GibsonCustom Shop Johnny A. Signature

December 1, 2003

By Michael Molenda
I’m Italian, so I think all women are pretty much angels.

But, sometimes, I find myself confronted with a creature of such utter gorgeousness that my RAM buffer of “beautiful objects” caves in on itself in spasms of redefinition until my brain reboots with a renewed adoration of all things lovely. The Johnny A. Signature has the same effect on me. The guitar offers jaw-dropping looks, to be sure, but it’s also dangerously sexed-up. In other words, this is an instrument that begs you to make music with it, rather than keep you at arm’s length with its wholesome, untouchable beauty. And this treasure almost didn’t see the light of day.

The guitar that ultimately evolved into the Johnny A. ($5,562 retail) was a production prototype that was never meant to be manufactured. Popular instrumental guitarist Johnny A. came across the model during one of his visits to the Gibson Custom Shop in Nashville, and began working with Mike McGuire, General Manager Rick Gembar, and others to craft the toss-off into his perfect instrument (see sidebar, “Johnny A. on the Johnny A.”). What developed was an instrument that harkens back to ’50s- and early ’60s-era nightclubs—all awash in the sophisticated decay of art deco appointments, smoke-stained velvet curtains, and tiny round tables covered with glasses and ashtrays. That’s the refined vibe of the Johnny A.’s Florentine cutaways, pearl inlays, and stunning finish—the “let’s get it on” character is broadcast by the Bigsby, which kicks in some of rock and roll’s sweaty sexiness. For his efforts, Johnny A. not only got his dream guitar, but lucky suckers like us—at least those of us with a substantial guitar-acquisition budget—can acquire a true collaboration between an artist and Gibson artisans.

As magnificent as this baby looks, there are a few detail glitches. One is the guitar’s snug nut slots, which produce creaks and pings whenever you use the Bigsby (the guitar is also available with a ABR-1 stop tailpiece) or aggressively bend strings. There’s also a minor paint smudge on the front of the otherwise excellent binding, and one of the f-hole edges is cut a tad wonky. A giddy “oops” is a screw-on knob that’s too small for the pickup-selector shaft, making the exposed threads reminiscent of a butt crack. None of these little “blems” amount to much more than trifles, but they shouldn’t darken the day of an expensive, custom-built guitar.

Everything else about the Johnny A. is as superbly wrought as its countenance. The polished frets are well dressed and seated (although they’re installed over the binding), the hardware is excellent, the inlays are perfect, and the Sunset Glow finish is spectacular. Even the guitar’s backside is a stunner, with its dramatically figured mahogany and carved silhouette.

For all it’s appointments, the Johnny A. is a very light guitar, and the weightlessness took some getting used to—even though the guitar is far from delicate. (I initially felt like the whole thing would float out of my hands like a helium balloon!) However, the Johnny A. plays like a dream, and all the controls are within easy reach. I could even keep my hand on the Bigsby, and still make constant tweaks to the Volume and Tone knobs without disturbing my flow one iota. The pickup selector’s 45-degree angle is right in line with the swing of your arm, which indeed makes for seamless pickup changes. Everything felt so comfy, in fact, that you could make a reasonable argument that this beaut almost plays itself.

Assuming that the Johnny A. sounds as smooth as a Rat Pack-approved tuxedo would be right, but it would also be very narrow profiling. This is a surprisingly versatile guitar that can deliver ES-335-esque blues flavors, smokey jazz tones, and viciously rockin’ wails. The rock vibe is especially remarkable given that the Johnny A. is completely hollow. However, the model’s flat inner back reduces problematic resonances. I could even stand in front of a Carvin Steve Vai Legacy half-stack at mid-blare without unwelcome shrieks. And when I wanted feedback, it was always musical and controllable— that is, until the volume levels approached nu-metalish decibels.

Through a number of amps (including various Fenders, Marshalls, Voxes, and even an old Polytone Mini-Brute), the Johnny A. always produced tight, articulate tones with a buoyant low-end and a lively snap. With all controls full up, the neck pickup offers warm and resonant bass, but with a zing that animates the tone beyond a staid Muzak-jazz stance. The middle position adds some midrange punch, and the overall sound is like aural Cinemascope—Maypo thick and three-dimensional. The bridge pickup is all bottled aggression, with an edgy—but not shrill—attack and a wistful airiness. Start messing with the Tone and Volume, and this extremely responsive machine can mimic just about any humbucker-inspired timbre, and deliver sounds that will work in nearly any musical context. Hey, I couldn’t get a bad sound—even when I plugged into a tiny Danelectro Honeytone amp that was cranked up and placed speaker-down atop a pillow!

At this point, I’m much too embarrassed to unleash any more accolades about this guitar, but it’s hard to stop. Although quality control could be slightly improved, everything else about the Johnny A.’s tones, construction, and playability is extraordinary. This is a rare instrument, and it wins an Editors’ Pick Award. Now try one yourself, and see if you don’t get all geeky about it. I dare ya!

Many thanks to Paul Spencer for his observations.    

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