Electric guitar

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This 1968 Gibson Barney Kessel Custom is a premium example. It is the premium counterpart to the Barney Kessel Regular, both built from 1961 to 1974. They followed a trio of Barney Kessel signatures that Kay sold between 1957 and 1960.

Barney Kessels often became part donors, with their hardware, tuners and pickups (original PAFs, patent #’s and T-Tops, depending on year) being stripped down and sold separately.

Each Gibson model has a towering body that’s 17″ wide and nearly 3″ deep, with two humbuckers, a Tune-o-matic bridge, and a bound rosewood fingerboard. 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. Florentine double cuts – a design first seen in these Barney Kessels and later used in Gibson’s signature Trini Lopez – cut a striking silhouette.

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

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

When introduced, Gibson’s Barney Kessel Custom model had a list price of $599, while the Regular model was $399. Both sold in respectable if not incredible numbers, with sales peaking in 1968. However, the following decades were not particularly good for guitars. As the vintage market took off for Les Pauls, SGs and other classic Gibsons, Barney Kessels often became part donors, with their hardware, tuners and pickups (original PAF, patent number and T- Tops, depending on year) being stripped and sold separately. You can still find Barney Kessel shells 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.

A rear view indicates that this Kessel was not heavily played. There are no belt rashes, finish wear, or other marks, and new guitar tags usually indicate that the previous owner(s) had a collector’s sensibility.

This is what makes the Barney Kessel Custom featured here so special. It’s almost all stock, with patent pickups intact and even its custom stamped hangtags. The only change is a replaced tuner (with some 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 overall finish condition is in immaculate vintage shape.

This Custom model is a classic Gibson, with its 4-button control panel, 3-way toggle and Pat. Number of microphones. Unique flourishes include the special Barney Kessel tailpiece and bowtie fingerboard inlays.

Due to the wide range of Barney Kessel Customs on the used market, many of which don’t feature original parts, you can find them all across the price range, from around $3,000 on the low end to $12,000 or more on top. This Custom, listed on Reverb now by National guitarsdeservedly lands on the high end, with an asking price of $8,999.

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