The name Gibson conjures different images for different people. The simple utterance of the name instantly floods the mind with the image of a Gibson Les Paul held by Jimmy Page, or Slash, and the sound of hard rock and electric blues to some. Others will instantly think of the time defying ‘A’ and ‘F’ style Mandolins, and the sounds of Bill Monroe’s boys. In the 1930s, the image of a ukulele, or Hawaiian guitar probably was the defining legacy of the already well-established Brand Name. Jazz aficionados will conjure the sights and sounds of Wes Montgomery, Tal Farlow, or Charlie Christian, and the arched top Jazz box. Of course, the minds of the flat top acoustic guitar enthusiasts quickly race to the “Super-Jumbo King of the flat tops” SJ-200, or Everly Brothers’ Star inlayed J-185, stalwart J-45, or even the humbler LG, or early 00 models. From just before the 20th century’s dawn, Gibson has been the companion of the fretted instrument player. Every style and trend of popular music was either met, or made possible by Gibson. Some models seemingly appear from thin air, and other evolved over time. Some come and go, and a few have literally become part of the world culture.
Battle of the Flat Tops
In the early electric guitar age, companies like Rickenbacker, Gretsch, as well as Moserite and Guild competed with Gibson, and introduced perennial favorite models, but the tip of the sword was Gibson and Fender. Decades before the electric revolution, the battle for supremacy in the acoustic flat top guitar world raged between Martin and Gibson.
The acoustic flat-top guitar market began overshadowing the plectrum Banjo and Hawaiian style guitar, by the middle 1930s, and 40s. Gibson was alive and kicking in the exploding guitar market that was taking America by storm. Evolution and invention had to be in high gear at all times, just to stay relevant or even alive in the game. The jumbo Gibson, and dreadnaught Martin were in direct competition with each other. The larger guitars became a necessity for a louder, richer tone, desired by the ever-growing guitar playing public. The Great Depression made this competition a struggle for survival, not just for market share and bragging rights. Both the Martin “Dreadnaught” size and Gibson’s “Jumbo” size were introduced in this large body, ‘14-fret’ style simultaneously, in 1934. Gibson’s Jumbo, and Martin’s Dreadnaught are approximately the same size, but are clearly different and distinguishable from each other, due to the more rounded ‘slopped shoulder’ Gibson Jumbo design vs. the more ‘squared shoulder’ Martin Dreadnaught. Two worthy adversaries fighting for the same dime, brought the best out in each other. More specifically, it can be said the Gibson J-35 (predecessor of the J-45) and Advanced Jumbo, were directly competing with the Martin D-18 and D-28. The guitar world owes much to this time period’s healthy competition; it produced some of the most robust, enduring and well-loved acoustic flat tops in the world.
Two bones in Gibson’s strong back, that are as loved today as they were upon introduction are the J-45, and SJ-200. The understated J-45 and showy SJ-200 are at opposite ends of the spectrum both visually, and sonically, yet each model is a staunch reminder of Gibson’s long history of introducing designs good enough to enjoy instant appeal, as well as longevity.
The Gibson J-45
The new for 1942 J-45 replaced the 1936 J-35 as Gibson’s most affordable flat top worthy of the Gibson name. The J-45 differed from the J-35 only slightly. Most notably the binding was strengthened, and the neck shape was changed from the old school large pronounced V-shape, to a hand filling large C-shaped neck, common to the era. Outwardly, the J-45 was only offered in a dark colored sunburst, and boasted the “only a Gibson is good enough aka banner logo”, silkscreened on the headstock.
