The Gibson Acoustic Guitar: Everything you need to know
2.24.2022 | By Mike Rock
It doesn’t matter much that it was George Harrisons guitar, not John Lennon’s that got reduced to splinters after falling off the tour vans luggage rack. What does matter is that it wasn’t a Banjo. Hell, it wasn’t even one of the Beatles coveted Gibson J-160e guitars, but it was indeed a guitar. If not for the Gibson Mandolin and Guitar company, it may well have been an Accordion or Tenor Banjo. It is impossible to Imagine a world without the guitar, but it is certain that in a world without Gibson, the guitar as we know it wouldn’t exist...
Understanding Gibson Acoustic’s starts with understanding a little about Orville H. Gibson
Orville Gibson was a self-taught musician, wood carver and driven instrument maker. In his youthful days, Orville was a well-recognized character around the Kalamazoo area. By day he worked as a shoe salesperson. At night, Orville was a regular player in lots of local stringed instrument ensembles, popular in bustling K-Zoo. Orville played the Plectrum banjo, Mandolin, Violin, Guitar. Orville was outgoing, busy, and friendly at times, but chronic Endocarditis often robbed Orville of his good nature and temperament. Much or of Orville’s spare time is enjoying his wood carving and repairing or building his visions of a better fretted instrument. It is easy to understand why Orville was much happier alone in his wood shop, than at his daytime Shoe gig. What Orville sometimes lacked in social graces, he made up for 100-fold with his imagination, creativity, and craftmanship.
It is known that Orville completed and sold a few instruments as early as the late 1870’s. The oldest O.H Gibson branded instrument still in existence dates to 1894, when Orville was 38 years old. We can guess that whatever Orville built prior to 1894 was unconventional at the very least. Early examples of his work include 6 and 10 string guitars, Violins, mandolins of all ranges, and grand scale double neck Harp Guitars. Some creations had a simple beauty of design, and others were impossibly ornate creations of hand carved wood and inlayed pearl. Without much aside from his considerable imagination, innovative approach and growing reputation, Orville O.H Gibson becomes a full time Guitar and Mandolin maker in 1896. His goal (aside from leaving the world of retail shoe sales behind him) was to make and sell better versions of the popular instruments of the day. At the turn of the century, Americas most popular stringed instruments were the Banjo, “bowl back” Mandolin and Violin. The small body, soft spoken gut string guitar was gaining popularity, but most often enjoyed in the home than in concert. It simply was not loud enough to be compete with brass, woodwind, or other stringed instruments.
Orville’s favorites were the Mandolin family and Guitar. For the Mandolin and guitar to evolve, Orville knew that more volume, tone and sustain is essential. Orville Gibson applied his imagination, experience as a player and craftsmanship (along with clues from the Antonio Stradivarius Violin) to create a bold, updated version of the Mandolin and Guitar. Orville’s designs are a radical departure from the norm. Kocal townsfolk though Orville’s designs are little more than the work of an introverted man scientist. Anyone lucky enough to play or own one of his creations knew differently. Orville’s chronic Endocarditis made him ever more withdrawn, and famously hard to deal with. He was prideful of his creations and often spoke with contempt condescending comments about the quality of his creations comparted to others. History proves Orville Gibson’s pride was well founded, but he never dreamed they would begin change how the world plays and enjoys music.
Never mind the Bowl-backs, here come the Archtops!
The Neapolitan “Bowl back” Mandolin, looks just like it sounds-A giant bowl-shaped body, with a flat or jointed top and round or oval sound hole. Multiple sections of wood called ribs joined together to create body. A flat top (sound board) cut to fit and join at the edge of the bowl. If you’ve never seen one, it looks a bit like a potato bug with a neck and strings. The Mandolin is a beloved, immensely popular instrument since its development in the 1700’s. Brought from Europe to the new world by immigrants, the Mandolin quickly becomes an American favorite. Naturally, our pal Orville thinks he can vastly improve the 300-year-old classic. Naturally, he was right. The Bowl Back mandolin has met its match at the hands and imagination of Orville Gibson. Use of this old school design was mostly phased out by the 1920’s. Thanks, Orville.
Gibson A-Style mandolin. The A style Mandolin looks more like a tear drop shaped Violin than a “Potato bug” Bowl back style. Orville’s new world Mandolin has a top, back and sides. The top is a hand carved and meticulously tuned arched spruce top, with an oval sound hole. The sides cut (not steamed and shaped) from a solid block of wood. The back is hand carved, and tap tuned, by hand. A floating bridge helps intonation and transfers resonance from the strings. A “Trapeze” shaped tail piece secures and absorbs string tension. Orville Gibson was granted a patent for the design to in 1898.
The Gibson F-Style Mandolin Gibson also offered the F-style mandolin as a premium alterative. If the A-Style was simple elegance, the F-style was a show-stopping masterpiece. The F-style body has an aesthetically and ergonomically pleasing three-point asymmetrical body shape with elaborately carved scroll, mirrored on the headstock.
The results were nothing less than astonishing. The A style Mandolin has an enormous increase is volume, projection. It also has a complexity, and sweetness of tone, compared to the Bowl back design.
Gibson applied the same design to his acoustic guitar, effectively offering the world’s first “arched top” Guitar. “The Gibson” Archtop guitar was hearty enough to build with a larger, louder, body than the flat top parlor guitars of the day.
Word of The Gibson Mandolin traveled like wildfire. Soon enough, a large Boston based company sent an inquired to Orville for the cost and ETA of 100 O.H Gibson Mandolins. Orville is famously said to have sent this reply: “$100 each. Expect delivery in 500 years” (I warned you about his social graces). Orville was probably not far off with his ETA. Orville ran a one-man shop and worked with the most basic of hand tools, even by 1900 standards. Working alone, Orville could complete one of his instruments in about 6-8 weeks, making the 500-year delivery fulfillment of 100 instruments estimation pretty accurate.
