Johnny Smith, the Jazzmaster, and the sound of surf.

The Fender Jazzmaster. What was Leo thinking?

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again – Leo Fender was one lucky guy. I don’t mean to imply that his success as a designer of musical instruments wasn’t due to his exceptional engineering brilliance and a lot of hard work. There’s no doubt Leo was a genius. He designed instruments that no one else had even conceived of before, revolutionising the way we make music. In fact, for a guy who couldn’t play any instrument at all, it’s difficult to think of anyone else who has had a greater influence on the course of music in the 20th century. In this, he stands alongside that other famous inventor and fellow non-musician, Thomas Edison.  

But Fender’s success must also be contributed to a fair dose of good old-fashioned luck; because, as brilliant an engineer as Leo was, he wasn’t always the best judge of the marketplace. Take, for example, Fender’s most famous creation, the Stratocaster. Is there a more iconic image of rock music than a long-haired rebel wielding a Strat? But here’s the thing: when Leo designed the Stratocaster, rock hadn’t yet begun. Fender conceived the Strat as a tool for Western Swing bands and ballroom orchestras (Leo’s favourite band was Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys). That tremolo wasn’t designed for Jimi Hendrix’s divebombs, but for Freddie Traveres’ country steel guitar licks. Needless-to-say, as an instrument for country and swing musicians, the Stratocaster missed the mark. When was the last time you saw someone play a Strat in a swing band? Initially healthy sales figures dwindled until the instrument was in danger of being discontinued. Luckily for the Strat, though, along came the ‘60s and a new musical generation discovered the guitar and put it to use in ways that Leo had never imagined. The Strat became the definitive rock machine and the rest, as they say, is history.

The Fender Bassman amplifier. Designed for basses, but had more success as a guitar amp.

Another example of Leo completely misjudging the needs of musicians, yet somehow falling on his feet, is the Bassman amplifier. As the name implies, the Bassman was conceived as a bass amplifier. Fender’s 1953 catalogue stated unequivocally, “It is not a hashed-over guitar amplifier, but an instrument that has been designed for the reproduction of bass and bass only.” The only problem was, it’s just not a great bass amplifier – it has too much gain, and the open-backed cab is not ideal for projecting bass frequencies. But guitarists soon worked out that the Bassman makes a fantastic guitar amp. The Bassman became a legendary rock and roll guitar amp, and served as inspiration for Marshall, Vox and myriad other makers whose amps were modeled on the Bassman circuit.

Perhaps the most obvious demonstration of Leo’s tendency to misread the marketplace was his development of the Jazzmaster guitar. As the name spells out, this guitar was Fender’s attempt to woo jazz guitarists away from the hollowbody archtops made by those three Gs – Gibson, Guild and Gretsch. Unfortunately for Fender, jazz guitarists didn’t want to know about Fender’s new solidbody. For starters, it just didn’t sound like a hollow archtop. Secondly, by the time of the Jazzmaster’s introduction most jazz guitarists had been turned onto Gibson’s new humbucker pickup with its thick, warm tone. Fender’s insistence on fitting the Jazzmaster with brighter single coil pickups (albeit of a new design to those used in the Telecaster or Stratocaster) was therefore out of step with the tone that jazz players were going for. The Jazzmaster’s complex electronics were confusing and finicky, and the vibrato compromised the tuning stability. The one jazz musician of note to toy with the new guitar was Joe Pass, and even he soon went back to his trusty Gibson ES-175.

Fender were an innovative company, and Leo was a forward-looking inventor. They had their greatest successes developing new tools for new musical styles that were unencumbered by long established traditions. Going after jazz musicians at the dawn of the 1960s was just not a good fit. 

Johnny Smith’s 1954 album In A Sentimental Mood, featuring the first recording of “Walk Don’t Run”. On the cover he is seen holding his D’Angelico archtop guitar.

One such jazz guitarist was Johnny Smith. I don’t know whether Smith ever tried a Jazzmaster guitar, but the term “jazz master” certainly applies to him. A virtuosic improviser, Smith began his career at the end of World War 2. He had a huge hit with his album Moonlight in Vermont in 1952, which featured tenor sax star Stan Getz. Two years later Smith wrote a tune called “Walk Don’t Run” which he recorded on his 1954 album In a Sentimental Mood. The tune is a contrafact, which means it is a new melody composed to the harmonic progression of an existing song. There is a long tradition of jazz musicians composing contrafacts. In this instance, Smith based “Walk Don’t Run” on the chords to the old Broadway show tune “Softly As In a Morning Sunrise”. Smith was good at composing melodies, but not so great at coming up with song titles, so when he brought his new tune into the studio it was lacking a name. The album’s producer, Teddy Reig, came up with the title.

Nashville studio legend Chet Atkins.

While “Walk Don’t Run” was never released as a single, it was reissued two years later when most of the tracks from In a Sentimental Mood were included in the expanded LP Moods. The following year Nashville studio legend Chet Atkins asked Smith’s permission to record a cover of the song for his 1957 album Hi-Fi In Focus. Smith, who knew Atkins well, was immediately inclined to acquiesce, but Chet insisted on playing his arrangement of the song for Johnny before he gave his approval. As would be expected, Chet’s arrangement has more of a country lilt than the moodiness of Smith’s original jazz rendition. In order to facilitate his fingerstyle technique, Atkins changed the key to A minor. This enabled him to play a descending bassline – A, G, F, E – on the lower two strings while simultaneously playing the melody above. Smith’s composition was originally in D minor, as that is the key of “Softly As In a Morning Sunrise”. 

