George Barnes Biography

The following is extracted from a letter written by George's wife, Evelyn, on his behalf a few months before George's untimely death in 1977:

"George has asked me to answer your letter since he is quite busy in his studio editing the tape of a recording he made in concert on April 17 for Concord Jazz (to be released in September).

Perhaps you don't know as much about George as the 'fashionable' players because he's been in the radio, television and recording studios most of his adult life. He joined the NBC staff at age 17 because the money was tremendous and the studios were clean and he could write and play what he wanted, as opposed to dirty creepy night clubs that only paid $35, and he had to contend with drunks etc.

He began recording (always on electric) when he was 17 years old. He will be 56 on July 17. His older brother made an amplifier for him when he started playing guitar at age 9 (piano at age 6).

Regarding George's Guild Guitar: It is a special instrument the George designed beginning with the slab of Norway Spruce. There are no 'f' holes and the pickups are suspended (floating) within the instrument on a piece of mahogony. There were a few others made, but were too expensive and therefore are not made anymore. For many years his strings were made by a man in Chicago who died in 1962 and the company no longer exists. He now uses whatever he finds suitable for his purpose. He uses a cross-vibrato that no other guitarist uses (at least to the extent that George does). He developed this from the very beginning of his playing. The amplifier George uses is a Sho-Bud, made in Nashville by a slide (steel) player - Buddy Emmons.

...he has a book in progress that will be published, perhaps this year, entitled (tentatively) 'Musicians Stories I Keep Telling'.

The George Barnes/Ruby Braff Quartet (now defunct) was in London at Ronnie Scott's Club - Feb./March 1975 for three weeks...

Best,

Evelyn Barnes."

George Barnes was born July 17, 1921 in a Chicago suburb. He came from a family of professional musicians and his father, who was a guitarist taught him to play at age 9. George's original chosen instrument was the piano which he began playing at age 6 but when the Barnes family lost their piano as well as their house in the depression all that was left was a Sears Roebuck Silvertone guitar with an action about an inch high. George worked hard at this instrument and by the age of 12 had joined the union. He had by this time heard the records of Bix Beiderbecke featuring Joe Venuti and knew that he wanted to be a jazz musician.

Although there were few guitarists around at that time who soloed George never wanted to play rhythm - he wanted to play melody. He had heard many of the records of Django Reinhardt but never related to him because Django sounded foreign to him. George was mostly influenced by the horn and reedmen who he played with whilst growing up in Chicago. The single greatest influence was Jimmy Noone, the Chicago clarinetist, with whom George was playing when he was 16. Other influences were Benny Goodman and Louis Armstrong. During this time George also hung around with Lonnie Johnson who taught him how to play the blues. He claimed to have been playing electric guitar from 1931 when his brother built a pickup and amplifier for him. It is not clear who the first electric guitar player was but George must, surely, have been among the first.

At 14 he fomed the George Barnes Quartet and two years later made his first records under his own name -   "I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles" and "I Can't Believe That You're In Love With Me" for Okeh records. At 17 he joined the staff at NBC in Chicago and became the youngest conductor/arranger they ever had. Around this time he was recording with top black blues artists such as Big Bill Broonzy often being the only white player on the date. Hughes Panassiť once refered to George as "the great Negro blues guitarist from Chicago". This was brought to an end in 1942, when George was drafted.

In 1951 George made the move to New York where he immediately got a contract at Decca to conduct, arrange, do backing vocals, his own albums and record dates (he said the only thing he didn't do was sweep floors!). His first gig in NY was playing opposite Tal Farlow at the Embers. George also met Carl Kress in 1951, the start of a friendship that was to result in the formation of the critically acclaimed George Barnes/Carl Kress Duo in later years. They toured the world together and made some of the finest guitar duo recordings ever. Around this time George had the Guild Guitar Company build a unique guitar to his specifications partly arising out of his dissatisfaction with the way electric guitars were prone to feedback. (See George's Guitars)

After Kress' death in 1965 George's next partner was to be Bucky Pizzarelli. Their 3 year partnership produced such fine albums as "Guitars Pure And Honest" before Bucky went on to form his own career. The next and probably the most famous of George's associations was with cornet player Ruby Braff. Together with rhythm guitarist Wayne Wright and bass player Michael Moore they formed the George Barnes/Ruby Braff Quartet which again toured the world and delighted audiences everywhere.

