For over 20 years, New Yorkers have been told that Dan Smith, a possibly-ageless man placed on this Earth for the purpose of posting flyers with his face on it, Will Teach You Guitar. So when I found myself face-to-face with him recently inside a bar on the Upper West Side, I had to ask: what else could Dan Smith teach us?
"I can teach you to sing. I can teach you to perform. I can teach you to write songs. I can teach you how to teach yourself and others," he told me. "Many of my students have gone on to teach themselves, and I can teach you how to be creative in any endeavor. I can teach you how to run a business. I would say I can teach you how to promote, but I'm trying to like, not promote that," he added with a laugh. He was dancing around something important: Dan Smith will be your life coach if you want. Dan Smith may even be able to teach you how to be a better human being. Try putting that on a poster.
Smith's flyers have been a ubiquitous part of the NYC landscape for as long as I can remember. They have become urban wallpaper, a vestige of a pre-gentrified city that can be found on seemingly every laundromat window, pizzeria and bodega door in Manhattan. New Yorkers know that everything you love about this city will eventually change until it's almost unrecognizable; it's comforting to think that Dan Smith's posters will always remain basically the same.
I don't really know how or why it started, but I loved those flyers, as much as I loved Dr. Zizmor's subway signs or Nobody Beats The Wiz TV ads. Some teens put up posters of Michael Jordan or Kurt Cobain or Jesus Christ on their walls—I had Dan Smith Will Teach You Guitar above my desk in high school.
There was something elusive, mysterious, and what I would now describe as "hardcore normcore" about Dan Smith Will Teach You Guitar. There was a blankness to him you could project anything onto. Was he a weirdo? A secret guitar genius? Was he a hustler, or an aspiring cult leader? Over time, whatever ironic attachment I felt toward the poster started to shift more toward admiration—what kind of person puts their face up all around the city? You had to have a certain boldness, or perhaps vulnerability, to do that.
Just over four years ago, my curiosity for all NYC cult figures very much still intact (this tweet sums it up), I began emailing Smith to try to arrange an interview (and maybe, finally, experience one of his guitar lessons). He wasn't interested in the interview, and respectfully turned down the lesson as well, because he felt that "the prospect of an interview" would negatively influence the experience and "we wouldn't be able to have the kind of guitar lesson that would be an accurate representation of how I teach." (I wonder whether his experience with a NY Times reporter back in 2005, who took a lesson with him then sprung an interview on him, left a bad taste in his mouth.) I persisted, emailing him at least once a year ever since, hoping one day he would change his mind.
This year, because he wants to promote his own music which he's started putting out into the world, he finally agreed to the interview. He still wouldn't give the lesson though.
Seeing as how there have only been a scant handful of interviews with him in the past—most of those interviews only focused on his flyer campaign—and almost none since 2011, we had a lot of ground to cover.
Dan (born Daniel) Smith, 48, grew up in Newton, Massachusetts; he moved to the city in 1988 to study acting at NYU Tisch School of the Arts. Except for one year in which he lived in Paris (doing experimental theatre and playing guitar on the street for money), he's been in the city ever since—mostly on the Upper West Side, where his flyers proliferate.
Like myself and millions of other budding young rock stars, Smith started playing guitar when he was a teen. He had a few teachers, but he also thinks he's learned more from teaching others than from any single person. "One of the things I tell my students is one of the best ways you can learn is if you teach someone else something, because that way it just clarifies it for you," he said. "You have to articulate it so clearly. You also have to deal with whatever their obstacles are."
"I teach people who are just coming off the streets, so I've dealt with every possible obstacle that people can have," he continued. Throughout our conversation, he spoke very articulately and philosophically about teaching. "So, it's really forced me to clarify and really sharpen my beliefs about how to learn, how to make music and also just kind of how to be in life. That's also been a tremendous lesson in my teaching: that there really is no difference between how you play guitar, how you learn, and how you are in your life."
