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‘Masters of The Telecaster’ show pays tribute to iconic guitar

Sep 18, 2019

The "Masters of the Telecaster" show features (from left) G.E. Smith, Duke Levine and Jim Weider.

Since the early 1950s, the Fender Telecaster has shaped the sound of popular music. Wielded by greats such as Keith Richards, Jimmy Page, Roy Buchanan, Danny Gatton, Steve Cropper, Albert Collins, James Burton and Albert Lee, the instrument has played a hugely influential role in the development of almost every style of American roots music – from blues, rock, and country to jazz, soul, and funk.

To pay tribute to that iconic guitar, Woodstock-based guitarist Jim Weider – who’s known for his work with The Band, Levon Helm, and The Weight Band – put together the “Masters of the Telecaster” show with G.E. Smith, who has played with everyone from David Bowie, Mick Jagger, and Roger Waters to Buddy Guy, Hall and Oates, and Bob Dylan and also led the “Saturday Night Live” house band for 10 years.

Friday, Weider and Smith will bring the “Masters of the Telecaster” show to the Palace Theatre in Syracuse. They’ll be joined by Boston-based guitarist Duke Levine, who has played with Mary Chapin Carpenter, Peter Wolf and other acts while also releasing a series of acclaimed solo albums.

Tickets for the 7 p.m. show, which also features regional favorites Los Blancos and the Nate Gross Band, are $35, available online here and at the door. (The tour also comes to the Cohoes Music Hall on Saturday night.)

Jim Weider playing his 1952 Telecaster

Paying Tribute

Weider got the idea for the show about six years ago, when he was playing a gig on Roy Buchanan’s birthday at the Iridium in Manhattan. Buchanan, who died in 1998 under mysterious circumstances, helped to popularize the Tele in the early 1970s with a series of excellent albums that showcased the sonic possibilities of the instrument.

“That was the start of it,” Weider said. “It was also about why we picked up a Telecaster in the first place – the love of that instrument and all the people who had influence while using it – Roy Buchanan, Steve Cropper, James Burton, Jeff Beck – and the tones they get. So we all bring out our 1950s Telecasters and ’50s and ’60s tweed amps and have a good time.”

Weider got his first Telecaster in the mid-1960s.

“My mother took me down to Manny’s in New York City, and I got it for $135,” he said. “I played that white one with a maple neck for a long time. At one point, I tried to play a Gibson Les Paul Jr. that I bought from John Hall but then I sold it and went right back to a Tele. I just stayed with it the whole time. It was a certain style – you pull the strings, you snap the strings, and you have to really work to play the guitar. It’s a hard guitar to play.”

“You can’t hide behind a Telecaster – every note sticks straight out there,” Weider added. “So you get your vibrato together and make it sustain. You have to work with your amp and pedals to get big gain sounds, and really work with your hands.”

Smith got his first Tele in 1963.

“My mom got me one for my 11th birthday, and I still have it – I’ll be playing it at the shows up there,” he said. “Before that I had an okay Japanese guitar. But the Telecaster was a much, much better instrument and it really helped me to learn how to play. I found it to be a guitar that you can use for any kind of music and any situation.”

A Changing Cast

Weider and Smith have been the two constants in “Masters of the Telecasters” show, which has seen a variety of third guitarists over the years: Danny Kortchmar, Larry Campbell, John Jorgenson, Tom Principato, Johnny Hiland, and now Levine.

Having three guitarists on board enables the show to traverse a wide musical terrain.

“G.E. has a totally different guitar style than me – he’s a solid rocker,” Weider said. “I’m a little different than him, but still in that blues-rock area. Then we’ve got Duke Levine, who’s got a fantastic right-hand flatpicking technique. He’s really got his country style down, and he’s totally different from us. With the three of us trading off together, it’s just a blast.”

Smith added: “Jim really knows American music, and rock ‘n’ roll, and he played with The Band for a long time after Robbie Robertson left. I might know more of the black music from America and also a lot of world music, and a lot of weird stuff because I like to listen to everything. And Duke brings in a more melodic playing style although he knows all his rock ‘n’ stuff, too. So we have a great time together.”

“A lot of times three guitars can be difficult, but in this situation everyone allows space for the others to play.”

This weekend, the trio will be backed by bassist Lincoln Schleifer, who played with Warren Haynes on "Jerry Garcia's Symphonic Celebration" tour as well as with Donald Fagen, Levon Helm, and Tony Trishchka; and drummer Tony Leone, who has played with the Chris Robinson Brotherhood and Ollabelle as well as Levon Helm and Phil Lesh.

Both Weider and Smith emphasized that the show is not just for guitar geeks, it’s for anyone who likes rock ‘n’ roll and American roots music.

“They’ll hear vocal tunes that they recognize and really good versions of instrumentals,” Weider said. “We’ll stuff from Chuck Berry, Sam Cooke, J.J. Cale, the Rolling Stones, Neil Young. People will know a lot of the tunes, which makes for an enjoyable night.”

“Sometimes we’ll even do a Bob Wills song off the cuff,” Smith added. “Anything can come up, but it’s always good, fun, rockin’ music.”