Magazine article Guitar Player

Johnny Smith on Vertical Voicings and Improvisation

Magazine article Guitar Player

Johnny Smith on Vertical Voicings and Improvisation

Article excerpt

In a Jan. '82 story by Robert Yelin, the legendary Johnny Smith discussed his musical journey and offered insights on his approach to chord voicing. Here are some gems from this rare interview.--AE

Vertical voicing. I'm influenced by the way piano players voice chords and by vertically spaced harmony. This means a chord is voiced with the melody note on the top; each subsequent chord tone is written directly below. This results in very close harmony. Vertical voicings on guitar require large stretches. For example, here's a vertical C6 chord:

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

To avoid this tremendous spread, use the dropped-tone system. Drop the second tone--A, in this case--one octave below its vertically voiced position. A C6 chord with a dropped tone looks like this:

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Most guitarists play with a dropped tone, but I play vertical voicings because that's the way I hear them--they sound natural to my ear. Vertical chord voicings are very common and basic to piano, but not to guitar. That's why my sound is easily identifiable.

It's always been easy for me to reach vertical chords. But since I lost a small part of my left 3rd fingertip around 1963--it got caught in an airplane seat--these chords have been more difficult. Luckily, a doctor was able to graft a chunk of skin from my palm onto the fingertip. The finger is a little shorter than it was, but I'm fortunate I can use it at all.

Soloing. I don't consciously think about chords when I solo. A lot of people are into modes, but I'm not. …

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