Saturday, June 4, 2016

The Gibson Barney Kessel

1963 Gibson Barney Kessel Custom
On april 25 I bought my 1963 Gibson Barney Kessel Custom. I had had my eyes on that guitar for a few years - I had played it several times earlier when I was at Charlee Guitars - and after I sold my old Strat, I finally bought it.

The Barney Kessel is a guitar that has grown on me. I remember that when I first saw one many years ago, the double cutaway design did not not particularly appeal to me. But over the years I started digging' this classic 60s design more and more and I when I finally played one a few years ago I was immediately floored. What a classic and mellow jazz sound. I was feeling the Barn!

The Gibson Barney Kessel was introduced in 1961. Jim Bastian, author of the Gibson Barney Kessel pages writes: 
The Gibson Barney Kessel "Regular" and "Custom" models were made in Kalamazoo, Michigan, between 1961 and 1972 (a few final samples were still shipped in 1973). Designed as a high-end artist-signature jazz instrument, the cost of the BK models in 1961 was 560.00 for the Custom and 395.00 for the less-ornate Regular. By 1966, the two models cost 675.00 and 525.00 respectively. In general, the BK design was characterized by a double florentine cutaway, and a large Super 400-size headstock. Its 17-inch lower bout was L-5-size although a bit thinner at 3 inches. 

In total, 740 BK Customs were made. Let's have a look at some specifications. The BK Custom has a flamed maple neck; solid Brazilian rosewood fingerboard; arched spruce top; arched tiger flame maple back and sides; bowtie mother of pearl fingerboard inlay and eighth-note peghead inlay; triple bound body, bound neck and soundholes. The gold hardware includes twin Gibson Patent Sticker humbucking pickups and electronics; beveled 5-ply pickguard; 3 way control switch, gold reflector cap knobs, Kluson Super 'waffleback' tuners, adjustable compensated Brazilian rosewood bridge, Barney Kessel engraved nameplate tailpiece.

Now let's have a look at the BK Regular. In total, 1117 were made. It has a crown inlay on the headstock , mahogany neck , unbound f-holes , parallelogram inlays on the fingerboard , Kluson tuners (unlike the BK Custom which had grover tuners) and nickel hardware

Both models were made in cherry sunburst finishes and were equipped with 2 humbuckers .

The "flashy" design of the model is unmistakably 1960s cool. The headstock inlay and the double cutaway reflect the "cartoon modern"style that was hip in the 1950s and 1960s. It's the modern art style that is featured in cartoons from that era and that you see on many classic jazz albums covers too. Many people are not aware of this but once you realize the source of the design it becomes so much more "classic."

Though the Kessel obviously is a signature model I am not sure to what extent Barney was really involved in designing this guitar. Some argue the model had been designed already and Barney was only asked to endorse it after that fact. Though a few photo's - and ads - exist in which he is holding one, he seemed to prefer playing his trusted ES 350 throughout his career. Maybe the unusual design was a bit too flashy for him in the end. Barney had a strained relationship with Gibson anyway, he has been known to tape off the Gibon logo on the headstock of his ES 350 on several occasions. He did own a few BK signature models though. I read somewhere that his sons sold these after his death.

The Barney Kessel was never re-issued by Gibson. Still, the vintage Kessels out there are clearly gaining recognition among jazz players and are moving up in price every year. They are not cheap anymore. But ... they are fine vintage instruments. Did you know that the BK was as expensive as a Byrdland in the 1960s and was actually more expensive than a Gibson Tal Farlow at the time? Quality wise the Barney Kessel has always been up there with some of the greatest archtops Gibson ever built.

How does it sound? Well, the sound of my BK Custom is warm and mellow, but with way more clarity than what I am used to in my other archtops. Also, the guitar is of a lighter build and much more responsive than my non vintage Gibsons. It has the mojo only a vintage guitar can have. It seems that the BK Regular, which have maple tops, are decidedly brighter sounding than the BK Customs, which have spruce tops. According to Jim Bastian, the BKs from 1961 to 1964 are the most collectible:

The most highly prized models (and most valuable) - it can be argued - are the 1961 to 1964 models which most often have a wide-flat neck profile, PAF pickups (or late PAF's with Patent Number stickers), laminated spruce tops, and the long neck heel.
Jim, who has the biggest collection of BKs in the world, prefers the mellow sounds of the early spruce BK Customs. Check out his BK pages here.

So what does it sound like? Unfortunately, most BK demo clips on Youtube feature rock players having a go at some faux jazz. So I asked some of my friends to do a clip and added a few myself for a better picture. Here's my 1963 BK Custom in action on Kenny Burrell's "Midnight Blue."

One of the first guitarists in my network to get a Barney Kessel is my good friend Jack Zucker. As most of you may know, Jack is a very fine player that has owned a great many classic Gibson models and it is striking that his 1963 Barney Kessel is his favourite guitar. He has actually just sold his L5 because he likes the Kessel better. Here's Jack playing "My One and Only Love" on his 1963 BK Regular:

And then there's my other Facebook friend Michael Aadal from Norway playing "The Days of Wine and Roses" on his 1961 BK Regular. He's barnin' it up!


  1. fantastic posting, and great blog!

  2. michael's '61 sounds very similar to my maple '65

  3. Great stuff here Dick, Michael & Jack.

  4. enjoyed this..I like the sound of you BK the best...

  5. I have always had an aversion to buying used guitars,but if I could find one that sounded like this one,I'd do it in a heartbeat.

  6. Ostensibly the most well known BK player was Freddie Robinson with John Mayall

  7. Those guitars truly show why laminated from the 60s, particularly the 25.5 scale is unmatched today. They seem to have a lively resonance modern Gibsons seem to lack. Probably the best guitars to come out of Gibson after the late '40s 350 and the '60s Tal. Great post and great playing

    1. I've owned a few Gibsons but the only one that has never been passed on is an old es-350. I think that is in large part due to the 25.5 scale.

  8. Great post! I really enjoy my old `61 BK, one of the best old Gibsons I`ve ever played.

  9. Not a jazz player but Blake Mills in interview at the fretboard journal talks about the Barney Kessel he bought. Around the 30:05 mark.

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