Rett Smith by The Syndicate
Photo Credit: The Syndicate

Nashville based singer and guitarist Rett Smith jump started his career when producer Joe Nicolo, known for his work with bands like the Rolling Stones and Aerosmith, saw one of his videos on YouTube and invited him to record at his studio. The result of those sessions, the EP Tularosa, was just released in September. Aside from a cover of Roky Erickson's "Two Headed Dog" the album is all Smith's original work - an organic sounding collection of blues flavored rock. We called up Rett amidst birthday celebrations at the historic Chateau Marmont hotel in Los Angeles to talk about his career thus far, and his love of Gibson guitars.

Congrats on your debut album Tularosa. It makes me want to pick up my guitar every time I hear it.

“That means a lot, that's just about the best compliment you can have. Thank you.”

It has such an organic sound. It's blues based, but it sounds fresh and modern.

“I'm really conscious of... I don't want to be a throwback, you know what I mean? I'm not trying to emulate those records that I love. I'm not trying to do that for the ten thousandth time - not as well as the original, you know.”

So you’re using it more as an inspiration rather than trying to copy something that’s already been done?

“Yeah, it's super inspirational. But, I let it come out naturally as opposed to breaking down licks, and sounds, or what I want it to be like from the get-go.”

When did you start playing guitar?

“I got my first guitar when I was twelve years old. But it didn't work out, I just didn't play. I had no comprehension of the instrument, had no idea how to tune it. So I didn't play. I never took lessons. Then I started picking up guitar again when I was 18, 19 years old, and just started kind of teaching myself and then it kind of just went from there. I play a lot.”

Rett Smith by Jakob Blickenstaff
Photo Credit: Jakob Blickenstaff

How did your collaboration with producer Joe Nicolo come about?

“I was living here in Los Angeles, and I was really just writing songs, and trying to find my way a little bit. I recorded some demos, and I got really lucky right off the bat, where the right people heard them. You know, concert bookers, and KCRW, the radio station here did an article right away. Totally out of the blue. So I was playing shows in LA out of nowhere. I never thought that I would be singing, especially, I just recorded the demos because no one else would.”

“Anyway, how Joe came about: Someone through the grapevine had said 'have you heard this kid in LA?' Just totally in passing. He looked it up, saw a video of me playing on YouTube that I put up, and reached out. We sent a couple of emails back and forth, and then I went to Philly within the week. His beautiful Studio 4 in Philadelphia is gorgeous. I just played him and his son every song I knew. Looking back on it, I was so nervous, and it was so shaky. But it all went from there.“

What was the recording process like, did you come in with finished songs or write in the studio?

“I came in with songs. We just knocked it out. I was there for two days, and just cut everything live. We overdubbed some vocals, of course. But I think on four of the six songs on the record that's just the live vocal take as well. But so the songs are there. Whenever I go and record with Joe, you count it in and get after it. I like that energy, kind of do-or-die mentality. I think it brings out something else. That's what Joe is such a master at - capturing the energy of whatever room he is in. He's not overbearing, he's a very easy guy to work with. But what he's doing in his mind and behind the scenes, and what he's able to draw out of the people there without you realizing he's doing it, is really his gift.”

I hear you're quite the Gibson fan. Did you use any Gibson guitars during the recording of Tularosa?

“Yeah, totally. I think every guitar player, their dream is to probably have a Gibson that's theirs, you know that's really theirs. I always wanted a bad ass Gibson. A Les Paul or a 335, I didn't care. In the studio I used my 1962 ES-335. That's my baby, and I use it for everything in the studio. It has original PAFs, the whole thing you know. She’s such an incredible instrument and inspires me every time I pick her up.”

Rett Smith by Andy Gardecki
Photo Credit: Andy Gardecki

So you used the ES-335 for playing slide guitar as well?

“Yes, exactly. Another thing I love so much about the Gibsons, when they're set up right, you have to do everything you can to knock it out of tune if you wanted to. I didn't have my Les Pauls when I recorded Tularosa, or else I would have brought them in. But on Tularosa it's everything, the ES-335.”

It really shows the versatility of the ES-335.

“Totally! Like the way you can manipulate the tone and volume controls - you get like twenty guitars in one.”

How did you approach the solo on "One Block Bar," is it all improvisation?

“Yeah, totally. That cut is one take, front to back. That was really important to me. The solo on 'Two Headed Dog' was overdubbed, because I was the only guitar player in the room. But everything else is one take. The solo on 'One Block Bar' is totally improvised. I actually thought that that was going to be a scratch take, cause we were still going over the song with the band. And we were like 'That'll work, I'm cool with it.' It's in open G, I just go straight in to the slide part. I play behind the slide, and then go straight in to it.”

The wah-wah solo on "Never Knew" shows a more melodic side of you as a guitar player.

“Thanks man. Yeah, I'm a big fan of a cocked wah sound - you know where I just step on the wah, I really like that. I love when you come upon a song like these. When I write a song, and it just happens to become a template that you know the solo is just going to be nasty, it's just begging for it. 'Never Knew' is that song, and live it's the same thing. You're chomping at the bit - you can't wait to get to the solo. The pallet is just asking for you to really get after it.”

It starts out very smooth, and just keep building.

“Totally! It comes from, with both pickups, I just turn down the volume super low. I probably had the volume at 1.5 or 2, and then picked really hard to get that acoustic-y sound. And then would just roll on the volumes.”

You mentioned your Les Paul guitars, could you tell us a bit about them?

“I have a 2013 Gibson Murphy Aged Les Paul Historic Burst that looks aged, like Murphy aged. It's such a killer Les Paul. You could use that guitar for anything, it's so good. The neck is so perfect and I never want to put it down. I use it in standard tuning and it’s definitely my number one live guitar. She’s got a beautifully flamed top and is extremely stable and versatile.

“Then I have a 2013 Gibson Custom Goldtop with Single Humbucker, which is awesome. I use it for slide playing live. I keep it in open G, so any of the songs that are in open G, or open A - I use that. It's kind of out of necessity. The Goldtop, I've always loved it, but it keeps growing on me. That single humbucker - it's like a Junior that ate its little brother.”

Did it come stock with the single humbucker?

“Yes, it came that way. I guess they did a limited run, you know, for online. I found it, and was just like 'I gotta check that out.' To have a normal Les Paul body with the Junior setup - the more I play it, the more I love it. Getting used to the wraparound tailpiece with volume, tone - that's it. If I go a week and only play that guitar, it makes me better, no matter what. I'll just plug straight in, and it really makes me hyper aware of what I'm doing.”

I could imagine that since it's such a simple setup, it automatically makes you focus more on playing rather than fiddling around with settings?

“Exactly! Your dynamics just become so important, you know. Going from a pick to your fingers, all those things, it makes you better. You always hear people who play Juniors say that, and they're right. For me, like my setup, I love P-90s but I prefer a humbucker. So this was just like the perfect slide guitar to me. Sometimes I'll pull out the slide even if I'm playing standard tuning, for a solo live. But 'One Block Bar,' 'Eyes of Me' those songs have to be [played on a] designated guitar - I just bang on it so hard.”

Do you bring the ES-335 out on the road as well?

“I used to use her live for every show but have recently started keeping her safe and sound in my studio. The Les Pauls are so good that I don’t mind keeping the 335 at home.”

Want to check out Rett Smith live? Keep an eye on his website for tour dates, as Rett says he’s hoping to get back out on the road early next year.