An interview with Doug Smith, July 2010

by Patrick Ragains

Doug Smith is one of the finest fingerstyle guitarists playing today. He has several solo CDs out, the latest of which is "Guitar Hymnal" (Solid Air), a collection of religious songs masterfully arranged for solo guitar (with two duets with his wife, flautist Judy Koch Smith). He's also released a duo CD with Mark Hanson, "The Power of Two," and contributed solo and duo performances to each of Solid Air Records' tribute CDs. I interviewed Doug at the California Coast Music Camp in July 2011, where he taught week-long courses on intermediate and advanced fingerstyle guitar, an arranging workshop jammed with participants, and performed solo and with others at the camp, students and instructors alike.

Pat Ragains: You studied music formally - how did this influence your approach to guitar?

Doug Smith: One of my favorite classes when I was majoring in music was Form and Analysis, which breaks apart how classical pieces are written. I think combining that type of analysis with my love of simple pop tune forms is kind of how I write. Apart from a couple of long tunes, my tunes are pretty much verse, chorus, verse, chorus, middle, verse, chorus, in an instrumental fashion. But what studying composition in school did, it enabled me to see how I can use small ideas, or thematic ideas, in different ways. I might have an entire A section down and wonder, "What do I do with the B section?" and then maybe use a thematic part of that - the original theme - to generate an idea for the second half. I've written some tunes on the piano that I've transferred to the guitar.

PR: How do you generate ideas for composing? It sounds like you have more than one approach.

DS: Yeah. Sometimes, a tune will come to me, a melody will come to me and I'll try to write it down or record it, and, if I don't have a guitar, I'll sing it, or I'll write it down on a piece of scratch paper, and sometimes it just comes from having the guitar and putting it in a tuning - just kicking back and picking and see what comes out. I once came up with an idea for a tune when I was on a riding lawnmower, I don't know why…

PR: Probably because you can come up with ideas pretty much anywhere!

DS: Yeah (laughs).

PR: When you play other people's music, can you talk about how you approach arranging those. I was thinking of your piece on the Disney album (Poppin' Guitars, Solid Air), "Tuppence a Bag." Do you want to refer to that or some other piece of music that you've arranged?

DS: No, that's a great one. Growing up, that was always one of my favorite songs, and when I got the opportunity to play that for the Poppin' Guitars CD, I tried to come at it from all sorts of different angles, and none of that was working. I finally just went back and watched the movie, Mary Poppins, and thought, "I just want to stick as close as I can to the original." I noticed that the opening chord sounded really good if the low E was tuned down to C and the low A was down to G - C Wahine tuning, it's sometimes called. Elements of it sounded good in that key, elements of it sounded good in the key of G, so ended up arranging it in the key of G and modulating into the key of C later on. I tried to do many things that I heard in the original score. For instance, during one of the choruses, there's a string line that's ascending. So, what I did, I put the bass in its proper place, I put the melody in its proper place, and the only other thing that's happening is those ascending lines in the middle. So, I tried to be as close as I could to the original version. There's a little delicate section, where I play it all on harmonics, and then, after that, there's this huge section, which reminded me of when Mr. Banks was walking through the streets and he comes up to the cathedral where the bird woman sells her wares. And also, the reason I started off with the melody of the chorus, as opposed to the verse, in my arrangement, is 'cause that's how the movie starts. It's the first thing you hear when the movie starts. There were little things here and there. Then, for the ending, I got the coda right from the original version, the orchestral score of the original version.

PR: So, you worked both with the score and the recording?

DS: So, when I say score, I mean - my apologies - I mean the orchestra of the original soundtrack. I actually did it by ear. I put a lot of work into that one - that and the Cole Porter one, because both that and "Anything Goes" (on Cole Porter: Delovely Guitar) were incredibly special songs to me.

PR: Do you want to talk about "Anything Goes?"

DS: Yeah. I think of all the Cole Porter tunes, that's my favorite. It was a serendipitous thing - I realized you could play the melody on natural harmonics, so I figured, "What a way to start the song." So, I started it, and then, being a huge Broadway musical fan, I tried to get in as many Broadway musical clichés, if you will, and at one point, there's a little tap dance section; at one point, there's a part where it modulates up in minor thirds, and then there's a chromatic run-down, "Da da da, da da da dum," and then there's the big finish (laughs), and I want all those elements in there.

PR: It's real theatrical.

DS: Yeah, it was going for an old Busby Berkeley-type thing.

PR: How did you pick and arrange some of the pieces on Guitar Hymnal?

DS: My favorite parts of church when I was growing up were the hymn singing. I love tunes out of old hymnals. "Holy, Holy, Holy" was always my favorite, and I had that arrangement lying around for a long time, and I would always play it at concerts. Folks would say, "Would you ever consider doing one of hymnals? (i.e., a CD of hymns)" So I just started collecting all of my favorites, whether they were out of my mom's old Southern Baptist hymnal or whether it was from my current Lutheran hymnal. I was even inspired to do a suite of Shaker tunes, 'cause I visited Hancock Shaker Village (Massachusetts) several years ago, and was very struck by the whole thing and got a CD of the music. There were some wonderful melodies in there. So, the majority of them are hymns I grew up with and things that were available to me in hymnals I had. I would approach each one differently. For instance, the one where I do some tapping is "A Mighty Fortress is Our God," and I actually asked my pastor if it was OK if I put tapping on it, and he said "Of course." And then, "What a Friend We Have in Jesus," I kind of did a homage to Chet Atkins and Merle Travis with that one.

PR: It's kind of a natural for that treatment.

DS: Yeah.

PR: What are some of your greatest musical strengths?

