Mrs. Smith was getting her nails done when she found out Kirk Hammett was game for a wah-off. In a January web interview, Smith, the Upper East Side socialite turned unlikely viral guitar hero, had thrown down a gauntlet before the famously wah-wah-pedal–happy Metallica member.
“I’m the number-one wah-wah abuser,” Smith said to the camera from beneath her big gray beehive. “I abuse the wah more than Kirk Hammett and I’ve challenged him multiple times to a wah-off. Why are you hiding behind your wah-wah pedal, Kirk Hammett?” She then continued her boasts over an impromptu cover of “Enter Sandman.”
“Challenged received and accepted,” Hammett promptly replied on Instagram, adding the hashtag “#wahoff.”
On the phone with Rolling Stone, Smith recalled the moment when she heard Hammett was in. “I was at the nail salon, so I saw it come up and this blue check mark was blinking,” she recalls, her soothing old-lady voice quickening with excitement. “I’m staring down at it and the girl is working on my nails and I’m going, ‘I have to respond to this!’ She says, ‘This has to dry for three hours because, lady, you come back with chips from your guitar picks.’”
It’s an amusing anecdote that, like the entire Mrs. Smith persona, is completely made-up. But while the character might be a put-on — the decade-old creation of actor and musician David Hanbury — Mrs. Smith’s guitar skills, not to mention Hammett’s acknowledgement and co-signs from real-deal guitar heroes like Steve Vai, are anything but fake. Improbably, this campy figure who’s part Grey Gardens and part hair-metal ax titan just might represent a long-overdue reexamination of, and way forward for, the machismo-drenched world of shred guitar.
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It’s a December evening just before Christmas 2018 and Mrs. Smith is a bit harried. She’s scurrying around the small dressing room on the second floor of Manhattan’s Public Theatre, prepping for her very own Christmas spectacular, the Grief & Rage Holiday Cabaret, to be held downstairs at Joe’s Pub. A friend is helping to wrap some Christmas gifts for her audience — mostly small tokens, like candy, though there are a few items with some sentimental value, like the rusted chains her father used to restrain himself during his depressive rages.
She also must steam her ball gown, all shimmery blue fabric and sequins. Then, there’s gobs of foundation, eyeliner, lipstick, mascara and rouge to apply and that gray beehive to adjust. Finally, Mrs. Smith must go out and soundcheck her guitar, custom-decorated with a cat graphic by Ibanez, the company long associated with her idol, Vai, the former Frank Zappa, David Lee Roth and Whitesnake ax man.
It’s a lot to deal with, especially given everything she’s been through. Mrs. Smith will tell her life story through song during this evening’s performance, riffing and singing her way through covers of guitar-centric hits like “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” and, fittingly, Metallica’s “One.” The latter, with its lyric “Darkness, imprisoning me,” shows why Hammett and Smith’s competition was fated — this is a woman who, as the story goes, learned to play guitar after being kidnapped by members of a Norwegian death-metal band who locked her in a closet for three months with nothing to do but hone her chops.
During her show, she’ll run the gamut of shred, sweep-picking, finger-tapping and dive-bombing, all while emoting in hilariously over-the-top fashion. The performance will culminate in “The Bob Ross Technique,” a tapping-packed ode to the calming powers of the late PBS painting instructor from her 2018 debut album, Introducing Mrs. Smith.
Finding out more about the Mrs. Smith persona, it makes sense why she would take comfort in a figure like Ross. “She’s a traumatized person. She’s a person with multiple overlapping issues,” explains Hanbury during the long process of shmearing on his makeup. “This was something I based the character in early on — she’s in all these 18-step programs, and has all these therapists and has a staff of people to take care of her because she’s very wealthy.”
While Mrs. Smith has led a fictional life of wealth, privilege and neurosis, Hanbury’s own background is less charmed. For years, he lived the nomadic life of the working actor, appearing in productions of Hedwig and the Angry Inch or A Christmas Carol in Louisville, Kentucky, or a punk-rock take on Hamlet called God Save Gertrude in Minneapolis.
Then, a decade ago, he started workshopping the character who would become Mrs. Smith. She evolved over a period of years as Hanbury tried to find her core. One early off-Broadway show — centered on Smith’s frantic, still-ongoing search for her missing cat, Carlyle — featured only a brief moment of guitar, an exclamatory “bet you didn’t think I could do that.”
But while working on a play in Provincetown, Massachusetts, in 2015, Hanbury went out busking under the guise of Mrs. Smith as a way to pick up some extra cash. Unlike most streetside guitarists, Hanbury wasn’t just going to trot out garden-variety covers. Having grown up during the peak guitar-hero era of the Eighties, he had grown enamored with Vai, who, with his long hair, beanpole physique and serpentine movements, cut a unique figure that set him aside from the rest of the day’s hyper-technical shred maestros. Like a lot of Eighties teens, Hanbury picked up a guitar and tried to copy his hero’s licks. And he got really, really good.
Videos of Smith ripping through Hendrix, Zeppelin and Joe Satriani tunes on the street soon began popping up online, and Hanbury realized guitar wasn’t incidental to who Mrs. Smith was — it was the central component. Today, the Mrs. Smith act encompasses cabaret-style solo shows like the one at Joe’s Pub, but also concerts backed by a full band and guitar clinics in music stores across the U.S. and Canada, as well as campy but legitimately enlightening YouTube tutorials. (Mrs. Smith’s current tour schedule includes a May 9th stop in Boston, and shows in Georgia and Connecticut.)
“She’s a woman on the verge and she’s expressing it through this style of music because it makes sense to her,” says Hanbury.
