Tal Farlow: Seven Guitars That Reveal the Jazz Giant’s Vision as a Design Innovator

April 24th, 2017

This is a feature from the May/June 2017 issue of Guitar Aficionado magazine. For this complete story and more photos, plus features on country music legend Vince Gill, top-flight picker Brent Mason and the opening of the new Songbirds Guitar Museum in Chattanooga, pick up the May/June 2017 Country Music special issue of Guitar Aficionado at your newsstand, or online by clicking here.


Farlow performing at a 1981 concert in Wallingford, Oxfordshire, with his 1960 Gibson Tal Farlow prototype.

TAL TALES: A collection of seven guitars owned by Tal Farlow reveals that the jazz giant was equally visionary as a player and guitar design innovator.

By Mac Randall | Photos by Justin Borucki

Some guitar players will choose an instrument, stick with it for years, and never alter it in any way. Others are habitual tinkerers, always on the lookout for that one extra modification that could improve on what they’ve already got. The great Tal Farlow, who lived from 1921 to 1998, was one of the latter.

To connoisseurs of jazz guitar, Farlow will always be remembered for his rapid-fire single-note runs, mastery of rake harmonics, and frequent use of his left-hand thumb to cover the bottom two strings on the fretboard, creating a thick stew of intervals that can be heard on more than 30 albums he recorded as a leader (including 1957’s The Swinging Guitar of Tal Farlow and 1983’s Cookin’ on All Burners), as well as sessions with clarinetist Artie Shaw, vibraphonist Red Norvo, and numerous others. To those who have a fondness for electric archtops, Farlow is famous for his Gibson signature model, introduced in 1962 alongside two other Gibson signature hollowbody jazz boxes named after Johnny Smith and Barney Kessel and produced until 1967, with the last example shipped in 1969. Farlow worked closely with Gibson for many months in the early Sixties to perfect this guitar’s design, but that was just the culmination of more than a decade of unusual experiments.

In 1945, when he was gigging around the East Coast of the U.S. with pianist Dardanelle Hadley’s trio—and absorbing, in person at various New York City nightclubs, the bebop innovations of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie that would deeply influence his playing style—Farlow bought his first of many Gibson guitars, a 1939 ES-250 with a chocolate brown/golden sunburst finish and one Charlie Christian–style bar pickup in the neck position. This was the guitar that Farlow would play on all the hallowed trio recordings he cut in 1950 and 1951 with Norvo and bassist Charles Mingus. But by the time that happened, the 250 had undergone significant alterations by Los Angeles luthier Milt Owen, at its owner’s request.

“I had [Owen] take the fingerboard off, put a new one on, and eliminate the first fret—move the whole thing up toward the nut, including the bridge,” Farlow explained in a 1981 interview with the magazine Crescendo. “By eliminating that first fret, it makes the scale shorter by an inch and a quarter. Well, when you do that up there at the [original] 12th fret, you gain two frets—because they’re half the size up there. It’s [originally] 14 frets clear of the body; doing that makes it go up to 16. And that guitar wasn’t a cutaway…so it enabled me to reach higher notes without buying a new guitar!”

Given the large size of Farlow’s hands—not for nothing was he nicknamed The Octopus—it may have seemed a little odd that he was choosing to create a short-scale guitar for himself. Even more unusual was the fact that the modified neck had 24 frets—considerably more than the 20-fret necks on most Gibson archtop models at the time. But that easier access to the high notes and extended range certainly had an effect on his groundbreaking, harmonically ultra-advanced work with Norvo and Mingus (which you can hear on the excellent two-CD compilation The Modern Red Norvo).

A short while after making the last of those recordings, Farlow received a brand-new ES-350 directly from Gibson, initiating a relationship with the company that would last the rest of his life. At some point in the mid Fifties, Farlow replaced the ES-350’s P-90 neck pickup with a Charlie Christian pickup, as seen on the cover of his 1957 album, The Swinging Guitar of Tal Farlow. He retired the 250 from active service after acquiring the ES-350, giving it to his amateur-musician father Clarence. Apparently, the senior Mr. Farlow was also a tinkerer; at some point, he decided to bring the guitar back to its original specs. His efforts only succeeded in making it unplayable, and thus it languished for decades.

Now that historic ES-250, carefully restored to its previous customized condition, will take its place alongside six other Gibsons from Farlow’s collection—including the second prototype of the venerated archtop model that bears his name—as part of a special one-week exhibit at Rudy’s Music SoHo in Manhattan at the end of April. It will be the first time in nearly 20 years that more than a handful of people have laid eyes on these guitars. And yes, they will all be for sale.

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Comments

  1. Posted by Bucky Barrett on April 27th, 2017, 13:15 [Reply]

    Great story! I have a 1966 Tal Farlow model that I bought new and also a letter from Tal. He also played my guitar. Absolutely one of the nicest, most brilliant people I have ever met!!!
    Bucky Barrett

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