An Okie From Muskogee

An Okie From Muskogee

Harmonic Em "Lick Of The Week" with Keith Amyx

"You don't press, you only touch!" Keith breaks down this nifty lick with best practices on finger placement over the fret wire and pick position relative to the bridge. Tab is at the end of the video to screenshot and save, good luck!

Ted McCarty was a little late to the jazz guitar party in the early 1960s. We’ve looked at Tal Farlow and Johnny Smith, today we’ll take a look at Barney Kessel’s signature guitar, and later Trini Lopez’. Between 1960 and 1964 McCarty signed all of those guys to endorsement deals, but half of them were on the backend of their career.

Barney Kessel (like Trini) had two guitars, a signature Standard and Custom model that first appeared in 1961. Prior to the endorsement deal Kessel was known to play a 1946 ES-350 modified with a 1939 Charlie Christian pickup, his guitar hero. There is no doubt Kessel was going for the Christian sound that had a huge impact on his musical development.

Kessel album cover with his favorite Gibson ES-350

As I was researching to provide a couple of paragraphs about Kessel’s career I decided to give up :-). There’s just too much! Kessel’s resume cannot righteously be summarized in such few words so here’s a link to the best article I read about him. It’s a five minute read and if you are unfamiliar with Kessel here’s only a few names of the dozens that he did session work for- The Beach Boys, Ike and Tina Turner, Righteous Brothers, Elvis, Liberace, Sinatra, Streisand, Sam Cooke. Beyond being a member of Phil Spector’s “Wrecking Crew” (there’s an amazing documentary on Netflix about them) Kessel was an accomplished solo musician and is rated as one of the best jazz guitarists of all time.

Despite being a guitarist, Kessel was not really into guitars. I say that somewhat facetiously, but he was a minimalist and not a collector as noted by this quote- “The essence of it is what you're saying. The instrument is merely a tool, a link, a way of getting out to the public what you are feeling. To me, guitar is only a tool. I'm not partial to hearing guitar players over trumpeters or trombonists or saxophonists.”

A younger Kessel with his signature Gibson (1962)

Even after getting his name on a guitar, more often than not Kessel continued to gig and record with the ES-350 over his own model. In fact, if you Google image search “Barney Kessel” there are few pictures of him with his own signature model. Likely that was his personal preference, but it has also been written that Kessel and Gibson had a tumultuous relationship. One theory adding to the lukewarm feeling is that Kessel never had any input to his guitar. That it was already a Gibson prototype and they essentially brokered his name on it. At times he would cover the Gibson headstock logo with tape when performing and this double florentine body ends up being shared with the Trini Deluxe a few years later.

Regardless, his signature model sported a few appropriations that had been reserved for Gibson’s flagship Super 400 including the 400 headstock and neck. Despite having a long-lived run in the Gibson catalog the guitar never sold very well and was priced similarly to other more successful Gibson hollow bodies at the time. It’s also worth noting the solid body guitar craze was in full swing as Gibson was trying to push all of these artist jazz boxes out the door, Kessel’s was discontinued in 1974. (There was also the Barney Kessel Standard with chrome hardware).

Custom Specs: Maple top, Maple back and sides, Mahogany neck, Rosewood fretboard with bowtie inlays, Dual PAF humbuckers, Rosewood bridge, Barney Kessel signature badge on the tailpiece

A couple of interesting side notes:

My friend and newsletter subscriber, Randall Shattuck, recently had a chance to hold Kessel’s original ES-350. Here’s the backstory from Randall, “This was taken by Bruce Forman of the band Cow Bop at this past year’s SCL (Society of Composers and Lyricists) holiday party in LA. I met Bruce before the band played the night away and we briefly spoke about the band and the music I was about to hear. Bruce was kind enough, after playing his heart out for several hours, to allow me to hold his/Barney’s guitar for a minute or two. He then offered to take a pic of me, with my own phone, holding the axe. Cool guy that Bruce Forman. Heck of a guitar player…” THANK YOU Randall for sharing this picture and your experience!  Neat article link to Bruce's acquisition of the 350.
Randall Shattuck holding Barney Kessel’s original ES-350

The pickup made famous by Charlie Christian was the first pickup used on Gibson Electric Spanish guitars in 1935, specifically for their ES-150 model that he played. They were handmade in Kalamazoo using a cobalt steel magnet with chrome plated pole-pieces. Being auctioned now through Guitar Gavel is an all-original 1936 Gibson EH-150 lap steel featuring the Charlie Christian bar pickup. Click here to see the full listing and more pictures.

1936 Gibson EH-150 available at


Thanks Keith, great lick! :-)

David Still

Great Article! I have always been curious about Barney Kessel.

Keith Amyx

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