| December 4, 2023 |

The Legacy of Johnny Smith: A Jazz Icon

One of the most revered innovators of the cool jazz genre and an elite Gibson signature artist

Johnny Smith, born John Henry Smith Jr. on June 25, 1922, in Birmingham, Alabama, was a highly influential American musician renowned for his talent and innovative contributions to the world of jazz guitar. Smith’s musical journey began at a young age, and he quickly developed into a skilled guitarist. His exceptional technique and harmonic inventiveness earned him a place alongside jazz guitar legends like Charlie Christian and Django Reinhardt. He was universally considered a deep musician with chops to spare.

Johnny Smith was a pioneer of chord melody playing, a technique where the guitarist simultaneously plays the melody and harmonizes it with chords. He was a master at this approach, creating intricate and harmonically rich arrangements that showcased his creativity and harmonic knowledge.

The legendary Larry Coryell told VintageGuitar.com:

“Johnny was so very important. His playing was melodic, romantic, and economical, and his chord concept was unique. He played chords that were like piano voicings, with such close intervals. And his career as a studio musician in New York City is legendary. He loved classical music and incorporated it into his overall attitude. When I visited him once in Colorado Springs, he taught me a section of Ravel’s ‘Mother Goose Suite’ that was a real finger-stretcher. I mean a real stretcher—and painful! But I loved him. He was a gentleman and an enlightened soul. Plus, his version of ‘What’s New’—those chords again—is unsurpassed.”

In 1952, Smith’s career reached new heights with the release of his iconic album “Moonlight in Vermont,” featuring his signature interpretation of the title track alongside the legendary saxophonist Stan Getz. Johnny’s lyrical and melodic approach to jazz guitar left an indelible mark on the genre, and he remained a force in jazz music throughout his career.

Author and musician, Lin Flanagan, in his official biography of Smith (Moonlight in Vermont, The Official Biography of Johnny Smith), writes on pages 58-59:

 “While ‘Moonlight in Vermont’ in 1952 had been the start of Smith’s move from revered studio musician to celebrated jazz guitarist, 1954 was without doubt the year in which he reached a position on the top tier of New York’s jazz scene alongside the great horn players and pianists whose names are still celebrated sixty years later. He had become a regular feature at Birdland and was the most prominent jazz guitarist in the city. At the end of 1954, he won both the Metronome and Down Beat readers’ polls for the most popular guitarist of the year. His profile on the New York jazz scene could not have been higher. In 1954, he spent nine weeks working at the Embers, another nine weeks at Birdland, and ten weeks on the road with Stan Kenton’s tour package.”

The memorable tune “Walk, Don’t Run” was written by Smith. It was originally composed and recorded by him in 1954. However, the tune is perhaps best known for the instrumental rock version recorded by The Ventures in 1960, which became a significant hit and a classic in the surf rock genre.

It seems Johnny was loved and respected both as a teacher and friend to those in his life. Flanagan, from his aforementioned biography, writes on page 192:

“Despite his workaholic lifestyle, particularly during his time in New York in the 1950s, Smith never sought or reveled in the limelight. He always maintained interests outside of the music spectrum. Not least of these was his passion for playing chess. The walls of the bar in his house in Colorado Springs were decorated with some of his awards, such as his honorary doctorates, but these took second place to the more treasured mementos of flying and fishing. His bar was far from being a music temple. Visitors to his house were required to donate and sign a single dollar bill, which entitled them to drink free of charge on a lifelong basis. The dollar bill was subsequently glued to the ceiling in the bar alongside those that had been presented by previous visitors, many of whom were world-renowned musicians.”

Flanagan, an accomplished player in his own right, goes on to detail various encounters that others had with Smith in his home, all positive and glowing reviews of his hospitality and desire to bring people together for celebration, conversation, and musical growth.

What is the Nature of Johnny Smith Pickups?

Johnny Smith pickups are a hallmark of jazz guitar tone, known for their exceptional clarity, warmth, and versatility. These pickups are celebrated for their ability to faithfully reproduce the nuances of a player’s touch, making them a top choice for jazz musicians and beyond.

Characterized by their balanced response and full-bodied sound, Johnny Smith pickups have become sought-after components in the world of jazz guitar, delivering the rich, resonant tones that define the genre. Whether you’re gliding through intricate jazz melodies or exploring a wide range of musical styles, these pickups continue to be prized for their timeless contribution to the world of electric guitar.

Gibson’s Jazz Guitar Designs

In the world of jazz guitars, the name “Johnny Smith” is synonymous with excellence, and for good reason. The Gibson Johnny Smith guitar, bearing the name of the legendary jazz guitarist, has left an indelible mark on the music world. 

Beyond his remarkable performances and recordings, Johnny Smith’s influence extended to the realm of guitar design. He collaborated with the Gibson Guitar Corporation—now Gibson Brands—to develop the Johnny Smith model guitar, known for its distinctive design and superior craftsmanship. His dedication to both playing and advancing the instrument cemented his status as a revered figure in the world of jazz guitar, and his timeless contributions continue to inspire musicians and guitarists to this day. 

Let’s journey through the history of this iconic instrument, its design features, and its enduring legacy.

