Dan Smith could teach you the guitar
For three decades, Dan Smith has made a solemn promise to New Yorkers. He posted his flyer—”Dan Smith Will Teach You the Guitar”—thousands of times in bodegas, cafes, pizzerias, delis and laundromats across the city. Parodied by Jon Stewart and guitar god John Mayer, Mr Smith rose to local legend status alongside Cellino & Barnes, Dr Zizmor and Keano.
There have been at least 60 versions of the sign, and most have included a photo of a seemingly ageless, nervous and smiling Mr. Smith posing with his instrument. But spotting one in the urban wilderness could soon become a rarity, as New York’s go-to guitar teacher does less of his vintage promotional style and takes on a more 2022 approach.
Three months ago Mr Smith, 51, started a YouTube channel, where he posted short instructional videos to help aspiring guitarists navigate “Should I Stay or Should I Go” (by the Clash), “I’ll Be Your Man” (the Black Keys) and more songs. Others have found success as guitar teachers on YouTube: “Marty Music” has 3.3 million subscribers and “Andy Guitar” has 2.2 million. Mr. Smith, a relative newcomer to the world of online tutorials, had 144 subscribers this week.
Reporting this story, I took my old guitar out of its case, where a family of cockroaches had made their home a few months before, and tried to play along to a few of its videos, only to be frustrated. I quickly gave up, as I had many times before when trying to learn instruments.
My do-nothing attitude makes me exactly the kind of person that Dan Smith doesn’t want to teach. In fact, when I asked him if he would give me lessons, he said no. In other words, Dan Smith will not teach me the guitar. At one point, he even threatened to cancel an interview.
After we reestablished the traditional journalist-subject relationship, I asked him why he had soured on me. “You didn’t really want to learn to play the guitar,” he says.
“I understand why I’m seen as an incredible promoter,” he said. “Of course, that’s how people perceive me, because in many ways that’s all they knew about me until now.”
To break Dan Smith the man, I would have to look past Dan Smith the distributor.
Mr. Smith, who lives in Manhattan with his wife, Melissa, a photographer, charges $150 for a one-hour private session. It also offers group workshops and songwriting and solo performance lessons. He said he had supported himself by teaching guitar since the mid-1990s.
He started teaching at the age of 16 in his hometown of Newton, Mass. A few years later, after doing experimental theatre, performing on the streets outside Le Center Pompidou in Paris and spending time at New York University, he decided to pursue a career in music and theatre. He started teaching again to earn money, and it soon became a vocation.
“I try to help people connect with themselves,” he said.
He has stipulations about who he will teach and how, teaching rules he says he developed after thousands of lessons.
Students must see it at least one hour a week, as a sign of their commitment. And they shouldn’t come to him with the idea that his lessons are all about learning how to play pick and strum or how to play solos like a guitar hero.
“Music is more than just putting your fingers on the strings,” he said. “It’s telling a story, it’s creating an atmosphere, it’s evoking an emotion.”
Mr. Smith does not teach his friends. “You need some distance,” he said. “You need some objectivity.”
It does not accept students under the age of 21. “Everyone pays as they go,” he says, “because I want everyone to think about it every guitar lesson: ‘I’m paying for this. What do I bring to the table? The person doing it has to pay for it, because that’s what makes it real to them.
There are even more stipulations: Mr. Smith does not offer gift certificates; he does not teach people who have signed up for lessons at someone else’s request, such as singers or actors whose managers want them to learn guitar; and he does not take notes for his students or allow them to take notes.
“It doesn’t work,” he said. “I tested everything I know for a fact. This is another thing that separates me from other teachers: I have done research.
For those who meet the criteria, the experience can be transformative.
“It’s not just about learning an instrument, it’s about expanding my feelings about myself, about who I am,” said David A. Paterson, the former governor of New York, who studies with Mr. Smith since 2020.
Mr Paterson, who attends a two-hour lesson every week, said he and Mr Smith frequently spend half a session talking. “I think it’s his meditation technique,” he said. “That’s how he makes you want to play.”
Mr Paterson, who is legally blind, added that he appreciated his teacher’s patience and an approach that goes beyond technique. “He’s a psychologist,” he said. “I’ve always been someone who thinks that to make up the difference I have to hurry.”
“When you’re making a song,” Mr. Paterson continued, “it’s almost like you’re shoveling snow: you’re just driving through it. You have a lot of energy and you work hard, but it’s not an intellectual pursuit; it is to feel things. Great musicians call it “Make room for Jesus.” In other words, you play – and then you stop. This small space is as much a part as the music. I still have a hard time stopping.
Mr Smith said time spent in conversation has a purpose: “If a student comes in and they’re tense or distracted, everyone needs time to, in my opinion, clear their way before they can really make music.”
In 2020, six months into his studies with Mr. Smith, Mr. Paterson and his teacher took the stage at Bar Nine in Manhattan, where they performed Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me” and “I Hear It Through the Grapevine”. by Marvin Gaye.
Mr. Smith occasionally performs solo at Paddy Reilly’s Music Bar and other Manhattan clubs. His original songs include the city-centric “Sixth Avenue” and “New York Forever.” During our time together, he mentioned he was about to perform in front of a large audience at an outdoor show in Battery Park. In the days leading up to the gig, he texted me to make sure I would be there. Mr. Smith’s wife echoed the gravity of the moment, telling me how excited they were for the occasion.
It was billed as “a talent show” featuring the city’s “most notable and iconic characters”. The lineup was composed by Nicholas Heller, a filmmaker and social media personality known as New York Nico. It was scheduled for the Tribeca Film Festival premiere of Mr. Heller’s documentary short, “Out of Order.”
“There’s a BuzzFeed list of super famous people in New York City, and Dan Smith is on it,” Heller said. “For me, he is more important than a world celebrity.”
With his trusty Gibson Hummingbird guitar, Mr. Smith took the stage at dusk. He looked serious, serious. It was clear that, unlike others on the bill, he didn’t see his performance as a stunt, but as a chance to show New York what he was made of.
He began performing “New York Forever,” which he had written at the start of the pandemic as a tribute to the city’s resilience. In the middle of the song, another New York character appeared on stage, on stilts. It was street performer with the unique name Bobby, who regularly walks around town overlooking the crowds.
As Bobby stood on the stage, Mr. Smith seemed unfazed. He has, after all, had decades of practice teaching others what it means to take his time and seize the moment. And when his song ended, the crowd cheered not for the man in the flyer but for the performer who was trying to make a New York dream come true like the rest of us.