In 1961, Gibson’s Johnny Smith model not only associated Gibson with one of the most popular guitar stylists of the day, it also brought high-quality amplification and high-quality acoustic sound together for the first time.
From Gibson’s first electric “Spanish” guitar, the ES-150 of 1936, Gibson had fashioned an electric guitar by cutting a hole in the top of an acoustic archtop guitar. The ES-150, with its 16″ body width and flat back, obviously wasn’t designed with acoustic sound in mind, and the heavy pickup, secured to the top with three screws, killed most of the instrument’s acoustic capabilities. Nevertheless, until the late 1940s, Gibson continued to go through the motions of making electric guitars as if they could be good acoustics, too, as evidenced by the carved spruce top.
The ES-5, introduced in 1949, indicated that players did want a classy-looking electric, but its laminated maple back and sides represented a farther departure from good acoustic quality. Gibson made another cosmetic concession in 1951 with electric versions of the L-5 and the ultra-deluxe, 18″-wide Super 400, but as usual, the holes for the pickups were cut through the top – even through top braces – which all but destroyed acoustic capabilities.
In the meantime, many players were amplifying their acoustic archtops with a non-invasive pickup. The most popular aftermarket pickup of the 1940s, the DeArmond Rhythm Chief, was mounted on an arm that attached by screws to the side of the fingerboard. A volume control attached to the strings (behind the bridge) or the tailpiece. When Ted McCarty came in as president of Gibson in 1948, one of his first moves was to design a pickup with the entire unit – pickup and controls – built into a pickguard. While it was moderately successful, it allowed too much pickup movement, and fell out of favor by the mid 1950s.
Through the ’50s, Gibson focused its attention on battling Fender in the new solidbody electric market. At the end of the decade, Ted McCarty sought to boost Gibson’s hollowbody electric with the help of influential guitarists, and he landed one of the most popular and respected guitarists of the 1950s – Johnny Smith.
Born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1922, Smith came of age musically in Maine, where he played with a hillbilly band and then started a jazz trio. By the early ’50s, he had developed a “chord melody” style that featured the melody on the highest string and lush, jazzy chords on the lower strings. In ’52 – the same year Gibson introduced the Les Paul Model – Smith released what would become his best-known recording, “Moonlight in Vermont.”
Smith’s working guitar was a 17″ D’Angelico New Yorker Special with a DeArmond pickup. In ’55, the Guild company, which had been founded only four years earlier, engaged Smith to design a model, but Guild’s factory foreman refused to follow Smith’s instructions to carve the top before the cutaway area was removed. Guild introduced the Johnny Smith Award in ’56, but Smith never played it. Two years later, he went into semi-retirement, settling in Colorado and opening a music store. (After his contract expired in 1960, Guild continued the model as the Artist Award.)
Smith would gain considerable notoriety for his composition, “Walk Don’t Run,” after The Ventures turned it into a number two pop hit in 1960 (though it didn’t sound much like Smith’s 1955 version). It’s unknown whether anyone at Gibson was influenced by – or even aware of – the fact that Smith had written the hit, but Gibson president Ted McCarty visited Smith at his home in Colorado in ’61, where Smith drew up the plans for a new Gibson signature model.
The Gibson Johnny Smith had a 17″ body modeled after Smith’s D’Angelico, which was slightly – but significantly – different from Gibson’s L-5. With body depth of 31/8″, the Smith was a 1/4″ shallower than the L-5 and Super 400. The Smith was different under the top, too, with an X brace instead of the tone bars Gibson introduced along with f-holes in 1922. (The X brace was not exactly foreign to Gibson, as the L-5 had been X-braced from 1934-’38.) The neck of the Smith was also slightly wider than that of the L-5.
The neck ornamentation of the Johnny Smith clearly placed it in the upper echelon of Gibson’s line. Its slashed-diamond fingerboard inlays and peghead ornament, along with elongated peghead shape, were the same as Gibson’s top archtop, the Super 400. The tailpiece is the same design as that of the L-5CES, except that Smith’s has his name on it.
The Smith had a floating pickup that set it apart from all the DeArmond equipped guitars. Gibson had developed the double-coil humbucking pickup in ’57, and humbuckers were standard on high-end electrics. The Smith’s pickup was actually a mini-humbucker, which would soon find its way onto Gibson’s high-end Epiphones. The ’65 blond pictured here sports a two-pickup version of the floating mini-humbucker that Gibson began offering in ’63.
The Smith gave archtop players an instrument with the best-quality amplification without visibly altering its acoustic persona. The Smith’s Venetian (rounded) cutaway was an acoustic feature, as Gibson’s electric versions of the L-5 and Super 400 had a Florentine (pointed) cutaway during this period. And it sported an acoustic player’s traditional ebony, height-adjustable bridge rather than the Tune-O-Matic on the L-5CES and Super 400CES. But the top is slightly thicker than the standard Gibson archtop, so despite all appearances, the Smith really was designed for electric play.
Smith’s smiling face appeared with the guitar in Gibson’s ’62 catalog. The model was priced at $795 with sunburst finish and $810 for natural, including a deluxe case with a zippered cover. The only model above it was the Super 400CES at $825 and $850 for sunburst and natural, respectively. Curiously, the case and zipper cover were not included in the price of the Super 400 and L-5, and the extra $86 made the L-5 more expensive than the Smith by $6.
Through the Johnny Smith’s first decade, Gibson sold a total of 873 guitars, almost the same as the L-5CES’ total of 895 and significantly more than the Super 400CES’ total of 555. In its second decade (’71-’80), Smith sales fell only slightly, to a total of 771, while the L-5CES and Super 400CES fell more sharply to 468 and 260.
The Smith model endured Gibson’s move from Kalamazoo to Nashville in ’84 and the acquisition by its current owners in ’86. However, Smith’s loyalty stayed with the crew in Kalamazoo, and in ’89 he moved his endorsement to Heritage. In 2004, he returned to endorse the Guild Johnny Smith Award, by Benedetto (produced through ’06). Still, Smith’s legacy remains strong at Gibson, where the model that once bore his name is still offered, but as the LeGrand.
This article originally appeared in Vintage Guitar magazine’s January 2008 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.
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