Classic Gear: The Pre-War Gibson SJ-200

Prior to the broad acceptance of the electric guitar, the battle for volume generally embodied a race to make bigger and bigger acoustic guitars.
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Prior to the broad acceptance of the electric guitar, the battle for volume generally embodied a race to make bigger and bigger acoustic guitars. The leaders in these flat-top fisticuffs were Martin and Gibson: the former volleyed with its iconic square-shouldered dreadnoughts, deemed huge for their time, while the latter returned fire with its round-shouldered Advanced Jumbos. Then, in 1937, Gibson unleashed the big guns in the form of the SJ-200. Not only was this so-called “Super Jumbo” massive for a flat-top, it was dressed in the kind of elegant cowboy bling that, almost overnight, made it a must-have badge of honor for any aspiring country star.

The first SJ-200 was built as a custom order for singing cowboy star Ray Whitley, and was in fact labeled as an L-5 Special for its similarities—flat top aside—to Gibson’s popular L-5 archtop. Before the launch of the model proper, western stars Tex Ritter, Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, and Ray “Crash” Corrigan commissioned their own custom renditions, often with their names inlaid in the fingerboard and other deluxe appointments (some records point to Corrigan’s actually being the first such “L-5 Special” built).

When it officially hit the catalog in 1938, the production SJ-200 was a pretty deluxe flat-top in its own right. The big, elegantly rounded body shape was complemented by a custom floral-engraved tortoiseshell pickguard, multi-ply body and headstock binding, a bound ebony fingerboard with mother-of-pearl crown inlays, and an unusual curvy “moustache” bridge with pearl inlays and, initially, individually adjustable string saddles. This guitar was about far more than looks, though, and the 25.5"-scale-length SJ-200 could really belt it out, holding down the rhythm in a large band, or just as confidently booming out flat-picked lead runs. Like all better acoustics of the era, it had a solid Adirondack spruce top, along with back and sides made from solid Brazilian rosewood for a rich, complex tone to accompany the impressive volume.

When the model returned after WWII, Gibson dropped the “Super” and listed it simply as the J-200 in the new catalogs, although guitars were still labeled SJ-200 into the 1950s. Also, while at least one custom SJ-200 was made with maple back and sides prior to the break for the war effort, this lighter, brighter tonewood became standard from 1947 onward, producing a guitar that still sounded great, but with a tighter, crisper voice amid its impressive punching power.

As musical styles evolved, the SJ-200 proved itself impressively adaptable. It transitioned seamlessly from rebel country to rock ’n’ roll to folk-rock in the hands of Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, and Bob Dylan. It ushered in a youthful new wave of country via Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris, and it even survived the powerhouse windmilling of Pete Townshend—all the while continuing to prove a hardcore country standard, accompanying the likes of Porter Wagoner (and a series of optically challenging western-themed suits) on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry show after show.

A proven performer with a timeless design, the SJ-200 (or J-200) remains a cornerstone of Gibson’s acoustic lineup. While the post-war rendition with maple back and sides has proliferated, the company still occasionally issues a vintage-spec rosewood model (the Western Classic Prewar 200, for example, emulates Ray Whitley’s original L-5 Special). The shape and general format has also inspired more compact renditions designed to suit smaller frames, such as the Limited Edition J-185 or acoustic-electric J-185 EC.

Essential Ingredients

> Solid Adirondack spruce top
> Solid Brazilian rosewood back and sides
> Rounded “Super Jumbo” shape with 17"-wide lower bout
> Ebony fingerboard with mother-of-pearl crown inlays
> “Moustache” bridge with mother-of-pearl inlays
> Deluxe floral-engraved pickguard