On his 11th birthday, with his mother by his side, a young G.E. Smith set out in search of his first professional-grade, electric guitar.
Options were limited in his small Pennsylvania hometown, but the pair found two decent, used options: a Gibson for $200, and a Fender Telecaster for half that.
“So there was no doubt which one we were gonna get,” Smith recalled with a laugh, nearly 60 years later, from his home in Amagansett. “I still have the little book where my mom paid it off $15 a month to the bank. But it’s great — because I still have it.”
Over the course of his career, the former lead guitarist of Hall & Oates — who went on to become the leader of the “Saturday Night Live” house band, and made a career of backing music legends — has owned about 2,000 guitars. Today, his collection is home to between 50 and 60.
But his Telecaster — the foundational electric guitar for rock and roll music — is at its center, and the beating heart of his upcoming “Portraits” concert on Monday, July 5, at Guild Hall in East Hampton.
“My family always would joke that there’s no pictures of me after I’m about 11 without a guitar on,” Smith said. “I’ve got pictures of me in front of the Christmas tree with my grandmother, and I’ve got my guitar. Thanksgiving dinner, I got my guitar. I was kind of insane about playing it there for a long, long time.”
That said, his appreciation for it hasn’t exactly stopped, and the guitar itself has certainly lived a life.
It has traveled the world four or five times, regularly gracing the “SNL” stage and concerts with musicians like Bob Dylan, Roger Waters, Daryl Hall and John Oates, to name a few. It serves as a calming presence for Smith and, in a way, it’s like having a piece of his mother there with him.
“People say to me, ‘Don’t you get nervous when you go out in front of 50,000 people and play?’” Smith said. “And I’m like, ‘No. As soon as I put that guitar on, then I’m not nervous. It’s the rest of the time I’m nervous, when I’m not wearing that guitar.’ Regular life, I’m nervous, but not then.”
The Tele’s next stop will be Guild Hall for, this year, a one-off concert of Smith’s “Portraits” series, featuring a “Masters of the Telecaster” set with Jim Weider, who developed his renowned, rock- and blues-based signature style as the longtime lead guitarist of The Band — on none other than a Telecaster.
And, like Smith, it was his first serious guitar, too — bought for $125 from Manny’s Music in New York when he was 15 years old.
“Steve Cropper, James Burton, Jeff Beck, everybody played Telecasters back then,” Weider said last week during a telephone interview. “And then when I heard Roy Buchanan get feedback with them and play psychedelic, I was just hooked. I just stayed with it. While everybody moved on to Les Pauls and Strats, I just stayed with a Telecaster.”
Weider liked the way the neck and the body felt, its big bite and the bridge pickup. Without a vibrato bar, it’s a fight to bend the strings and sustain notes — and in that, he found his way.
“I think it’s through the struggle that makes Tele players get their unique sound,” he said. “It’s like everything else.”
Weider will share more about his journey with Smith during the intimate “Portraits” concert, he said, in between playing some tunes and sharing road stories from his days with The Band — a group of musicians, founded by Levon Helm, that he met as a teenager while growing up in Woodstock.
He never imagined that, in 1985, he would join them.
“Taking me from, basically, a bar band to playing in front of 30,000 people and more, I was 32 years old and it was just, bam, you know?” he said. “And I stayed with them, and they were just a blast. They were great guys, down-home guys, they let me be myself and play the way I played. It was a fantastic thing to live through.”
The singer, guitarist and mandolin player replaced lead guitarist Robbie Robertson, writing songs for The Band and going on to perform for the next 15 years with them, both domestically and abroad.
On one such tour in the 1990s, Weider woke up in the middle of the night on their bus, heard some commotion in the back and rolled out of his bunk, only to find Helm, Garth Hudson and Rick Danko each eating a gallon of ice cream while wearing giant cardboard Burger King crowns.
“It was a classic Rolling Stone photo there, I died laughing,” he said. “I’m sure they were all stoned out of their gourds.”
When Helm died in 2012, The Band took a hiatus until three of its former members — Weider, Hudson and Randy Ciarlante — played alongside Jimmy Vivino and Byron Isaacs for “Songs of The Band” inside Helm’s famed Woodstock barn.
That was all it took to form The Weight Band less than a year later, which now consists of Weider, Michael Bram, Brian Mitchell, Matt Zeiner and Albert Rogers — who recently recorded a new album that Weider wrote during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“That kept me sane,” he said. “Not being able to perform for a year and three or four months was a very crazy, weird thing to do for me, because for 50-some years, I’ve been playing live all the time and on the road and traveling. All of a sudden, just to be cut off from making music with people, besides socializing, was a hard lump to swallow for a long time.”
Sticking to a schedule helped, Weider said, between songwriting and practicing techniques, like slide guitar, that he typically wouldn’t. Smith fell into a similar rhythm, he said, except he turned to lap steel guitar, an instrument he’s played since 1971, but has never been able to improvise on, until now.
It was “inspirational,” he said, and he plans to incorporate lap steel into the “Portraits” show.
“I’ve been playing guitar, intensely, for over 60 years now — and to be able to learn something new was great,” he said. “I’m lazy, I’m as lazy as the next person, and to be able to sit down and have to practice and learn and go online and figure stuff out, it was great. I really had a good time with that. I think I drove Taylor and Josie crazy, my wife and my daughter, but they were good about it.”
G.E. Smith’s “Portraits” featuring “Masters of the Telecaster” with Jim Weider is Monday, July 5, at 9 p.m. at Guild Hall, 158 Main Street, East Hampton. Tickets are $100 at guildhall.org.