How To Play Like... Johnny Smith

Very few guitarists can say they’ve influenced legendary players as disparate as Pat Martino and Chet Atkins. But with his impeccable technique, adventuresome arrangements, and lush chord melodies, Johnny Smith—one of the most complete guitarists to emerge from the New York jazz scene of the late ’40s and early ’50s—can make that claim.

Landing a job at New York’s NBC studios in 1946, Smith found himself playing guitar, blowing horn (he mastered the cornet while in the air force), and composing for radio (and later television). Soon thereafter he joined clarinet legend Benny Goodman’s Sextet, the very group that launched jazz guitar phenom Charlie Christian in 1939. This eye-opening experience inspired Smith to experiment with his own ensembles, and his hard work (including playing jazz and classical music with everyone from Count Basie to Arturo Toscanini) paid off. His 1952 Roost Records debut, “Moonlight in Vermont,” featuring saxophonist Stan Getz, quickly shot up the radio charts and has since become a jazz classic. After eight years at NBC, some 20 recordings for Roost, and the tragic loss of his wife, Johnny Smith retired to Colorado Springs in 1958, rarely looking back.

Based on measures 1 through 4 of “Moonlight in Vermont,” Ex. 1 demonstrates how the harp-like “buzz” of seconds (such as the major second D-E in Cmaj9, beat one of bar 3) can add new color to an arrangement. Smith mastered the art of seamless “block-chord” motion by observing organists. Since they didn’t yet use reverb, organists had to leave at least one finger on a key while switching chords to keep the movement smooth. Try Ex. 2 over bars 5 through 8 of an “I Got Rhythm”-type of progression in G, and envision playing it on an old B3 without reverb. Voicing chords mostly on the inside strings avoids excessive string skipping and allows you greater ease in stacking seconds. Ex. 3 is a combination of two classic Smith-isms combined over a II-V-I progression in Bb (Cm7-F7-Bb). Notice how intervallic leaps add movement to the lines.