Barney Kessel Jazz Guitar Licks

Barney Kessel is one of the biggest names in jazz guitar history, but he doesn’t always get as much attention as Joe Pass, Wes Montgomery, and others. Though he may not be studied as often as some of his peers, Barney’s playing is full of classic licks, sophisticated vocabulary, and a strong sense of musicality.

Barney Kessel is known as a bebop guitar player. Born in 1923 he started his career by playing in big bands, like the one of Artie Shaw for example.

In 1952 he toured with the Oscar Peterson Trio. During the 1960s he became one of the busiest studio musicians in LA. As a session guitarist, he played on many famous pop albums and singles from bands like The Monkees and The Beach Boys.

Barney Kessel’s most famous album is The Poll Winners, a trio album with bass player Ray Brown and drummer Shelly Manne. Another famous Barney Kessel album is Great Guitars, an all-guitar band with Herb Ellis and Charlie Byrd.

In this lesson, you will break down Barney Kessel’s soloing concepts, learning nine licks and an entire solo along the way.

Besides learning licks on the guitar, it’s also important to understand the concepts behind each phrase, so that you can incorporate them into your playing in a natural way.

Have fun with these lines, they’re classic Barney phrases that will elevate your bebop soloing to the next level.

Barney Kessel Lick 1

This Barney Kessel lick uses an interesting harmonic choice that he liked to use in his lines, the B triad over Gm7 in the second bar:


B Triad B D# F#
Played over Gm7 3 b6 7


Here, Barney is outlining the notes B-D#(Eb)-F# over Gm7, but then resolving it to the more “inside” note F at the start of the next bar. By playing Bb-A-G-F#, Barney is delaying the resolutions of that F# by two beats, allowing him to extend his line in the process.


Listen & Play Along

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Barney Kessel Lick 1


Barney Kessel Lick 2

Barney was a fan of big, 5-note chords, and here is an example of Barney-style chord shapes being applied to a ii-V-I-VI chord progression in the key of C major.

Notice how the G stays on top of each chord, as this was also something Barney liked to do. Using a continuous top-note can help bring a cohesiveness to your chord changes.


Listen & Play Along

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Barney Kessel Lick 2


Barney Kessel Lick 3

Here is a bluesy lick that borrows from the C minor blues scale over the G7 chord in the second bar of this ii-V-I lick.

Mixing the b3 and #4 (the blue notes) into the underlying scale is a quick way to bring a blues sound to any of your lines, and something that you can find in Barney’s classic recordings.


Listen & Play Along

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Barney Kessel Lick 3


Barney Kessel Lick 4

Barney was a fan of the Honeysuckle Rose lick that you can hear in the first 6 beats of the lick below.

This lick, based on the opening line of the jazz standard “Honeysuckle Rose,” runs down from the root of the V7 chord,  before playing the iim triad from that chord up to the resolving note A.


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Barney Kessel Lick 4


Barney Kessel Lick 5

This lick uses a descending scale pattern, which features an ascending interval as it moves down the underlying scale fingering.

This type of pattern is characteristic of not only Barney’s soloing but of other players from the late Swing and Bebop era as well. Check it out, great sound and easy to finger on the guitar.


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Barney Kessel Lick 5


Barney Kessel Lick 6

This blues lick uses the bebop scale in the opening phrase. From there, Barney uses a b13 interval to create tension over the Bb7 chord before bringing it back inside over Eb7.

Over the Eb7, you’ll see a Gm7 arpeggio used to create a bit of tension. In this case, Barney is still thinking Bb7 over that bar (the first half), as Gm7 is the 13-1-3-5 of Bb7:


Gm7 Arpeggio G Bb D F
Played over Bb7 13 1 3 5


By delaying the Bb7 chord over the Eb7 chord, Barney creates tension that’s released on the 13th of Eb7 (the C at the end of the bar).

When playing over any jazz changes, you can delay the chord you’re on over the next chord in the progression, as long as you eventually resolve that tension.


Listen & Play Along

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Barney Kessel Blues 1


Barney Kessel Lick 7

In this classic Barney phrase, you’ll use both lower neighbor (LN) and upper neighbor (UN) notes to create a tension and release sound over the first full bar of the phrase.

These neighbor tones lead into the next chord tones (the root and 3rd respectively) by a half step. Not only do they create tension and release in your solos, they’re an essential tool that every jazz guitarist should learn at some point in their development.

In the second bar of the phrase, you’ll see an Abmaj7 used over Bb7, to create a Bb13sus sound in the first half of the bar.


Abmaj7 Arpeggio Ab C Eb G
Played over Bb7 b7 9 4 13


Playing a maj7 arpeggio a tone below a 7th-chord is a common Barney sound, which you can find in Wes Montgomery’s solos as well.


