I don’t know too many guitarists with a Ferrari in their garage. Even the thought of that seems a bit incredulous unless were talking about the likes of Eric Clapton or Jimmy Page.
I am, however, privileged to know and work with an astonishingly talented guitarist, who hasn’t yet been featured on the cover of Rolling Stone, but does indeed have a Ferrari in his garage, bought and paid for with savings from playing or teaching gigs. His name is Tony Smotherman.
Here’s his story, largely in his own words…
Where are you from?
I was born in Athens, Greece, but grew up in Jacksonville, Florida. My family was lucky to have escaped the war in Beirut, Lebanon back in the 70s. They had one shot to get out of Beirut and they took it, relocating to Athens. From Athens they seized the opportunity to immigrate to America and start life over after that horrible war. We ended up in Jacksonville, Florida.
What inspired you to become a musician?
My mother would always play Greek, Lebanese and Indian music in the house while I was growing up. That was really my first musical influence and I still have an affinity for it today. But ever since I discovered a guitar magazine in the grocery store as a young teenager, I’ve been drawn to the guitar. I remember opening the magazine and seeing a black and white picture of Andrés Segovia sitting in front of an orchestra — that changed everything for me!
Why the guitar as your first chosen instrument?
Just looking at that picture, I could almost hear his classical guitar against the orchestra — how beautiful that must be. And that was it. I knew for sure, at that exact moment, that I wanted to play the guitar. And I wanted to play classical music.
My mother let me buy the magazine, which I read cover to cover, but was particularly interested in the article about Segovia. I started listening to his music and was just blown away. I also became obsessed with Bach shortly after. My parents didn’t have a lot of money, but eventually they were able to get me my first guitar and then found me a teacher.
What did your parents think about your decision to become a professional musician?
My parents supported my interest in music, but were concerned about me becoming a guitarist. Even though it was classical music that I was interested in at the time, they associated it with the somewhat negative stigma of the wild electric rock and roll guitarist. They wanted me to play piano. I remember them saying, ‘Son, you have such long fingers. You’d be a great piano player.’ But piano just wasn’t for me — guitar chose me as much as I chose the guitar.
Tony channeled his passion for guitar and classical music into an almost fanatical practice routine, sometimes practicing as much as six hours a day on Bach Lute Suites and Paganini Caprices, all while going to high school and keeping up with his homework.
The practice paid off. With only three years of classical guitar lessons behind him, Tony was recognized as Middleburg High School’s Most Talented Senior. Tony was also selected as a member in the annually published Who’s Who Among American High School Students.
In his senior year, one of his teachers submitted some of his musical work to Queen Elizabeth II, who in turn, replied personally with high praise calling his classical guitar skills, ”highly sophisticated.”
Tony was also drawn to other players and styles of music; everything from Jimi Hendrix to Yngwie Malmsteen to Ravi Shankar. He approached the electric guitar with the same zeal and commitment as the classical guitar ultimately fusing all of those influences into a distinctive and highly expressive sound.
What was it like leaving home to become a professional musician?
I was 22-years old when I decided to leave Jacksonville. Things just didn’t seem to be going anywhere for me professionally. I was playing some gigs with my band, The Tony Smotherman Project, but just wasn’t reaching enough people in my mind. Granted, my music was pretty eclectic, but still, I believed there was a bigger audience out there somewhere.
I packed my bags and with less than $20 in my pocket, I headed to Orlando – the nearest place I could think of that held the promise of opportunity, but was still close enough to home if I needed to get back.
The first door I knocked on was a music school on Lee Road in Orlando. If I could get a gig teaching, I could put a roof over my head and some food on the table, while I put together another band or got a steady playing gig. As luck (or fortune) would have it, they just had an instructor leave the day before and I got his spot — my first lesson was the next day! A couple of months later, that school closed, but I kept the students and opened up my own teaching studio. Over the next year, I built my teaching business up to 70 private students.