The first thing you will learn when meeting Dan Smith is that while he definitely has a sense of humor about his public persona, he is very sincere and very serious about what he does—especially about how learning to play guitar can teach you how to live. But that's because he's done the seemingly impossible: he turned what for most people would be a hobby into a lifelong profession. This isn't a weird gag taken to an extreme, or a side gig for a dude with a day job. He has no bosses to please or quotas to reach. He's done it all by himself.
"Sometimes people ask me if I have other people who teach for me, and the answer is no," he said. "It's all me. Everything you see, everything I do is me doing it. I think that's sometimes difficult for people to really comprehend. So, consequently there are rumors that abound that I'm just the face of a company or something like that. So, in answer to all of you out there, that's actually not the case."
He doesn't just do all the teaching himself—he also designs all the flyers and distributes them; he designed his website and puts various promotional videos online; he also produces his own music, and even directed a recent music video (see below), which gives you a glimpse into his world.
When he was 16, Smith put up his first ad in a church newsletter, just a few years after he had started playing guitar. "I knew that teaching was just a very powerful thing to do. I knew I liked it, and I felt like I learned a lot from it, but I also felt like I had just a natural desire to do it." By the time he was 22, he was mostly working in restaurants and other odd jobs (he briefly delivered videos on a bike, and handed out flyers for a podiatrist), but he wanted to be more involved in music and showbiz. "I wanted to be in business for myself," he said. "So, I knew that I'd seen people put flyers up around the city, but I felt like I could do a better job... I knew teaching would be a great way to do it, and I liked it better than waiting tables. It was a way for me to just realize myself. Also, I think that music, especially these days, requires an entrepreneurial spirit."
He doesn't quite remember what those first slightly generic, black-and-white, picture-less flyers had on them ("I'm sure it said something like, 'Guitar Lessons With Dan Smith,' or something like, 'Call This Number'"), but they continued to develop over the years as he workshopped different phrases. One early one said "Rock Guitar!", with a lot of white space around it. "That flyer pissed a lot of people off, because I remember people would cut off parts of it to make space for their flyers," he said. "I remember putting that at CBGBs way back when... that had my name and my phone number and everything." Another one said, "Rock and Blues Guitar," but he felt that was too limiting somehow.
"It's been a very creative process to develop my voice with this, what I consider to be an art form of self-promotion," he explained. "What you see now is the result of a lot of experimentation, which is again, very much the way I approach music and the way I encourage people to approach music...That's very much my philosophy of life. You've got to let yourself make mistakes. My students live in terror of mistakes, and consequently it really holds back their learning. You've got to let yourself do that. I don't think of my flyers as mistakes, far from it. They were steps in my evolution."
By the early '00s, the plain text design evolved to include a photo of Smith with a guitar hung round his neck, which he felt solidified his reputation: "I certainly got recognized more on the street, but I think it personalized it more when I had my picture on there, which is what I wanted to do. I think it's very important for people to know who they're going to be relating to, who's going to be just that." For what it's worth, despite that seemingly ageless visage, he does change the photo regularly; he notes, "I just don't change that much." (His beauty tips: avoid refined sugar and carbs, practice yoga, and live a life that is "open to being joyful, and affirming who you really are." Yes, he knows that sounds corny.)
He kept tweaking the flyers until around 2003, when he settled on the slogan that has stuck around for the last 16+ years: Dan Smith Will Teach You Guitar. "It just came from me wanting to be as direct as I could be and also me wanting to be unmistakably myself. Nobody is going to be able to take that headline. They've tried, and there's been a lot of parodies and homages and all that, which ultimately are..." He trailed off, then continued: "I just view it as totally flattering whenever people do that."
Despite some other radical design variations he's tried in recent years (including "Playing Guitar Is Easier Than You Think" and the slightly more emo "I feel like playing a sad song for that guitar collecting dust in your closet"), Dan Smith Will Teach You Guitar has had the largest cultural impact. Homages and parodies of it have piled up over the years from the likes of BoJack Horseman ("Clam Smith Will Teach You Guitar"), The Love Guru ("Guru Pitka Will Teach You Sitar"), The Life and Time of Tim, Broad City ("John Cox Will Teach You Saxophone"), John Mayer, Sonic Youth's Lee Ranaldo, and even the No. 7 Sub Shop, who named a sandwich in his honor. Smith particularly loved Jon Stewart's parody on The Daily Show back in 2010, and a song by Menage a Twang. "It's been kind of a gas," he said.
