Johnny Smith - An Appreciation (Part 3)

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Johnny Smith - An Appreciation (Part 3)

Famously, Johnny refuses to consider himself to have been a jazz guitarist, and yet he is rightly revered by the jazz guitar community. He was a popular and regular feature at Birdland from 1954 to 1960, and he commanded the respect of the likes of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and George Shearing. Art Tatum even tried to persuade Johnny to teach him to play the guitar. Certainly, in his early recordings he demonstrated a grasp of the jazz language. He then chose to move away from the typical phraseology, and create his own musical voice. Much of his musical activity, such as his performances with orchestras, his recordings of the classical repertoire, and his studio work at NBC, were far beyond the abilities of a typical jazz musician. Therefore, to describe him as a jazz guitarist is to use an insufficient and possibly derogatory term. He is far, far more than just a jazz guitarist.


Johnny Smith sits alongside Django Reinhardt, Charlie Christian and Wes Montgomery as a crucial pioneer in the development of the jazz guitar. His impact and influence as an innovative musician undoubtedly warrants that position by itself, and his other contributions merely add further weight to his importance. Johnny has made a difference to our lives not only through greatly advancing our instrument, but also through giving us his beautiful music. Meanwhile, he is renowned for his humility. The Master remains uncomfortable with high praise, but he is also deeply touched by it. For those of us who have been lucky enough to meet or know him, our lives are richer in yet another dimension.


Johnny Smith - An Appreciation (Part 1)

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

Through his method book and his innovative guitar seminars, Johnny has had a profound effect upon the education of generations of jazz guitarists. Along with Jack Petersen, he has also influenced us through the books and teaching of William Leavitt. Johnny's inclusion of classical pieces in his early repertoire, and his acknowledgment that he practiced reading music from sources such as violin books, inspired much of Bill's teaching at Berklee College, including his Modern Method for Guitar and Classical Studies for Pick-Style Guitar books.


As well as his importance as a performer and educator, it should not be forgotten that Johnny also played a crucial role in the development of the construction of the archtop guitar. His designs for Epiphone, D'Angelico, Guild, and ultimately the Gibson Johnny Smith model, set new benchmarks in jazz guitar construction. His ideas and his attention to detail have inspired and influenced celebrated luthiers around the world, including Bob Benedetto.

He also pioneered the production of the dedicated guitar amplifier. Prior to Johnny's involvement with Ampeg and Gibson in his quest for an amplifier with a flat frequency response, electric jazz guitarists were resigned to using units which were either unreliable or gave an unsatisfactory tone. Today, because of Johnny, there are numerous mass-produced models available to electric jazz guitarists.