The Gibson Guitar-Mandolin Manufacturing Company birth and early growth 1902-1920
Founded in 1902, as a partnership of investors, led by local musicians and instrument sellers Silvio Reams and Lewis Williams. The goal was growth through a marriage of Orville Gibson’s innovations, with modern production techniques. Demand for Gibson Mandolins increased multiplicatively. O.H Gibson payment for his name and patent with money, shares in the company, and a yearly salary.
Orville Gibson spends less and less time at the Gibson factory, due to his rapidly declining health, and “overall crabbiness”. By 1908, Orville never again stepped through the factory doors that bore his name. Orville didn’t think he’d change the world (though it probably delighted him immensely). Orville wanted only to improve his well-loved Guitars and Mandolins. Mission accomplished! O.H Gibson retired a well-to-do, eccentric mad scientist, and a father of the American guitar. He died near his original family home, in upstate New York, 1919. Orville Gibson chose great partners, who kept his spirit of innovation and craftmanship at the backbone of what will become the now 120 old, world loved Gibson family of brands.
Important models, and cultural impact
The 1902 Gibson catalog featured four levels of the tear drop shaped modern Mandolin. The A, A-1, A-2, A-3, and A-4. The magnificent Scroll shaped F style mandolin is available as the F-2 and F-4 models. Gibson’s new archtop acoustic is available in four models: The Style-O, L-1, L-2, L-3 and L-4. Each had an arched top, oval or round sound hole, floating bridge, and trapeze style tail piece for strength. Gibson’s early Archtop Guitars are a hit, but it is his re-invented version of the popular Mandolin design that first puts the Gibson name on the world stage.
The love and demand for Mandolins was already strong. In the years to come, Gibson’s innovations will create the demand for guitars. The new Gibson company also offered the Harp Guitar, Mandolas and Mandocellos. For the first time ever, early gut/steel strings are optionally available. By 1905, Gibson had a ten-man workforce of craftsman, modern machinery, a marketing team, and high demand.
The revolutionary A and F style Mandolin begin to eclipse popularity and sales of the old world “Bowl Back” design.
The Gibson Company, 1920-1930
Improvements, Inventions (large and small) and vastly increased production help define Gibson and pave the way for the future of Gibson and the American Mandolin and Guitar Founding partner and early 1920’s Gibson C.E.O Lewis Williams made sure Gibson attracted the finest craftsman and engineers the stringed musical instrument world had to offer. To keep up with the demand and pace of a quickly changing world, the number of fine craftsmen grows to over 100 men strong.
One exceptional standout addition to Gibson’s crew is Master Luthier and Chief Engineer Lloyd Loar. Gibson invents and implements the truss rod, produces its first flat top acoustic with a fixed bridge (without a trapeze tailpiece for support), introduces the words first Signature model Guitar, and of course the Lloyd Loar designed “Master Model” instruments. Loar’s F-5 Mandolin, and L-5 Guitar will immediately influence players of the 1920’s. Flat top Gibson acoustics offered in the late 1920’s pave the way for the modern American Steel string Flattop.
Important models, and innovations
“Chief Acoustic Engineer” isn’t just a super cool title Gibson C.E.O Lewis Williams came up with over a case of Pabst Blue Ribbon. Lloyd Loar earned every word, and then some. Improvements to the F style Mandolin, H-5 Mandola, K-5 Mandocello, and new L-5 Guitar Master Model Guitar are all the proof anyone will ever need.
The 1922 F-5 Mandolin features alterations in size and shape of the internal top braces. The top is stronger but louder and vibrates more freely. The scale length of the mandolin remains just shy of 14 inches, but now 12 frets clear the body, allowing greater access to the upper register. The bridge is now in the center of the body, right on the “sweet spot” Traditional Violin style F-holes replace the oval shaped sound hole. The level of excellence the Gibson F-5 achieved on its introduction in 1922, are regarded as the very pinnacle of Mandolin design.
The 1922 L-5 “Master Model” acoustic archtop Guitar: The first ensemble worthy American guitar ever built. This elegant masterpiece, unleashed on an unsuspecting world in 1922, is massive in size, volume, projection, and tone. The L-5’s massive 16-inch-wide solid carved top was enormous compared to most 13-inch Acoustic guitars of the times. Like the F-5 Mandolin, the L-5 Guitar included Violin style F-holes, a triple bond body and pearl flowerpot inlay on the headstock. A Cremona Brown sunburst finish and bound Ebony fingerboard all add to the curb appeal of this high-performance plectrum Banjo killer. Early models had birch back and Sides. Fiddle back maple, adds a quick, bright snap, and used going forward. Wherever archtops are played, built, or listened to, The L-5 will always be regarded as the cornerstone and template that all future archtop guitars are measured by.
1926 L-0 and L-1 Guitars: The previous decades L-0 and L-1 archtop Guitars are reintroduced as a Flattop Acoustics. New features include a top mounted (in place of the Archtop Trapeze style tail piece). Ladder style braces help steady the top. The bridge is secured with bolts. Both guitars have a small, 13-inch top. They do have a slight arch, due to the internal braces, but are Gibson’s first Flat top Acoustic guitars. Despite the stiff internal structure needed to compensate for the lack of a trapeze tail piece, the L-0 and L-1’s have a soft, but sweet tone.
