George Barnes (musician)

George Warren Barnes (July 17, 1921 – September 5, 1977) was an American swing jazz guitarist who played the first electric guitar in 1931.[1] He, disputedly, made the first commercial recording of an electric guitar on March 1, 1938, in sessions with Big Bill Broonzy.[2] Such was his downhome style of playing, he was once mistakenly described as a "great Negro blues guitar player from Chicago".[3]

George Barnes
George Barnes.JPG
Background information
Birth nameGeorge Warren Barnes
Born(1921-07-17)July 17, 1921
South Chicago Heights, Illinois, U.S.
DiedSeptember 5, 1977(1977-09-05) (aged 56)
Concord, California
  • Musician
  • arranger
  • composer
  • music educator
Years active1931–1977
Associated acts


Barnes was born in South Chicago Heights, Illinois in 1921. His father was a guitarist and taught Barnes acoustic guitar at the age of nine. A year later, in 1931, Barnes's brother made a pickup and amplifier for him. Barnes said he was the first person to play electric guitar. From 1935–1937, he led a band that performed in the Midwest.[4]

On March 1, 1938, he recorded the songs "Sweetheart Land" and "It's a Lowdown Dirty Shame" with blues guitarist Big Bill Broonzy. In doing so, it has been claimed that he became the first person to make a record on electric guitar, fifteen days before Eddie Durham recorded on electric guitar with the Kansas City Five, though the claim has been contested.[5] In 1938, when he was seventeen, Barnes was hired as staff guitarist for the NBC Orchestra.[1] He was also staff guitarist and arranger for Decca and recorded with Blind John Davis, Jazz Gillum, Merline Johnson, Curtis Jones, and Washboard Sam.[4]

In 1940, Barnes released his first solo recording, "I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles" and "I Can't Believe That You're in Love with Me" on Okeh Records. He was drafted in 1942 and served with the U.S. Army as an intercept operator in the Pentagon. After his discharge in 1946, he formed the George Barnes Octet and was given a fifteen-minute radio program on the ABC network. On January 17, 1947, he married Evelyn Lorraine Triplett in Chicago.

In 1951, he was signed to Decca by Milt Gabler and moved from Chicago to New York City.[1] In 1953, he joined the orchestra for the television show Your Hit Parade. The band was conducted by Raymond Scott, and Barnes was a featured soloist. Barnes, Scott, and vocalist Dorothy Collins (Scott's wife) also recorded together.

Barnes worked often as a studio musician in New York City, playing on hundreds of albums and jingles from the early 1950s through the late 1960s. He played guitar on Patsy Cline's New York sessions in April 1957. Although he was primarily a swing jazz guitarist,[6] he participated in hundreds of pop, rock, and R&B recording sessions. He played on many hit songs by the Coasters, on "This Magic Moment" by the Drifters, and on "Lonely Teardrops". His electric guitar can be heard in the movie A Face in the Crowd.

He recorded three albums for Mercury: Movin' Easy (1960) with his Jazz Renaissance Quintet, Guitar Galaxies (1960), and Guitars Galore (1961). The latter two contained his orchestrations for ten guitars, known as his guitar choir, which used guitars in place of a horn section. The two albums employed a recording technique known as Perfect Presence Sound.

Barnes received the most attention as a jazz guitarist when he recorded as a duo with Carl Kress from 1961–1965.[4] He and Kress were invited to play at the White House Christmas party on December 17, 1964. For the occasion, Barnes wrote "Watusi for Luci" for First Daughter Luci Baines Johnson because she was famous for dancing the Watusi in clubs with Hollywood celebrities. The song was used as the theme for The Clay Cole Show in 1965 when the TV show was renamed Clay Cole's Discotek.

Barnes formed a duo with jazz guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli that lasted from 1969–1972.[1] In 1973, he and cornetist Ruby Braff formed the Ruby Braff–George Barnes Quartet.[4] The quartet recorded several albums, including Live at the New School (Chiaroscuro, 1974), To Fred Astaire with Love (RCA, 1975), and The Rodgers and Hart Songbook (1973) with singer Tony Bennett. From 1973 until 1977, Barnes recorded several well-received solo albums for Concord Jazz and with the quartet he had formed with Braff. He also recorded two albums for jazz violinist Joe Venuti.

Barnes and his wife, Evelyn, left New York City after his last European tour in 1975 to live and work in the San Francisco Bay area. He died of a heart attack in Concord, California in 1977 at the age of 56.[1]

First recording with electric guitarEdit

There is some dispute over the first commercial recording of the electric guitar. Barnes played an electric guitar on two songs, "Sweetheart Land" and "It's a Low-Down Dirty Shame", sung by Big Bill Broonzy and produced by Lester Melrose in Chicago on March 1, 1938.[7] Some historians, however, attribute the first recording with electric guitar to Eddie Durham in 1935. Durham's recording was played on an acoustic guitar fitted with a pickup, with Jimmie Lunceford in "Hittin' The Bottle".[8] Several recordings of an electric lap steel guitar precede both Durham and Barnes, including recordings by Milton Brown and his Musical Brownies with Bob Dunn on electric lap steel in January 1935 and Andy Iona in 1933.[9]

Style and techniqueEdit

Barnes's style took shape before the development of bebop, and he remained a swing stylist throughout his career. His lines were usually short, melodic, bluesy and "inside" (i.e., diatonic), compared to the chromaticism and long lines of bop-era guitarists. His improvisations often employed call and response phrases, and his tone was clearer, cleaner and brighter than many other jazz guitarists (such as Joe Pass or Jim Hall) and reflected his "happy" approach to music.

