Guitar Aficionado

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

The late guitarist was a habitual tinkerer, always on the lookout for that next great modification.
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The late guitarist was a habitual tinkerer, always on the lookout for that next great modification.

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.

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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.

Farlow’s 1960 Gibson Tal Farlow prototype rests upon his custom performance stool. (inset) The circuitboard from a Boss OC-2 Octaver that was driven by the guitar’s middle pickup.

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Last summer, after long deliberation, Farlow’s widow Michele Hyk-Farlow decided that she needed to do something about her husband’s guitars. Not being a guitar player herself, she had no use for them. And though a few guitarist pals like jazz great Jack Wilkins had occasionally come to the couple’s house in New Jersey near Philadelphia to play them, they were otherwise unused since Tal’s death. So what to do? “Some of the auction houses no longer deal with guitars, and I certainly couldn’t sell them by myself,” she says. “Several people suggested that Rudy might be the person to handle it.”

That would be Rudy Pensa, owner of Rudy’s Music. Soon after Hyk-Farlow called him, he made the trip to her home to evaluate the guitars. “When I first looked at them, I was shaking,” he recalls. “I never met Tal Farlow, but I knew his reputation. And these guitars were all just as he’d left them when he died. I was holding them, and I could see even the strings hadn’t been changed. Some of them needed refurbishing, particularly the ES-250, but we didn’t want to kill their patina. These guitars had been played, and people don’t appreciate it if you do too much. Tal had painted around the f-holes on the 250”—another custom touch—“and of course there was the refretting [Milt Owen’s handiwork]. We haven’t changed any of that.”

Besides the 250, the most noteworthy guitar in the Rudy’s exhibition is the second Tal Farlow prototype from 1960, which Farlow played regularly from the day he received it until his passing. He called it The Blonde because of its unusual natural color, which was actually originally a light red-brown sunburst finish that had faded significantly over time. [Farlow described its color as “on the orange side” in an interview published in the July 1980 issue of Guitar Player magazine.] Original Tal Farlows are a rarity in themselves, as Gibson produced only 215 of them between 1962 and 1967, but this one is obviously one of a kind.

Several other features besides the faded finish distinguish it from production models, including the placement of the pickup toggle switch on the cutaway horn rather than below the pickguard; the target, or bulls-eye, inlay surrounding the toggle switch; the single crown inlay on the headstock instead of the Tal Farlow model’s standard double mirror-image crown inlay; bowtie inlays on the fretboard instead of the inverted crest (or pineapple) SJ-200-style inlays; and an entirely different style tailpiece block with Farlow’s name engraved in laminated black and white plastic instead of pearl.

Farlow’s 1951 Gibson ES-140 with one-of-a-kind custom red finish. The Tune-o-matic bridge and tuners were later modifications.

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One fascinating oddity in the collection is a 3/4-size 1951 ES-140 that’s been almost entirely painted bright red, including the fretboard, headstock overlay, pickguard, and single P-90 pickup cover. Farlow asked Gibson for this bizarre paint job when the Red Norvo Trio was hired to back up singer Mel Tormé on his new CBS TV show, which was the first to ever be broadcast in color.

“The producer of the show came in and told everyone how we needed to have the best and brightest colors and so forth, and that he wanted to paint our instruments red,” Farlow remembered in a 1990 interview with Vintage Guitar. “However, the show got canceled after only a few weeks, so I forgot about the guitar and didn’t think anything more of it. About six months later, I get a call from Gibson, saying that they had this guitar there, and did I want it? I told them that I had no more use for it, but they said, ‘Just tell us where to send it. We’ll give it to you and write it off as advertising.’”

The other guitars featured in the Rudy’s Music exhibit are four more recent Tal Farlow model guitars built for their namesake by Gibson’s Custom Shop, which officially reissued the Tal Farlow model in 1993. They include a Viceroy Brown 1987 model (SN 82937591), a Tobacco Sunburst from 1993, and two Viceroy Browns from 1996 (SN 910166007 and 92296003). Only three major Tal-related guitars can’t be found here: the first Tal Farlow prototype, which was returned to the Gibson factory in 1960 due to Farlow’s dissatisfaction with it; the third Tal Farlow prototype, featuring a tobacco sunburst finish—Farlow’s principal live instrument for 17 years, it was stolen at Newark Airport following a 1978 flight from San Francisco and never recovered; and his early Fifties ES-350, pictured on several album covers, whose whereabouts are currently unknown (although Farlow mentioned still having it in his 1980 Guitar Player interview).

Guitars aren’t the only Farlow items that Rudy’s will be showing. Another example of his ceaseless tinkering is the cushioned bar stool that he customized in the early Seventies by fitting it with a small Walter Woods amplifier and volume pedal. Farlow pitched a slightly more complex version of this “amp you can sit on” design to Gibson in the Sixties, but they passed on it. He went ahead and built one anyway, using it frequently at local New Jersey gigs.

After the Fifties, Farlow’s engagement with the music business was a reluctant one. Although he recorded and toured sporadically, he also dropped out of the action for long stretches, often choosing to concentrate on his other trade: commercial sign painting. But he never stopped playing, and the seven guitars in his collection—even the newer ones—were clearly well-loved.

“It’s my hope that they all find wonderful homes because they were very much appreciated,” Hyk-Farlow says. “It would be lovely if they went to a museum eventually, but whatever happens to them, I just know they don’t belong with me any longer. Tal was a special human being and I was very lucky to have met him, let alone share life with him. I’m just trying my best to make sure his name continues to be recognized and his music continues to be enjoyed.”

Tal Farlow’s guitars will be on display at Rudy’s SoHo showroom from April 24 through April 29.

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.

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