The Gibson “Nick Lucas” Flattop: First introduced in 1928, The “Lucas model” is not only Gibson’s first signature model, but probably the first signature model guitar period. The small but balanced and sweet tone rings out more so than earlier archtop acoustics, or ladder braced flattops. The Lucas model has a solid Sitka Spruce top and Central American Mahogany back and sides. solid Spruce top. New features include superior sounding X style bracing and laminated bridge, strong enough to support light gauge steel strings. light steel core strings. 24.25-inch scale. The tone is balanced, sweet and lively Though it’s got a small, 13.5-inch body, the Gibson Nick Lucas signature model is a giant step towards the modern American* Flattop Guitar evolution/revolution of the 1930’s.
The American birthed Gibson archtop guitar led by the top-of-the-line L-5 intermingle with emerging American Jazz music, and forever be associated together. The L-5 archtop acoustic guitars loud, clear, percussive voice began to replace the Plectrum Banjo as Americas choice of stringed accompaniment instrument in Jazz, and dance band ensembles.
The first archtop Mandolins to leave Gibson’s factory mark the decline of old world styled Bowl back mandolins, The Gibson F-5 mandolin and is the final coffin nail. The F-5 will not only forever change the way Mandolins are built and played.
The Gibson Company, 1930's
Gibson is now a Giant. The work force is now 300 craftsmen strong. In the 1930’s Gibson will find itself at the heart and crossroads of the American guitar. In the 1930’s. One of guitars most important decades, Gibson invented, reinvented, refined, and defined itself. Without the innovation, imagination and artisanship that saved Orville from a life of shoe sales, we might all have a Plectrum Banjo or Accordion collection. Gibson helped shape the American sonic landscape in real time, somehow keeping pace with the industrial revolution and briskly changing times and tastes. In the 1930’s Gibson will find itself at the heart and crossroads of the American guitar, and they are ready.
Depression era America and multi-cultural explosion of the Guitar
The 20th century moved at quite a pace: The Ford Model T went into production in 1908. 63 years later, America was sending what looked like a cross between Buck Rodgers, and Brian Wilson’s dune buggy to the moon. Popular American music of great diversity developed and grew as fast as the industrial revolution changed our way of life. Hawaiian music featuring the ukulele and especially the slide style guitar boomed in popularity from coast to coast (yes, it’s true, go ahead-Google it).
Jazz, Swing, Big Band, Crooner, Country, Gospel, blues, Tin-Pan alley, and more all stake a claim on the on the early 20th century American soundscape. With a little help from the Radio, Homegrown and regionally popular music styles begin to override and replace music from the old world. The one thing all these popular American music styles have in common, is the Guitar. It makes sense that a Homegrown instrument will rise to meet the needs of American musicians. What changed? Why did the guitar suddenly become the 1# fretted (and sometimes unfretted) portable instrument? What suddenly makes the Acoustic Flat top acoustic guitar universally loved, in the worlds most culturally diverse country?
The Gibson Flattop Acoustic: The 1920’s flattop Gibson acoustic guitars had a beautiful evenly balanced tone, with more sustain than a Plectrum Banjo, Mandolin, or even a Trapeze style archtop. The guitar can play full chords, or single notes across a wide range. The only element needed to unlock the acoustic flattop guitars full potential is a bigger, louder sound without sacrificing its tone and sustain.
During the pre-electric guitar period, the need to build a louder guitar was essential to its success, and even usefulness. Monel Steel strings with an alloy steel core become available in the late 20’s/early 30’s. They are a vast improvement over steel wrapped, gut core strings. A modified and strengthened X style bracing system allowed Gibson to create a 16-inch body "Jumbo" acoustic flattop guitar. The new creation dwarfed Gibson's own 13.5-inch "L" model flat tops of the 1920s and early 30's. The small but sweet sound suddenly became huge: The 1933 Gibson "Jumbo'' steel string rang out loud and clear enough to soon be heard around the world. What followed was nothing less than the birth cry of the modern American guitar.
“Meet the Jumbo’s” The Flattop’s that will define Gibson acoustic guitars
1934 Gibson Jumbo Flattop: The Gibson “Jumbo” First available in the winter of 1933, the “Jumbo” is 16-inch-wide monster of a guitar, among the first of its kind in the world. The Jumbo can move plenty of air when a player digs in, but it is never too harsh, brash, or bright. On the outside, an Adirondack Sitka spruce top is matched with a stunning Mahogany back and sides, and Rosewood fingerboard. The neck joins the body at the 14th fret and the rounded or “slope” shoulder body has the same silhouette as the “Jumbo size” Gibson that will become a world-renowned standard. Dot Inlay, and Fire stripe pickguard add to the simple beauty. Inside tall and scalloped X shaped braces and laminated bridge help provide the motor that makes this big boy go. Make no mistake, the 1934 catalog year Gibson Jumbo flattop is a thoroughly modern flattop inside and out. Big, warm, balanced and far ahead of its time. $60.00 Today: $1,216 (1934 Ford $575.00)
1935 Gibson Advanced Jumbo: The Advanced Jumbo is a well-loved, but short-lived adaptation of the original Gibson Jumbo model. Sitka Spruce top, and Rosewood back and sides. A slightly wider waist than the soon to be standard Jumbo body, arrow shaped inlay and fire striped pick guard. A beautiful looking and sounding guitar, but production ended in 1940.
Gibson (J)Jumbo 35/Trojan: The J-35 is first available in 1936, with the idea of getting a high quality, lower cost flattop on the market. Spruce top, Mahogany back and sides, the (now) classic 16-inch, rounded shoulder Jumbo body, and with a Rosewood ‘board and laminated bridge. The “Trojan” name is short lived, playful jab at competitor Epi Stathopoulos (Epiphone). Shortly after introduction, the Trojan name is dropped in favor “J-35”. Only slight cosmetic and internal differences separate the J-35 from the now discontinued Jumbo model (1936). No tone robbing shortcuts taken. The J-35 has a smooth, open, and even tone. Like all Jumbo Gibson models, it’s 16-inch body and 14-fret neck are suitable for voice accompaniment, ensemble playing, and anything else you can throw at it.
