Barney Kessel was born on October 17, 1923. As a boy he saw a book entitled How to Play Guitar in Five Minutes. He became fascinated with the guitar shortly after that and like a lot of us, Kessel listened to recordings and learned to play guitar by copying licks. He grew up in Oklahoma during an era when Western Swing music was popular. So much of what he learned came from players like Eldon Shamblin, Junior Barnard, Billy Dozier and Jimmy Wyble.
At 14 years of age Kessel left school to join a big band led by Ellis Ezell. Kessel got his start as the only white player in Ezells group. The group played at Black dance clubs throughout Oklahoma.
Originally Kessel's style was modeled off of Charlie Christian's playing.
Christian, who was also an Oklahoma resident heard of Barney Kessel on a visit to his home. The pair met and Kessel had the opportunity to play with Christian at a jazz jam session. It was during this meeting that Kessel discovered here are two guys playing like Charlie Christian. He felt the need to find his own playing style.
Kessel went on to back up other Capitol Record recording artists such as Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, Sam Cooke and many others. He won awards from Downbeat magazine and was a columnist for Guitar Player magazine.
Above all things Kessel a consument jazz guitarist and well respected by his peers. He played in a guitar trio that featured Herb Ellis, Charlie Byrd and at times Tal Farlow. In the late 1960's Kessel owned a music store which was one of the first that employed guitar technicians to modified guitars.
Which now brings us to Kessel's guitars. Kessel gave his name to instruments produced by several guitar manufacturers; Kay, Gibson and Ibanez.
Kay produced a number of Kessel models at their Chicago based manufacturing plant. The bodies of several of these instruments resembled Kessels Gibson ES-350, with it's large hollow body, f-holes and Venetian cutaway. They also produced an Artist model with 3 pickups and double Florentine cutaway. All guitars came with what is known as the Kelvinator headstock, named after a refrigerator built during the 1950's.
In later years when Kessel was asked about the Kay guitar he commented, "I'd never play that guitar. It is awful."
In 1961 Gibson produced two similar Barney Kessel models. This large hollow body electric instrument featured two chrome plated humbucking pickups each with their own volume and tone controls, double Florentine cutaway. It was bound all around the body and neck. A rosewood base held a tune-o-matic bridge in place, so the bridge was not mounted directly to the body.
The bound neck had a rosewood fretboard with either parallel position markers. The bound 3 on a side headstock was Gibsons standard shape and finished in high gloss black with a crown inlay.
The guitars spruce body was finished in cherry sunburst. The pickup throw switch was on the lower cutaway bout.
Ibanez produced a Barney Kessel model. I've only seen the prototype in a Youtube video. The body is narrower than the Gibson and it appears to have a Florentine cutaway.
There were also several Asian companies making knock-offs of the Barney Kessel Gibson model.
Barney Kessel's personal guitar that he was most often scene with in concert is a Gibson 1946/47 modified ES-350. This guitar has a tobacco brown body and a Venetian cutaway. It was an electrified version of the Gibson L-7. The standard version ES-350 came with twin humbucking pickups and a 24 3/4' scale neck with trapezoidal position markers and 19 frets. It was a fairly fancy guitar. There were some single pickup models produced.
Kessel's guitar also had 2 bakelite chicken head knobs that he took off of an old phonograph. He states these helped him determine their positions when on a dark stage. The ES 350's neck was also modified. Gone was the fancy 19 fret fingerboard and it was replaced with a 20 fret model fretboard with dot position markers. I do not know if the neck was a 25 1/2 or a 24 3/4" scale. The bridge was sculpted from rosewood. He also replaced the original Kluson tuners with open back Grover tuners.
How ironic it is that the Gibson Barney Kessel and the Kay Barney Kessel were so fancy and Kessel's own favorite guitar was so very plain. But as Kessel says in a video, the guitar is only an outlet for my music. It is the music that is important.
Thanks to Raybob Bowman for reminding me about Barney Kessel.