Over the next several months, I want to look at one of the artist signature guitars Gibson offered in the sixties, and, more importantly, the work of the artist whose name it bears: Barney Kessel. Both artist and model seem to be given scant attention, especially considering the contributions Barney made to the evolution of jazz guitar performance. In an earlier day, Barney was thought to have been the heir to the throne that Charlie Christian had occupied in the forties. In the fifties, no one was as famous on jazz guitar or as prolific as Barney. No one won as many Down Beat artist polls. And no one was more in demand as the preeminent guitar sideman. The number of recordings that bears his name, as sideman and leader, is staggering.
Sadly, the sixties brought with it the slow popular death of jazz. Gibson - always a day late and a dollar short - introduced the Barney Kessel model guitars as the tide had already begun to turn to solid body electric guitars, rock music, and Elvis; these changes in pop music as well as other historical factors helped push jazz to the rear of the popular music bus. The BK artist model was introduced for the first time in 1961, and actually stayed on the books a staggering 13 years, to 1974. This was a long and unsteady career for the model, and in its best year (1968) the total number of guitars shipped was only 371 (this is a combined total of the BK Regular and Custom models). The early 70's saw the model phased out as both Barney's relationship with Gibson, and jazz popularity in general, deteriorated.
Gibson approached Barney in 1960, at the zenith of Barney's popularity. Barney's name had already appeared on several Kay models but he was eager to attach his name to an instrument he saw as more worthy and more playable. "I don't play that Kay; it's a terrible guitar", he said at the time. It is still unclear as to just how happy Barney was with the new BK models Gibson made. There are many glamour shots of Barney with both the Custom and Regular models, but all of his serious concert and combo recording work was done with a 1940's Gibson ES-350 with a Charlie Christian pickup. In a number of Barney's turbulent years with Gibson, the headstock logo was seen covered in tape. While it is a given that Barney showed a lack of real interest in his own signature models, Gibson reached greater synchronicity with Tal Farlow and Johnny Smith. Both Tal and Johnny showed serious interest in their models, and were not seen without them throughout the sixties. Curiously, Barney was one of the few artists given TWO models to bear his name, the Custom and Regular, despite this seeming lack of interest. There is also a question of whether he actually contributed at all to the design of the model, or whether it was simply a pre-made prototype in search of a model name. This history suggests that Gibson was eager to associate itself with the name of a succesful artist, even if the artist had little relationship to the instrument!
Today, the models lack real popularity - from my observation - based primarily on the double cutaway style, more than any other feature. The models' high end features seem to be overlooked, for example the Super 400 neck and headstock. Over the last few years the BK models have slowly but steadily climbed in value in the vintage market. Sadly, it is often still the case that the parts are worth more than the whole, and one can often find empty BK shells at bargain prices, the pickups and other parts having been reassigned to 'more worthy' guitars. I wonder if the dealers who part out the Barney Kessel guitars have ever listened to his music! Several of the BKs in my personal collection were purchased as 'wood only' and restored exactly as they would have come from the factory. We will know that the BK has arrived as a respectable collector's guitar when the 'whole' is worth more than the parts (as has already happened to other lower-line guitars such as the circa 1959 es-175).
Pictured are five BK Custom and Regular guitars, spanning 1961 - 1965. All original, these models boast five PAF pickups among them. Next moth we will begin looking closely at this namesake artist himself and his contributions to chordal bebop lines.