George had a unique technique in playing the guitar in that he held the pick between his thumb and middle finger, claiming that it gave him more control; played with mainly down strokes and when creating vibrato he did it across the fingerboard instead of in line with the fingerboard as most guitarists do. His sound was instantly recognisable and a joy to listen to.

Before his death in 1977 he recorded enough material for Concord records to issue two albums of material by his Quartet which included Duncan James on second guitar. They are "must have" material for any guitarist and a fitting tribute to one of the finest guitarists ever. (Concord Please Note: It's about time that "Blues Going Up" was made available on CD!)

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George Barnes Interview - Guitar Player Magazine February 1975
by Bob Yelin

The words "jazz guitarist" describe George Barnes - but he is also much more. His fantastic versatility has enabled him to play almost any kind of music, and has led to recording dates with such greats as Dinah Washington, Lena Horne, Billy Eckstine, Johnny Mathis, Mel Torme, Ella Fitzgerald, and Frank Sinatra. During the Sixties, Barnes formed the first full-time jazz guitar duo, with Carl Kress, and Barnes' guitar came into its own as a solo instrument.

- Editor

When and where were you born?

I was born July 17, 1921 in a Chicago suburb. However, I was raised in Chicago. I come from a family of professional musicians. My father was a guitarist and taught me to play the guitar when I was 9.

Did your father's playing of the guitar make you want to take it up also?

No, not really. At age 6, I began to play the piano and I knew that was the instrument for me. But when the depression came, we lost our piano as well as our house. All that was left for me to play was a little Sears Roebuck Silvertone guitar with action about an inch high. I worked hard at it and when I was 12, I joined the union.

What kind of music were you playing then?

When I was 11, I heard some Bix Beiderbecke records featuring Joe Venuti. I knew then that I wanted to be a jazz musician.

Did any guitarist influence the way you played?

No, there were few guitarists then who soloed. I didn't want to play rhythm; I wanted to play melody. I heard many records by Django (Reinhardt), but I couldn't relate to his playing because he sounded foreign to me. The musicians who influenced my playing the most were the horn and reedmen I played with while I was growing up in Chicago. This was at the time that the Chicago sound in jazz was being formed and was strongly felt in the music world. I was very fortunate to be a part of it. My single greatest influence was a famous Chicago clarinetist, Jimmy Noone. He also greatly influenced Benny Goodman. I was playing with Jimmy Noone when I was 16. His playing gave me a strong direction. Another strong influence was Louis Armstrong.

Did anyone influence the way you played the blues?

When I was young, I hung around with Lonnie Johnson, and he taught me how to play the blues. He played the first 12-string guitar I ever heard. He used to tune it down a whole tone to make it easier to play. George Van Eps does the same thing with his 7-string guitar.

As a teenager, did you mainly sit in with groups or did you work gigs?

At 14, 1 formed my first quartet, the George Barnes Quartet. We did a lot of work. At 16, I made my first record under my group's own name. We recorded "I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles" and "I Can't Believe That You're in Love With Me," for Okeh records: Many guitar players who read Guitar Player magazine have written me that they have that record.

Didn't you start doing a lot of studio work after your first record?

Yes, at 17 I joined the NBC staff in Chicago. There, I became the youngest conductor and arranger they ever had. I stayed with them for nearly five years, until I got drafted in 1942.

Didn't you do a lot of recording dates in Chicago, besides radio work?

Good heavens, I did a ton of recording dates! In 1935, I started recording with the top black blues artists of that time. I made over one hundred blues records with fellows like Big Bill Broonzy, Blind John Davis, and a host of other bluesmen. I was the only white musician on these dates. Hughes Panassie, the French author of the jazz book, Le Jazz Hot, came out with a discography which included me as "the great Negro blues guitar player from Chicago." I did all kinds of recording dates. But I got even more involved with recordings when I moved to New York in 1951.

What made you leave Chicago?

I was working on the Dave Garroway show in Chicago, and he told me that television work was booming in New York and would pay better than the work I was doing. When I first arrived in New York, I immediately got a contract with Decca records. With them, I did just about everything: Conducting, arranging, vocal backgrounds, my own albums, and record dates. Probably the only thing I didn't do was sweep the floors!

