Connect with us

Hall of Fame

Celebrating the Artistry of Johnny Smith



JGT contributor Joe Barth celebrates the artistry and the birthday of guitarist Johnny Smith (June 25, 1922 – June 11, 2013)

Barney Kessel once said, “There are guitar players that play differently, but you will never find a better guitar player than Johnny Smith.”  Johnny was born in 1922 in Alabama, grew up in Maine, and began his professional career in New York City.  Never comfortable with the big city, he moved to Colorado Springs, Colorado in 1957 to open a music store.  While in New York, he recorded a number of singles as well as albums including his big hit Moonlight in Vermont in 1952.  Johnny also worked with a number of guitar companies (Guild, Gibson, Heritage, and Benedetto) in designing an archtop guitar.

Revered by all guitar players, in this article, I draw upon my twenty-five years of interviews to share what some of the greatest guitar players have said to me about Johnny Smith and how he contributed to the art form of jazz guitar:

John Abercrombie 

I think of Johnny as an amazing guitarist but not a guitarist that swings a lot.  But this is more swinging than I have heard him play.  It is great.  I am used to hearing him play more virtuosic and he is so “in the pocket” here.

I remember, of course, “Moonlight in Vermont” and early recordings but I remember an album where he played folk tunes like “Black is the Color of My True Love’s Hair” and “I Remember the Corn Fields” and Debussy’s “Maid with the Flaxen Hair.”  

Howard Alden

 Here he went for such a pure singing tone, no gimmicks just pure tone.  I never was able to hear much of these recordings because they weren’t available.  I didn’t get to know Johnny much until 1982 when I went to take his place with Joe Buskin in New York.  I went out to listen to him play the first week. Supposedly, he hadn’t been playing that much but he still had that effortless sound and flow to his playing.

Johnny is always such a humble, understated man.  Claiming he was not a jazz guitar player and never was, but he played things that no one else had ever done.  Some of his things from that Mosic Box Set I had to listen to over and over again because I couldn’t imagine how he was playing what he was playing.

Roni Ben-Hur

I have not listened to a lot of Johnny Smith even though I play a Gibson Johnny Smith guitar. Listening to this, I hear Barney, Herb Ellis, Tal but Johnny not copying them.  All those players incorporated Johnny Smith into their playing.  Johnny was one of the early players and all those guys were influenced by Johnny.

Peter Bernstein

I love him but I don’t know many of his records.  I heard that he doesn’t think of himself as a jazz guitarist yet he is able to blow great chorus after great chorus. What a great improviser.  I knew that Charlie Parker would sit and listen to him when he lived here in the New York City.  His approach is more about the tune and treating the song with conviction. 

Ed Bickert

Boy, there are some good chord grips.  When I first heard Johnny, I was so amazed at his chord voicings that were so much closer than the traditional ones that others played.  These closer ones are so much more difficult to play.  He must have an incredible stretch.  He was also so clean in what he played.  I wanted to do those types of voicings, then I heard his chord voicings on “Moonlight in Vermont.” I figured out his voicings and used them when I did the tune. Learning his voicings helped me with my development of chord voicings.  It was a real education for me as well as a pleasant experience.

I saw him a few times when he came to Toronto and it was always amazing.  I talked with him about his amp.  He had Ampeg design a “Fountain of Sound” amp that would lean up or sometimes be elevated by legs.  I was curious how he kept the amp from feeding back with it elevated and close. He told me to get the strings all balanced so that each point of the pickup was even in distance from each string.  That kept the feedback to a minimum.  He never had a problem and kept it under control.

Joshua Breakstone 

I use Johnny’s arpeggio studies with my students.  I studied with Sal Salvador in New York City and Johnny was a big influence upon Sal.  