Smooth, open and plenty of volume on tap. 1930’s depression era America was full of music and culture, but short on money. The J-35’s price tag was equivalent to $684.00 in 2021 Dollars. Sounds reasonable, right? Consider that a brand new 1936 Deluxe Ford auto cost $575.00 in todays dollar. The 1934 Jumbo? Two new Fords. The Advanced Jumbo? Got a Three car driveway? Though not as sexy looking, the J-35 is probably the most important guitar of the bunch. It sold the most briskly (literally 10 x’s faster) advancing (no pun intended) the Jumbo more than any other model of its age.
Gibson SJ-200: The SJ Stands for “Super Jumbo” The “200” represents its super jumbo $200 price tag (5 Fords at its introduction in 1938). The Super Jumbo is a sonic wrecking ball, and an eye-popping thing of beauty. Its rounded shoulders and narrow waist give it a “Mae West” figure 8 silhouette. The SJ-200 ‘s massive 17 body comes along with massive sound projection, and stunning visual appointments. A stylized floral pattern pickguard, design, 9-layer outer binding, now infamous open “mustached” shaped bridge with peal inlay adorns the massive Spruce top.
The neck is strong, three-piece laminated maple and rosewood design, with a triple bound headstock, crested block inlays on an Ebony board. The First pre-war 1930’s SJ-200’s used a double X-Braced top, and Rosewood back and sides like the Advanced Jumbo. Clearly designed for the Stars and professional Entertainers of the day, the “Super Jumbo” is offered with an optional upgrade of having your name inlayed on the fingerboard, leaving no doubt who’s playing the “King of Flattops”.
Gibson SJ-100: Introduced in 1939, the SJ-100 is a trimmed down in appointment and price “SJ-200”, with mahogany back and sides.
Gibson J-55: The short lived but important transitional J-55 model is unleashed in 1939. It features the 24.75 scale length 14 fret, Jumbo body, with a fancy SJ-200 style bridge, spruce top, Rosewood ‘board and mahogany back and sides. The J-55 and more affordable J-35 are the parent models of what will soon come to be one of Gibson’s most loved and enduring model flattops ever.
Other important Gibson Acoustic Models of the 1930’s: All Gibson Small Body 14-inch “LG” body guitars are back (LG-1, L-2, LG-3 and L-00), as well as the fancy dolled up LG style “ L-C “Century of Progress”. Hawaiian style fretless Roy Smeck Deluxe and Roy Smeck Radio GrandeJumbo flattop acoustics come and go. L-5P (cutaway) L-7, L-10, and more archtops, are brought to market, notably the last Acoustic only premium Archtop model Gibson will introduce: The massive 18 inch Super 400.
Lasting impact of the 1930’s Gibson Flattop
The 1930’s Gibson Jumbo Flattop designs were at the forefront of guitar technology. The very template for the American guitar, and the reason for the guitars rise to become the most loved instrument of the 20th century, and beyond. The guitar will continue to be adopted to all styles of music and gaining popularity across the American melting pot of cultural diversity. The Gibson “Jumbo style” body 1930’s acoustics (not to mention the behemoth Super-Jumbo) probably looked like a giant novelty guitar in early 30’s. Today the same 16-inch 14 fret, semi symmetrical, narrow waist “Jumbo” silhouette is one of the most recognizable guitars on the planet. You may never see an SJ-200, J-55, or Advanced Jumbo model built in the 1930’s outside a museum, or high-end collectors vault, but the essence and design built into these classics live on as in nearly every American style steel string Flattop Acoustic guitar anyone will ever play.
Extra: More from the 1930’s Gibson co. If that’s not enough achievements in one decade, consider this document only includes Gibson brand acoustic models. Gibson is now making its fist electro Hawaiian lap steels, high quality Banjo’s, and electrified Archtop guitars. Want more? Gibson’s factory provides guitars, mandolins, banjos, rough and ready guitar bodies, for Washburn, Ambassador, Kalamazoo, Martel, Montgomery Ward, Old Craftsman, National, Cromwell, and a dozen or so other brand names who want to capitalize and satisfy a nation’s growing population of guitarists.
1940’s War era Gibson Acoustic Flattop models: “Only a Gibson is good enough”
The Guitar is growing swiftly in popularity and dividing into unique styles. The Archtop Acoustic starts to give way to the Electrified “Hollow body” and the acoustic Hawaiian relents to the electric lap steel, leaving the Flattop as the dominant Acoustic style guitar. A banner headstock logo (1942-1945) reminds the world that “Only a Gibson is Good Enough”.
Wartime production material shortages, war effort manufacturing, and workforce availability change the shape of every manufacturer. The strong, and adaptive will come out the end of the war stronger than ever, and the less fortunate will dissolve under the pressure. Gibson not only survives wartime, put prospers. Flattops born in the 30’s, will evolve in the 1940’s and define the Gibson acoustic Flattop acoustic shape and sound. More than anything the 1940’s was a time for Gibson to streamline and define each line of guitar. Going forward the Flattop is king of the acoustic. The Roy Smeck, Nick Lucas, J-35, J-55, Advanced Jumbo and SJ-100 are all discontinued on or before 1945. What emerges, is a trimmed down line, with a new focus, and new role. Tone Wood selections are narrowed down. Rosewood back and sides are also gone by wartime.
