Player Profile: The Hard Swinging Barney Kessel

Considering that he began his career at the age of 14 playing with The Ellis Ezell Band, an all-black band that played black clubs throughout Oklahoma in the late 1930s, it’s safe to say that Barney Kessel could swing hard.

Barney Kessel

At the time, Kessel’s playing was influenced mostly by Charlie Christian, the guitarist with Benny Goodman’s Sextet. By embracing Christian’s amplified single-string technique, Christian and Kessel showed generations of guitarists a way to break free from comping chords in the rhythm section.

In the ‘40s, with the Big Band era literally in full swing, Kessel was able to find work with some high profile bands. Recordings and live performances with Charlie Barnet, Artie Shaw, Les Brown and Benny Goodman kept him busy. There was even a short stint with the comedian Chico Marx and his Orchestra. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Kessel cut four tunes with the Charlie Parker All Stars on Dial Records: “Relaxin’ at Camarillo,” “Cheers,” “Carvin’ The Bird,” and “Stupendous.”

Kessel began his recording career as a leader in the early 1950s with Contemporary Records, founded by Lester Koenig. His early albums, Easy Like, Kessel Plays Standards, and To Swing Or Not To Swing, are now sought after by today’s audiophiles.

Between October of 1955 and January 1956, he arranged and recorded Julie Is Her Name, with vocalist Julie London and bassist Ray Leatherwood. This stripped down two-plus-one combo was an industry first due to its sparse instrumentation in the torch song genre.

The Signature Guitars Of Barney Kessel

Late 50s Kay Barney Kessel Sunburst

In 1957, Chicago’s Kay Co. secured an endorsement from Kessel and introduced a line of guitars bearing his signature. Prior, Kay was known for lower quality, entry-level instruments but the Kessel signature guitars were intended to compete with Gibson and Gretsch.

The guitars exude a mid-century vibe, with a large “Kelvinator” headstock and silver and gold “K” logo. Equipped with top-of-the line Grover Rotomatic tuners and rich sounding pickups, nicknamed “Kleenex Boxes,” these instruments were attractive and well made. Unfortunately, sales did not reflect that, and Kessel’s line of Kay guitars was discontinued in 1960.

But all was not lost. In 1960, Gibson introduced a Barney Kessel prototype guitar with a double Florentine cutaway shape. From this prototype, two versions were produced in 1961. The Barney Kessel Custom sported bow tie inlays, gold plated parts, and a music note on the peg head. Listed at $599, it was the same price as Gibson’s Byrdland model. The Barney Kessel Regular had unbound f-holes, parallelogram inlays, and Kluson tuners, as opposed to Grovers on the Custom. The suggested list price was $399. The Regular was the more successful model, due to the price difference. Both models were discontinued between late 1973 and early 1974.

Kessel became a fixture in Hollywood’s recording studios in the 1960s, playing guitar on albums behind Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, The Beach Boys and Sam Cooke. There were soundtracks to motion pictures as well: “Cool Hand Luke” and “Some Like It Hot,” just to name a couple.

Gibson Barney Kessel Regular
Gibson Barney Kessel Custom

Herb Ellis and Charlie Byrd joined forces with Kessel in the 1970s and ‘80s. The group Great Guitars, backed by bass and drums, toured globally. Many of these performances were documented on video. You can see Kessel playing his modified 1946 Gibson ES-150 with a 1939 pickup and “Rooster Head” knobs, his main guitar.

Kessel suffered a debilitating stroke at home in 1992. Never able to play again, he taught and traveled to New York City, Italy and other places for concerts in his honor. Kessel died of brain cancer, at his home in San Diego onMay 6, 2004.

Take a look at this sample of Kessel in action with a lesson on his style from the man himself.

Barney Kessel Guitar Lesson
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