The last item is the tension created with the B augmented triad sound at the end of the last bar, which is then resolved to Eb7 in the next bar of the full solo.


B Aug Triad B D# F##
Played over Bb7 b9 4 13


Moving up by a half step and using augmented sounds are both ways to create interest in your solos. As long as you resolve that tension correctly, it will work out.


Listen & Play Along

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Barney Kessel Blues 2


Barney Kessel Lick 8

The next phrase is a straight-ahead blues phrase that Barney often used in his playing.

Though it’s not complicated, this phrase is a great example of how you can use solid blues vocabulary to grab the listener’s ears in your solos. Often times players will get so focused on arpeggios, modes, chromatic notes, and licks, that they forget to play the blues over a blues tune.


Listen & Play Along

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Barney Kessel Blues 3


Barney Kessel Lick 9

In typical fashion, you’ll find a lot of Charlie Parker influence in Barney’s playing, and this lick is no exception.

This lick uses typical bebop techniques such as:

  • The 3-9 arpeggio (Ebmaj7 over Cm7)
  • The bebop scale
  • Superimposed triads (Gm)
  • 7aug sounds (F7#5)

If there’s one ii V I lick that you should have in your blues playing, this is it.

Lastly, the lick uses an A natural over the G7 in the final bar of the phrase. This is a bit of an odd choice as that chord is usually G7b9.

In this case, Barney is outlining a G9 chord, not common but you can work it in, and at the end of the lick the A doesn’t sound out of place. This is a case where the lick itself is so strong that an out of place note at the end sounds right, whereas that note on its own would sound wrong. Be careful with these kinds of outside notes, if they are a part of a phrase they tend to work. If not, they can cause a clash that your audience may not be into.


Listen & Play Along

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Barney Kessel Blues 4


Barney Kessel Blues Soloing Study

Now that you’ve learned these licks on their own, you’re ready to bring them all together and learn the entire Barney blues solo.

You can learn the solo along with the sample track, or use the backing track to practice playing this solo from memory.

Have fun, and when you’re ready, put the backing track on and solo with your own ideas, mixing in some Barney lines along the way.lick


Backing Track

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Listen & Play Along
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Barney Kessel Blues 5



Introduction to Jazz Blues Guitar
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17 thoughts on “Barney Kessel Jazz Guitar Licks”

  1. ImanAli

    More study for me. Thank you.

  2. Robert

    Great stuff to study Matt. Thanks Mucho!! Barney Kassel played some really cool two note (at same time) riffs on II V I often also. Are they in here somewhere? As if you weren’t doing enough!? Bob


    Estou adorando receber imails ,melhorei muito no jazz ,muito obrigado


    1. Dirk Laukens

      You’re welcome, George!

  4. Greg DiGiorgio

    Thx, Dirk, as always!!!

  5. Erik Selander

    I am so happy to have found jazz guitar on line, lot’s of really useful and pedagogic stuff here and I really appreciate the weekly tips and tricks E-mails! Thanks a lot!!

  6. Charlie

    Am so much enjoying the lessons. Am working through your arpeggio studies. I like the way you break everything down, making the lessons understandable.Thank you.

  7. Vincent j Parrella

    Matt,This is some really hip lines,Barney had a wonderful sense of timing,and one of the few players that could play the bebop language,so glad you included these lines in the lesson,you never cease to amaze me with the material you come up with,you continue to bring excitement with this material and i don’t know what i would do without you,your a wonderful flower that hasn’t bloomed yet,i hope you never bloom.

  8. Kevin Webb

    Barney was the best for ‘listenability’. He was technically up there with Joe Pass and Chet Atkins, but nobody worked his way through jazz and made it swing like Barney K. His series of POLL WINNERS albums playing with Ray Brown & Shelly Manne are iconic. The got together again
    15 years later i 1975 to make ‘Straight Ahead’ – much more off the cuff and hard edged. One of jazz’ all-time greats.

  9. Javier

    Good ideas to improve a blues guitar solo, thanks!

  10. Robert

    What tune is this solo from?

    1. Matt Warnock

      It’s not from one solo, it’s a collection of Barney lines from a number of tunes brought together in a study.

  11. Sten Andersson

    Excellent. How about some examples of Barney’s chord soloing?

  12. Archtop Tom

    Thanks for that breakdown Matt! Barney was the coolest of cats and my favorite. Put him in a room with Herb Ellis and stand well back! A great way to carry on a legacy he continued from Charlie Christian.

  13. Monte Saager

    Sweet. Love Barney’s playing. An autographed copy of “The Guitar” is one of my prized possessions. Thanks Matt.

  14. Alejo

    Your stuff is always SO good! Easy understanding and practical examples, thats all it takes to learn. I’m always anxious to know what’s next, thank’s Matt!

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