1969 Gibson Barney Kessel Regular, as made famous by Barney Kessel
Glorious 60s signature for one of the guitar greats, behind a staggering catalogue of personal, session and credited recordings with so many of the jazz and mainstream giants. And nowadays, a vintage favourite of guitarists as varied as Tony Iommi, Nile Rodgers, Josh Homme and Pat Smear. Nice!
Sometimes in life, you just don't know what treasures and discoveries you're going to stumble on. I bought this one for the collection having seen Josh Homme and Pat Smear playing their ones - Josh Homme with a Regular, like this one, and Pat Smear with a Custom, with the gold hardware, ebony fretboard and note motif headstock inlay. I really didn't know that much about Barney Kessel. But it doesn't take much searching to improve an incomplete musical education (it's not just me!) - and realise you've heard Barney Kessel, hundreds of times, without even realising it.
Barney Kessel was one of the biggest and most prolific jazz and session guitarists of the 20th century, in his first band in the 1940s, aged 16, and still going into his late 60s when sadly a stroke meant he was no longer able to perform professionally. But how he filled those five decades! The astonishing output - more than 50 albums in his own name or in collaboration. The big names he worked with - Artie Shaw, Charlie Parker, Oscar Peterson, Chet Baker, Billie Holliday, Elvis Presley, The Beach Boys (on "Pet Sounds"), even The Monkees (on "I'm A Believer"), to name only a few. The A-list session band - part of The Wrecking Crew, that super-talented (and uncredited) powerhouse behind so many hits in the 1960s. The films - Some Like It Hot, Cool Hand Luke, The Cincinnati Kid, The Stripper, and many others (again, all uncredited!). He's the guitarist on Ella Fitzgerald Sings The Cole Porter Songbook, an LP handed down to me from my grandparents. And, probably most famously, the guitarist behind Julie London's magical and haunting recording of Cry Me A River. As a teenager, he earned the name "Fruitcake" - or madman. Why? Because he used to practise guitar 16 hours a day . . . Which I suppose just shows what everyone knows - effortless genius takes a lot of hard work.
Gibson weren't the first to bring out a Barney Kessel signature model. In 1956, Kay Musical Instruments brought out three models in his name. Two of them are available as reissues today. To be fair, he endorsed them, he played them, but he didn't think much of them. So, it must have been a blessing to have Gibson approach him and bring out a Regular and Custom model in 1961. A jaw-dropping cherry sunburst, big headstock, perfectly symmetrical devil-horns (the same year the SG was introduced), split parallelogram inlays, 25.5" scale (unusual for Gibson), and those PATENT NO humbuckers. Such warmth, it makes you feel like you've wrapped yourself in your favourite sonic duvet. But plenty of bite in the treble position to give you the attack that modern day players like Josh Homme and Pat Smear make their name by. A classic archtop with lashings of mojo, recognising (I know - must do better) one of the finest guitarists of the 20th century!
See & Hear It In Action
Basie's Blues (1973): Impossible to choose, but a classic in the hands of Barney Kessel, Sture Norden and Rune Carlsson. The musicianship is just staggering.
Norm's Guitars with a 1964 Barney Kessel Regular: Lovely run-through, lovely demo. Michael Lemmo knows how to give this the playing it deserves! And, check it out, a "CUSTOM" truss rod cover on a Regular guitar . . . see below for more info.
Barney Kessel Regular
Number of Frets
Spruce Top, Maple Back & Sides
Kluson Deluxe "Double Line, Double Ring"
Gibson PATENT NO 2,737,842 Humbuckers
Rosewood compensated bridge
Trapeze, with raised diamond; "Barney Kessel" plate
The Barney Kessel Regular launched in 1961, alongside the Custom, and ran for 12 years. Gibson produced 1,117 Regulars over the 12 years of production, so there aren't that many of them on the planet. Back in the 60s, you could buy one for $525. They're worth a bit more today.
The serial number would date this to 1966 or 1969. And there's not a lot to go on to work out which year this one might be - enclosed pots, with no visible date codes, and tuners, knobs and pick-ups that could put this one in either year. But there is one thing. From 1967 - 1972, the mother-of-pearl Gibson logo didn't have a dot on the "i". It's a very short timeframe, and one that fits perfectly with the later date of 1969. So 1969 it is!
That cherry sunburst is just jaw-droppingly gorgeous. Beautiful colours and depth, a touch of lacquer crazing, and the enhanced grain of the spruce and maple through the lacquer that only age will give you.
All original - including the rosewood compensated bridge. A lot of the Regulars have had this replaced with a more adjustable Tune-O-Matic style bridge. But really, this one doesn't need it. Intonation is perfect across all strings, with only a marginal sharpness to the D string at the octave. When you're playing, you wouldn't know.
The only oddity is the truss rod cover, which is stamped "CUSTOM". This is definitely a Regular model - no gold hardware, no ebony board, no note-motif headstock inlay. But for some reason it has that stamped truss rod cover. At first I thought this was a previous owner wanting to up the look and value of the guitar. But then I saw a couple of other Regulars with a "CUSTOM" truss rod cover. It certainly looks aged with the rest of the guitar. So maybe it was just the Gibson factory using what was to hand when they produced it - not uncommon, and, more than 50 years later, it's nothing that's going to affect the tone, and something that adds some mysterious glamour to this beauty.
I'm no jazz player, but pick this up, and play unplugged, and you can hear the warmth and resonance coming through. Plug it in, and you'll get double the warmth from the neck pick-up, and all the bite you could wish for from the bridge. Lovely low set-up and strung with flatwounds, for that smoother tone and feel. All it needs now is for someone that knows what they're doing to really put this "workingman's guitar" through it's paces. Over to you!
Sources & Links
Vintage Guitar & Bass: Always the best place to start, Vintage Guitar & Bass provide the perfect introduction to the Barney Kessel Regular and Custom models.
Barney Kessel on Wikipedia: I don't often cite Wikipedia, but this merits a mention - just because of the staggering number of albums and collaborations. And that's just a starter. Check out IMDB for his film and television contributions. And Discogs for over 3,500 recordings!
The Evolution Of The Gibson Logo: Huge thanks to Thalia for helping date this guitar - the final piece in the jigsaw turns out to be a missing piece . . . no dot on the mother-of-pearl "i" between 1967 and 1972.