LAS VEGAS-BASED TONY SMITH IS A GROOVE virtuoso who clogged the aisles at this year's NAMM Show, as rubberneckers marvelled at Tony's unique “klaw” technique, an economic approach to plucking aimed at perpetual propulsion. “Shortcut,” from Smith’s new CD, Beneath the Shadows, is an interesting example of how he applies his technique in a contemporary jazz context. “Tryin’ to Find My Baby,” from his 1998 release A Cosmic Odyssey, is a good place to hear it in funky blues context.
What is the origin of your klaw technique?
When I was ten years old I became intrigued by the sound of my dad’s guitar playing in church, so I asked him to show me how to play. He taught me how to hold a guitar, and then came the moment that started it all for me—he told me that the way to strum a guitar was by going up and down with your thumb. After a few years I started watching Hee Haw, starring Roy Clark on banjo. Watching Roy and other banjo players inspired me to try using my index and middle fingers in conjunction with my thumb.
Can you describe the basics?
I start by double-thumbing, down and up, on one of the lower strings, and then I pluck the top string with my index finger. Next I’ll double-thumb on a low string again, and then pluck with my middle finger. The result is a continuous sound, like a freight train. I mix up the motion depending on the notes I want to hear and the groove I’m going for, but it’s essentially based on that principle. It provides the forward motion, and then I’ll add accents made of octaves or other intervals by simultaneously grabbing a note on a low string with my thumb and a note on the top string with either my index or middle finger.
Victor Wooten does some similar stuff. How does your technique differ from his?
I plant my pinkie on the bass to stabilize my hand, and that allows me to use just the joint of my thumb for my double-thumbing motion. Victor doesn’t plant his pinkie; his is more of a full thumb motion. And the way I incorporate my index and middle fingers with double-thumbing to provide a constant flow is completely different from anything I’ve ever seen Victor do.
Tony Smith, Beneath the Shadows [Varese SaraBande, 2014], Try [Varese SaraBande, 2012]
Basses Fender American Deluxe Jazz Bass V, Roland GR-55 Guitar Synth
Strings GHS Strings w/custom shop gauges (.040–.126)
Rig Hartke LH1000 head, Hartke HyDrive 410 & 115 cabinets