The J-45 was designed for a spruce top, with mahogany back and sides, and neck. The fingerboard and bridge were made from rosewood, with simple ‘dot’ inlays. It is possible to find early examples without a truss rod, or even with a mahogany top. This was not a design experiment, mistake, or goof. War time shortages of materials like spruce, and some metals, made it impossible to rely on a steady source of raw materials. The spruce used on the J-45, was not inferior, but sometimes the early J-45 had a “more than the normal” two-piece top with center seam. Early examples can be found with three, or even four-piece tops. Mineral flecks, and naturally occurring visual imperfections in the wood were easily covered up with the rich dark sunburst the J-45 is now synonymous with. Introduced with a $45.00 MSRP, the J-45 was much more affordable than the more ornate, natural top, but essentially identical Southern Jumbo that was unveiled the same year
The J-45 is one of Gibson’s crowning achievements. It is very commonly called Gibson’s ‘work horse’ acoustic. While this statement has some truth, the J-45 is so much more than a knock around guitar. The J-45 is no doubt a go-to, and one of the more affordable of the dovetail joint, pro level acoustics in Gibson’s catalog, but the J-45 is no way just simply an effective utility axe, or student’s guitar. Thanks to the full-sized jumbo body, solid mahogany back and sides, X-bracing (scalloped at time of introduction), and the often-overlooked solid maple bridge plate (bridge is laminated, not bolted to the top). The understated J-45 stands on its own as a supremely well-balanced guitar, across the entire frequency spectrum. It has a flat response, but its balanced response does not make it a boring wallflower. The ’45 is never too booming, or bright, tiny, or boxy sounding. Well suited for any type of playing, from finger style, to flat picking, and anything else you want to try (WARNING: Do not attempt to use for Heavy Metal 80’s power ballads, or the ‘J-45 secret police’ will come in the night and take it from you). The J-45 cuts no corners; it was built not only as an affordable, no compromise Gibson flat top, but also served as a worthy competitor with the spruce top, mahogany body, affordable Martin D-18. In the end, everybody won. Both the Martin D-18, and Gibson J-45 have become two of the world’s most cherished go-to acoustic flat top. After war time restrictions on materials ended, the J-45 was introduced as a separate model, called the ‘J-50’. It is identical to the J-45, apart from its natural top.
The J-45 was not the most affordable flat top made by Gibson. It was the most affordable Pro-level acoustic for no holds barred Gibson tone. The LG line, with its smaller 14-inch body, bolted on bridge, was the most economical way to go, if you wanted the Gibson name.
Gibson did sell lower cost guitars under other the name band name ‘Kalamazoo’. They also supplied these lower cost guitars to other guitar brands names for private label use to other companies. They were sold complete, or ‘body only’ to a host of other brands like Washburn, Old Craftsman, and more. Though they do sound acceptable and have a certain charm about them, they are no replacement in quality of build, design, or tone and playability of a Gibson guitar. A close inspection of the Kalamazoo line reveals rough and ready construction, and quick sloppy work. In place of inlayed or silk-screened logos, stenciled logos are the norm. Less premium materials, ply-back and sides, and easier to make ‘ladder style’ bracing is used, instead of the massively improved industry standard X-bracing.
Remember, that at the time of this writing, the J-45 model is nearly 78 years old, and has lost no charm, or popularity. Sure, it’s been through changes over the years, but it remains at its foundation the same model as it was so long ago. No simple “work horse” can boast that kind of constant demand and admiration.
Some decedents and closer relatives of the J-35/J-45:
The Southern Jumbo, Country and Western, SJN Country western, J-50, J-160e, and many more to come after 1970, and the turn of the Millennium.
The Gibson SJ-200
Grown from the same Gibson ‘Jumbo model’ roots, as the J-45, but from the trunk that grew the more ornate J-55 model (the first Gibson to bear the famous moustache bridge) the SJ-200 is huge in every possible way. The SJ or ‘super Jumbo’ is impossible to confuse for any other guitar, especially at its time of introduction in 1938. As the guitar playing public is getting accustomed to the comparatively large Dreadnaught, and Jumbo, the 17-inch bout ‘Mae West” figure 8 shaped monster that is the SJ-200, must have been shocking at a minimum. No holds are barred with the King of the flattops. It is as ornate, as it is huge.