I did a recording called Walk Don’t Run which are jazz versions of all Ventures tunes.  I signed a contract with King Records of Japan.  The first recording project they wanted me to do was an album of all Ventures songs.  I was insulted that they would want a record like this and not caring how much money they were paying me I wanted to tear up my contract with them right then.  I prepared a letter to them stating so but didn’t send it off right away. So I contacted my producer and asked why are you asking me to do a project like this.  He said he knew I would be upset but just look up what songs the Ventures have done and you can do any of their songs, anyway you want to do them with any musicians you want to hire for the project.  So, I began researching the songs they did and discovered they did “Perfida“ and “Slaughter on 10th Ave.” and “Caravan” and other great standards that I just love.  The record comes out and a couple months later I got a phone call at home and the man on the other end says “This is Johnny Smith, do you know who I am?” (laughter).  Johnny told me that my version of “Walk Don’t Run” is the best version of his song that has ever been recorded including his own version!

Royce Campbell 

When I think of Johnny Smith, I think of voicings.  Through him, I learned the importance of playing pianistic voicings on the guitar.  Like Tal (Farlow) he had a left-hand stretch and did voicings that others could not do.  

Johnny also had this immaculately clean technique, almost Tony Motolla clean.  It was a loss that he retired so early in life.  One reason he quit is that he hated traveling.  

Bill Frisell

 I feel so lucky to have met him and had some lessons with him.  It was actually before I could fully appreciate what I was receiving from him.  This was 1970 and I was going to the University of Northern Colorado and he came to teach the guitar class there.  I was so excited to have Johnny Smith for a teacher but the first day of class there was only four or five students enrolled.  Over the next few weeks all the others dropped out of the class and so for the rest of the semester I had private lessons with Johnny Smith! (laughter)  He was so supportive of me.  He gave me a boost of confidence when I was wondering if I had what it takes to make it as a guitarist.  

At that time I was really into Jim Hall and I had a Gibson 175 just like Jim’s.  I was so into bebop that I didn’t pull from Johnny all that wish now I could of.  Around Colorado at that time, there were handwritten sheets of Johnny Smith arrangements that, at the time, I just passed over but now wish I could get my hands on.  

People say that they hear a little Johnny Smith in my playing.  As time goes on, I just keep appreciating Johnny more and more.   

Steve Herberman 

Johnny was one of my favorites.  He was the most technically perfect player. The complexity of his solo arrangements were astonishing with all sorts of inner movements. I have a couple of live tapes of him in clubs playing solo and it is very interesting to hear how he played arrangements just “off the cuff.”   He played more in a Joe Pass-type solo guitar style which is very interesting.

I met Johnny at the Blue Guitar Exhibit when it was at Wolf Trap.  He was such a sweet guy.

Those things he did with Stan Getz really raise the bar in jazz guitar with his playing of those long clean lines.  He was also a chordal genius and such a complete player whether it’s chords or single line or whatever.   

Jim Hall 

He’s another who drew a lot of attention to jazz guitar.  I love the things he did with Stan Getz.  Tal Farlow and I used to joke around and we’d try to play one of Johnny’s fast runs way up to the end of the neck and not be able to do it (laughter).  This sounds great.

This is a different side to Johnny with the single lines.  I am used to those small chord voicings that Johnny did so well all the time. He is a player who is fantastic technically and emotionally as well.  He is listening carefully to the other musicians and reacting to them so well. 

Randy Johnston 

Listen to that big arpeggio.  He has a gorgeous big sound.  Great technique with those very close-voiced chords.  I don’t think of Johnny as a jazz guitarist, though he could be.  He is the opposite of Tal Farlow.  He was full of scales and arpeggios.  He is a great technical player.  I transcribed his “On a Clear Day” because it was so approachable.  What he did with Stan Getz is wonderful jazz music.

Peter Leitch 

When I think of Johnny, I think of those closely voiced chords. Johnny is one of those players I haven’t listened to all that much.  I have some of those early records but I couldn’t listen to them because I did not care for the rhythm sections on those recordings. At the time, I wanted to hear a more interactive rhythm section.  Like what Elvin Jones or Philly Jo Jones play.  I wanted a very interactive rhythm section each time I played and wanted to recordings of those who were doing that well.

Johnny was a big influence on guitarists in terms of his chord voicings. Then he left town and didn’t play much anymore.

