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In Memoriam: George A. Smith

In Memoriam: George A. Smith

December 7, 1930 – May 18, 2023

by Maria Gonzalez-Leon, Peter Tsiorba, and David Franzen

Originally published in American Lutherie #150, 2023


Photo by Peter Tsiorba.

It is with a heavy heart that I attempt to put into words what George meant to me in my life. His love, his knowledge, not only of music and instruments, but also of the history of our country and Portland, Oregon, was truly incomparable. His absence is deeply felt, and I find myself yearning to call him, as we used to speak at least once a week. He selflessly gave me so much of his time, love, and wisdom on various subjects, including history, music, and politics — fortunately, we shared the same political views.

George came into my life in an improbably way. Approximately forty-five years ago, I was in search of a roommate, and in response to my ad about a room for rent, he brought one of his friends to check out the place. From the very first moment, we connected over our shared passion for classical music, particularly the guitar, and I discovered his exceptional talent as a luthier. I knew that we were destined to be best friends forever.

George’s knowledge of woodcrafting, particularly in constructing guitars, banjos, and even a couple of harpsichords, was beyond compare. Generous with his time, he was always willing to share his expertise with anyone interested. Throughout my life, George remained a constant source of support during challenges and successes. He encouraged me to pursue my dreams and further educate myself to earn professional degrees.

I fondly remember the times when my daughters were young, and we would visit George’s house. My daughters and I hold memories of sitting together and watching him skillfully paint one of his harpsichords. It was a delightful experience as he patiently explained the process to the girls, answering all their questions about music, instruments, and the intricacies of construction. His love for sharing knowledge was evident in those moments, but it was George’s warm and loving nature that made those moments even more special. Beyond his musical talents, he surprised us with his culinary skills, and I particularly loved the bread croutons he made — they were so delicious, I would eat them like popcorn. Those cherished memories with George will forever remain in our hearts.

As the years passed, I relocated from Portland to California and even lived in Spain for a time, but despite the distance, our friendship never wavered. George was always curious about my experiences, especially when it came to flamenco music, wanting to know every detail of the music I heard in the Romani neighborhoods of the Alicante. He had a way of making friends effortlessly, and his warm-hearted nature endeared him to people from all walks of life. He cherished friendships and had an astounding memory for details, recounting stories from his youth. George’s passion for music and life extended beyond the boundaries of his immediate circle. He corresponded with people from all over the world, exchanging stories about music and sharing his vast knowledge.

I feel incredibly grateful to have had George in my life. He was not only and dear friend but also an exceptional human being who left a mark on the lives of those he touched. Though he is no longer with us, his memory and his legacy as a luthier and a friend will forever be cherished in our hearts.

Rest in peace, dear George.

— Maria Gonzalez-Leon

Photo courtesy of Peter Tsiorba

I met George Smith in the mid 2000s. During that time, lutherie knowledge, along with everything else in the 21st century, was steadily migrating into digital ecosystems. Video content, tonewoods, tooling, building techniques... it all seemed only a click or two away. Knowing George Smith connected me to a very different era of lutherie, one where supplies and tonewoods were elusive, and information hard to find.

I recall this story of one of George’s early tonewood orders. A certain gentleman in Los Angeles advertised European spruce and other supplies to luthiers. When one thinks of a supplier, one might expect some shelves with inventory awaiting shipment. Well, this particular supplier typically had nothing to ship. At least not right away. Incoming orders would be banked, and once enough payments had accumulated, the “supplier” would place larger batch orders for his presold wares. It would take some months for the tonewoods or tools to arrive from Europe or another unknown locale. Once received, individual orders would be shipped to customers. Lag time from order to fulfillment? By modern Instacart standards, eternity! And in case you were curious about the grading methods applied to your tonewood order, yours is the next set on the pile.

Thank you George, for doing your part, carrying lutherie knowledge across all those decades, and for leaving us with lessons in patience, frugality, and perseverance.

— Peter Tsiorba

George Smith was someone I have known pretty much my whole life. I was a young boy when I first became aware of him in our local guitar community. He was a distinguished looking gentleman wearing a mariner’s cap and he loved to talk about stringed instruments for as long as you would listen, and he made many different kinds himself. When I looked at him I wouldn’t have necessarily thought he looked like a movie star when he was young. But early photos of him proved otherwise. He had sort of a Leonardo DiCaprio look to him. I imagine he was popular with women.

Whenever George heard an interesting instrument, he always wanted to borrow it overnight to study it closely and measure it in his shop. I believe that through this process he learned key information. When I played for him he usually seemed more interested in the sound of the instrument more than any particular piece of music being played. George was always very kind to me, and generous with his time. We had long conversations about world history, or even the history of the buildings built in downtown Portland. He remembered when they were erected, and what businesses went in them, and which ones failed, and who replaced them, his memories reaching back decades. Talking to George was never boring. He usually knew more on many subjects than I, and he seemed to have a somewhat encyclopedic memory. In addition to making stellar-quality guitars, he also made harpsichords and virginals. I remember a beautiful harpsichord of his being played at the Marylhurst musical instrument show. He once told me harpsichord construction can be thought of as akin to flamenco guitars in some ways in how they respond. Frequently cypress is used to offer a quick and lightweight response. When I told him I bought a clavichord at an estate sale, and I said it seemed rather quiet, he told me to bring it over and he would take a look at it. When I did, he decided to replace the soundboard right then and there, so we got to work together on a low-risk fun project together. It is a sweet memory sitting on the floor looking through his stash of strings, and gluing in the new soundboard, all in the same day. The clavichord ended up sounding pretty much exactly the same as before, but I wouldn’t trade the memory.

I have owned four of George’s guitars over my career. The first was an African blackwood spruce guitar. When I listen back to my recording of the Chaconne, or Rodrigo’s Fandango, I think to myself, how could I ever have parted with it? I am touched to now own his final instrument, which seems to me to be the perfect mixture of all the ones that came before it. The top is made of some of the finest European spruce you can find anywhere, and it had been aging in his upstairs stash for over fifty years. The back is made of Malaysian blackwood, which seems to my ears to support upper harmonics better than African blackwood. Maybe it’s a little lighter; I can hear a little bit of Indian rosewood qualities in it, along with the power of blackwood. When I slice the string at an angle, that silky/airy quality that many guitars can lack is there in spades.

Last summer during Covid, he was having trouble getting around upstairs in his house where his wood stash was kept, and he called me up and asked me to come over and help him sort them into matched pairs. We worked a couple days at that. There was some amazing looking wood there.

Afterwards, we relaxed in the nook just outside his kitchen and we had a couple Black Butte Porters together. I don’t really like beer, but with George it had become sort of a tradition. I think we complained it wasn’t the old recipe.

I spent time with him twice in the last two weeks before his passing. I am so grateful I did. He said he didn’t have long. In spite of his quickly declining health, he seemed quite lucid and warm. He didn’t seem scared. He would occasionally exclaim he was angry about it, but it was just a brief flash, and then he was back chatting away. We reminisced about everything we had talked about over the years. We shared a couple Obsidian stout beers together on the last two visits, and dolmas as snacks. He mentioned when he grew up in this town, it wasn’t very easy to find quality guitars. George never used to like to talk about his age, but in our last conversation he mentioned he was thirteen years old at some point in World War II. It kind of puts things in perspective. I think he was ninety-two. That’s a long life, and he added beauty to the world in such a lovely way. His guitars will long outlive me. I am grateful for his long friendship.

I will miss you, George! I hope you feel ease and a fantastic bliss wherever you are. Feel free to visit me if you can.

— David Franzen