This month we are celebrating the life, music, and Gibson signature artist model of bebop jazz guitar great Tal Farlow. Born in 1921, Tal played the mandolin as a child, but turned to the guitar in 1941, having been inspired by the then-earth-shattering Charlie Christian recordings. Legend has it that Tal learned all Charlie’s solos by ear (something Wes Montgomery was also known to have done). By 1950, Farlow was considered a fleet and inventive guitarist, worthy of joining forces with powerhouse vibraphonist Red Norvo, in a long-running if intermittent relationship. Young bassist Charles Mingus completed that first trio. This work brought Tal to early career fame, and over the next 40 years Farlow enjoyed a quietly celebrated and sporadic career as both leader and sideman. In 1958, Tal moved to the coastal town of Seabright, New Jersey, and lived a placid life of boating, teaching, and sign painting, mixed with local performances and the occasional reemergence from ‘retirement’. Over several decades, he was occasionally deputized to fill in at the Herb Ellis-Barney Kessel-Charlie Byrd Great Guitars performances. Although he seemed to vanish from the scene for years at a time, he would reemerge occasionally to produce fine jazz recordings, as he did in his ‘return’ in 1969 and again in the 80’s. In one such resurfacing, theConcord label produced many fine Farlow records, including the relentlessly swinging "Cookin’ on All Burners". These 80’s recordings spotlight Tal as a veteran founder of bebop jazz guitar and prove his enduring viability as an exciting performer with a unique voice. He was equally at home playing chord melodies as working in a combo setting(1).
Tal Farlow was a Gibson es-350 player during the fifties, and was referred to as “The Gibson Boy” as he became better known on the music scene. He had gained enough acclaim, in fact, that in 1960, he was approached by Gibson to be one of the three important jazz performers for whom signature artist models would be designed. This exclusive triumvirate was made up of Johnny Smith, Barney Kessel, and Tal. Tal had a significant hand in the design of the Tal Farlow model. Thankfully, one of his designs was rejected: a pickup that could slide along the pickguard on a track rail, to achieve the tonal variances otherwise made possible by two pickups. (2) [Never one to completely abandon a bad idea, Gibson introduced the sliding pickup concept in 1973 on the Grabber bass, with deservedly poor results.] On the first Tal model, Gibson opted instead for a standard-routed two pickup design, with nickel hardware. Early models can be found with PAF pickups. The Tal model came with two full-size humbuckers, unlike many of the other high-end Gibson archtops (such as the L-5CES, Byrdland, Super 400CES, and Barney Kessel models) that all came from the factory in the early 60’s with the narrower spaced neck pickup.

The TF model in some ways resembles Tal’s earlier es-350 with its Venetian cutaway, 17-inch lower bout, and maple top. The TF model adds a 25.5 inch scale length (same as the L-5 and Super 400), a unique pickguard shape, reversed J-200 inlays on the rosewood fretboard, double crown inlay on the headstock, L-7 style tailpiece with signature inlay, and Kluson Super (waffle-back) tuners. Many of the models have a Tal-designed scroll in the horn of the upper bout (although some do not, see example). A sunburst finish, ‘Viceroy Brown’, was standard. The model was reissued by Gibson in the 90’s. [Picture shows a 1964 TF model sans scroll]. Unlike Barney Kessel, who seemed disinterested in actually using the BK models, Tal played his TF signature model the rest of his life.
Lacking popular interest and due to poor sales, the Tal model lasted only 5 years (1962 through 1967). This model lifespan pales in comparison to the 14-year longevity of the BK models (1961-1974). Interestingly, more players today seem to have a kinder eye for the TF model, with its more traditional looking geometry and style, than they do the BK model, with its roguish double sharp cutaway.
As we look at Tal’s career, we can imagine that there must have been some inner struggle with the question of how to best make a living — a question many artist/performers struggle with! As early as 1962, Tal seemed to begin drifting in and out of retirement, and this back and forth movement continued through his later years. For many years he worked locally in New Jersey, doubling as a sign painter. Tal died at age 77 (d. 1998), and in his last months continued to give guitar lessons at his home. He left behind a fine legacy of recordings—and an excellent Gibson artist model!
FOOTNOTES -----------

(1) An excellent solo chord-melody of “Misty”, performed by Tal, can be found on YouTube:
(2) Gibson Electrics, The Classic Years, Hal Leonard Corp., 1994; page 99.

INDEX of magazine columns
Tal Farlow: Reluctant Jazz Great and His Gibson Model  (April 2008)
Click here for the published column as it appeared in Premier Guitar Magazine:
Left: This picture of Tal appears on the back of the "Cookin' On All Burners" album...a hard swinging 1982 come-back effort.  (...and one of my favorite Tal Farlow recordings!  -JB)
1950's photo of Tal, with Red Norvo and Charles Mingus