Saturday, August 21, 2010

Barney Kessel Guitars

To study Barney Kessels personal guitar, we first need  to take a look at Charlie Christian and the Gibson Charlie Christian model aka ES 150.

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.

Kessel was enamoured of Charlie Christian and his style of playing. Christian is best known for his association as the guitarist for Benny Goodman's sextet and big band. Christian is also one of the first guitarists to use an electrified instrument and had a major influence on how jazz music is played which influenced R&B and early Rock guitar styles.

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.

Charlie Christian encouraged Kessel to move to Los Angeles and get involved with the music and recording industry.  Kessel fell into orchestras led by Chico Marx, Les Brown, Charlie Barnet and Artie Shaw.  Kessel went on to be one of the most recorded guitarists in history, doing everything from radio and TV shows to film scores and commercials. Recording helped pay the bills.

Barney was part of the LA Wrecking Crew, which backed up most of the hits of the 1960's. Listen to the opening lines of the Beach Boys song, "Woudn't It Be Nice."  The first four bars sound sort of like a calyopy, but it is actually Kessel and another player both on 12 string guitars.  The instrument Kessel played on that track was unusual. It had a mandolin body and a short 12 string neck.

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.

Kay Barney Kessel
Kessel's name was emblazoned on the guitar's scratchplate.  It featured two single coil DeArmond pickups.

In later years when Kessel was asked about the Kay guitar he commented, "I'd never play that guitar.  It is awful."

1961 Gibson B. Kessel
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.

1968 Barney Kessel

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 strings were anchored by a trapeze tailpiece.  Between the struts of the tailpiece was a unfinished rosewood block with a nameplate that bore Barney Kessels name. 

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.

The Barney Kessel C (custom) was came with similar accouterments however all the hardware, including pickup covers, was gold plated and the position markers were bow tie shaped and the headstock inlay was a large quarter note.  Both guitars were 25 1/2" scale and the fretboards had 20 frets.  These guitars did sell well, but maintained in production through 1973.

Ibanez Barney Kessel
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.

Ventura Barney Kessel

There were also several Asian companies making knock-offs of the Barney Kessel Gibson model.

1947 ES-350

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.

1936 ES 350

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.

I do not know where Kessel's guitar was modified or who made the changes. Barney had a Charlie Christian pickup installed at the neck.  In my opinion this modification was a fairly big deal, since the standard spruce top on the ES 350 was routed for one or two humbuckers. The Charlie Christian model pickup was a different shape and required thee holes to be drilled into the guitars top. 

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.

After thinking about the modifications done to Kessels guitar it hit me that Kessel was turning his cutaway ES 350 into a cutaway version of the ES 150 that his mentor Charlie Christian played.  The ES-150 had a 20 fret neck with dot markers, the Charlie Christian pickup with 3 bolts holding it to the body and one tone and one volume control both made of bakelite.

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.

I thank all the folks that read and especially the ones that respond to the articles. I treasure your knowledge and thank you for updates and even corrections. Apparently Barney Kessel's personal guitar has found its way into the hands of jazz player, Bruce Foreman. Check out this link.


Phil Clark said...

Excellent artilcle! Barney Kessell is one of my favorites,as is Pet Sounds. The clip with Heb Ellis is a nice bonus.

Anonymous said...

Barney's es 350 was modified by late Milt Owens who also worked as luthier in his Music City on Sunset Blvd in late 60s. the rosewood fingerboard was changed to ebony board, the bridge was carved from Maccasar ebony by Milt also, the bridge base was flat on the guitar top with no space. Early Gibson ES 350 had single P90 pickup, and also body was made of plywood, which was liked by Barney as well as Tal Farlow or other ES 175 players because it gave more woody bassy tone when amplified, compared to spruce which gave brighter tone and was sensitive to vibration, meaning more susceptible to feedback. hope this helps.

Anonymous said...

Hi, awesome blog by the way! Lots of great info on Mr. Kessel and his incredible playing and career in this post, I loved the videos (especially the Pet Sounds one)

Carlos Rivera said...

What happened to this guitar after barney died. Was it sold or is it in a museum ? It would be great if it's still being played !!!

Hyoo said...

Working with a very highly respected pickup maker to revive the Barney Kessel (aka Kleenex) pickup. It seems as though he never played it (as stated above). However, did he design it? Did he design it with Kay and Gibson or Kay and DeArmond? This info is crucial to my research and for us to give credit where it is due.

Anonymous, you seem to be very much in the know about this.

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