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Gibson Golden Era RW Js -- a long journey


tpbiii

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I have never really told this story, even though I have been seriously engaged in this activity for most of my life -- really intensively for the past decade.

 

I must tell you I was born into a Gibson family -- we were a Ford, Evinrude, Remington, Gibson family. Southerners are like that. Not that we owned any Gibsons -- we were too poor for that. So when I bought my first good guitar in 1961, it was a Gibson -- LG1.

 

I was a folk revival guy in the 60s, and I married well in that regard. It was a wonderful inclusive genre where the bar was not too high.

 

Later the genre went away -- we never followed it when it went electric. After we wandered in the musical wilderness for a decade, we found traditional bluegrass -- as played near us in North Georgia. We wanted to join in, but our pitiful mild guitar and vocal skills were not very useful for bluegrass. Neither were our instruments.

 

Over the next 40 years, we aspired to bluegrass, continued our folk interests, and started collecting instruments for both. We did end up with a lot of Gibsons and a lot of Martins. We basically used all the Gibsons and the smaller Martins to play folk music (revival, traditional, and old time) and the large Martins to play bluegrass.

 

I am not going to talk about the many Gibsons and many Martins we use in so many ways. I am only going to talk about prewar D-28s (RW) and prewar Gibson RW Js.

 

Martin's prewar D-28s (herringbone) rose to predominance as the rhythm instrument of choice for traditional bluegrass -- in many ways that guitar was a key element defining that genre. In my experience, playing a prewar herringbone as the rhythm player with accomplished bluegrass players is pretty close to a religious experience. The tonal features in the old D-28s that defines its role as the big, wide, roaring (RW) midrange that completes the rhythm.

 

So, by the early 2000s we had acquired three old herringbones, an loved the opportunities they gave us. We used our old Gibsons too -- but not for bluegrass rhythm.

 

But I come from a Gibson family -- although I had proved to my own satisfaction no common Gibson model worked for us for BG rhythm. But I had heard for years -- from Gary Burnette, from who we had bought several guitars -- that 30s AJs were "bone crushers." But they were really rare (less than 300), and although not as expensive as old herringbones, they cost a lot. So I started watching out for one, and eventually bought one from George Gruhn. Normally we did not buy from high end dealers, but if you want something really rare, sometimes that is what you have to do.

 

Well, it lived up to its hype -- maybe not a bone crusher, but the same class of guitar with the power and tonal properties so necessary for power bluegrass. It was a major hit with my flatpicking friends, and bluegrass bigots even admit that if you close your eyes, you would never believe it was a Gibson.

 

I had taken the jump, and it had paid off. I was happy.

 

But then something else happened. A friend from Seattle needed a new neck for a Roy Smeck Radio Grand -- the old one had been butchered. I put him in touch with Randy Wood, who does a lot of our work and that led to a meeting that put our AJ and his RSRG nose to nose. Well the RSRG blew me away -- it was in the same class as the AJ, although the center frequency for the midrange was a bit different. Of course, you can't just use a RSRG to play bluegrass because it has to be converted. But it does not cost as much as an AJ.

 

Long story short, I got one and had Randy Wood build a new neck for it -- carefully done so it could be returned to original Hawaiian with the original neck if desired. Once again success -- a guitar in the same class as the AJ and old D-28s.

 

I figured I was through -- but never say never. I also had heard of a yet even more rare guitar. The first few batches of SJs from 1942/43 were RW. There are not even 200 of them -- maybe quite a bit less. I did not really have much hope that (a) I could get one and (2) I would like it -- we have several banner SJs and J-45s, and they just don't have the power to compete with the old AJ, RSRG, and D-28s orD-18s. But there was a very well known BG player who had one and claimed it was as good as his old herringbone. I really did not buy it, and they were so rare I figured I would die without one regardless -- but then one popped up. Gary Burnette had one. So I went to see it and brought cash just in case. Glad I did -- it had the required tone and power too. I don't know if they all do, but this one does.

 

So I had found something that is not very well known -- there are old Gibsons that can truly hang in and excel in roles that are normally reserved for old Martins. But their rarity and the lack of visibility associated with rarity have robbed them of their accolades. Don't get me wrong -- those old herringbone deserve their reputation. But the Gibsons IME are just as good.

 

You might think something similar might be true with the mahogany guitars -- but that we have not found to be true. But that is another story.

 

Here they are.

 

AJSJfronts.jpg

 

AJSJbacks.jpg

 

RSRGAJ.jpg

 

RSRGAJback.jpg

 

 

Let's pick,

 

-Tom

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"a near religious experience" ... I like that.

 

What a journey you have been on tracking down and auditioning those old instruments. Your occupation was in audiology of some sort as I recall ? To me that means that your hearing is much better suited to detecting the strengths of those vintage instruments much better than my rock and roll damaged ringing ears.mI wish I could hear what you must hear.

 

I do recall you speaking about how one of the qualities you noted in older guitars was "clarity". Having just dipped my toe into a 1957 J-50, I think I have a better understanding of what you mean - the tone is like biting into a crisp apple. Keep those stories coming. [thumbup] [thumbup] [thumbup]

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Tom,

Love the story of how you acquired these great rosewood guitars. I find it interesting that the back wood on the Radio Grand looks so much like many of the backs I've seen on recent Gibson's advertised with Mystic rosewood !