DS: Oh, wow! Probably, and maybe I'm only saying this because I've been told this, is fluidity and precision and the fact that I'm a very clean and flowing player. I think that would be my greatest strength. I probably got that from studying classical guitar, I think. You know, if I play something bluesy, it comes out wrong, because I don't play with the right drive.

PR: You have a different background.

DS: So that's something - we're sitting in a camp right now - and that's actually something I try to learn when I'm here - how to approach different styles of music in the proper way. Also, the ability to - and again, this comes from classical guitar -bringing out voices. If I want a melody to rise above the accompaniment, I can do that fairly well.

PR: You offered an arranging workshop here at the camp, and gave some examples of how you arrange pieces for solo guitar. Can you talk about that, and any advice you have to give guitarists to help them get started arranging and composing?

DS: As far as arranging goes, I always try to pick guitar-friendly keys; try to have the melody on the first three strings, if possible, and get the melody and the basic chords down first. There's a couple of different ways of approaching it. There is one (approach) where you really want to be true to the source material. For instance, I did a version of the theme from the Magnificent Seven, that I tried to get every part in there that I could. On some of the other tunes I've arranged, I just wanted to take an entirely different approach and make it something totally different from the original. Occasionally, you can put them in a different key from the original. Of course, in a guitar-friendly key, that might work anyway. You might try putting something in a different time signature. I put "Greensleeves" in 5/4 one time. You can try key changes, putting the melody in the bass and try contrapuntal ideas. You know, pretty much anything like that.

PR: Try those things and see what works.

DS: Yeah.

PR: How about composing? Is that similar in some ways? What advice would you give students or novice guitarists on composing?

DS: I like to keep my ideas really clear, and this is just me, OK? I like to have a melody that's actually pretty hummable for being a guitar piece. I try to get a memorable hook, and have a clear-cut A section, a clear-cut B section. Getting the first idea down is sometimes the easy part, it's where you develop it from there. My song structure is pretty straightforward: ABACBA, a lot.

PR: What's necessary to create a good fingerstyle duet? You've done a number of those on recordings.

DS: Yeah, Mark Hanson and I have a CD called The Power of Two, and we have also contributed a duet to all of the tribute CDs our label has done (Solid Air). As far as the tributes that we've done, which are copy tunes (i.e., covers), it depends. For "A Shot in the Dark," that was really clear-cut. One of us played part of what the orchestra was doing and the other played the other part of what the orchestra was doing, and that one was fairly easy. With a tune like "Yakety Yak," which we just did for the (upcoming) Lieber and Stoller project, you know, that's a great old novelty tune, but the vocal is so important to that, what were we gonna do? So, we played it pretty straight. When we got to the "Don't talk back" part, we hit our guitars. So, we played it through, and I played a transcription of the sax solo on one of the verses, and then we thought, "OK, what can we do from there?" I just had this weird idea. You know, it's such a fun song, that what if I wrote a classical fugue based on the melodic ideas. So, I took the melody of, (sings) "Take out the papers and the trash," and then have that as the main theme, and then have another voice come in, (sings lower) "Take out the papers and the trash," and then (sings in original register) "Take out the papers and the trash," and then, all of a sudden, it becomes this big classical thing, and then we ended that and went right back into the straightforward rock part. That got a little "outside," but it turned out pretty good. With, for instance, ""It's a Small World," we kind of eased into the melody with playing kind of a music box-type thing, we me doing some harmonics and Mark playing the melody, and then played it in kind of a Chet Atkins style. At this one point, Mark is playing the chorus and the verse at the same time on one guitar, when I'm playing these other cascading lines. So, we had a lot of fun with that one, because the song is so universally known, we wanted to do something slightly different with it.

PR: It sounds like the possibilities are limitless, if you're two good players and you're thoughtful in the way you put something together.

DS: Well, yeah. The only time I've actually written anything with anyone was with Mark. I haven't sat down, across from someone, and said "OK, let's come up with something." But, for "Power of Two," he would have an idea, and bring it in, and we would play off each other, and do things to stay out of each other's way. You know, if someone was playing in the middle, I would try to play on the outer edges, or vice versa - if he was playing down low, I'd play higher, that kind of thing.

PR: How do you structure a live set?

DS: First off, I tell students this, and I tell people that want to perform this, that, if you're doing a set, start of doing something you're really comfortable with. I've been doing this a long time, but still, I want the first song to have the best impression. I have tried to start off with the hardest thing I know, and I've fallen flat on my face. So I always start off with something that's really comfortable. It could be one of my tunes, like "Renewal," or it could be an arrangement of "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring," but something I know. And then I'll play an original tune, maybe a couple of original tunes, and I like to throw in copy tunes, whether they're something on one of my CDs, or just something that everyone knows. I might play "Classical Gas" during a concert, or throw in a vocal tune, whether it be a serious one - I might dig up an old Gordon Lightfoot song to play during the set, and then a novelty tune, something funny. I like to have a lot of variety in the show.

PR: How much teaching do you do?

DS: Primarily, when I'm at home, that's what I do. I teach privately. So, any time I'm at home, I'm teaching privately. I also teach a beginning guitar class at Clark College, the local community college there (Vancouver, Washington). For the past several years, I do three or four camps during the summer.

PR: What are some projects you're working on now? What's next?

DS: I'm working on a new CD, which is going to be kind of along the lines of Guitar Parts, my last one, which was a combination of original tunes and arrangements. I have a couple of old folk song arrangements and even a classical, like I had on my last one. You know, since I majored in classical guitar, I think a lot of classical tunes sound great on steel string. I enjoy recording them.

PR: Do you record at home?

DS: Well, I record in Portland. I don't record in my house. Of course, I put ideas down, but I have a couple of local studios that I really enjoy working with.

PR: Thanks for the interview, Doug, and for being such a great teacher!

© 2011 Patrick Ragains

Here's a partial discography for Doug Smith:

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