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Johnny Smith


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On 25 June 2012, Johnny Smith celebrated his 90th birthday in Colorado Springs. Johnny retired from playing some years ago, but to many of us he is still the Master and his musicianship remains unrivaled. Starting with his landmark recording of 'Moonlight in Vermont', which was released 60 years ago, Johnny set new standards in plectrum jazz guitar playing. He showed everybody the previously unrealized potential of the instrument. Importantly, his superior technical virtuosity was always accompanied by his impeccable sense of good taste, and the result was that nobody could touch him. We all owe Johnny a huge debt of gratitude. Many of his innovations are taken for granted these days, but without his input the world of the jazz guitar would be a much different and poorer place.

Johnny Smith - An Appreciation (Part 1)

Johnny Smith Foursome Session

From this distance in time, it is difficult to appreciate that his use of strict alternate picking, which is the standard plectrum technique today, was an innovative concept in the late 1940s. Johnny's skill with the pick was breathtaking, and as a result of his diligent practice he was the first guitarist to match Django Reinhardt's command of the plectrum. Meanwhile, his left hand technique was equal to that of his right hand. With immaculate coordination between the two, he employed three-octave scales and arpeggios in his playing at lightning speed and with absolute precision. No other guitarist was capable of such technical virtuosity, and never before had a jazz guitarist possessed the skill or the vision to truly exploit the full range of the fingerboard, from the open strings right through to the very highest frets. New York's jazz guitar community was stunned.

By Lin Flanagan. Reproduced from Just Jazz Guitar (August 2012)

Johnny Smith

Johnny's approach to the plectrum guitar was meticulous. He was the first jazz guitarist to possess a classical musician's sense of technique. In this respect, he was the first player to truly take the instrument seriously. He transferred several classical ideologies and techniques across to the plectrum guitar. From the very first note of any of Johnny's recordings, the first aspect to immediately grab the attention of the listener is his full-bodied tone. As his acoustic recordings testify, this can only partly be attributed to his choice of guitar and amplifier. While classical guitarists are renowned for spending years learning how to create the desired tone from their fingernails, when Johnny arrived in New York in 1946 most jazz guitarists were ignorant of the parallel importance of the plectrum. In fact, the quest for the right tone was often neglected in favor of the quest for the right note. Johnny showed how the choice of plectrum, as well as the angle of attack upon the strings, was primary in the production of a beautiful tone.

Johnny Smith - An Appreciation (Part 2)