Johnny Smith Goes Full Circle
(21 Oct 02)
Charles Chapman: How did you initially become associated with Al Dronge (president and founder of Guild Guitars)?
Johnny Smith: When I first met Al, Guild guitars were based in New York City. I was working as a staff guitarist for NBC and through mutual acquaintances we met and got along quite well. We always talked about guitars and I would often tell him things I would like to see in an instrument. So Al and I entered into a verbal agreement for me to design a model for Guild.
In the summer of 1955, I was playing an engagement in Detroit, MI., and drew up the design and specifications and sent them off to Al. I had been thinking about it for a long time so while I was staying at the Wolverine Hotel I just sat down and did it.
CC: I know that the Guild Johnny Smith Award model never really got off the ground. What happened?
JS: After I sent the plans they immediately started working on it. They altered two aspects of my design and I could not get Al to change them back.
CC: Can you tell me what those aspects were?
JS: They were just small technical problems in the inner workings of the instrument. I felt these problems would not let the guitar get the balance and sustain I was looking for. In my guitar playing I always did a lot with chords and was always striving for the best legato sound I could get. To do that you have to have an instrument that has an exceptional balance between strings and sustain equally throughout the entire neck. We just couldn't come to terms, so we mutually decided to go our own ways on this project.
CC: When did Gibson start making your signature guitar and how did that come about?
JS: Gibson had been after me for many years to design a signature guitar and in 1961 Ted McCarty came to visit me in Colorado. He spent several days with me and right on my kitchen table I drew up what I was looking for in a guitar. I believed in Ted and was also interested in starting my own business so the collaboration at that time made sense.
CC: Did they give you a free hand in the design and construction of the instrument?
JS: Yes, I designed everything myself. I designed how the guitar would be braced, how the top would be carved, the dimensions, the binding, and you name it. The only aspects the company did were some of the cosmetic touches -which really did not matter to me.
CC: Where did you acquire the knowledge of guitar construction?
JS: An innate curiosity of finding out how things worked and during the years I lived in New York I spent a lot of time in the workshop of my dear friend John D'Angelico. He made the finest guitar I had ever played and really headed me in the direction of achieving the sound and playability I was looking for.
CC: You were with Gibson for many years and then you left them and took your signature guitar to Heritage. What's the story?
JS: Well, let's just say I am very particular about instruments with my name on them. Companies often change things as different carvers and different foremen of the factories take over. It's not even that it's particularly bad, but it wasn't what I had originally designed or wanted, and that is mainly why I withdrew my name. I know what I want and if my name is on it I want it that way!
CC: How and why did you decide to go full circle and take your signature guitar back to Guild?
JS: Two main reasons. The first one is Bill Schultz (CEO of Fender) and the second is Bob Benedetto. I have known Bill for may years and have the utmost respect for him. We were talking a little while back and Bill said very casually: "How would you like to endorse Guild again?" I think I shocked the hell out of him when I said yes. I feel confident about going back with Guild because I believe in Bill Schultz's leadership and with Bob Benedetto aboard, I know it will be done right and stay that way. In my opinion Bob is the finest guitar maker alive today and bringing him aboard is one the best things Guild ever did. I think he has done as much as can be done with making his instruments as close to perfect, both acoustically and electrically.
Johnny with his Benedetto Cremona
CC: I know you own a Benedetto. What model is that?
JS: I own the Cremona model and it's just exquisite. I have owned it since the early 1980's and have only played it for myself, but it is a joy to behold.
CC: Who are some of the players out there today that have caught your ear?
JS: There seems to be a lot of really fine players out there today but a few that have really impressed me are: Jimmy Bruno, Howard Alden, Jack Wilkins and Martin Taylor.
CC: Speaking of Martin, I was talking with him a while back and he told me you have a room in your house with signed dollar bills covering the ceiling. Martin said you had him sign one and then put it on the ceiling. He claims you have the most incredible array of musician signatures he ever saw. Had Martin perhaps had one too many beers and was teasing me?
JS: Martin may have had one too many beers, but he was not teasing you. When my kids grew up and moved away I made one of the rooms into a little bar. When anyone visited us we had them sign a dollar bill for the first drink and then the rest was on us. We then stuck it up on the ceiling just for fun and the whole ceiling is now completely covered. It really turned into a great idea because now I never have to paint the damn thing.
CC: Your passion for flying and fishing is legendary. When did you become involved in flying?
JS: I started flying well before World War II. In fact, I was suppose to be a pilot when I went into the Air Force. I had a problem with my left eye that grounded me and they gave me a choice of going to Biloxi, Mississippi for mechanic school or going into the band in Macon, GA where I was stationed at that time. I went over to see the band director and being a guitar player didn't exactly make me popular with him. They gave me a cornet, an Arban's [method] book and told me to go into the latrine to practice and he would audition me in a couple of weeks. Let me tell you that you get quite a bit of motivation when you have a choice of staying in a nice place and playing music or going to Biloxi, MI to become a mechanic! I did manage to get in the band and actually met quite a few very good musicians.
Once I got out of the service and moved to NY, I started to fly again. In fact, I became a flight instructor and continued with that profession, along with music, when I moved to Colorado. I was a flight instructor for over forty years and always thoroughly enjoyed anything to do with flying.
CC: Do you still fly your own plane?
JS: I had to give it up a few years back, so I just stick to fishing now.
CC: Speaking of fishing, the last time we met you showed me a picture of this huge fish you caught. Please refresh my memory of how you caught it.
JS: In 1965 my wife and I decided to take a little time off from our music store and go on a vacation. With my little sixteen-foot boat in tow we headed for Mazatlan, Mexico to where the big fish are. We used to go twenty-five or thirty miles out to sea.
CC: WOW! Isn't that an awful long way to go out to sea in a sixteen-foot boat?
JS: Well, I guess God takes care of idiots and little children. Anyway, we got out there and that is where we caught our first big fish. It weighted in at 365 pounds and I had it mounted and it hangs in a little place here in Colorado.
CC: I was speaking with Bob Benedetto last week and asked him if there was anything he thought I should ask you. He thought for a second and said: "Sure, ask Johnny what was the biggest fish he ever caught? " What is it with you guys and fish?
JS: I always knew Bob was a smart man. Actually, the biggest fish I ever caught was just last October. It was a blue marlin and was just a little bigger than the one I showed you and took almost four hours to bring it in. The only way I was finally able to do it was that the fish died as it got near the boat. It must have taken a heart attack and I think that fish only beat me by about five minutes. He sure was a strong one and I don't know if I could do that again.
CC: Johnny, you are a delight to speak with and I truly hope to see you again in the near future.