American Classics, Chapter 1: The Gibson J-200

1964_Gibson_J-200_Custom_(SN_67437)_in_case By bptakoma (Flickr: 1964 Gibson J-200 Custom) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

The criteria for this series of brief essays was inspired by that aggravating sentiment we constantly heard slung around during the last election, by those who yearn for the good old days and wish to “Make America great again.” Annoying as it was, it got me thinking. I also found myself trying to answer my student’s nagging, earnest questions about what actually made America “great” in the first place. I suppose that depends on who you ask… 

Our mission here at Esthetic Lens is to delve into matters of…well, esthetics. So let’s take a look at some of the iconic guitars, cars and other desirable objects that the pure spark of American ingenuity, inspiration and hard sweat. We begin our journey with the enduring beauty of the Gibson J-200…

First of all, the J stands for “Jumbo.” And the 200? Perhaps inspired by the ticket price. Country/Western singer, champion yodeler and sometime actor Ray Whitley (best known for “Back in the Saddle Again”) had the original idea for the guitar in 1937. A year later the Gibson factory in Kalamazoo, Michigan began producing a limited edition which sold for $200 at the time (figure that’s around three grand these days).

Originally made with a Sitka spruce top and rosewood back and sides, the post war models were fashioned from maple, which Gibson claimed produced a clearer, more resonant tone (although their heavy bracing created a surprisingly quiet instrument considering its hefty size). With its zaftig figure, the new “Miss Gibson,” as Reverend Gary Davis referred to his beloved J-200, quickly became much lusted-after by generations from country crooners, folkies and rockers of every style and stripe. Texas blues great Mance Lipscomb was also known to pick his gentle blues on the jumbo-body Gibson. Elvis Presley was seen swiveling one on his Million-dollar hips, while the Everly Brothers drove chart-topping hits, “Bye Bye Love” and “Wake Up Little Suzie” with a pair of those beauties.

By ABC Television–the press release is not intact, but the ABC New York Avenue of the Americas address can be partially seen. (eBay item photo front photo back) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By 1962 Gibson mashed up the J-200 with J-180 to create the Everly Brothers model guitar, complete with a cool black lacquer finish, stars inlaid in the fretboard and big faux tortoise shell pickguards on both sides of the soundhole, designed, I suppose, for overly-enthusiastic strummers doing their best to “Wake Up Little Suzie.” 

While Greenwich Village based singer-songwriter Eric Andersen strummed one on the cover of his 1966 album ‘bout Changes & Things, most of us became aware of the J-200 from Elliot Landy’s iconic photo on Bob Dylan’s Nashville Skyline. Landy’s portrait exaggerated the instrument shape even more from the use of his wide-angle lens. A gift from George Harrison (John Lennon was photographed playing the same instrument during the Get Back/Let it Be sessions) Dylan strummed this J-200 into a mike, backed by the Band at his legendary performance (while sporting an all-white suit -ala Hank Williams) at the Isle of Wight festival in the U.K.in 1969.

By Koos Fernhout from Rotterdam, Netherlands (DSCN2196) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Around the same time Pete Townshend pounded out the ecstatic transcendental rhythm of “Pinball Wizard” on a J-200. Jimmy Page is said to have played a Gibson J-200 on many of Led Zeppelin’s acoustic numbers as well including “Your Time is Gonna Come” and “Black Mountain Side.” Check out the youtube clip of Page playing the tune on the Julie Felix Show (a bit blurry, but a great performance!) here.

The eternally stylish space cowboy Gram Parsons, known for his custom Nudie suits, regularly employed the woody, plunky tone of the J-200 on the Byrds’ classic album Sweetheart of the Rodeo and records by the Burrito Brothers, while his partner in harmony Emmylou Harris preferred the slightly smaller L-200 model, which was gifted to her from Gram.

Although best known for creating a unique, immediately identifiable guitar sound, U2’s Edge reached for the J-200 (although heavily doused with effects) for his solo “Love and Peace or Else” from How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb.

And the list goes on… including Johnny Cash, who played a tobacco sunburst model on his Sun-era hits (which he later gave to the great producer Cowboy Jack Clement for writing his hit “Teenage Queen”) as well as Bruce Springsteen and many others who picked that 6-stringed object of desire. Whether due to its shapely body, eye candy inlay and pickguard, the top-of the line Gibson became a status symbol that nearly every folky, country singer or rocker had to, at the very least, be seen at one time or another in their career cradling it in their arms for a photo session.

As a writer whose job is to relentlessly wrestle with description, as well as meet word count requirements, I am not afforded the luxury of summing up such self-possessed ramblings with a brief non-sequitur. For that brand of lightning wisdom, I stopped by my local Bleecker Street guitar shop to see Zeke Schein (author of Portrait of a Phantom, the new book about Robert Johnson) behind the counter, who has played and sold plenty of J-200’s over the years – from sublime to second-rate. He nailed the spirit of this gorgeous work of American craftsmanship and design in just five words… dubbing it “the Jane Mansfield of guitars.” If that doesn’t make any sense, then I suggest you re-read this piece again. Or go find a J-200 and rest it on your knee a spell.

“the Jayne Mansfield of guitars.”