Tone Woods: Gibson focuses on premium Mahogany and locally quarried and milled Maple for backs and sides. Though supply chain issues during war time force temporary material changes. The switch to exclusively Mahogany and Maple body acoustics has more to do with tonal character than supply. Rosewood is used on fingerboards and bridges, while necks are Maple or Mahogany. High end models may a multi piece laminated neck using any combination of Maple, Mahogany and Rosewood. 1940’s and onward Classic Era Gibson Jumbo flattops are all about a big sound without every getting harsh, too bright or bottom heavy. Mahogany supplies warmth, balance, and smooth even tone. Maple has a sharp defined attack, and a quick snappy response, which flattens out before “jumping the track” into unruly territory. Top woods used in this era are mostly Spruce, and occasionally Mahogany (LG-1 and later LG-0).
Important and enduring 1940’s Flattop additions
The Gibson J-45: Born of the J-35 and J-55, the J-45 went into production in 1942. It is not only one of Gibson’s most loved and played acoustics, but also one of the most important acoustics made by anyone, ever. The simple “work horse” does it all. At introduction, the unadorned but beautiful guitar cost $45.00, making it the most affordable Gibson acoustic. Well suited for finger style playing, or flat pick strumming, the J-45 is capable of soft balanced warmth across its entire range. It is also capable of heavy right-hand strumming, without getting unruly or harsh. The J-45 is a favorite across all styles.
The Gibson “Southern Jumbo” (1942): Not a bold new model, but the SJ-45 Southern Jumbo follows a Gibson Tradition as old as Orville: Offering similar models with basic or more ornate appointments. The SJ shares the same Jumbo body, and Mahogany back and sides, neck, and rosewood board as the J45. Split parallelogram neck inlay and inlaid logo are all that separate the J45 and Southern Jumbo.
The New 1947 SJ-200: The return of the Super Jumbo comes in 1947, after being out of production during the war. Gone is the double X bracing, Rosewood back and sides, and Ebony ‘board. The 1947 Jumbo is the template for the never again out of production Maple back and sides sonic cannon. The J-200 moves a lot of air when a player digs in hard. It has a bright attack, which can flatten out when strummed hard or picked softly. Rosewood ‘board and bridge replace Ebony.
J-50 (1947): The J-45 was introduced when Spruce was in high demand for the war effort. The J-50 is introduced in 1947, as a J-45 with a natural top, and stylized pointed pickguard. Spruce with even color, and large enough sizes to guarantee a two-piece top was finally available to make a J-45 without a dark sunburst finish, to mask any cosmetic imperfections. The J-50 could have just as easily been called the J-45N.
By the end of the 1940’s the Gibson Flattop is so well defined, that nearly every model introduced in this time has been in constant production and still available today. Though the Banner is gone, we all know that “Only A Gibson is Good Enough” Gibson changes hands, when bought by Chicago Musical Instrument company (CMI) in 1945. They prove to be worthy stewards of the Gibson spirit, legacy, and future.
1950’s Gibson: Flattops invade post war America
1950’s America rebounds from the 1930’s depression, and 1940’s wartime hardships with boom in economy, production and demand. The expanding role of the Guitar that was born in the 30’s and 40 and 40’s and divided roles intensify. All Gibson production is still in Kalamazoo Michigan, but Gibson has several vibrantly different lines. The Electric Spanish or “ES” electrified archtop, brand new Solid Body Electrics, and Flattop’s (including Acoustic/Electric flattops)
Important and enduring 1950’s Flattop additions
J-185: The 1951 J-185 marks the birth of a what will become a classic body style. The J-185 body looks like a smaller “Super Jumbo”, sharing the “figure 8” narrow waste silhouette with the more manageable 16-inch bout of the rounded shoulder Jumbo models. The J-185 has Maple back and sides, a mahogany neck and Rosewood ‘board. The Jumbo Sized-Super Jumbo shares some of the best features of each Gibson body shape. It’s warm, with a punchy but balanced tone. The J-185 shape will become the platform for many future Gibson flattop models.
J-165e: One of Gibson’s first attempts at adding an electric pickup to a Flattop Jumbo. Unlike the “ES” model electrified archtops or the new Solidbody electric guitar, The J160e is designed to bring the acoustic Flattop sound to an even bigger audience, though amplification. An uncovered P-90 electric pickup is added at the end of the fingerboard, along with a body mounted volume and tone control. The J-160 is most famously seen in the hands of John Lennon and George Harrison during the early 60’s “Beatlemania” years.
LG-0: The 1958 addition to the LG flattop line is a good one. ‘LG” size body with Mahogany Top, back and sides.
The Gibson CF-100 features an “LG” body size, with a treble side Cutaway, and electronics.
The Southern Jumbo gets a new name, natural finish, and minor changes. In 1955, the Southern Jumbo becomes the SJN (Southern Jumbo Natural) “Country and Western” model
Influential 50’s Gibson Flattop players: Buddy Holly, Doc Watson, Hank Snow (Snow spent the extra money and had his name inlayed on his SJ-200), Hank Williams, Jean Sheppard, and you better believe that when the King sent his footman out to buy a guitar, he better come back with the top of the line. Elvis Presley would settle for nothing less than his SJ-200 “King of Flattops”.
1960’s Gibson Flattops
The age of Rock and Roll has come. American Folk music comes to city folk (and the rest of the planet). Bluegrass, Country and Western, Rockabilly, Western Swing, Jazz, Surf and Acoustic and Electric blues also loom large. Cultural walls have begun to fall. The universally popular Guitar attracts players from every race, creed, color, and gender. Previously stiff genera classifications merge, creating more applications for the guitar and its players. Diversification and standardization of role specific Guitars are more import than ever.
