It is not that often that a 1940s Gibson ES-350 comes up for sale, let alone such an iconic example. Barney Kessel is, of course, a jazz guitar legend, but his name is also associated with numerous signature or artist guitars, by Gibson, Kay, and Airline. But look back at any images of Mr. Kessel in concert, and nine times out of ten he'll be pictured with his favourite 1946/47 ES-350. And it is that Gibson ES-350 that is being offered for sale by Heritage Auctions on November 10th 2018.
About Barney Kessel's Gibson ES-350
The Gibson ES-350 was Gibson's first cutaway electric acoustic, derived from the non-cutaway ES-300, and launched in (supposedly) 1947, making this example one of the very first produced. It was all-maple, with a laminate maple top, five-piece maple neck, with 20 fret rosewood fretboard. Early models (like Kessel's) had a single P90 pickup with just one volume and one tone control. All in all a very simple, but highly effective instrument. It was also the guitar of choice of contemporary Tal Farlow. But all vintage Gibson guitars are very special instruments indeed, especially their electric acoustics, and especially those produced up until the early 1960s. Add in the intangible vibration of lifetime of professional use by one of the greats, and... wow, what a guitar!
Charlie Christian pickup
Kessel's guitar has undergone several adaptations, most performed many decades back when the artist was most active. Firstly, the P90 pickup was replaced with a 1939 Gibson Charlie Christian-style unit, "it has a very high quality of cobalt and copper which is unavailable in the world today". These were the pickups fitted to the pre-war Gibson ES-150, and ES-250 guitars used by Christian, who had been a huge influence on Kessel (and most jazz musicians of the period). The guitar is also modified by Kessel in several other ways: the floating rosewood bridge was specially made for the guitar, "following the principles of a fine violin bridge", whilst the 'pointer' control knobs had been harvested from an old record player, allowing Kessel to feel their position when unable to see them due to bright stage lighting. Note also that the original pearl Gibson logo and crown motif have been painted over... no doubt related to an endorsement deal with someone other than Gibson.
Barney Kessel's 1946/47 ES-350 credit Heritage auctions
"..the beautiful part is, when I hear it back on a record it sounds exactly like I heard it in my mind"
Kessel has talked often about this guitar, over several decades. The following quote comes from the Barney Kessel Rare Performances 1962-1991 DVD:
How do you feel when playing that guitar?
"Well pretty close to being in heaven because i'm more interested in music than the guitar, see the guitar is a tool to play music, and I think about being a musician rather than a guitar player.. therefore if I can play this and feel about it as though i'm wearing a pair of old comfortable house slippers i don't have to think about the guitar at all... I can get on with thinking about the music. It's very easy to play and the beautiful part is, when I hear it back on a record it sounds exactly like I heard it in my mind."
2018 Barney Kessel ES-350 auction
The guitar has had other owners since Kessel's death in 2004. The description of this guitar provided by Heritage Auctions is as follows:
Barney Kessel's Circa 1946 Gibson ES-350 Sunburst Archtop Electric Guitar Barney Kessel's personal ES-350 modified with a late 30's Charlie Christian pickup. The headstock overlay has been painted solid black. The Gibson logo and crest inlay are outlined from finish shrinkage. The neck is likely original but has been refretted and rebound. The entire guitar has been refinished. The tuners are Schaller tuners. The holes from the previous tuners have been filled. Large metal jack plate and several visible side cracks at the lower bout of the guitar. A very iconic guitar from one of the true legends of the instrument during the last gasp of pop jazz. Included is the guitar stand that Barney used with this guitar. No visible serial number. Hard case included. Condition: Fair.
Described as in 'fair' condition. There's been headstock repair(s); no real surprise in a Gibson this old. Plus plenty of wear. But if a player can imbue magic into an instrument, then this thing is priceless.
Online bidding starts on October 22nd, with the auction itself on November 10th 2018. See Heritage Auctions to bid on this unique guitar. A few other Kessel-owned instruments are also listed in this auction, including a 1927 Bacon & Day Silver Bell banjo, a 1935 Martin T-17 Tipple, a 1963 Gibson A-50 Mandolin and a 1963 Gibson Baritone Ukulele.
Check out this great old footage of Barney Kessel in action, playing Gypsy in my Soul with this cool guitar!