar would you like to be better at?

“I’d like the time to study theory like I used to. The trouble with touring and then being at home and being with your family, is making time for practice. At some point I’m hoping just to hide myself away for a month and get back up to speed on theory, because as soon as I started learning music theory and you learn that there are thousands of ways to play a major 7 chord, then suddenly the fretboard opens up and it becomes a road map, rather than just a single track.”

10. Is there a myth about you or your guitar playing that you’d like to set the record straight on?

“I don’t know… is there?”

John Smith’s album, Hummingbird, is out now on Commoner Records.


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