Did you ever get a chance to leave the studios and play in jazz clubs?

The first gig I got when I arrived in New York was playing at the Embers opposite Tal Farlow, who I love dearly. Tal is my favorite guitarist to listen to. I used to call him the "Spider," because he has such long fingers. He amazes me when he solos in harmonics. I've always regretted his not staying active in clubs or on records.

Do you have any idea how many recording dates you have played on?

Between 1951 and now, I have recorded 23 albums under my own name. From 1953 to 1961, I recorded 61 albums with the Three Suns alone. From 1961 to the present, I have recorded with practically every bigname singing star from Frank Sinatra to Bing Crosby, Patti Page, and loads more. It would be very difficult to find a singing star I haven't recorded with. They tell me down at the union, that I have recorded more than any other person in their contract file. I don't know how many recording dates I've done, but one day I intend to add them up. I know the number is well into the thousands.

Why do you think there is such a great demand for your playing?

It is probably because I am totally involved with all aspects of music. Not only am I a guitarist, but an arranger, conductor, and recording engineer, with years of knowledge and experience behind me. I've also developed ways of accompanying artists that enhances and enriches their music. You have to know how a singer phrases so your accompaniment does not conflict. As an arranger, I have a whole different set of ears from someone who is just a guitarist. I have a better knowledge of what to play and what not to play.

You have been part of two wellknown guitar duos, one with Carl Kress and one with Bucky Pizzarelli. How did your first one, with Carl, come about?

Carl Kress and I met in 1951, on the Garry Moore show. I was seated in the audience and Carl was working the show. Garry introduced me to the audience and suggested that Carl and I play a duet. We got together, at a later time, and played on his show. But Carl and I had a hard time finding time to play because he was busy with CBS, and my time was locked into Decca. Finally, ten years later, in 1961, we decided to work together. We were the first guitar duo to play steadily. All the others, Carl Kress-Eddie Lang, Eddie Lang-Lonnie Johnson, and their work with Dick McDonough were only for record dates. Carl and I were together for five years, until his passing in 1966, right after we returned from a concert tour of Japan with Mitch Miller. We played concerts all over the world. Carl was my closest friend. We really loved each other. We hung out together all the time, whether it be playing chess, drinking, or going to hear other musicians. He was always a gentleman with a relaxed manner, and a lot of fun to be with. He was also a fantastic musician. His style of playing was totally unique. Playing rhythm was his forte. He used a special tuning to give his chords a full, rich sound. His 6th string was tuned to Bb the 5th to F, the 4th and 3rd had the regular tunings of D and G, the 2nd was tuned to A and the 1st to D. With this lower tuning, he could play more and fuller bass lines. However, this tuning was not very good for playing solo. He rarely soloed in single notes; instead, he soloed in chords. It was his unique tuning that brought about the development of the 7-string guitar. George Van Eps, who studied with Carl, was warned by his father not to study with him, because he used an unusual tuning. We made four albums together, one of which was a live recording we did at a town hall concert. I truly miss him.

How and when did you and Bucky [see GP, June '74] get together?

In 1969, Bucky came up to my studio to try out his new 7-string guitar. We did some experimental recordings with it and we knew, right away, that we had a good sound. He had a marvelous facility for playing that instrument. I think the credit should be given to him for the development of the accompanist style on the 7-string guitar. (Van Eps is the supreme master of solo style playing on the 7-string.) Bucky and I worked a heavy schedule together for three years. We made two albums. One, on the A&R label [Guitars Pure And Honest], was our own record, and we were part of a package of guitarists for a Town Hall concert on Columbia Records [The Guitar Album, KG 31045]. Bucky and I knew from the beginning that he wouldn't be satisfied to be my accompanist for the rest of his life. He is too good a musician for that. We split up when he went to do concerts in Europe with Benny Goodman. But we had a marvelous three years together.

You're currently co-leading the Ruby Braff-George Barnes Quartet. How did you and cornetist Ruby Braff get together?