In performance, Mrs. Smith is a tornado of id, poking fun at her crowd and name-dropping celebrity “friends” like Jim Henson. But, because Mrs. Smith is a bleeding wound of wanting to belong, the persona also conveys a deeply rooted empathy for outsiders of all kinds. The audience at Joe’s Pub is a motley assortment of people from the gay community, longhaired metal fans and plenty of nondescript plaid-sporting folks just looking for a fun night out. Mrs. Smith belongs among them all.
“I see it as a coalition of people,” says Hanbury. “Some of them really love the guitar playing, some of them might really love the character and the comedy, some of them love cats.”
Mrs. Smith’s campy, manic aesthetic owes more than a little to LGBTQ-friendly touchstones like Absolutely Fabulous and The Love Boat’s Charo, with a little Betty Davis, Carrie Fisher and Grey Gardens–esque dilapidated fabulousness thrown in for good measure. (While some have called Mrs. Smith a drag act, Hanbury insists it isn’t, but acknowledges that he has received tips from drag-queen fans.)
There’s a compelling tension between the character’s queer inspirations and the testosterone-centric world of shred, and that dissonance might explain why Mrs. Smith has attracted an assortment of celebrity followers that range from members of Imagine Dragons and Run the Jewels to rap legend DMC.
“I think there’s a lot of joy in the way she plays, in the way she approaches her whole act,” says Noodles, guitarist of the Offspring, who became a fan after seeing one of Mrs. Smith’s YouTube videos. “There’s definitely shtick there, but it also seems very real. The grief and rage but also the laughter, there’s a lot of joy in that.”
Ask Hanbury why the character’s weird combination of rich-old-lady appearance and real-deal shredding seems to work and he demures with an exasperated “I don’t know!” The busking was a fun stunt that people seemed to like and it grew from there. To him, the growing popularity of Mrs. Smith isn’t some deep commentary — the shows are fun and the music itself is filling a decades-old hole that audiences didn’t even know was there.
“Guitar solos, people aren’t doing it. … I don’t understand why rock isn’t part of music anymore.”
“Guitar solos, people aren’t doing it anymore, so much popularly,” he says. “It used to be on MTV and everything but now, unless you’re a guitarist who loves that music or a fan … I think that’s not fair. Why wouldn’t you hear guitar solos on the radio? I don’t understand why it used to be, like, you’d watch MTV and Michael Jackson would be with Van Halen. The Thompson Twins! The Talking Heads! David Lee Roth! Whitesnake! I don’t understand why rock isn’t part of music anymore.”
The shred world has also taken notice. Aside from Hammett, artists like Joe Satriani — a current member of Chickenfoot who was also one of the Eighties’ most high-profile shredders — and even Vai himself have voiced their support for Mrs. Smith.
“This is the crux of what makes Mrs. Smith so funny: There’s this woman, who doesn’t look right, who’s doing this stuff in the wrong place, in a cabaret or on a street corner and yet is out-shredding the person who is totally dedicated to shredding, who’s got the pants and the hair and the right amp and the pointy guitar,” Satriani says.
The laughter often comes at the expense of heavy metal’s cherished iconography. Take the Norwegian death-metal band — according to Smith’s backstory, they all perished in a Christmas-tree fire that she may or may not have been responsible for. Onstage at Joe’s Pub, she channels the spirits of the band members with the help of a special guest, YouTube personality Gwarsenio Hall, ultimately eliciting their forgiveness.
“We’re in hell, but we’re in a death metal band. It’s kinda where we wanted to be,” says the band-via-Hall. The pair then rip into a cover of Ghost’s “Square Hammer.”
The history of shred guitar is dotted with weirdos like former Guns N’ Roses associate Buckethead, known for his blinding finger speed and habit of wearing a Michael Myers mask and KFC vat on his dome, or Yngwie Malmsteen, best known outside guitar circles for his viral “You released the fucking fury” airplane rant. But ultimately, the world of old-school shred is still a relatively conservative space. When asked if he could see a future where Mrs. Smith might share the stage with him, Satriani seems skeptical.
“I know from reading thousands of letters and posts and meeting fans night after night [that] this music means a lot to them, so I wouldn’t want to compromise that,” he says. “It’s a different thing.”
While traditional shred was an often laughably self-serious business, the newest generation of aspiring guitar heroes seems less wary of breaching the border between music and comedy. Acts like Ghost have brought theatricality back to guitar music — with their campy satanic shtick and sly references to old Hollywood, they’re in some ways not so far removed from Mrs. Smith. Online, members of the guitar community regularly team up on musical and comedic sketches: Prominent YouTuber Jared Dines’ latest collaboration video featured Smith in a plum spot, right near Trivium singer-guitarist Matt Heafy.
There are other indicators that Mrs. Smith is reaching more eyes and ears — artist Petra Collins recruited the character for a Gucci TV spot in 2017 and the editors at Vogue named her one of their favorite musical acts of 2018. Those are encouraging signs, yet Hanbury/Smith have their eyes on something bigger. Joe’s Pub might be only a few feet from Broadway, but the room can barely fit Mrs. Smith’s beehive hair, let alone her ambition. Hanbury hints at a Mrs. Smith–starring TV show, or larger stage shows (with more cats, of course).
And then, there’s the prospect of that wah-off: There’s no date date but Hammett seems committed. It’s a long way from busking on the streets of Provincetown.
“World domination,” Hanbury deadpans when asked about his long-term aims. “This has only just begun. What you’re going to see tonight is only a fraction of what I want to do.”