Important and enduring 1960’s Era Flattop additions
1960 Gibson Hummingbird Dreadnaught: Gibson’s first square-shoulder, wider waist “Dreadnaught body” style Flattop. Though in a body style not pioneered by Gibson, the Hummingbird has Gibson DNA though and though. A beautiful Cherry sunburst finish and elaborate asymmetrical pickguard is engraved with a Hummingbird in an array of flowers. True to standards set in the early 1940’s, the Hummingbird features Mahogany back and sides, and neck. The Rosewood fingerboard has the beautiful split parallelogram inlay, like the Southern Jumbo that came before. A bound neck, and multi-ply body binding put the finishing touches on this showstopping presentation worthy Gibson.
1962 Gibson Dove Dreadnaught: Following in the new direction of the Hummingbird, The Dove features a Dreadnaught body, Spruce top, and beautiful Cherry Sunburst finish. An engraved Pearl Dove adorns the pickguard, and the rosewood bridge. The Hummingbird and Dove share the same bound Mahogany neck, Rosewood ‘board with split parallelogram inlay, and multi-ply top binding. Aside from the Dove motif, a maple back and sides separates the two instant classic Gibson Flattops.
1963 Gibson Everly Brothers signature model: The Everly Brothers signature model marks the return of the J-185 J/SJ hybrid body shape. It is also Gibson’s first signature model flattop of the Rock and Roll era. Star shaped inlay adorn the Rosewood fingerboard. An oversized faux-tortoise shell pickguard surrounds the treble and bass side sound hole, and nearly covers the Gloss black top. The Everly Brothers is otherwise the same as the maple body, mahogany neck J-185 introduced in the 50’s. It’s not the last time Gibson will call on this versatile and original body shape.
Gibson 1962 B-25 family: The B-25 comes along in 1962, just when we think we have the ever-changing LG models understood. The B-25 features the same LG 14-inch body shape of the 1930 and 40’s models. In fact, the B-25 is a nearly identical twin of the LG-2 it replaces in the ’62 Gibson catalog. The LG-3 is renamed B-25N (natural) also added is the B-25/12 (12-string).
Other models of note from 1960’s Gibson: Gibson Heritage Dreadnaught (The first Rosewood back and sides flattop since 1942!) Blueridge Dreadnaught, Folk singer Dreadnaught, “LG” body B-45 and…. the amazingly Goofy Les Paul A/E Dreadnaught: Features include a low impedance pickup, controlled by a toggle and 4 potentiometers (In by ’69 out by ’73)
Innovation, and improvements never end, but the classic Gibson flattop sound, and body sizes are well defined by the end of the 1960’s.
Gibson’s 1960’s cultural impact
By the end of the 60’s Gibson branded guitars have been at forefront of American music, and at the leading edge of popularity with Guitar players of all styles for over 50 years. Gibson acoustic and electric instruments are a fixture at live venues from The Glad ole Opry, Carnage Hall, Shea Stadium, massive festivals like Woodstock, right down local Honky Tonks, and bars. Television and Radio broadcast the sight and sound Gibson guitars. ‘Long-Playing” Vinyl record album sleaves commonly feature the brightest music stars, holding Gibson creations on the cover. Gibson guitars are now forever woven into the quilt of American music, people, experience, and culture.
Classic Gibson Flattop Body styles:
By the end on the 1960’s Gibson body shapes are pretty well defined. A 24.75-inch scale length is standard on most models. 14 frets clear the body on most non-cutaway Flattops.
Gibson LG Flattops: Gibson’s smallest Flattop acoustic. The LG style body has a lower boat that is just over 14 inches wide. The Upper bout has a slightly smaller width, and narrow waist. Sometimes called “Peanut shaped” in the old days. The LG has generally served as a student or budget minded alterative to the Jumbo, but its unique tone has made it one of today’s favorites.
Advanced Jumbo: The early “Advanced Jumbo body” Gibson Flattop’s did not stay in production past 1940. First Re-introduced as a re-issue of the 1930’s collectors’ item in 1990. The Advanced Jumbo and Jumbo body styles are very similar to the eye, but quite different in tone. The AJ has a longer scale length (25.5) and a slightly wider waist with less contour than the Jumbo body
Gibson Jumbo: The sloped or rounded shoulder Jumbo is Gibson’s most loved and defining body shape. Used as a foundation for the J-45, J-50, Southern Jumbo, and many to follow. The Jumbo body has 16-inch lower body with a narrow waist.
Gibson Super Jumbo: Often called “The King of all Flattops” The SJ body has a massive 17-inch lower bout and narrow waist, giving an impressive figure 8 shape. You cannot miss the SJ body silhouette. It has a massive tone, to match its massive size.
Gibson Jumbo 185: The J-185 has the shape of a Super Jumbo, and size 16-inch size of a standard Jumbo. For many, it’s the best of both styes.
Square-shouldered Dreadnought Jumbo Gibson’s square shoulder Dreadnaught shape. Slightly larger than the Jumbo with its 16.25-inch lower bout, and a wider waist. The Dreadnaught is not Gibson’s most traditional silhouette, but when made under Gibson’s banner, it’s got Gibson’s sound. Most “round/sloped shoulder” Jumbo Flattops, reemerge with the Square shoulder body style by the end of the 1960’s. The round shoulder body returns to concerted “Jumbo” models with vengeance in later years.
It is impossible to define a guitar (especially a Flattop) by its body size alone. The choice of woods for the soundboard, neck, back and sides, and internal bracing all play pivotal roles.
