Tag: Vintage guitar

A Barney Kessel Custom Saved From the Buzzards

From the sparse, smoky ballads of Julie London to the hard bop of Sonny Rollins, Barney Kessel could back up just about anybody. The bandleader, session great, Wrecking Crew member, and sideman was one of the most accomplished guitarists of his era. His chordal complexity not only got him steady work and accolades, but also a collection of signature guitar models bearing his name.


This 1968 Gibson Barney Kessel Custom is a top-of-the-line example. It’s the higher-end counterpart to the Barney Kessel Regular, both built from 1961 until 1974. They followed a trio of Barney Kessel signatures that Kay sold between 1957 and 1960.

Barney Kessels often became parts donors, with their hardware, tuners, and pickups (original PAFs, Pat. No., and T-Tops, depending on the year) being stripped and sold separately.

Each Gibson model has a hulking 17″-wide and nearly 3″-deep body, with two humbuckers, a Tune-o-matic bridge, and a bound rosewood fretboard. The attractive Barney Kessel tailpiece is also common to both, while the controls will be familiar to any Gibson player: two volume pots, two tone knobs, and a 3-way selector switch. The dual Florentine cutaways—a design first seen in these Barney Kessels and later used in Gibson’s Trini Lopez signature—cut a striking silhouette.

Of the two Gibson Kessels, the Custom alone is dressed to the nines, swapping in gold-plated hardware for the Regular’s nickel, and bowtie inlays for the Regular’s fretboard parallelograms. There’s also a 3-piece maple neck with two pinstripe-thin mahogany strips taking over for the Regular’s solid mahogany. And the Custom tops off its outfit with a pearl headstock inlay in the shape of a musical note.

Such features were a huge upgrade to the art-deco stylings and Kleenex-box pickups of Kay’s Kessel signatures, which Kessel snubbed, reportedly saying, “I don’t play that Kay. It’s a terrible guitar!” Interestingly, he often chose not to play these Gibson signatures, either, instead typically using his favorite 1940s ES-350.

When they were introduced, Gibson’s Barney Kessel Custom model had a list price of $599, while the Regular’s was $399. Both sold in respectable if not incredible numbers, with sales peaking in 1968. However, the following decades were not particularly kind to the guitars. As the vintage market took off for Les Pauls, SGs, and other classic Gibsons, Barney Kessels often became parts donors, with their hardware, tuners, and pickups (original PAFs, Pat. No., and T-Tops, depending on the year) being stripped and sold separately. You can still find Barney Kessel husks on the market—project guitars looking for a new owner to rebuild them. And many of the complete Barney Kessels you’ll find for sale have been rebuilt.

That’s what makes the particular Barney Kessel Custom featured here so special. It’s nearly all original, with Patent pickups intact and even its Custom-stamped hang tags. The only modification is one replaced tuner (along with a couple patched screw holes from a previous replacement). The cherry in its cherry sunburst finish is one of the most vibrant we’ve ever seen, and the condition of the finish overall is in impeccable vintage shape.

Because of the wide array of Barney Kessel Customs on the used market—many with non-original parts—you can find them across the price spectrum, from about $3,000 on the low-end to $12,000 or more on the high. This Custom, listed on Reverb now by Nationwide Guitars, fittingly lands on the higher end, with an asking price of $8,999.

Sources for this article include Gruhn’s Guide to Vintage Guitars by George Gruhn and Walter Carter, American Guitars: An Illustrated History by Tom Wheeler, Reverb’s “Player Profile: The Hard-Swinging Barney Kessel” by Greg Cooper, Premier Guitar’s “Gibson and Barney Kessel” by Jim Bastian, and Reverb listings from Retrofret Vintage Guitars and Vintage Correct Parts.

What Kind of Tone Would You Expect From Plywood, Diner-Booth Vinyl, and Acrylic?

Growing up in the shadow of the Martin Guitar Factory, I learned a thing or two about tonewoods. Quite a few of my friends got jobs at the factory right out of high school, and over the years, I’ve seen how woods are cured, selected, and cared for. The Japanese factories I’ve visited really took this idea to the next level. I’ve seen curing rooms with classical music being played to stacks of wood. I’ve seen huge storerooms with different woods sorted by age (some well over 100 years old), country of origin, and quality of figuring. Hell, I’ve even seen logs that were dragged out of Mississippi swamps, shipped to Japan, and cured.


If you’ve ever had conversations with high-end collectors, then you’ve probably heard all sorts of poetic waxing on birdseye and flame and such. But what would you, good reader, say about a guitar that featured a plywood body wrapped in diner-booth vinyl? Oh, and then this same guitar had a layer of acrylic screwed to the top! How do you think a guitar like that would sound?

Much like the Italian guitar factories, Hagstrom took cues from accordion design and applied them to electric guitars, going way out there with enough sparkle and pearloid to send you trippin’

Your first response may be informed by taste and income level. As for me, I’m indifferent. A guitar will sound good or it won’t. After listening and playing so many guitars, I’ve developed quite an ear for “zing” or “pop” as I like to call it. And the budget-class Hagstrom F-11 guitar has some zing for sure.

The F-11 comes from the mid ’60s and was part of a line of guitars to make it to the U.S. via Sweden, from where it was imported by Merson Musical Products in Westbury, New York. Sometimes these guitars are called H-I models in European catalogs, but in the Merson catalog these were billed as the F-11 and cost $129.50 in 1966. The F-11 came in red, black, white, or, as in this case, blue—my favorite guitar color.

Hagstrom’s accordion-making roots date back to the 1920s. When they began manufacturing electric guitars in 1958, the company immediately offered some of the craziest examples seen in Europe and soon developed a reputation for fine guitars and basses. Much like the Italian guitar factories, Hagstrom took cues from accordion design and applied them to electric guitars, going way out there with enough sparkle and pearloid to send you trippin’!

Even the most affordable Hagstrom electrics came with several effective features. Inside the F-11’s slim neck lies the worldwide-patented H-shaped truss rod that was dubbed the “Expander-Stretcher.” It’s a nice design, and these old Hagstrom necks have held up over time. The vibrato was also a design wonder that, for a period, was copied extensively by various Japanese makers. Hagstrom called the unit an “In Motion” vibrato, and the upper plate floats over the base plate with proper string tension. The vibrato takes some time to dial in but works rather smoothly. Although Hagstrom’s “Micro-Matic” bridge was found on more upscale models, allowing for better string spacing, adjustable intonation, and a sharp break-over for the strings, budget models like this F-11 have a simpler wooden bridge with non-adjustable metal saddles.

The sound of the F-11 is quite Strat-like and gives players a Fender-y experience with a little more oomph. I’ve always been impressed with Hagstrom pickups. I’ve liked almost every example I’ve heard, and the pickups also hold up well with the passage of time.

Measuring around 7k, they are a little hotter than Fender pickups from the same era. The F-11’s electronics include a cute little control panel, straight out of a spaceship, with one master volume and four mini-switches for high, low, tone, and mute functions. These are essentially preset tone switches that most players would probably find redundant, but they’re kind of neato. And who could miss that crazy mesh inlay between the pickups. Why? Why not!?

These mid-’60s Hagstroms are really sweet guitars, and I own three different models that I use quite a bit. Hey, go search one out if you can—as long as you’re not bothered by plywood and acrylic.