Smith still carries some promotional cards, flyers and Dan Smith Will Teach You Guitar-emblazoned guitar picks with him everywhere he goes, just in case there's an opportunity to put one up or give one to a fan. He's largely placed them around Manhattan, though a few have made it to Brooklyn and Queens. (In the late '90s, he did hire someone to help him, but that person covered up others' flyers and cost a "fuck ton of money," so he ultimately decided it would take less time and cost less doing it himself.) If you happen to see one anywhere else, then you can credit that to his fans: "My theory is that there are people putting them up just for fun sometimes," he said. "Somebody sent me a couple of pictures from the Burning Man festival, people just decided to put up some Dan Smith Will Teach You Guitar flyers, at Burning Man!"
This is a man who is very aware that most people only know him because of the flyers, which has led to something of a low-key love/hate relationship with them. He prefers to talk about music and his teaching philosophy, but is reluctant to give too much attention to the flyers, which he said can sometimes end up being a distraction. "What I am actually promoting is the promotion itself, you know what I mean? Coke isn't trying to sell you Coke cans, they're trying to sell you what's inside the can," he explained. "But I'm not ashamed of it. It's all good. It's part of why I'm here. It's a big reason why I'm here. But I would say this: the promotion is based on the passion that I feel about what I am, what I do. So the level of promotion matches that."
And the thing Smith feels most passionate about are the guitar lessons. So here's what you need to know about that: his hourly fee is $125, and he works with most of his students for at least two hours a week. You can't half-ass it with him: he only teaches adults now because he's found that people who are paying for it themselves are far more motivated to work. There's no long-term commitment involved, but he does encourage everyone to think in terms of working with him "for the long term."
I don't get to experience his guitar instruction directly, but I ask him to describe a typical lesson to me, which I'm going to list out as best I can:
- First he likes to chat with students about their day: "What I try to do is help people just center themselves, much the same way you would get a guitar in tune."
- Then they start playing something simple to get the wheels turning: "It's not unlike what a personal trainer probably does. You probably don't start out doing really explosive, 100 pushups at a time. You warm up a little bit."
- Sometimes they'll go over performance footage for tips, or work on a song the student has written.
- He often has the student play to a drum beat to sharpen them: "One of the things I say often to my students is, 'You got the car in the garage, you're just not driving it.' You just need to trust, and again, I mentioned this before, let yourself make mistakes. It's not unlike the way sea glass is formed. Sea glass is glass that started out as just broken glass in the ocean, and it's gotten all smooth from letting the waves crash over it and letting it be tossed around on the sand."
Here's how he summarizes his teaching style:
What I try to do is create a relationship with my students but really teach them how to have a relationship with themselves. If I could put my teaching into one phrase, I would say it's that I want people to learn how to teach themselves. That's something that takes a while, and it's not the way most people have been taught. They've been taught to essentially consume information and memorize it instead of really learning how to learn. I often say to my students, "This is not school. This is real learning. This is experiential learning, and you're not going to learn the same way somebody else is." It's a pretty individual process.
He was vague about how many students he's currently engaged with (this is one of the only topics that he really clams up about), but he claims it's been consistent enough that it’s kept him "very busy with a full schedule since the mid-nineties"—in other words, he hasn't had any other jobs since then except teaching.
"Oh, I couldn't tell you how many people I teach a year," he said at one point. "I've certainly taught thousands of people over the years. I've taught every background of person, young, old, every ethnicity, every kind of cultural strata." He does say he's had students from Germany, the U.K. and even Australia.
He won't say whether he's ever taught a celebrity ("Well, here's how I'm gonna answer that question: if I did, I would be protecting their privacy and not talking about them"), nor has he ever hooked up with a student. He abides by a very strict teacher/student relationship: "That is a line that has never been crossed, and never will be. It's just not a thing that happens. I value what I do far too much for there to even be the slightest whisper of that."