A Collaboration with both Epiphone and Gibson

Flanagan notes that Smith did not have a contract with Epiphone, but an arrangement allowed him access to instruments, even working later on with Epiphone to design the Emperor Concert guitar. Though the Epi Emperor (not yet transformed into a Concert) was stolen from NBC studios, Flanagan notes:

“Smith used the reliable Emperor archtop as his main instrument from 1947 until 1950, including for his infamous live performance and recording of Shöenberg’s Serenade in 1949. Again, he fitted a floating pick-up to the guitar himself, although for his appearance on the Serenade he played unamplified.”

During this time, while staying in a hotel, Smith was able to frequently visit the nearby Epiphone factory on 14th Street in New York. This allowed him to provide routine input on the design of the Epiphone Emperor Concert, including influencing an unusual soundhole shape and a change in bracing from the existing Epiphone Emperor model. The transformation became the Epiphone Emperor Concert—a unique piece that never entered mass production.

The story of the Gibson Johnny Smith guitar began in the early 1950s when Johnny Smith himself teamed up with the Gibson product development team. Their goal was to create a signature guitar that would not only meet but exceed the exacting standards of a jazz virtuoso. This collaboration resulted in the birth of a truly exceptional instrument. The National Museum of American History hosts a dedicated page to the instrument gifted to them by Johnny himself.

Design Excellence

One of the standout features of the Johnny Smith guitar was its impeccable design. Crafted with precision and artistry, it boasted a single-cutaway body design, carved spruce top, and highly figured maple back and sides. The slightly smaller body shape made it comfortable for seated playing, a critical factor for jazz musicians. And it sported a cool, art deco tailpiece bearing his name—classy!

The Floating Pickup Innovation

At the heart of the Johnny Smith guitar’s tonal prowess was its floating humbucking pickup. This innovative design allowed for amplified performances that retained the warmth and clarity of an acoustic guitar. It became the go-to choice for jazz guitarists seeking that signature sound that could cut through the airwaves with elegance. The renowned Gibson Crest also came outfitted with Johnny Smith pickups.

A Family of Signature Models

Gibson produced various iterations of the Johnny Smith guitar over the years, including the Johnny Smith Standard and the Johnny Smith Deluxe models. These guitars were not only known for their impeccable craftsmanship but also for their elegant inlays, top-quality materials, and meticulous attention to detail. 

Another standout example of the tone of a Johnny Smith guitar lives forever on George Benson’s album, “Breezin’.” In conversation with Joe Bosso for GuitarPlayer.com, George recalls, “I got a really nice sound on the record, but I used two things I’d never played before: The first was this brand-new Gibson Johnny Smith guitar. I bought it off this young boy who came to my house looking to sell it to me.

“I had a lot of guitars already and didn’t need another one, but I really liked this thing. So I bought it from him, and I took it to the studio and put it through a Polytone amplifier. The company wanted me to use their amps, so I decided to give one a try. The two things together gave me a sound I never had before.”

Norman’s Rare Guitars examines a particularly beautiful Blonde 1968 Johnny Smith model in this video from their Guitar of the Day series. One interesting fabrication factor is the output jack adapter that converts a smaller output to a standard ¼” output size—this is largely tucked away under the pickguard.

A Lasting Legacy

Johnny Smith’s association with the Gibson guitar bearing his name elevated it to the pinnacle of jazz guitar excellence. Its popularity grew among jazz musicians and enthusiasts alike, and it remains highly regarded to this day among collector’s and players. 

In terms of Johnny’s sense of his own importance as a player, he remained staunchly restrained and humble. He did not consider himself to be the jazz guitarist’s jazz guitarist that nearly everyone else thought of him as.

Lin Flanagan notes on page 62 of his biography, “Despite his prolific and popular appearances at the most renowned of New York’s jazz clubs during the ensuing years, Smith famously refused to accept that he was a true jazz guitarist. He opined that the dedication that classical musicians give to their genre of music is matched by those who dedicate themselves to jazz. In a self-assessment of his musicianship, he commented that although he was able to improvise solos, he was too diverse in his musical interests to be able to devote himself to the development of a jazz vocabulary on a par with guitarists such as Barney Kessel, Jim Hall, Wes Montgomery, Jimmy Raney, Tal Farlow or Chuck Wayne. Certainly, Smith’s recordings with Mary Lou Williams in 1947, Benny Goodman in 1950 and 1951, Hank Jones’ Urbanity in 1953, and with his own combo on ‘Jaguar,’ ‘Cavu,’ ‘What’s New’ and ‘Have You Met Miss Jones’ undoubtedly testify to his fluency in the contemporary language of jazz. However, when many jazz guitarists were imitating each other during the 1950s, he gradually set out to shape his own distinctive style.”

Continuing the Journey

While the production of the Johnny Smith model has seen periods of discontinuation and revival, its legacy lives on. Gibson has periodically released reissues of this iconic guitar, ensuring that new generations of musicians can experience its exceptional playability and tonal qualities.

In the world of jazz, the Gibson Johnny Smith guitar stands as a symbol of collaboration, craftsmanship, and a commitment to achieving the perfect sound. Its rich history and timeless elegance continue to make it a cherished instrument, revered by jazz aficionados and musicians across genres.

Visit the official website of Johnny Smith.

Explore the current collection of Electric-Spanish guitars from Gibson.