While the teaching work in Orlando paid the bills, my dream of finding great gigs didn’t work out. I moved back to Jacksonville, and with the money I had saved, set up shop there. All in all though, Orlando was a great experience —I leaned how much I enjoyed teaching guitar and that I could earn a good income doing so.
Tony’s teaching business took off back in Jacksonville, but he also started getting some great gigs for his band, and as a sideman. He opened for Rick Derringer, Leon Russell, Adrian Legg and many other top artists. He opened and performed with Buddy Miles of The Band of Gypsies and Carlos Santana. Buddy was quite impressed, “Tony is the most exciting and innovative guitarist that I’ve played with in many years. He’s very professional and a pure joy to work with. Watch out — this young man is destined to be a star!”
I had a great run with Buddy Miles. Buddy and I got along really well and we toured a lot together over a three-year period. I learned so much from him — he was very encouraging and motivating. Every night on stage with him was another lesson learned. You just keep your mouth shut and take it all in.
Name the most important things you learned — and now practice — about earning a living as a musician?
Over the years, there are many things that I’ve learned and now practice diligently to earn a living as a guitar player. Having patience is one of them — you can never have enough of that. To make a living as a guitar player, wherever you’re at in your career, you have to have the diligence to stick at what you’re doing, do it as well as you can, and patiently wait for things to happen for you. Don’t ever give up!
It’s also important to develop a solid business sense. Being a professional guitar player is not just about honing your chops. It’s also about learning how to make money with your instrument. If you gig out, you learn to play the music that people like to hear — not just your own preferences. Give your audience what they want.
If you teach (and you can make a very good living teaching) you need to learn how to accommodate each student individually. Some students want acoustic lessons, some want rock or blues, others want jazz, funk, R&B, classical, world music, bluegrass and so on. Good business sense dictates that you learn how to teach as many styles and techniques as possible — not just your own bag.
Of course, good business sense also means that you need to manage your money smartly — don’t go buy that new guitar that you want so badly until you can really afford to do so — that’s hard to do, but it’s the smart thing to do if you want to succeed as a professional.
Playing out live is also very important to maintain your career. It doesn’t matter if it’s at a coffee shop or a big venue — playing in front of people is really, really important. It makes you a better musician and it creates a relevance of who and where you are musically.
Setting both short- and long-term goals for yourself and then relentlessly striving to achieve them is probably the most important thing. Too many people only see the big end goal and the get discouraged because it always seems so far away. The key is setting up a series of short-term goals that lead to a longer-term goal. Once you achieve that longer-term goal, you set up another series of short ones that lead to the next long-term one and then go for that. Working this way week-b- week, month-by-month, year-by-year motivates you in amazing ways. Ultimately, you’ll work your way up to the really big one!”
How did you put a Ferrari in your garage?
For as long as I remember growing up, I loved European sports cars and I would always fantasize about having a Mercedes, a BMW and a Ferrari. The decision to become a professional guitar player may have made that dream a little unrealistic, but I set those goals for myself nonetheless. It took a long while, but I did wind up with the Mercedes and then a short time after, the BMW paid for from savings that I had socked away from my earnings as a musician and teacher.
That left the Ferrari, a very-long term and very big goal. But as fate would have it, just a few weeks later, a friend called to say there was one available nearby. I told him, ‘there was no way I could afford it with my wife being pregnant and having just bought the BMW, but I’d love to see it.’ My wife and I headed over and the moment we saw it, my wife turned to me and said, ‘There’s your car.’ With her blessing, we dug deeper into our savings and worked out a deal that we could afford. A dream come true for sure, but a dream that I made a reality practicing what I’ve preached in this interview. Work hard, work smart, set goals and strive relentlessly to achieve them.
There’s way too much negativity in the industry about not selling records anymore, gigs drying up and the general lack of opportunities for musicians in today’s music business landscape.
I love Tony’s story because it affirms that you don’t have to become a platinum-selling rock star to become financially successful as a professional musician. Tony is 36-years old, married with kids, and has his Ferrari in the garage.
Tony is living proof that if you work hard enough, and smart enough, you can make your dreams come true — even as a guitar player.