In the beginning, he would go to people's apartments to teach them, but now they all come to his UWS studio for lessons. Smith lives in Midtown with his girlfriend, so the bare-furnished studio is purely a work space. There is nothing on the walls and nothing on the fridge; instead of a couch or table, there are a half-dozen guitars and a few amps in the living room area. The back room has velvety curtains which he sometimes uses as a backdrop for his YouTube videos. His recording equipment is next to a big window, where Smith sometimes sits and spots his favorite NYC wildlife: hawks.
He's picky about who he'll take on as a new student these days. Most of his students have worked with him for several years now—he claims some have been students as long as 20 years, which kind of blows my mind. After three or four years of lessons in high school, I couldn't imagine staying with my teacher, so how does he keep them that long? I ask whether there comes a point when the bird has to leave the nest and fly on its own.
He doesn't see it that way: "I think that the nature of what I do is, it's kind of like I'm teaching people how to weed a garden. Weeds grow back and you need a place where you can check in and continually evolve. Because also I'm continually evolving, and so my students are going to hopefully do that with me. I think it's an ongoing process that... it's a lifelong journey. That's how I look at it."
When I point out how much his teaching philosophy—and, really, just about everything he said—makes him sound like he's a life coach, he chuckles and responds knowingly, "Yeah, I've been told that. I think that music in general has a very therapeutic quality to it."
As if to prove me right about the life coach thing, he goes on a tangent at one point where he described how the way someone shakes his hand—how they talk on the phone, even how they sit—tells him everything he needs to know about how they play guitar. "That's a great opportunity," he noted about his handshake appraisal. "I know that sometimes when I say that kind of stuff, it can make people feel self-conscious about like, 'Oh, how am I going to shake his hand? I don't know, oh boy.' It's really a great opportunity to learn because it doesn't start when you pick up a guitar."
"Dan Smith isn't judging you... Dan Smith is evaluating you?" I ask. "I'm helping," he clarified. "I'm observing, and I'm trying to be a mirror as much as I can and be as supportive and honest...I think that this experience is in many ways better because it has a practical, hands-on focus to it. A lot of my students have used this experience in that way to realize things for themselves, whether it's in their business or in their creative life or personal life."
Smith wasn't exaggerating when he said many of his students have gone on to teach themselves. What he didn't specify is that some of his students have gone on to teach and promote themselves just like him. One of his students is Ron Rothschild—you can see his flyer in the photo below. Smith seemed completely nonplussed when I asked him whether it bothered him that there were people out there copying his flyer style. What I didn't realize at the time is that Smith has probably mentored most of those people.
"I did encourage him to teach guitar which he and other students of mine did for some time," Smith explained when I followed up about that connection (Rothschild sadly didn't respond to my calls). "I advised them on all aspects of their teaching including promotion. These days, Ron hosts an open mic on Sunday nights at Session 73 on the Upper East Side."
There's a tension and contradiction to Smith's public persona. On the one hand, he's cultivated an unmistakable air of mystery thanks to his ubiquitous flyer campaign, one that has made him more of a cultish myth. At the same time, he's actually not that remote or unavailable—in addition to the lessons, he's expanded to teaching multiple workshops (there's a solo performance workshop, the next of which happens June 2nd; a songwriter's workshop; and a guitar player's workshop). He also plays regular open mic nights ("it's like going to the gym") at Bar Nine and other venues in Manhattan. He even has a show coming up at The Bitter End on May 11th at 7 p.m.
My time with Smith ends with him performing one of his new songs, "Everybody's Different," at Radio Amsterdam. Like Smith, it's very sincere and perhaps a little amateurish. The chorus has also been drilled into my head ever since I heard it, which is as much as any songwriter can hope for.
"People think I'm an enigmatic guy, but I'm right here," he told me after he finishes the song. As if on cue, the owner of the bar came over. "Are you the guy who teaches everyone to play guitar? I've been seeing your face for 25 years."