Guitar Aficionado

Not Just for Singing Cowboys: Peggy Eames' 1938 Custom Gibson Super Jumbo

A custom 1938 Gibson Super Jumbo ordered by Peggy Eames reveals that singing cowboys weren’t the only early musicians who favored this model.
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In the mid Thirties, Gibson dominated the market for archtop guitars with models like the Super 400 and L-5. The company also made a bold statement as an innovator with the introduction of its first electric model, the ES-150, in 1936. Even though the popularity of banjos and mandolins was beginning to decline during this period, Gibson also maintained a prominent role as a leading producer of these instruments.

However, during this era, Gibson began to lag against competition in one significant growing segment of the stringed-instrument market: flattop steel-string acoustic guitars. Introduced in the early Thirties, Martin’s orchestra models (OM) and dreadnoughts (D-18, D-28, and D-45) quickly became the standard for many guitarists, and other companies soon followed suit with their own jumbo models and flattops inspired by Martin’s modern OM design.

The jumbo guitar emerged on the market as guitar companies attempted to build instruments with increased volume output. Gibson actually was a trailblazer in this pursuit with its introduction, in 1929, of the HG-24 model, a 16-inch dreadnought with a 14-fret neck that predated the 14-fret Martin dreadnoughts by five years. The guitar’s main problems were its unorthodox internal baffling and Gibson’s decision to market it as a Hawaiian guitar designed for being played with a steel. Similarly, Gibson’s Super 400 was the biggest archtop on the market when it was introduced in 1934. That same year, Gibson introduced its Jumbo model, a large-body flattop with a body 16 inches wide—nearly half an inch larger than a Martin dreadnought—but the model was a commercial flop.

During this period, Martin’s fanciest flattop models were regularly seen in the hands of singing cowboy film stars, something that contributed significantly to the guitars’ popularity. Gene Autry played a Martin D-45, and Roy Rogers (as a member of the Sons of the Pioneers, when he was known as Leonard Slye) played a Martin OM-45. Their appearances on the silver screen in serials and westerns were the best advertising any guitar company could hope for, as millions of young, impressionable future guitarists lusted for these eye-catching instruments.

While Gibson offered its fair share of fancy archtops, like the L-5 and Super 400, the company’s flattop models were rather plain Jane when compared to the D-45 and OM-45. Possibly Gibson’s first fancy flattop was a custom Super 400 flattop made for Howard Cranford in 1935, which combined a Roy Smeck Radio Grande body with a Super 400–style mottled pickguard and a neck that met the body at the 12th fret. However, like the HG-24, this guitar was set up for Hawaiian-style slide playing. Sometime in 1937, Gibson made several L-5 Special flattops that featured 12-fret necks with L-5–style headstocks and block inlays, standard rectangular bridges, and, most importantly, a large, curvaceous body that measured 17 inches across the lower bout.

During this period, Gibson perfected the final design for a model it called the Super Jumbo. Boasting a massive 17-inch body shape identical to that of the L-5 Special, the guitar also sported fancier features that included a curvaceous “moustache” bridge with four pearl-inlay inserts, a 14-fret neck, a pickguard engraved with a floral design, graduated crown (a.k.a. “pineapple” or “rising sun”) fretboard inlays, and a similar crown headstock inlay. Upon the official introduction of the Super Jumbo model in its 1938 catalog, Gibson finally offered a fancy jumbo flattop model that could compete with the Martin D-45.

Gibson aggressively pursued western film stars to endorse the instrument. In the 1938 catalog, photos of Gene Autry, Tex Ritter, and Ray Whitley appeared alongside the new model, although the Super Jumbo guitars they held did not exactly match the one depicted in the catalog illustration. Most notably, each of the artists’ examples had a 12-fret neck, and Autry’s guitar had a horseshoe and his name inlaid in cursive text on the fretboard. Apparently, these were the custom Super Jumbo models mentioned in catalog text that could be ordered from Gibson for an additional $50 above the Super Jumbo’s $200 price.

Gibson made only 10 of these custom Super Jumbo guitars, and the option to purchase one was deleted from the subsequent 1939 catalog, which now identified the model as the Super Jumbo “200” (and which was shortened to SJ-200 in Gibson’s production records before SJ-200 became its official name). Of these 10, only nine were accounted for until recently, and all of these guitars belonged to performers involved with western films. Gene Autry owned two Super Jumbos with 12-fret necks; Ray “Crash” Corrigan owned a one-of-a-kind mahogany-body example with a 14-fret neck; Tex Ritter had a sunburst custom 12-fret that was later refinished with a natural top; Roy Rogers owned one; Jimmy Wakely acquired his 14-fret custom Super Jumbo with his name engraved in the pickguard in 1939; and Ray Whitley had three—two 12-fret examples and his famous 14-fret Super Jumbo with an L-5–style neck and Super 400–style mottled pick guard.

