Barney Kessel is a guy I’ve mentioned a few times lately — in this post on learning resources and again as a member of The Wrecking Crew in this post on Glen Campbell. Above, he is playing an early 60s version of Gypsy in My Soul and of course he tears it up!. Barney was an early student of guitar and was already playing out by the time he was 14. Growing up in Oklahoma allowed him to meet another very famous Oklahoma native, Charlie Christian. While on break from touring with Benny Goodman, Christian went to see Barney play and the two subsequently ended up jamming for three days straight. This later led to Charlie recommending Barney to Benny Goodman and Barney getting the job after killing it on the jazz standard, Cherokee.
“One of the most extraordinarily consistent and emotionally huge improvisers of our era” – Nat Hentoff
“Barney Kessel is definitely the best guitar player in this world, or any other world.” – George Harrison
“Barney Kessel was ‘Mr. Guitar,’ the foremost jazz guitarist of his generation. He had an amazing imagination, his solos were incredible, he swung his tail off, he was a heck of an arranger and could out-read anybody.” – Larry Coryell
“Barney Kessel is incredible. He’s just amazing . . . . Nobody can play guitar like that.” – John Lennon
“I remember first seeing Barney Kessel, in the 1940s, standing on the corner of Hollywood and Vine, in his cowboy boots, sun glasses and hipster threads, holding his guitar case man, you just knew that cat could wail!” – Anita O’Day
“I’d listen to Barney Kessel records and my jaw would drop. I was awe-struck by the nature of his ad-libs. I followed Barney Kessel’s musical stories like a kid following a fairy tale.” – B.B. King
The thing I really like about all of the guitar guys who came up in the 30s and 40s — Reinhardt, Christian, George Barnes, Herb Ellis, Harry Volpe, Les Paul, Sal Salvador, Johnny Smith, and Barney Kessel — is there is a whole lot of rock and roll in their playing. They were just completely going for it on many tracks because they all came up in The Swing Era when people wanted to dance all cray-cray like. You can hear that in Barney’s drive and some of the licks he plays in Gypsy in My Soul. But he also had a great sense of harmony and orchestration and those two sometimes very divergent qualities were combined in all of his performances. This is certainly one of the reasons The Beatles liked him. By the time Barney came along in the 1940s, Django Reinhardt, George Barnes and Charlie Christian were already on record playing all of the important guitar elements and ‘devices’: single lines, octaves, chords, partial chords, fast picking, sweep picking, bent notes, and tremolo picking that enabled the guitar to take on the role of a solo instrument in a band or orchestra setting. Reinhardt and Christian had already drastically expanded the language of the instrument with Christian veering from swing music into early bebop and Reinhardt adding classical and flamenco guitar elements to the jazz/popular canon.
Barney Kessel combined all of these guitar devices, expanded on them and added a few of his own. As far as I know he is the first guy to popularize (and maybe even develop) the backwards pick sweep that shows up in his playing a lot. This enables completely different lines and a different sound, even though it was often played so fast that it sounded sloppy at times. He also played original bebop lines, cool 50s “out” phrasing and a lot of licks that expanded on Charlie Christian’s blues licks (which were different from Reinhardt’s) and sound like what would later be very poplar rock music motifs. Because Barney was also always playing an amplified electric Gibson 350, he was able to dial in a wide array of sounds including fat bass spankin’, sustained horn-type lines, lush harp-like chords and sweet almost vocal single string licks. The Antônio Carlos Jobim composition Wave (above) is a good example of how effective a chordal/single note combination is for setting a mood. Great texture and dynamics and just oh so s m o o o t h. There is a lot to be learned from taking apart what he does in this clip and I’ve picked up a few things by transcribing bits of this performance. It’s also more than just licks; notice the pacing, the mood, textures and sustained drive of the whole song. That is very important! Below, Barney once again takes a number at a wicked tempo with the always-enjoyable Herb Ellis, on the flat-out amazing Tangerine. Talk about smoking! The extra special enjoyment of this for me is that I’ve played both Wave and Tangerine in gig settings. They are two of my favorite standards and fun tunes to learn how to play.
