In the early fifties, virtuoso Tal Farlow was part of vibraphone player Red Norvo's trio, along with double bassist Charles Mingus. The trio had been hired to play with singer Mel Tormé for his TV show on CBS, and the musicians were instructed to come with bright colored instruments in order to really come through on color TV, a media in its infancy at the time. Farlow didn't want to paint his favorite Gibson, so he asked the Kalamazoo brand to build him a red guitar.
The Gibson employees did not just finish a guitar's body in cherry red, which would already have been a very rare feat for the time, but the body, the neck, the fretboard, the P90 cover, the pickguard and even the headstock have been painted in a very flashy red hue. The chosen model was a cheaper guitar in order not to waste a nice L-5 or a Super 400 by submitting it to this unlikely treatment. Therefore, they picked an ES-140, the three quarter size version of the ES-175. This smaller instrument had been designed to accommodate beginners' smaller hands, but could sound like a perfectly decent jazzbox in highly capable hands like Farlow's.
The master gave the ES-140 the nickname Little Red, and it stayed in his possession for his whole life, a cool oddity in a very small collection. Farlow's widow then accepted to let it go with help from Rudy's, New York's archtop specialist, and that is how Little Red crossed the Atlantic to find its way to Matt's Guitar Shop's collection.
(1921 - 1998)
Main guitar : Gibson Tal Farlow
An absolute “must-hear” track : I Thought About You
Of all the giants of jazz guitar, Tal Farlow is probably the one who has had the most complicated career. For a virtuoso, he started playing very late in life, only picking up the instrument at the age of 21. Before that, he had made his debut on a ukulele, and from that he retained a tendency to use the four highest strings (which are tuned like the four strings of a ukulele) to play his melodies.
Farlow caught up very quickly, helped by his incredibly long hands (which earned him his nickname: “The Octopus”) and an unrivalled sense of melody. His modern, fast, intelligent and rhythmically advanced approach caught the attention of Charles Mingus and Artie Shaw. He also developed a very personal technique of struck harmonics that give the impression of hearing a harp, on Skylark for example.
Farlow was extremely prolific during the first part of his solo career, recording no less than eleven albums between 1954 and 1958. However, after getting married, he completely stopped his musical endeavours and devoted himself to the humble occupation of billboard painting. Strangely enough, Gibson still made him a signature model in 1962, but his lack of success, probably due to Farlow’s absence from recording, meant that no more of his guitars would be manufactured after 1967.
In the end, Tal gradually emerged from his retirement in 1969, but without returning to his earlier frenetic pace of production. This new Farlow had lost none of his musicality and virtuosity, and he still played on the prototype of his signature model made by Gibson in 1960. Apart from a few rare experiments (notably a Gibson ¾ model entirely repainted in red), Farlow remained faithful to that instrument until the end.