Johnny Smith…An Extraordinary Man and an Extraordinary Guitar March 2008
Johnny Smith once said of himself
that he wasn’t a jazz guitarist. Don’t you believe it for one minute! Ever the humble, reserved home-body, Smith did as much as any
great artist to help define the role and capability of the electric archtop as it is used in jazz performance, especially with regard
to sophistication and refinement in technique.
In the 50’s (still very early in modern electric jazz guitar evolution), Smith
helped define a rather new genre of jazz guitar that was rooted in the reserved style of the ‘cool’ jazz school, but that displayed
highly refined, almost classical guitar technique and virtuosity. The mastery he has displayed over his career is characterized by
clear articulation, close voicings in chord-melody work, virtuosic runs that can cover the neck, and highly compositional improvisations.
We could almost call his music “chamber jazz” in that most of his recordings are with a small group, are tightly arranged, often in
parts, are emotionally reserved, but that demonstrate dazzling technical mastery with healthy sprinklings of classical references.
important place in the annals of guitar history is now well established. His history is highlighted by many successful small group
recordings (of which the Moonlight in Vermont/Stan Getz recording brought him to fame in 1952), the composition "Walk, Don’t Run"
(which later became a Ventures pop tune), several guitar poll prizes with DownBeat and Metronome magazines in the 50’s, and a slew
of signature models from the leading guitar makers. His playing may lack the ‘edge’ and ‘grit’ of a Wes Montgomery or Grant Green,
but he certainly makes up for that by having a unique and instantly recognizeable ‘voice’ that is other-worldly in its sophistication
and virtuoso style. “Johnny Smith style” is now almost synonymous with smooth virtuosic technique and use of a single floating pickup
on an archtop.
One of his greatest contributions to guitar lore may be found in the Johnny Smith signature models. During the 50’s, Smith played
a D’Angelico, but he also endorsed a Guild JS model. The 50’s Guild JS Award model was a high-end 17 inch archtop that was brought
back by Guild and Bob Benedetto in the 90’s. Arguably, the finest JS signature model—with the greatest notoriety—is the early 60’s
Gibson version. Gibson contacted three important jazz guitar artists in 1960 in hopes of creating artist models and with the goal
of breathing new life into the traditional archtop: Johnny Smith, Tal Farlow, and Barney Kessel. (See my August ‘07 column for a discussion
on the BK model).
Unlike the limited role that Barney Kessel had in developing the BK model, Johnny Smith played a pronounced
role in the development of the characteristics of the Johnny Smith model. Smith insisted that the guitar be one that he would play
full-time before he would allow his name to be associated with it; therefore, it had to meet his qualifications. The JS model was
to have a unique scale length of 25 inches (a Super 400 or L-5 has a scale length of 25.5 inches), a floating pickup so that the tone
was fully acoustic, an L-5 body (although a minutely smaller dimension than an L-5), and a Super 400 size headstock. Narrower f-holes
and Johnny’s name on the L-5 style tailpiece elegantly completed the design. In 1961, this guitar, with the Lifton black/yellow case
and canvas case cover, commanded the princely sum of $795.00. In 1963, the JS-D (a two pickup version of the JS) went on the market
(although I have never seen anyone ever use the bridge pickup!). The JS models were the longest running signature jazz guitars, lasting
in the Gibson line until 1989. In 1993, Gibson essentially reintroduced the JS model, but named it the LeGrand.
The style of the Johnny Smith guitar continued under several names following Gibson. In brief, the Heritage company picked up the
torch and made some very fine Johnny Smith models for a short time that were reminiscent of the Gibson JS single pickup model. However,
in 1999, the torch was passed back to Guild, who made another JS model, under the luthiery of Bob Benedetto. This is in itself an
interesting history that starts with Guild, then passes to Gibson, to Heritage, and back to Guild.
We are indebted to Mr. Smith
for both his music and his guitar!
For a more insightful history and plenty of warm hearted stories
about what we might call
“the TAO of Johnny Smith”,
history and interview:
Below: signature tailpiece and headstock on the Gibson JS model.
Below: a 1961 Gibson JS in remarkable condition, with heavy flame.
Below: A young Johnny Smith with non-cut Epiphone archtop.
Below: an elegant 1964 Gibson JS with single floating pickup