Joe Barrick Cow’s Skull Doubleneck

January 23, 2008

The incredible Joe Barrick cow’s skull doubleneck guitar—actually a bull’s skull, as it has horns—dates from the early 1950s, and it’s the ultimate marriage of California guitar ingenuity and folk art. And as with other guitars we’ve featured in this column, the maker is even more colorful than the instrument itself.

Joe Barrick was born in Oklahoma in 1922, of Choctaw Indian heritage. He played fiddle and mandolin in Western swing bands while growing up, and Bob Wills was a major influence. When Barrick got out of the armed services following World War II, he settled in California, and lived on the West Coast for 30 years. It was during this period in the early ’50s that the influences of Barrick’s Oklahoma upbringing—and the new styles of electric guitar—came together in a series of instruments made from cow’s skulls. The example shown here may be the first.

Barrick has been quoted as saying, “It was Western music—everything was Western. And in everything Western, you’d always see a cow’s skull lying around.”

The guitar is an incredible example of design, from the way that it seamlessly flows from the cow’s skull, to the birdseye maple body, to the use of carved and polished bones for the nuts, knobs, and pickup selector. While the guitar seems to be modeled loosely on Grady Martin’s highly influential 1952 Bigsby doubleneck, Barrick claims to have no knowledge of Paul Bigsby’s work.

Barrick made several other cow’s-skull guitars—including at least one other doubleneck. He also made a guitar out of wood in the shape of Oklahoma, with the neck as the panhandle. Another was made from an actual toilet seat. During this time, Barrick also invented a one-man band system with an instrument called the “Piatarbajo” (piano, guitar, bass, banjo) that allows him to play a full band’s worth of instruments simultaneously using his hands and feet.

The cow’s skull doubleneck definitely takes the proverbial cake. This is one of the most fascinating and innovative instruments I’ve ever encountered. All salute the warped genius of Joe Barrick!

(Thanks to Lloyd Tripp, Larry Briggs, and Joe Barrick.)

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