Airline Barney Kessel

 I decided to step outside my “elitist” collecting box. Since I'm a tail end baby boomer, the guitars sold by the catalog giants, Sears and Montgomery Ward, in the 1950s-1960s had already faded by the time I picked up the guitar in the mid-1970s. The Japanese manufacturers were already churning out great ("lawsuit") copies of the Big 3 (Gibson, Fender & Martin) so I started out with an El Degas Les Paul copy made by Ibanez. Although I’ve bought/sold numerous Harmony, Silvertone, Kay, Airline, Old Kraftsman, Truetone and so on lap steels and guitars, I felt for the most part that they were inferior and entry level instruments. I came out of the collecting gate focused on Gibson, Martin and Rickenbacher (sorry Fender!). Of course that was nearsighted on my part since companies like Kay and Harmony also manufactured a few high end models giving the “catalog musician” a step up. These are the guitars that have emerged as an attractive alternative especially for collectors on a budget. After all, how many folks can plunk down $5,000 or more for a vintage guitar?
The majority of the catalog guitars that passed through my hands were entry level and not the high end models that have gained a very loyal following. A Kelvinator headstock never came into play and as for the Barney Kessel, that was a Gibson model! Truth be known that those of you collecting these little gems are riding a wave of nostalgia that will be fueled by a generation with disposal income. I applaud your vision and kick myself for not jumping onboard 8 years ago! One look at the Eastwood ( site only confirms the appeal of these retro body shapes with lots of knobs, cool tuners and plenty of vintage vibe. I believe the baby boomers will drive the future of the vintage market with their desire to reclaim the instruments of their youth. If you also take into consideration that the prices of the Big 3 break records annually and the supply of clean original instruments is dwindling, the other American manufacturers are looking very attractive. The Kay Barney Kessel Artist and Pro models now command prices in excess of $1200. Not bad for a guitar that was probably purchased along with a great little tube amp for less than an entry level guitar manufactured by Gibson.

Of the catalog instruments that have passed through my hands an Airline labeled model that sticks out in my mind is a "pocket" bass. Also sold under the (National Valco) Supro label, it was a short scaled instrument. It had a great piezo built into the rosewood bridge that gave it a very distinct tone. I also had a matching single pickup guitar but sold both of them to a group who planned to use them as a gigging gimmick. I bring up this particular instrument because I recently was reintroduced to one by an instructor (Mike) at my son's Paul Green’s School of Rock Music. Mike is very passionate about catalog guitars as he also shared an Airline Barney Kessel model that had been put together from parts bought off eBay. Our brief conversations sparked my interest and of course resulted in an episode of G.A.S.!

First off, I'm a little out of my league since they don't appear in Gruhn's Guide to Vintage Guitars. The sheer number of models (or mostly numbers in many cases) is daunting so I've already ordered a copy of Vintage Electric Guitars: In Praise of Fretted Americana by Willie Mosely. Of course there are some great websites with lots of information maintained by those dedicated to preserving the history of these instruments. By the way, I noted numerous G.A.S. sufferers along the way! The affordability of these guitars allows for some seriously large collections.

I'm truly a prewar kinda guy so the earlier the better in my book. My research even pointed out a direct connection to Gibson at one point. Their remaining stock of prewar metal covered pickups found their way into post war models manufactured by Kay. I came upon this Airline (Montgomery Ward) Barney Kessel Artist with a price range of $625-750 in the 2008 Vintage Guitar Price Guide. The guitar bears no logo or any remnants of one for that matter. There is also no serial or model # to be found but this was not an uncommon practice. What initially caught my eye was its blonde finish with what appears to be a bleached mahogany neck. I'm a sucker for blondes (guitars only honey!) and this one is a real looker. As you can see by the photos, the overall condition is excellent with just some light finish checking. Very nice multi ply binding that has aged perfectly with no shrinkage. The sharp double cutaway body style is really what sets the Barney Kessel model, whether made by Kay or Gibson, apart from the standard cutaways of the day. The Gibson version however is a full depth arch top and not a thin line hollow body.  Also the highly desirable Kay labeled Barney Kessel models, available from 1957-60, were a single cutaway body design.

 The other attraction to this guitar was its use of 3 pickups like the Gibson ES-5 (Switchmaster). What is referred to as "speed bump" pickups due to the presence of a middle "hump" are very sweet. Manufactured by Dearmond (Rowe Industries) and replaced with their more desirable "tissue box" pickups on the Kay labeled models, they are reminiscent of Gibson's prewar design. The Dakaware selector switch offers 4 pickup options including one that has a very interesting out-of-phase type tone. Kluson tuners add to the high end appointments along with unique "guitar pick" fret board inlays. The neck is a bolt on (3 large ones!) and even with a slight bow, feels quite good so with a few turns of the truss rod she will be ready to go. Unfortunately the bridge had been notched very deeply in what I assume was an effort to lower the action so it was replaced with a vintage Gibson bridge for now. The action is a tad high but based on what I've seen on eBay, it won't be a problem finding an original replacement. A nice player, the neck profile is thin but comfortable for my large hands.

The guitar came with its original chipboard case that has survived pretty much intact. It certainly did its job protecting this beauty! One of my collecting requirements is an original case. Not a show stopper of course but part of the whole package. Vintage cases themselves have become big business as collector’s search for that original case for their cherished instruments.

But what about Bob? I let my good friend, Bob, check it out the day after it arrived. He was also quite impressed with the sweetness of the pickups. Being on the front end of the baby boomers Bob could recall the days of the catalog guitar and the brands associated with the Chicago music houses. Bob’s parents though, bought him a Martin D28 in the 1960s so he never actually owned one. He quickly switched into a jazz mode while playing her which is exactly what I did. Guess it’s the Barney Kessel thing! Bob agreed that although not the quality of a Gibson hollow body the tone, playability and overall appearance makes this one very cool guitar!  


 The Gibson Barney Kessel (1961-74) is considered by many to be an albatross. It has yet to be recognized by the vintage market like its sibling artist models. I've had one in my collection for years and truly can't understand why but that's okay because they are still a vintage bargain. The Kay version however has already garnered a loyal following especially with the "tissue box" pickups sending them well north of $1200 for clean original examples.


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