Barney had a very long career, playing with such greats as Chico Marx, Charlie Parker, Lester Young, Oscar Peterson, Ray Brown, Sonny Rollins and Julie London on the 1955 album Julie Is Her Name, which contains the million-selling song, Cry Me a River. As I related in my post on Glen Campbell, Kessel was a member of “The Clique” or The Wrecking Crew as they came to be known and was a “first call” guitarist for Columbia Pictures during the 1960s. FUN FACT: He played the bass for Spock’s Theme in the Amok Time episode of Star Trek. In the 1970s he performed with Herb Ellis and Charlie Byrd as The Great Guitars. Through it all Barney was most often spotted with just one guitar, a Gibson 350 with a Charlie Christian pickup. Although both Kay and Gibson tried to work the endorsement angle (and there are different versions of a Gibson Barney Kessel, a whole lot of his best work was done with that one guitar and he explains why in the following clip.
However, thanks to this very informative page, consider the following interview with the very awesome and talented YES guitarist Steve Howe:
I conducted an interview with Steve Howe, the guitarist in Yes, in October 2003 when I informed him that Kessel was critically ill. Howe has always cited Barney Kessel as a primary influence on his own guitar style: “Barney Kessel was the first American jazz guitarist I ever related to. I started playing when I was 12 in 1959 and I reckon about two years after that I was aware of Barney Kessel. I guess the Kessel album that was most important to me and still is, is ‘The Poll Winners’ with Shelly Manne and Ray Brown. ‘Volume 1’, a blue cover, on the Contemporary label. I bought it and most of Barney’s albums in London at Dobell’s, the famous jazz shop. It was archetypal, real jazz. I bought all the LP’s he made when he was the leader. I also liked him in support roles. I have the whole collection of ‘The Poll Winners’. One of the things I liked about Barney was his sound. Compared to other players, he had a very earthy, organic quality to his sound. And his playing was a remarkable mixture of ‘single line’ and ‘chords’, ya know, which inspired me to believe that any guitarist who doesn’t understand chords won’t be able to play much in the single line because they relate so much. Barney had his own great, highly individual approach to jazz guitar. The way he combined the chords and that single line. It was a perfect balance, really.
“And there was something mysterious about his equipment. In England, we could recognize L5s or 400s but we weren’t sure if he was playing an L7C, or what. Nobody really knew what that guitar was for a while. We knew it was some sort of Gibson. They weren’t heavily clarified in catalogues nor readily available in England in the ’60s. That’s when the L7 was less than popular, ya know? But he had that characteristic big guitar. I mean, I obviously went on to play a rock ‘n’ roll 175. I got it in 1964 and bought a new one in 1975. That was styled after Kessel, who I had seen a few times on television, and Jim Hall and Wes Montgomery and other guitarists who also used a 175, the most gorgeous guitar. As I went around, people said, ‘Wow, you play that guitar?’ Because it wasn’t considered a rock guitar in any shape or form. So it was kind of a breakthrough and it did help me because the sound of a full body is so different from the solids, the slim lines that people were playing. And everybody asked me, ‘Why didn’t it feed back?’ Because I used a volume pedal and I stood a certain distance from my amp and didn’t use too much bass from my amp, I guess. I got ’round that problem but I certainly wasn’t directly emulating Barney Kessel but I was thinking I would not remove myself from that line of fire, because I wanted to be influenced by jazz.
“I read Barney’s column, a few times, in ‘Guitar Player Magazine’. There obviously was a whole line of fine guitarists he inspired, or that had been touched by him. That stuff Barney did with Julie London like ‘Cry Me A River’ which starts with his guitar, is amazing. One important thing to me is that Barney Kessel is the first guitarist I ever saw who said ‘You need eight guitars to be a session guitarist’. I only had about four at the time. And when I saw his ‘eight guitars’ quote I kinda read what he meant. Like having a 12-string. Barney put something very influential in my head about the multi-guitar idea when he mentioned eight guitars including 12-string and mandolin…
“And Barney played that tune, ‘A Tribute To Charlie Christian’, on his ‘Easy, Like’ album. That was one of his things I learned. The fact is I’ve always mentioned Barney Kessel as the first player I ever got into, Barney and Django Reinhardt. And then of course my mind became more distracted from Barney but he never really went away. He was still there. A straight ahead guy with an organic edge to his sound.”
I’ve been saying for years what an influence Django Reinhardt was on the English rock musicians of the 60s and it’s interesting to learn about Barney’s influence as well. Definitely check out the whole article HERE at Spectropop for lots more on Barney’s life and career. He was at the crossroads of music through the 50s, 60s and 70s and performed with many of music’s biggest luminaries. The author interviews Barney’s sons and was able to speak with some of the music world’s biggest stars while Barney was in his final days. Brian Wilson: “Barney Kessel was a wonderful guitar player. He did a wonderful job on ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice’. He’s in my prayers.” Barney is listed as playing mandolin on ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice’ with other Wrecking Crew standouts Carol Kaye (bass), Hal Blaine (drums) and Larry Knechtel (organ). You can hear the backing track here. Here’s another interview with Barney from 1968 that’s notable for what he says about Jimi Hendrix and Bob Dylan.