1970 Gibson Acoustic Flattops in a world of changes and growing demand
Guitars devour popular culture and plays a major role in every popular genera/style of music by the end of the 70’s (aside from Um-pa and Polka). Emerging popular music styles from the 60’s morph into a bottomless pit of new genres. The singer/songwriter style is ever present. Folk music blossoms into Folk Rock and Kentucky Bluegrass starts growing around the globe. Blues, Country, Rockabilly, British Invasion and Rock and Roll mix in in different measures to birth Southern Rock, Outlaw Country, Hard Rock, Heavy Metal, Pop, Bubblegum, Psychedelic, Glam, Punk and an endless list of sub-genres. Jazz of all styles, Fusion, Rhythm and Blues, Soul, Funk, and even Disco are all called home for guitar players. The times? They have A-changed. With the Guitar as a dominant force in all popular music styles (aside from Polka). In fact, the guitar has become so popular, some guys walk around town with empty guitar cases, just to look cool and impress the ladies
The 1970’s is a decade of changes, inside and outside Gibson’s doors. Gibson’s parent company since 1944 (CMI) lost majority hold on Gibson. ECL industries took over in 1969. The Norlin group (created by ECL as their musical instrument division). This begins the “Norlin” era Gibson. Norlin has its work cut out for it. For the First time since Gibson’s founding, a new factory becomes a necessity. In the past, Gibson’s Kalamazoo Michigan plant grew to meet the growing market. Demand skyrockets on the back the guitars ever growing popularity, and growing competition from at home, and overseas, forces Norlin’s heavy hand. A new Factory in Nashville Tennessee is complete in 1974. There was a lot of growing pains.
1970’s Notable Gibson Flattop Guitars
1971 Gibson J-40: One of Gibson’s best 1970’s cost cutting efforts. The J-40 is simply a J-45 without the labor-intensive high gloss finish. It also features a stylized plastic (rather than 1930’s celluloid) fire-stripe pickguard, first seen on the Advanced Jumbo.
1973 Gibson Gospel: Another nice sounding model, designed to compete with less expensive competitors. A Dreadnought (square shoulder0 body shape, solid spruce top, with cost reducing laminate Mahogany sides, and slightly arched back. Commonly sold with a natural top. A Dove of Peace motif on the headstock is a nice extra.
1973 Gibson J-55: We’ve seen the name before, but this J-55 is not a reissue. The reintroduced J-55 has the squared shoulder shape becoming more common from Gibson, during the 70’s and 80’s. Solid spruce top, laminated sides, and slightly arched back. Commonly sold in sunburst.
1975 Gibson MK series
An ambitious modern design, with an ambitious price tag. The MK series is guitar spent a years in production design preceding its release. The MK is the first radicle departure from Gibson’s classic line, since the 1960 Hummingbird. It is also the first Gibson flattop designed alongside outsourced designers. Scientists from MIT, and the world’s top high fidelity acoustic design engineers worked in concert, to create an instant classic and the most worlds most advanced and perfect acoustic flattop.
The new Nashville plant is tooled and designed to produce the MK series in projected record-breaking numbers. The Body shape the MK series all share looks is brand new. It looks like a cross between a square shoulder Jumbo, and LG. A narrow waist with a small front bout, and a large rear bout. The Bridge is fan shaped, with large width on the bass side, slimming down to a very narrow treble side. The smaller Headstock is designed so each string runs in a straight line from the nut to the tuning post.
The Headstock features a classic old school Gibson script logo, representing Gibson’s tradition of innovative design. The internal bracing is another radicle departure. Another clever idea is the interchangeable saddle, for custom tailoring the string height. Internal bracing is a complex array of wood strips, at every conceivable angle. Three strong cross braces are additionally supported 22 additional tone bars, that only an MIT engineer can fully comprehend. A large plastic ring sits inside the sound hole, protruding upward, and inward. The plastic “sound hole doughnut” is a feature that is so advanced, nobody can adequately explain its purpose. The MK series is unveiled with great fanfare, as 100 years ahead of its time masterpiece. and unveiled with great fanfare.
Gibson MK Flattop family (In order of price, and features, low to high)
MK-35: Solid Spruce top, Mahogany back and sides. Rosewood ‘board, and dot inlay. Chrome hardware
MK-53: Solid spruce top, Maple back and sides. Rosewood ‘board with dot inlays. Chrome hardware
MK-72: Solid Spruce top, Rosewood back and sides (another Rosewood model from Gibson!) Ebony or Rosewood ‘board. Chrome hardware.
MK-81: Solid spruce top, Rosewood back and sides, Ebony ‘board, with pearl block inlay. Gold hardware.
Each offering comes in choice of sunburst or natural finish. Scale length is listed as 648mm (25.5-inch scale)
Everyone remembers their first-time player or owning a MK Flattop. No? The MK series epic failure was a least a full-blown attempt at creating another revolutionary Gibson flattop. Who knows? Maybe it really will be a hit in 100 years. The MK not only set back the Nashville factory “plan of action” (providing a grateful world, with a hi-fi MK Flattop) but tarnished Norlins reputation. The MK series has a strong midrange, with only subtle highs or lows, common in many hi-fi audio “playback” devices. Dismal sales of this noble and ambitious effort led to its early termination in 1978. Some MK owners of yesterday and today love the focused sound, though most do not. The MK flattop models succeeded only in snarling production at the new Nashville Gibson factory.
Norlin era Gibson gets a bad rap sometimes. Truthfully, most Norlin era Gibson guitars are quite good. The 1970’s was a tough decade for all American guitar manufacturers. More and more American manufacturers fought for a slice of the still booming guitar market, as well as comparatively inexpensive imported copies of America’s favorite guitars. New competitive models, ambitious products, the ‘square shoulder” Flattop and expansion to Nashville help define the 1970’s Norlin era Flattop. However, old favorites are still offered alongside the new budget minded models: The J-45/J-50, SJ-200, Dove, Hummingbird, Southern Jumbo, and a reintroduced J-100 help Gibson’s Flattop Acoustic line feeling familiar.
