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Johnny Smith - An Appreciation (Part 2)

Whether he was playing solo or with his combo, his repertoire was different to those of other jazz guitarists. Although he played the jazz standards, he also played arrangements of folk and classical pieces. In his recordings that were released on the Legends: Solo Guitar Performances album, Johnny demonstrated how some of the classical guitar's concert recital repertoire could be transferred to the plectrum instrument. Once more, he simply blew everybody away with his playing.

Johnny was far ahead of his time in his ability to read music. When he arrived in New York to work at NBC, most jazz guitarists were devoid of any musical literacy. Consequently, he and Tony Mottola took most of the studio work that involved reading music. His standard of literacy remains astounding, even by today's much improved standards. In 1949, he famously stepped in at short notice to take part in a performance of Schoenberg's Serenade, when no other guitarist (jazz or classical) capable of reading the part could be found in town. To put this into context, if the concert were to be given in 2012 it would still be difficult to find a guitarist who would be able to read the part with only a few days' preparation.

Johnny Smith - An Appreciation (Part 3)

Much of Johnny's musical style can be attributed to his pianistic approach to the guitar. This is true not only of his three-octave flourishes, but also his method of harmonization. His characteristic close-voiced pianistic chords required considerable stretches of the left hand and a superior technique in order to move between them seamlessly. His smooth execution of these chords was aided by the classical practice of using guide fingers between the changes. With a linear approach, this technique also enabled him to play unbelievably smooth and fast passages of double-stops and triads.

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

Aside from his breathtaking and imaginative single-line soloing and chordal work, there is a third dimension to Johnny's playing for which he is probably revered most of all. Since Charlie Christian's recordings with Benny Goodman, electric jazz guitarists had been drawn towards focusing their attention upon their instrument for single line soloing. Through his stunning chord-melody solo arrangements, Johnny showed how the plectrum guitar could be used as an orchestra - with multiple voices. He took the concept of self-accompaniment to a whole new level of sophistication in terms of both arrangement and performance. In doing so, his chord-melody pieces truly brought the solo classical guitar concept to the plectrum instrument.

As well as being a pioneer in the field of plectrum guitar, Johnny also possessed the knowledge, ability and the vision to greatly extend the existing boundaries of the instrument. He was not the first jazz guitarist to employ harmonics, but he took both natural and artificial forms to a standard that was far beyond anything that had been seen or heard previously. In the hands of any other guitarist, his technical skill could easily have led to overplaying, but Johnny's use of harmonics and his bursts of high tempo runs were always included tastefully, and never for the sake of being flashy. Their immaculate execution made them sound effortless and completely appropriate.