Not long before his death, he recorded three live albums—two produced from an April 17, 1977 concert at the San Francisco club Bimbo's 365, the other at the Willows Theatre in Concord, California. The albums are good examples of his swinging, happy and often mischievous style. The albums also include his banter with the audience and his introductions of tunes and his band, giving the listener a glimpse of his sense of humor.

In a review of the album Don't Get Around Much Anymore (material from a 1977 concert in Concord, California, recorded a little more than a month before Barnes's death at the age of 56), Jim Ferguson wrote, "Often overlooked in a sea of more modern-sounding, bebop-oriented guitarists, George Barnes could swing like mad and spin out intricate, frequently bluesy phrases with awesome precision and musicality...From start to finish, this well-recorded performance demonstrates the qualities that qualify Barnes for a position among the most elite players in the annals of jazz guitar."[10]

In 1942, Barnes wrote the first electric guitar method book, The George Barnes Electric Guitar Method, published by Wm. J. Smith. In 1961, he wrote and recorded George Barnes' Living Guitar Method: The Easy Way to Learn All the Chords and Rhythms and Ten Duets for Two Guitars (recorded with his partner Carl Kress) for Music Minus One. In 1965, he wrote How to Arrange for Solo Guitar, published by Peermusic. He also produced the first guitar course offered on cassette tape, The Great George Barnes Guitar Course, published in 1970 by Prentice Hall.


As leaderEdit

  • Guitars...By George! (Decca, 1958)
  • Guitar Galaxies (Mercury, 1960)
  • Guitars Galore (Mercury, 1962)
  • Town Hall Concert with Carl Kress (United Artists, 1963)
  • Guitars Pure and Honest with Bucky Pizzarelli (A&R 1971)
  • Swing, Guitars with Dick Hyman (Famous Door, 1973)
  • Live at the New School (Chiaroscuro, 1974)
  • Gems with Joe Venuti (Concord Jazz, 1975)
  • Braff/Barnes Quartet Salutes Rodgers and Hart with Ruby Braff (Concord Jazz, 1975)
  • Blues Going Up (Concord Jazz, 1977)
  • Live at the Concord Summer Festival with Joe Venuti (Concord Jazz, 1977)
  • Guitars, Anyone? Why Not Start at the Top? with Carl Kress (Carney, 1963)
  • Plays So Good (Concord Jazz, 1978)
  • Two Guitars Volume 1 with Carl Kress (Stash, 1983)
  • Two Guitars and a Horn with Carl Kress, Bud Freeman (Stash, 1983)
  • Don't Get Around Much Anymore (Acoustic Disc, 2002)
  • The Uncollected George Barnes and His Octet 1946 (Hindsight, 1977)

As sidemanEdit

With Louis Armstrong

  • I Love Jazz (Decca, 1962)
  • Louis and the Angels (Decca, 1957)
  • Louis and the Good Book (Decca, 1958)

With Al Caiola

  • High Strung (RCA Victor, 1959)
  • Italian Guitars (Time, 1960)
  • Spanish Guitars (Time, 1976)

With others


  1. ^ a b c d e Wilson, John S. (1977). "George Barnes, 56; Jazz Guitarist Won Acclaim for Style". The New York Times.
  2. ^ Campilongo, Jim (2016). "George Barnes: Be There at Five". Guitar Player. 50: 19 – via ProQuest.
  3. ^ Ferguson, Jim (1994). "George Barnes Plays So Good". Guitar Player. 28: 18 – via Gale.
  4. ^ a b c d Yanow, Scott (2013). The Great Jazz Guitarists. San Francisco: Backbeat. p. 16. ISBN 978-1-61713-023-6.
  5. ^ Fernando Ortiz de Urbina, "Electric guitar—Who's on first?", Easy Does It, September 28, 2016. Retrieved 7 June 2020
  6. ^ "Rock-a-billy Hall". Rock-a-billy Hall. Retrieved 2011-11-01.
  7. ^ Osbrecht, Jas (2017). Talking Guitar: Conversations with Musicians Who Shaped Twentieth-Century American Music. University of North Carolina Press. p. 17. ISBN 9781469631653.
  8. ^ Baker, Dann (2003-12-01). "Eddie Durham: Forgotten Guitar Pioneer". The Brooklyn Rail. Retrieved 2021-06-04.
  9. ^ Gerard, Jim. "Eddie Durham: Genius in the Shadows". All About Jazz. Retrieved 2021-06-04.
  10. ^ JazzTimes review of Don't Get Around Much Anymore (George Barnes Quartet) by Jim Ferguson (retrieved 3 October 2011)

External linksEdit