Early 1980’s Gibson company
The 1980’s brings large, and numerous changes to Gibson. In 1984, all Gibson production is moved the new Nashville Tennessee factory, leaving roots in Kalamazoo that started growing with Orville Gibson’s arrival in the 1870’s. At its peak, the Gibson Kalamazoo factory was 1,600 craftsmen strong, producing a staggering 7,000 instruments a day. By the early 80’s, growing competition, coupled with the Norlin Groups change in direction disrupted sales. Norlin decides to relinquish control, selling the Gibson family of brands to a group of investors led by Henry Juszkiewicz and Dave Berryman in 1986.
Notable early 1980’s Flattops
J-25: A short lived model, but notable for two things: A return to the classic Gibson rounded/sloped shoulder Jumbo body shape, and an impossibly ironic composite bowl shaped back.
J-30: The J-30 has a square shoulder dreadnaught/Jumbo body style. Spruce top, and Mahogany back and sides. Sounds familiar? It was probably made to replace the Dreadnaught/Jumbo J-45, (out for remodeling and return to its original round shoulder Jumbo design).
Though production is down from its peak, Gibson is still a leader and the most diverse manufacturer of fretted instruments. For the time being, Acoustic Flattops, Mandolins, Banjo’s and Uke’s as well as the Electrified Solidbody, Semi-hollow, Archtop and Bass guitars, are all made under one all under one crowded roof in Nashville Tennessee.
Notable Gibson Acoustic Flattops 1986-1988
1986 J-180 Everly Brothers: Brought back from extinction, and now called “J-180” the curvaceous classic returns, with Gloss Black finish, and Star shaped neck inlay, and double set of pickguards. It’s a welcome return of a well-loved flattop, gone before its time.
1986 (S)J-2000: A Gibson classic, reimagined. The J-2000 has more binding, and flashy appointments than ever before. This Giant favorite comes with highly figured Maple, 1938 style Rosewood, or AAA flamed Koa back and sides.
Norlin era Gibson opened the Nashville factory with the intention of building Acoustic and Electric guitars in separate facilities. This dream is realized in 1989, when Gibson moves its acoustic instrument division to Bozeman Montana. The Bozeman factory’s previous tenants are the Flatiron Mandolin company. Ironically the small but well-regarded brand is known for its high-quality recreations of Lloyd Loar era Gibson A-5 and F-5 classics
Bozeman Montana era Gibson Acoustic guitars
Under the supervision of Master Luthier Ren Ferguson, Gibson Flattop Acoustic Guitars enter a new golden age. An absolute explosion of new, re-issued, and re-imagined Flattops pour out the doors, to destinations around the guitar loving world.
1989-2018 Notable Gibson Acoustic Guitars
New classics for today’s player: The Songwriter series (9 models!), L-00 Blues King, J-185 series (7 models), J-100Xtra, J-150, J-15, CJ-165, and more.
Presentation models for the player, collector, and super-star inside you: The SJ-250 Monarch, J-200 Rose, Advanced Jumbo-Luthiers Choice, Doves in Flight, SJ-200 Vine, SJ-300, and more
Re-issued treasures: Advanced Jumbo RI, Hummingbird True Vintage, J-45 1942 Legend, J-160E, J-185 RI, J-200 Western Classic Pre-War, L-C Century of Progress, LG-2 Banner Logo, and so many more.
Signature Models: Bob Dylan SJ-200, J-45 Buddy Holly, J-45 Brad Paisley, J160E John Lennon, L-200 Emmylou Harris, L-1 Robert Johnson, Keb Moe L-00 Blues King, and tons more.
1989-2018 Gibson acoustics offer something for everyone. Quality, Selection, innovation, and diligence define what Gibson’s Bozeman Montana factory delivers to the player. Walnut, Rosewood, Koa, plain, fiddle back, and quilted Maple, and Mahogany back and sides now mix and match with classic and modified Gibson Body shapes and sizes. Like all of Gibson’s storied history, models come and go, while others endure. The post Norlin 1986-2018 Gibson company re-set course, sailing Gibson in the Gibson sailed in the right direction but got momentarily hung up. Over-expansion into Lifestyle and consumer electronics and forcing niche market tech on a no longer receptive market led Gibson to file for bankruptcy in 2018. You might want to take note: Robots can be dangerous in the wrong hands.
The Gibson company 2006-2018
Great things are to come for Gibson Flattops. New models, transducer acoustic pickups, cutaway models, custom colors, elaborately appointed editions, new bracing shapes and sizes, signature models and extremely popular reissues of classic models. New and revisited tone woods add a deeper dimension to Gibson’s flattop body styles. The classic rounded/sloped shoulder Jumbo returns with a vengeance. Gibson Flattops remain fresh, new, and exciting. A renewed and restored focus on Gibson’s uncompromising sprit and History returns.
“The New Gibson” Acoustics 2018-preset
With help from new management led by James Curleigh, and Cesar Gueikian, Gibson is out of trouble, and back on course. The new Gibson Brands Inc. is loved from the outside in, and the inside out. Passion for playing music, and a musician’s passion and connection to the right instrument, turns out to be great medicine. Gibson is connected and devoted to its previously alienated customers like no other time in its long history. The guitar is dead they say, right? Not at Gibson. They have at lest another 120 years in them.
Today’s Gibson Acoustic collection offers all the favorites with a vintage or modern sensibility. Mixed and matched Tone woods, and wide variety of new signature models available. Custom Shop offerings round out an assortment as balanced as the famous Gibson Flattop tone. With so many right choices, you can’t go wrong. This might be the best time in 120 years to choose Gibson.