George Barnes (1921 - 1977) began his career in Chicago while still a teenager. In 1935 he was playing blues guitar backup for singers like Memphis Minnie and Blind John Davis before making his move to jazz. His first significant jazz recording was The George Barnes Sextet made for Keynote Records in 1946. His last two recordings were produced in 1977, by Concord Records, one just shortly before and one just after his death.
George Barnes was one of the most underrated of the jazz guitarists that came up during the 1930's, 1940's and 1950's. He was easily recognized for the duets he made with Carl Kress, but sometimes overlooked as one of the great jazz stylists and innovators.
Barnes was one of the very first guitarists to electrify his instrument and he was also one of the first to prove the guitar's abilities as a significant solo instrument. In fact, it is said that Barnes' ambition throughout his life was to make the guitar as important an instrument as the more commonly heard solo instruments. His 1946 interpretation of Lover Come Back To Me on Keystone, showed that already in 1946, Barnes had extended the guitar's role as a solo instrument. Unlike many of his early recordings where the solo spotlight was shared with other instruments, on this recording the guitar was the only solo instrument backed by bass, drums and rhythm guitar. This extraordinary recording preceded and pointed the way to the great guitar recordings by Johnny Smith, Tal Farlow and many others.
While he was extending the guitar's role as a solo instrument, Barnes also continued to promote the guitar as a rhythm instrument. He often switched between solo and rhythm when he played in a group setting and he usually included outstanding rhythm guitarists on his recordings. He made duet recordings with Carl Kress, Art Ryerson and Bucky Pizzarelli on which the rhythm guitar was featured as prominently as his solos. In fact, some of these duet recordings were more significant due to the amazing strength of the rhythm playing. Barnes’ emphasis on preserving the role of the rhythm guitar also contributed to the preservation of the guitar duet format. This tradition began with Eddie Lang and Lonnie Johnson, was continued by Lang with Carl Kress and then Kress with Dick McDonough, Kress with Tony Mottola and then Kress and Barnes on electric guitars. George Barnes and Kress took this form to a new level by performing as a duet in public performances in clubs and concert halls. Many of the guitar duet players who followed referenced Barnes and Kress as the outstanding model for this venue.
Like all the great jazz guitarists, George Barnes was first a dedicated musician who happened to also be an outstanding guitar player. And like the other great guitar players he was dedicated to his instrument. He developed a very distinctive style that made him unique and he invested his career in an effort to keep the great guitar traditions alive.
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