It ’s 1942, and as the United States is entering World War II, the Gibson guitar company just releases what would become its most popular acoustic model of all time. The J-45 from that year will later be considered a “pre-war guitar” by players and collectors, since it arrived before the Kalamazoo company halted guitar production to support the war effort. The four-year production hiatus that followed makes original first-year J-45s rare birds indeed, and to stumble on one in this condition is truly a hen’s-teeth type of encounter.
Dubbed “the workhorse” for the versatile way it took to country, bluegrass and blues, and later rock and roll, the J-45 was released alongside the Southerner Jumbo (later shortened to Southern Jumbo) of the same year, and was the upgraded sibling of the previously released J-35. The two represented an expansion of Gibson’s round-shouldered (aka slope-shouldered) dreadnought lineup, which had opened the bidding in 1934 with the release of the Jumbo, not to be confused with the rounder and altogether larger-bodied Super Jumbo, the SJ-200, of a few years later.
The name “J-45” was derived—as were many of Gibson’s guitar model names of the time—from the guitar’s introductory price of $45. On today’s collector’s market, a good 1940s J-45 is likely to cost you at least $5,000 and an early example like this one upwards of $7,000 or more. Particularly sought after are the early “banner headstock” examples like this ’42, which is adorned with the classic headstock banner decal proclaiming “Only a Gibson is Good Enough.”
At a time when Martin was king of the flat-tops in the USA, Gibson was still expanding its lineup from the archtop guitars that the company had been founded upon. Other than the fancy Nick Lucas model, the earliest flat-tops of the mid 1920s were more entry-level models— for an established company such as Gibson, at least—and Kalamazoo really didn’t show Martin much competition in its own arena until the latter part of the ’30s. With its elegantly rounded upper bouts distinguishing it from Martin’s square-shouldered dreadnoughts, the J-45 bolstered a line intended to compete with big guns like the D-18 and D-28, and would be Gibson’s most successful flat-top over the following decades.
Most J-45s were made with tops of solid Adirondack spruce, but this rare example features solid mahogany instead, the same tonewood used for its back and sides. Generally a little warmer, rounder, and more midrange-focused than spruce, a mahogany top can nevertheless achieve plenty of clarity and sparkle from a well-built and well-seasoned vintage guitar. And while Gibson’s smaller flat-tops up to this point had usually been built with “ladder bracing”—parallel braces glued beneath the top to support it—the J-45 and other bigger, more upmarket models used Gibson’s new advanced-X bracing pattern, which encouraged a livelier, more articulate response from these guitars. The J-45 also boasted a more contemporary rounded neck profile, which sometimes still had a slight “V” to it, but was less of a “boat neck” than those found on most earlier Gibsons.
The list of major players who have displayed their acoustic chops on a J-45 is impressive. The model was Buddy Holly’s main squeeze, and it’s heard on virtually any of his classic recordings that feature an acoustic guitar. Blues legends Lightnin’ Hopkins, Blind Gary Davis, Skip James, and several others plied their trades on a J-45—and John Lennon first learned to fingerpick on a 1965 J-45 that he borrowed from English folk singer Donovan while on a pilgrimage to India in 1968. Bold and punchy, yet musical and articulate, there are fewer better “rhythm cannons” to drive the band than a J-45.
> Solid mahogany back and sides
> Solid Adirondack spruce top (mahogany on this rare example)
> Round-shoulder dreadnought body style
> Pre-War “banner” headstock
> Brazilian rosewood fretboard
> Two-tone sunburst finish