Chet Atkins’ 1957 album Hi-Fi In Focus, featuring his cover of “Walk Don’t Run”.

 Amongst those that heard Chet Atkins’ cover of “Walk Don’t Run” were a group of young musicians from Tacoma, Washington called The Ventures. Their cover of Atkins’ cover of Smiths’ song became their first single. It was an instant worldwide hit, reaching #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in 1960 – kept out of the top spot only by The King himself, Elvis Presley. The Ventures have stated that they never got around to hearing Smith’s original recording until well after “Walk Don’t Run” had propelled them to fame. As a result, The Ventures’ version takes several key elements of Atkins’ rendition which weren’t part of Smith’s original composition, such as the A minor key and Atkins’ descending bassline. While always recognisably the same song, The Ventures’ arrangement differs from both Smith’s and Atkins’ renditions in significant ways. For starters, they replaced the triplet swing feel, which is central to both earlier versions, with a straight quaver feel. The drums pound out a go-go beat, and there’s even a drum solo. These changes are more in keeping with The Ventures’ rock and roll aesthetic.

The Ventures in 1961 – Howie Johnson, Don Wilson, Nokie Edwards and Bob Bogle

The huge success of the 1960 recording spawned a raft of cover versions that had more in common with The Ventures than either Johnny Smith or Chet Atkins, including those by British guitar group The Shadows, country music star Glen Campbell, and a trumpet-led version by Herb Alpert’s Tijuana Brass. In fact, the song was so integral to The Ventures’ success that four years later they re-recorded it under the title “Walk Don’t Run ‘64”. With this remake The Ventures achieved the seemingly impossible, entering the charts for a second time, this time making it to #8 on Billboard’s Hot 100. Never before – or since – has an act made the Top 10 twice with different recordings of the same song. To do so with an instrumental just makes this feat all the more remarkable. 

The Ventures’ cover of “Walk Don’t Run” ushered in a whole new style of instrumental rock music that was soon to become known as “surf music”. Unlike their predecessors in the field of guitar instrumentals, Link Wray and Duane Eddy, The Ventures’ sound was bright and clean with plenty of reverb. Whereas Wray’s aggressively distorted proto-punk tone was forged by punching holes in his speaker cone with a pencil, and Eddy’s twangy countrified sound was pure Gretsch, The Ventures’ bright clean sounds were Fender all the way. The early Ventures albums were recorded with a Stratocaster, a Precision Bass, and – you guessed it – a Jazzmaster. Before long the Strat was replaced with a second Jazzmaster. Eventually, The Ventures would be honoured with their own signature line of Mosrite guitars, but by then the surf guitar die was set. Other instrumental groups to follow in the surf genre included Dick Dale (“Misirlou”), The Surfaris (“Wipeout”), The Chantays (“Pipeline”), and from the UK, The Shadows (“Apache”). All of these groups played Fender instruments. Even The Beach Boys used the classic Fender triumvirate of a Strat, a Jazzmaster, and a Precision Bass.  

The Ventures with their two Fender Jazzmasters flanking a Precision Bass.

Just a few years later The Beatles would launch the British Invasion and the whole music scene would change again, but for a brief shining moment surf guitar was king of the airwaves, and the instruments of choice for its key proponents were almost exclusively made by Fender. The Jazzmaster, in particular, benefitted from the association with surf groups. Having completely missed the mark with its intended audience, initial sales figures were disappointing until The Ventures appeared with their Jazzmasters on album covers and in TV appearances. There’s something of an irony in the fact that the song which kicked off the whole surf craze, and in so doing created a market for the Jazzmaster, was originally a jazz contracfact by one of those same jazz guitarists that Leo was unsuccessfully attempting to steal away from his competitors.

I don’t know whether Johnny Smith ever played a Jazzmaster. His instrument of choice during his early career was a hollowbody archtop custom-made by his friend John D’Angelico. Based on a Gibson L5, this is the instrument he used in the studio for the 1954 recording of “Walk Don’t Run”. The following year, Guild released a signature model called the “Johnny Smith Award”, featuring Smith in their advertising campaign. He wasn’t completely happy with the Guild, though, and continued to play his D’Angelico on live dates and in the studio.

In 1961, a year after The Ventures had had such huge success with “Walk Don’t Run”, Smith once again tried his hand at designing a signature model guitar – this time for Gibson. The Gibson Johnny Smith model was a success, and was in production for almost three decades, with a couple of thousand instruments made. In 1989 Smith moved his endorsement to the Heritage Guitar Company. The Heritage Johnny Smith model was produced in the old Gibson factory in Kalamazoo until 1992.

Jazz guitarist Johnny Smith with his Gibson signature model.

Finally, after almost half a century, Smith was lured back to Guild in 2004, where a new batch of Guild Johnny Smith Award guitars were produced over a two-year period. These guitars were designed and built by master archtop luthier Bob Benedetto and were significantly different to the original Guild Johnny Smith Award guitars from the 1950s. Unlike his first signature model, Johnny liked the new guitars very much indeed.

The great irony here is that the Fender Corporation had purchased Guild in 1995, so these new Guilds were actually produced by Fender. And no, they weren’t solid body guitars with vibrato systems and single coil pickups. Rather, they were full depth f-hole archtops in the style of the instruments that Smith had played throughout his career. Under the watchful eye of Bob Benedetto, Fender were finally making a proper jazz guitar – the sort that a jazz master like Johnny Smith would actually want to play.  

So that’s the circular tale of a brilliant, but misguided, engineering genius; a virtuoso jazz musician; a song which spawned a whole musical genre; and an initially unsuccessful, but ultimately iconic guitar design.


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