Video: Do You Know The Stories Behind These Vintage Signature Guitars?

Trini Lopez (1966). Photo by: Harry Benson / Stringer, Getty Images.
Mary Kaye (1970). Photo by: Michael Ochs Archives / Stringer, Getty Images.
George Benson (1978). Photo by: David Redfern / Staff, Getty Images.

Some of the most famous household-name guitar players have their own signature models: Buddy Guy, Carlos Santana, Chet Atkins, Les Paul... and even contemporary players like St. Vincent, John Mayer, and Dave Grohl.

We are all familiar with these artists, and with their signature guitars as well. But some classic signature models have almost become more famous now than the players themselves. But who are these guitarists of yesteryear?

In our video above, we look at the players behind the names on these six classic signature guitar lines.

Joe Pass

One of the more well-known players on our list today, Joe Pass became popular for his solo guitar work, as well as recording with Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gilespie and many others.

In much of his career, he seemed to favor his Gibson ES-175, which he received as a gift in the early '60s upon leaving drug rehab, after a wealthy jazz fan realized that Joe did not own his own guitar. At the time, he was playing a Jazzmaster owned by the clinic.

He used this ES-175 on early recordings and well into the '70s. It can be heard on the beautiful chord melodies on his esteemed record, Virtuoso, as well as on For Django 10 years earlier.

In the '70s, Joe had a custom D'Aquisto single pickup guitar built for him. Then, the Ibanez Joe Pass JP20 was in production from 1981–1990. The intention from Ibanez was to produce a more affordable archtop. The JP20 was slightly based off of the D'Aquisto, and Pass played it through the '80s live and in the studio.

There was yet another Joe Pass signature model, from Epihone, the Joe Pass Emperor II, released shortly before Pass's death in 1994. But by this time, Joe had circled back to the Gibson ES-175, and now, it was custom-built for Joe, with the pickup immediately adjacent to the fingerboard.

Mary Kaye

Mary Kaye, otherwise known as "the first lady of rock 'n' roll," was an early, influential guitarist who played a role in defining Vegas lounge music. And her signature guitar has an interesting story, which starts with a photo from 1956.

Mary Kaye and her trio bandmates were part of a Fender ad promo. In the photo, Kaye is holding the guitar that she would soon be associated with forever.

The guitar, which did not belong to her at the time, was the first custom Fender Stratocaster ever produced, and the first model Fender issued in this color scheme—a distinctive ash blond body with gold hardware.

Now, before this photo, and after, Kaye used D'Angelico guitars, but the image of her with this Strat became popular in ads all over the world, as well as in the film Cha-Cha-Cha-Boom!

It wasn't until 2005 that Fender issued the Limited Signature Mary Kaye Tribute Stratocaster. Then two years later, after Kaye passed away, they issued a special reissue 1957 Mary Kaye Commemorative Stratocaster, made to original 1957 specs.

Barney Kessel

Next on our list is the wonderful Barney Kessel—a prominent American Jazz guitarist that recorded with jazz greats Charlie Parker and Sonny Rollins, as well as pop groups like The Monkees and The Beach Boys. He was an early member of all-star studio session group, The Wrecking Crew.

In 1957, Chicago's Kay Musical Instruments launched a line of guitars bearing Barney Kessel's signature. These guitars had a short original run, being discontinued in 1960, though as of 2019, the revived Kay brand is making them once again.

In 1961, Gibson launched the Barney Kesssel signature in two different models—the Barney Kessel Custom, and the Barney Kessel Regular. These beautiful double Florentine cutaway models were in production until 1974.

This move by Gibson made sense, considering Kessel seemed to have been a Gibson fan, as the main guitar he wielded was a 1946/47 modified ES-350.

Johnny Smith

Did you know that the guy who wrote "Walk, Don't Run"—which The Ventures turned into a surf hit—was jazz guitarist Johnny Smith?

Johnny Smith was an incredibly diverse player. He could hang with players at Birdland, and could also sight read his way through orchestral arrangements at The New York Philharmonic. He recorded with Stan Getz in the critically acclaimed'Moonlight In Vermont.

Johnny has designed signature guitars with Guild, Gibson, and Heritage.

First was Guild, with the Johnny Smith Award, which was issued in 1955.

Then in 1961, Gibson president Ted McCarty, in an effort to expand the production of their hollowbody electric guitars with influential players, spent some time with Smith—and had Smith design the guitar he wanted. Gibson put it into production shortly after.

With two signature guitars in Johnny Smith's name, there would soon be opportunity for a third. When the Gibson factory moved from Kalamazoo, Michigan, to Nashville in 1984, some of the builders stayed in Kalamazoo and formed Heritage Guitars. Smith's loyalty remained with these artisans in Kalamazoo, and together they designed the Heritage Johnny Smith, a model that was introduced in 1989.

Then, in 2004 Johnny returned his endorsement to Guild, knowing that master luthier Bob Benedetto would be supervising the construction. The Guild Johnny Smith Award by Benedetto was available for the next couple years, until Benedetto left Fender, with whom Guild was a subsidiary.

Guild, Gibson, Heritage, Guild, and the Gibson model is still available—now as the LeGrand.

But signature guitars aside, if you want to listen to one of the most beautiful performances ever recorded, check out Johnny Smith's version of "Shenandoah."

George Benson

One of the most distinguished American jazz guitarists, songwriters, and singers, George Benson, is next on our list.

Benson is a prime example of an artist who has been able to successfully cross over from playing jazz to R&B to pop. He has recorded with the likes of Miles Davis, Freddie Hubbard, and Stevie Wonder, and he is known for his entertainment sensibilities as well as raw talent. He is a star.

George Benson has always gravitated towards full hollowbodied F-hole electrics. And in 1977, Ibanez issued their first hollowbody artist signature guitar, in Benson's name: the GB10. It is also the longest running model in the company's history.

Several other models in this line have been released since, including the GB15, GB20, GB100, and GB200. And even as recently as 2012, another model, the LGB300, was released.

Trini Lopez

The last on our list today is a Mexican-American guitarist from Dallas, Texas, Trinidad "Trini" Lopez.

Trini was seen in the early '60s playing a Barney Kessel Custom. And Gibson, having issued a few signature models for jazz players like Kessel and Johnny Smith, was now turning towards this young Latino artist who was then approaching pop stardom.

As Lopez was digging the Kessel model, he wanted to simply add a few features to customize to his style. This model, with the double cutaway Florentine horns, would become the Trini Lopez Deluxe. And he also inspired a more "rock model" design, based on an ES-335, which would become the Trini Lopez Standard.

This was the first time that an artist had two very contrasting models with their signature on both, which paved the way for other artists to have these opportunities, including Chet Atkins, Les Paul, and B.B. King. Not to mention the obvious influence the Lopez Standard had on Dave Grohl's signature axe.


All of these signature guitars have stories, as do the players behind them. Instruments of all stylings speak to us in different ways, not only tonally, but in terms of inspiration and image as well. The image of Mary Kaye with that Strat can have just as profound of an impact on someone as the tone of the Joe Pass model. Inspiration comes in all forms, and there's no slowing that down.

What are some of your favorite signature models? Let us know in the comments.

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