Welcome to the Gibson Barney Kessel Pages…A panoramic historical look at one of the most interesting, under-valued, and misunderstood professional jazz instruments of all time. With its 1950’s style cartoon-modern design and warm timbre, the Barney Kessel archtop electric guitar is the perfect player for performers interested in vintage style and tone.
The model was introduced in 1961. The “Big Note” headstock and pointy double-cutaway on the Custom model remind us of the stylized ‘modern’ art of cartoonists of the same era, such as Cliff Roberts, and other artists who worked on Mr. Magoo and Disney backgrounds.
It might be a myth that the best sounding top material for an archtop is solid spruce. The Barney Kessel models sported (mostly) laminated spruce tops between 1961-1964, and create some of the finest, warmest acoustic jazz guitar timbres I have heard. As an added plus, the laminated spruce top is not subject to the same cracking that a solid top is apt to experience. We may need to re-evaluate how we feel about the value of laminated spruce tops! After ’64 most BK tops were laminated maple, which produces a decidedly brighter tone in these models. The maple top version, in my opinion, is not the optimal model for traditional jazz, although I have played many that are fine instruments. Below is a 1961 “Regular” model (nickel hardware and parallelogram fretboard markers). This example is in pristine condition and comes with its unmolested original case. This example has the only original black case with pink lining I have ever seen….from the factory, and with the original Gibson logo on the handle….definitely a transition case in between the tan/pink and black/yellow cases!
The long neck heel is a feature in place between ’61 – 64. I believe these models are the premium BK’s to collect. The long neck heel has a very vintage feel and look to it, and adds to the 50’s vibe of the double cutaway. On the down side, this design tends to contribute to a neck lift in the higher frets, and can result in a neck that is less than straight. I have seen a high percentage of this model suffering from that ailment; in many cases a refret will curb the problem, although more severe cases can require a neck reset or fingerboard planing.
The pointy geometric style in the BK double cutaway recreates signature lines of the cartoon modern 1950’s style.
Below is a partial number of the BK’s from my personal collection, which may be the largest on this planet. The examples shown are all between ’61-64. About half of the pickups have PAF stickers, although there is absolutely no discernible difference in sound between the pickups that have PAF stickers and those with Patent Number Stickers. 1965 is the year that I begin to notice a difference in tone in the pickups, and that year also starts a change in wiring, where the pickups will have one white and one black lead wire rather than two black lead wires.
Below: The 1961-1962 models tend to retain their dark sunburst colors. The 63-64 models will more quickly fade due to the type of red paint used in those years. I have seen models from 1964 and 1965 that started life as sunburst but were completely faded to natural. From left, numbers 1, 4, and 6 are from the years 63-64 and are decidedly faded as compared to the earlier models shown.
The flagship of the collection: 1961 Barney Kessel Custom. This example has original Grover Pat Pend tuners, abr-1 bridge with no wire, two PAF pickups, and original tan/pink case. Note the two-piece maple neck, a feature left over from the 50's.