In the introductory configuration, the SJ-200 sports rosewood back and sides, rather than the figured maple used nearly exclusively after the first 3 years of manufacture. It also had two sets of X braces under the top, to support the massive sound board. Outwardly, the SJ-200 was about as ornate as any production guitar available, from headstock to end pin: the headstock is Pearl inlay with the Gibson logo, as well as a pearl crown, in stark contrast to the silk screened (but pretty damn cool) banner logo on the J-45). The art deco Grover imperial stepped buttons made a commandingly luxurious statement, compared to the simple kidney bean buttons on most other guitars. Binding on the headstock is three layered, and the intimidatingly large body is adorned with a 9-ply binding. The open “mustached bridge” was updated, even though it was ahead of its time in form and function. It touts 4 pearl inlayed sections, just to add more on tip of more. From every vantage point, the giant flat top has something extraordinary to delight the player, or onlooker. Even the pickguard is engraved with an anything but subtle floral motif, that won’t be offered on any other new Gibson until the new for 1960 Dove and Hummingbird models. Though the early SJ-200 had a rosewood body, there was ample highly figured maple on the guitars three-piece neck, foreshadowing Gibson’s parting ways with rosewood acoustics for the next many decades. The nearly Regal Super Jumbo was clearly designed to stand out and make a statement. Probably intended mostly for the stars of the day, the SJ-200 was even available as a special order with the name of the owner inlaid on the neck, in place of the already quite ornate crest inlay. There is no doubt in my mind if Twisted Sister’s JJ French was old enough at the time, he’d have had a “Death to Disco” neck on order so fast, the cat’s eyes, would spin (Yeah, yeah, there was no Disco in 1941, but suspend disbelief for a second. It’s a great idea!). This service was offered in a likely response to a growing aftermarket trend offered by people like Paul Bigsby, who commonly “dolled up” guitars for greats like Merle Travis. When Gibson sat down to design this guitar, it was clear the outcome was to produce a flat-top acoustic luxurious enough to be considered on par with Rolls Royce, Cadillac, Tiffany, or Cartier. I don’t believe anyone with a straight face ever called this mammoth in tone, and visual delights a “Work Horse”. In an equal but opposite manner than the “work horse” perception of the J-45, the SJ-200 is much more than just a “Show Boat” it is sometimes remarked as.
The rosewood SJ-200 had the warmth and evenly balanced nature of the J-45, in a bigger, louder package, but lacked the fast response, and focus of the smaller body jumbo. The rosewood SJ-200 is a rare and collector’s delight, but it is also a simply great sounding guitar, in its rosewood configuration. Around this time in Gibson’s history, the choice of tone woods on flat top guitars took a turn away from rosewood, on all models. Mahogany, will remain a mainstay, as it was with Gibson’s top competitor Martin, but Rosewood becomes almost entirely abandoned in favor of Maple. Around 1941 Gibson flips the switch and makes the SJ-200 from a highly figured maple back and sides. The character of the guitar is changed from a warm balanced ambience, to a faster responding and brighter guitar, with decidedly more poignant attack. The maple body design is the SJ-200 tone most are accustomed to hearing, and much the same as it is today, as it was nearly 80 years after its unveiling.
The ‘SJ’ or sometimes simply called ‘J’ 200 carries an enormous amount of projection and full, bright tone. Most commonly, it is played with a pick, supplying a room filling rhythm sound, that can be felt, as well as it is heard. Oddly enough, the Gibson designed Super Jumbo body style is copied by a small but outstanding company, who use the depth provided by the massive guitars body to revolutionize the 12-string flat-top acoustic. Any devotes of the Guild 12 string, will tell you so. It’s a mystery as to why Gibson did not capitalize on more of the SJ-200’s potential, except that it stands on its own, and takes its rightful place alongside, the A and F style Mandolins, L-5s, Super 400s, Les Pauls and SGs in the halls of classic, time defining guitars of Gibson designs.
Some descendants and close relatives to Gibson’s J-55 and SJ-200 models:
1939’s SJ-100 (a toned down, more affordable SJ-200), The 1955 new for ‘55 J-185 (same figure 8 body, in smaller 16 inch size, with mahogany neck, instead of maple), The new for ’62 J-180 Everly Brothers model, some of today’s modern re-visitations, like the J-165, J-100 Extra, and more.
From understated, but no compromise in tone, to over the top style, with tone to match, hasn’t Gibson always been there waiting for you?