(author’s note)

Johnny is a pilot as well as a great guitarist.  He kept an airplane at a local airport in the New York area and he had a pilot friend who also had his own airplane almost like Johnny’s and Johnny borrowed the friend’s plane.  In this plane Johnny was adjusting the seat with his left hand and there is a plunger that snapped and cut the tip of his third finger off and the doctor had to take skin from the middle of his hand and sewed it to the tip of his third finger.  This is one of the reasons why he stopped playing.   

Mundell Lowe 

Johnny’s an old friend. We worked together at NBC.  I know his playing pretty well.  There is only one Johnny Smith.  There will never be another.  I have never known anyone to be able to sightread any music put before him like Johnny.  What he made up on his own was also fantastic. He was one of a kind.

Larry Luger 

Johnny was the greatest plectrum guitar player ever. He had such command of the instrument, up and down the neck in three-octave scales.  Unbelievable.   He was another very humble man when I met him in New York playing with Joe Bushkin.  Joe had asked him to come and do a two-week reunion with him.  Joe was his music director during all those years with Bing Crosby.  He sounded so great but Johnny apologized saying his playing wasn’t up to stuff.

He said of himself “Listening to me play the guitar is like looking at yourself in a mirror when you have a hangover.”  Can you believe that?  No, he was one of the greatest.  He was so accurate in every way.  When he worked at the NBC orchestra, if he wasn’t recording or broadcasting, he was in the practice room wood shedding.  He was so skilled as a reader that he would read lines like a studio saxophone player.  He could read anything that was put in front of him.  He had such a lyrical sense when he stated the melody.  He had such a richness to his tone.

Joe Negri 

He is swinging so hard here.  His technique is so impeccable. What threw me was that it sounded like three guitars at the beginning but it was Getz and he.

Johnny contributed so much to the art of jazz guitar.  Whatever he put his mind to he was good at.  When he wanted to arrange, he was good at it.  Of course, playing the guitar, he was great at it. 

Bucky Pizzarelli

I haven’t heard Johnny play like this. Johnny is like the Segovia of the electric guitar.  He plays chords on the guitar like they are played on the piano with incredible fingering stretches.  We were at NBC together.  He was on one of their TV shows and when he left, NBC called me and I replaced him.

The best I heard Johnny play was with Benny Goodman. It was on Benny’s show on the Dumont Television channel.  Boy could that sextet play.  Johnny had written the arrangements for them.  Years later I was over at Johnny’s house and he pulled out a record of those sessions.

Jack Wilkins 

Johnny plays so great.  He is the guitarist that made me want to play jazz guitar.  I tried to play just like him for years.  I worked through all his books and transcribed many of his solos.  It is all unbelievable guitar music.  I learned an incredible amount about music by listening to and analyzing Johnny Smith.  He made me realize what a guitar should sound like.  A lot of guys don’t play the guitar thinking about sound or intonation, phrasing or technique, or harmonic movements.

He codified everything that went on before him.  You can hear in him a little George Van Eps, Jimmy Raney, Charlie Christian and the classical approach in him.  I love those stretch fingerings.

Anthony Wilson 

All the close voicings on the melody tell you it’s Johnny Smith.  He always has interesting arrangements.  Listen, there is a little four over three. That is an incredible sound.  He is one of my favorites and really influenced me.  My introduction to jazz guitar was selecting records out of my mom’s collection that had a guitar on it and she had some early Johnny Smith including Moonlight in Vermont.  I was fascinated by that record and couldn’t believe what I heard and learned a couple of solos off of it.

If you look at his books you see he has very precise fingerings for everything he plays.  That is how he could do those incredible lines at any tempo. The fingerings were all worked out.  He is a little mechanistic but the sound is so good, the arrangements are so cool and what he plays in his solos is always just right.

I have a couple of things with him with vocalists and he is a wonderful accompanist.  First of all, he has an incredible vocabulary and can do almost anything.  When he does solo things he is always so elegant, the tone is always so great and his execution is always so perfect.  He is a big influence on me.

Subscribe to Jazz Guitar Today – it’s FREE!

Continue Reading