James Best lied about his guitar skills to get cast on The Andy Griffith Show
"The Guitar Player" couldn’t play a lick!
Andy Griffith loved to pick a guitar every chance he got on The Andy Griffith Show.
Out of everybody in Mayberry, though — including all the Darlings — it was Jim Lindsey whose guitar playing got the TV sheriff grinning the most. Best picker in the county!
"The Guitar Player" was played by character actor James Best, and he appeared in two first-season episodes of The Andy Griffith Show as the groovy Jim Lindsey.
To get the role, however, Best wasn't exactly forthright during his casting call.
The story goes that The Andy Griffith Show producers called Best to invite him as a guest star and asked, "Can you play guitar?" He shot back, “Are you kidding? I have two guitars!"
The Andy Griffith Show took Best at his word, and when he got on set, he immediately realized he was out of his depth. They played him the music, and all he could do was 'fess up.
"I can't play guitar," he admitted.
They were not happy, insisting he'd lied, but Best had a coy response that he remembered offering: "No, I didn't lie. I said, 'I have two guitars.'"
It all worked out with a little TV studio magic. The guitar licks you hear in "The Guitar Player" and "The Guitar Player Returns" are in reality played by a guitarist from one of the coolest session bands in history.
Barney Kessel was a guitarist for the Wrecking Crew, the legendary ensemble that backed bands like the Beach Boys and the Monkees on studio recordings. When you listen to Sonny & Cher sing "The Beat Goes On," it's Kessel on guitar.
He also recorded dozens of jazz albums, including many as a member of the Oscar Peterson Trio. Between 1947 to 1960, polls in both Esquire and Playboy deemed him America's No. 1 guitarist. Perry Mason gave him a chance to shine onscreen himself — he furiously works his frets as "Barney" in the episode "The Case of the Missing Melody." He also composed the conducted the music heard in that mystery.
Quietly behind the scenes, together Kessel and Best portrayed Mayberry's best guitar player, but some of The Andy Griffith Show fans have long noticed something was a little off about watching the performance at the beginning of "The Guitar Player Returns."
In the opening scene, Best strums an acoustic guitar. However, if you listen to the tune, it's clearly an electric guitar that Kessel's playing. Really attentive listeners have noted there's also a ghost of a bass guitar you can hear.
Later in the episode, Best does break out an electric guitar, so perhaps we'll just call this tiny goof in the opening scene a little bit of foreshadowing?
Although Best — who is probably best known as a sheriff himself, Sheriff Rosco P. Coltrane on The Dukes of Hazzard — was, let's say, minorly deceptive during his casting, there were no hard feelings between him and Andy. The actors remained friends for the rest of their lives. In an interview, Best praised Andy's guitar playing on the Mayberry fan podcast Two Chairs No Waiting.
“I really had fun because Andy plays a guitar and his makeup man Lee Greenway played banjo and guitar, so they had a hard time getting us on the set, because we'd be back there picking on the guitar a little bit and singing," Best said. "I really enjoyed doing that show because they had a very talented cast."
He also shared how the show became special to everyone in his own family. "Of course, The Andy Griffith Show has always been one of my favorites, and I still watch it," Best said. "And my grandchildren watch it. They must be the third or fourth generation." Best passed away in 2015; Kessel, in 2004.