Do you think the people who have played guitar in more outlandish ways have aided the instrument?
Not at all. No, they haven’t really done anything for the guitar or music. Like, someone once asked me: “What did you think of Jimi Hendrix?” First of all, I don’t discuss guitar players. I don’t think it’s ethical; it’s like asking a jazz critic about another jazz critic. I’d rather not. But it didn’t even have to be Jimi Hendrix it could be anyone. The fact that any man would go out on the stage and set fire to his guitar, or urinate on his guitar there’s nothing in there that makes me admire it…I can’t get past the disrespect shown the instrument, and I can’t imagine someone having enough genius to justify that…
There are now twelve year olds who think of Elvis Presley and the Beatles as old men, mythical characters things from the past. They just don’t relate to it. It’s a curious thing, but each generation wants its own heroes; it doesn’t matter how good someone else is they want their heroes, from their own age bracket…
It’s like when Bob Dylan came out . . . I knew John Hammond, and that he had discovered Mary Lou Williams and, of course, he’d done a lot for Benny Goodman, Count Basie, Charlie Christian, Billie Holiday he’s really made the people aware of a lot of fine talent. He also brought Bob Dylan into public awareness and I tried to find out what was the redeeming factor there. He can’t sing, he can’t play guitar, he can’t play the harmonica; his melodies are very, very primitive, bordering on the Neanderthal. Well, trying to look at it objectively the redeeming elements, and the only ones, are the words to his songs, that had a message for the people of his age and his time. But since I’m not his age, his words have no meaning for me. They did not affect me in any way. Therefore, as far as I’m concerned, there were no redeeming qualities but I can see why he was accepted by a lot of people.
It seems Barney was able to appreciate some of the styles from the 60s (even Jimi Hendrix) a little more later in life (thanks to his children), but it’s interesting what he says about each generation wanting it’s own heroes regardless of talent or abilities. How true that is! It is probably also true that most people, especially musicians who spend a lifetime fine-tuning their hearing and their brains to appreciate and play sophisticated music, will get turned off by music that doesn’t match that standard. He certainly liked bands like Brian Wilson, The Beach Boys and The Beatles…he covered Yesterday and that tune certainly has a great melody!
Here is a link to another interview with Barney from the late 60s that has more to do with playing guitar. It contains plenty of quotable nuggets like the above that give insight into what made Barney tick as an artist. He was a great listener, a great reader and had an intense musical imagination and this is how he developed the musical abilities that served him for almost 50 years. He also stressed (and something I wish someone would’ve told me when I was 20) that:
You must be clear on what you want to do with music . . . not just clear—specific. It’s not good enough to say: “I want to be in music.” You have to be as positive as booking a certain seat on a certain plane for a certain destination. The minute you become clear on what you want, it becomes also very apparent what you don’t want. You begin to see the interesting studies, the things that could be intriguing to do, but which are not pertinent to your goal. Today, with all the perplexities, it is not what to practice, but what to avoid practising. What do you want to do? It is time—wasting to taste a little of all these things and not to be master of any—unless you are doing it strictly for amusement. But to accomplish anything, you have to know what you want.
Finally, this version of The Shadow of Your Smile encapsulates everything that made Barney the musician he was: beautiful solo playing that never loses it’s drive, harmonic invention or melodic direction. There isn’t one wasted note, no wanking, nor one lick that is played simply to impress. It’s just a perfect musical performance. I love watching Barney clips on YouTube because they are always simultaneously entertaining AND a learning experience. In our imaginations and on our best days don’t we all aspire to to play like this? While Wes Montgomery and Joe Pass rightfully get a whole lot of praise for what they brought to the jazz guitar world, I feel not enough is said about Barney Kessel. He is beyond jazz — truly one of the titans of sophisticated guitar and a total music legend. Also, unlike Montgomery or Pass or many other players from that era, he was able to fit into a wide spectrum of musical situations and always bring his A- GAME. In addition to being an instrumentalist, producer and guy-on-the-scene, he became an educator later in his career. I’ve already linked to one of his instruction videos. Here’s another. Also, there are pages here and here that have some Barney-esque licks transcribed for your viewing, listening, and learning pleasure.