George Wein, the promoter for the Newport Jazz Festival, hired both of us to play there as part of an all-star band. Both Ruby and I were disenchanted with that playing format. Each person in that kind of band just solos briefly. Each brief solo is followed by another brief solo. It's an atmosphere where both Ruby and I feel cramped. So we decided that we'd form our own group and play our own music. We called George Wein, before the festival, and told him that we wanted to work together. "Don't give us any more money," we told him. "We'll hire our own men and put our group together." We've now been together for over a year, have played the major jazz festivals all over the world, and we've made several albums.

How do you and Wayne Wright, the rhythm guitarist in your group, manage not to get in each other's way when Ruby is soloing?

We have no drummer, the fourth piece being bassist, Mike Moore, so Wayne plays strict time. When Ruby plays, I only play accenting lines or chords to his statements. Wayne's a former student of mine. He's had years of meat experience; he worked with Peggy Lee for seven years, and on numerous broadway shows.

You've been quite involved with the development of better sound and range for the electric guitar. When did you start to play electric guitar?

In 1931, my older brother, who is an electronic genius, built me a pickup and an amplifier before they were even out on the market. He did this for me, because he knew I wanted to play solo lines which could be heard in a band. The first electric guitar came out the following year. National Dobro made them and one of those was my first real electric guitar. Nobody knows who had the first electric guitar; maybe I did. I knew, the first time I played one, that that instrument was going to take me through my career for the rest of my life.

For years, you've been playing a Guild arch-top guitar with no f-holes. How did the development of that guitar come about?

I designed that guitar back in 1961. When I first saw it, it was a piece of wood from Norway. My guitar is made from the finest woods. The pickups are suspended and the sound comes out of the body from the cut-out area of the top around the pickups. The guitar's sound works much the same way as a round-hole's, except my sound comes out of two enlarged triangular holes around the pickups. I knew that if I had a live top with suspended pickups, I'd get a better sound. I realized a long time ago that f-holes cause feedback. Both George Van Eps and I discovered that about the same time. We did a concert together in Aspen, Colorado and we both started laughing when we saw each other's guitar. He had put foam rubber in his f-holes to cut out the feedback, and I had taped mine over.

With Guild, you also developed the George Barnes guitar in F. What was the reason for that?

I made an album called Guitars Galore and I wanted the guitars to play the role of a big band. However, the guitar doesn't have the range for that. So I used the 6-string bass guitar to cover the baritone range, the regular guitar to cover the tenor saxophone range and developed the guitar in F to play the alto saxophone range. The guitar was tuned so if you played a C chord in the first position, it came out as an F barre chord in the first (fifth!) position of a regular - guitar. The instrument was tuned in the following way: the 6th string was A, the 5th D, the 4th G, the 3rd C, the 2nd E and the 1 st A. Because of the high tuning, you had to use light gauge strings. The guitar had twenty frets but the scale was shorter than the standard guitar.

Is it true that you only down-pick your single-string playing?

You get a better sound from the guitar by using only down-strokes. Your leverage just isn't as good when you up-pick. Therefore, I use as many downstrokes as possible. I developed a technique of quick picking, using only down-strokes. But sometimes, for very rapid phrasing, I have to use alternating up and down-strokes. I also hold the pick in an unusual manner-with my thumb, index, and middle finger. By picking this way, all I do to change the dynamics and volume is tighten or loosen my grip on the pick. I don't have to pick harder and my wrist remains loose.

With your vast experience in music, is there something you'd like to do that you haven't done yet in the music world?

I've often said that there aren't enough lifetimes for me to do all the musical things I want to do. I recorded some classical tunes in the Sixties. I'd like to do more of that. But, right now, I'm happier, musically, than at any other time in my life.

Why is that?

I'm doing exactly what I want to do. I'm not doing any commercial music, with people telling me how to play. I'm playing the tunes I like, the way I want to play them, and I'm performing with guys I love to work with. We don't listen to or copy anyone's work. We are totally doing our own thing. Also, we play concerts, which give us more bread in one night's work than if we performed in a club for three weeks. It's also beautiful to play concerts because people are more attentive to our music than in a club.

Do you have any advice about how to achieve success in the guitar world?

The best advice I can give is to work hard. Never settle for anything less than excellence. A musician should never just play for money alone. There are more rewards to music than money. Also, keep your musical ideas fresh by looking at each performance as a new experience.

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