The 1938 custom Gibson Super Jumbo shown here is the one rare exception that wasn’t owned by a western film star. The guitar was made for Peggy Eames, who was best known for her appearances as a primary cast member in seven Our Gang short films made in 1926 and 1927, including “Uncle Tom’s Uncle,” “Bring Home the Turkey,” “Seeing the World,” and “Tired Business Men.” During the late Thirties, Eames was a popular performer on the vaudeville circuit who often toured alongside fellow Our Gang star Mickey Daniels. She played guitar and sang a variety of popular, standard, and country-and-western songs like “Don’t Fence Me In” and “Round Up Time in Texas.”

When Eames ordered this guitar in 1938, she was no stranger to Gibson. In 1928, she appeared in several ads for Gibson mandolins, which capitalized on her Our Gang fame. Her photo was also prominently displayed on page 52 of Gibson’s 1930 catalog in the mandolin section. While Eames was no longer appearing in Hollywood films during the late Thirties, she still was a valuable Gibson endorser due to her vaudeville career.

At $250 plus another $70 for the leather case, a custom Super Jumbo was one of the most expensive guitars on the market at that time, but Eames could easily afford a top-of-the-line professional instrument. “She made very good money for that time,” says Paul Schwiegeraht, Peggy’s son, who owns the guitar. “We still have her pay stubs from back then as well as her touring itineraries. She was very busy and traveled all over the United States.”

The only differences between Eames’ Super Jumbo and a standard 1938 model are the headstock overlay featuring Peggy in art deco–style block letters inlaid in a pearl block, and the engraved pickguard, which has an illustration of a female Scottish highland dancer and the words Hoot Mon, a Scottish interjection equivalent to “Hey, man!”

“The Scottish dancer was inspired by my mom’s love of Scottish dancing,” Schwiegeraht says. “Her talent at it helped her win a contest sponsored by Fawcett magazines back in the Twenties. Her prize was a trip to Hollywood, and I guess that inspired her mother to encourage Peggy to pursue a career in show business.”

The “zipper” center backstrip is the same as those found on the earliest Super Jumbo models, and the rich brown East Indian rosewood back and sides are typical of most prewar SJ-200s—Corrigan’s mahogany Super Jumbo and a maple example are the only known anomalies. Other features include the early Grover De Luxe tuners (later known as Imperials) with gold plating and engraved details and an ebony “moustache” bridge with individual, height-adjustable bone saddles for each string. Early photos of Eames with the guitar show that Gibson installed the truss-rod cover upside down, likely intentionally to complement the headstock inlay and make it look like a tulip flower.

With the exception of some pick wear on the top, a few small, random dings, and a surface crack along the top grain that extends from the edge of the binding to the bridge (but fortunately did not crack all the way through to the underside of the top), the guitar is in outstanding and 100 percent original condition and still has its case. While the Super Jumbo—particularly the 12-fret customs made for singing cowboys to play “cowboy chords”—was initially designed for strumming chords as loudly as possible, prewar rosewood-body examples in fine condition like this one have an assertive, well-balanced voice that is well suited for fingerstyle and flatpicking. This example also has a 26-inch scale that contributes to its piano-like tone.

Perhaps the most significant feature is the factory order number (FON) stamped on the neck block: 13D. Gibson assigned an FON to single instruments or batches of instruments when they were manufactured. While existing Gibson shipping records indicate that an SJ-200 with a 13D FON was shipped on September 30, 1938, after SJ-200s with much higher FONs, it’s possible that it was either another guitar from the same batch or that this guitar shipped later than higher-numbered examples because it was a custom order. The 13D FON is the very first and lowest number in Gibson’s production records, so it’s very likely that this was one of the first, if not the first, production Super Jumbo guitars built by Gibson.

“My mom didn’t realize what this guitar is worth,” Schwiegeraht says. “When she passed away, her will requested that the guitar be passed on to a student who was learning to play. Her husband didn’t honor that. He just couldn’t let it go, so when he passed away he gave it to me. I hope that I can find a good home for it—someone who respects the guitar and my mom’s history alike—before I pass along.”