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Thanks Tom for the great story! (And photos).

 

 

When you get a minute, would you explain to the rest of us what it is that makes YOUR AJ, SJ and D28s do the job for you that you talk about. I play solo so don't have any experience of what is needed in a guitar to play the BG things you mention. I am sure others here would be interested too. I guess you have a mental sound picture when auditioning a guitar for the big job, but don't really know if it succeeds until it is road tested.

 

BluesKing777.

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Tom's guitars, and his musical stories, and his photos... Certainly worthy of a book, of a documentary, and man... I don't think there is a guy or gal here who wouldn't love to spend a weekend picking with Tom.

 

A weekend wouldnt be near enough...

And i agree tom you and your cave is a real life phenomenon.

 

I know a gentleman like you wouldnt like to boast , but is there a collection that rivals yours anywhere ?

I know numbers may be beaten , but the organisation and logs that accompany it should be included in the wow of the collection...

Maybe youve seen or heard of a similar being to yourselves ?

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The back of that Radio Grande is something to behold!

 

I'm so glad you bought Gary's SJ. I wanted it badly, but just couldn't justify spending the money for it. The guitar has found its proper home.

 

But now you've got me thinking that I really need a slope-J rosewood Gibson.

 

Oh, no, here we go again!

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A weekend wouldnt be near enough...

And i agree tom you and your cave is a real life phenomenon.

 

I know a gentleman like you wouldnt like to boast , but is there a collection that rivals yours anywhere ?

I know numbers may be beaten , but the organisation and logs that accompany it should be included in the wow of the collection...

Maybe youve seen or heard of a similar being to yourselves ?

 

For example Vince Gill has some kind of collection, but to your point, Tom's is so well documented for all to enjoy - even vicariously.

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Quite a few of us came of musical age during the folk revival of the early 1960s and cut our teeth on Woody Guthrie and Leadbgelly. Back then I did not know a good guitar from a can of tuna. But it did not matter. All it had to be was a guitar. My parents were not about to buy me one, so my first guitar was a gift from a friend of the family - an old Martin archtop they had sitting in the closet.

 

First Gibson I owned was an L-00. Took me a couple of years of helping out on various jobs over the weekends and saving up lawn mowing and snow shoveling money to pay for it. I did not really know much about Gibsons but I did like it and it was cheap. Never knew what year it was made as such things were pretty much impossible to figure out. Not that it really mattered. The guitar had a big crack in the top which I fixed by drilling a small hole at either end of the crack (believing it would stop it from spreading) and then slathering glue in it.

 

Unlike you I did got the electric route, playing my first gig in 1966. Started off with a used Dan Electro played through a borrowed Ampeg Portaflex amp. I then moved on to a 1958 Tele. But in the early 1970s I started moving back to acoustic putting together a blues band using the singer and bass player, who was looking for a vehicle to play his doghouse bass with, from the rock band. We only played when the rock band had nothing going on and I recall we did a lot of gigs for free food.

 

While I still owned the Gibson, sometime towards the end of high school though I became enamored with Oscar Schmidts, Kay Krafts, and Regals. I once brought two Schmidt 12 strings into high school wood shop intending to make one playable guitar out of the pair. I did not really know what I was doing but I did get a guitar together and played it for a lot of years.

 

Funny thing is now that I can afford guitars (well up to a point) I am still playing the same ones I did in the 1960s. They just cost a whole lot more than they used to.

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Thanks Tom for the great story! (And photos).

 

 

When you get a minute, would you explain to the rest of us what it is that makes YOUR AJ, SJ and D28s do the job for you that you talk about. I play solo so don't have any experience of what is needed in a guitar to play the BG things you mention. I am sure others here would be interested too. I guess you have a mental sound picture when auditioning a guitar for the big job, but don't really know if it succeeds until it is road tested.

 

BluesKing777.

 

I'll try.

 

The first point is that bluegrass is a collaboration of acoustic instruments. In that regard, I think it is like a marching band or even an orchestra -- you are playing a specific role in a more complex whole and you are existing in an intense local musical world. Immersed in music. A very loud environment for all acoustic instruments.

 

The role of the rhythm guitar is very specifically defined -- and in parts of that role it is basically played flat-out. As loud as the rhythm guitars are, they are the least loud of the acoustic instruments in a bluegrass band (banjo, fiddle, mandolin, dobro, ...). So in the backbeat, you are asking the instrument for all it had -- heavy pick and almost aerobic. I wrote an article for Bluegrass Unlimited in 1999 about the structure of bluegrass music. (Embarrassingly, it is been translated into 10 different languages and republished far more than any of my (about 200) technical articles.[crying]) It gives more details about how it all works.

 

Here is Tony Watt demoing rhythm on

 

SJRW

AJ

 

Tony did a whole set of guitars last Spring, including rhythm and a fiddle tune on each.

 

Best,

 

-Tom

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A weekend wouldnt be near enough...

And i agree tom you and your cave is a real life phenomenon.

 

I know a gentleman like you wouldnt like to boast , but is there a collection that rivals yours anywhere ?

I know numbers may be beaten , but the organisation and logs that accompany it should be included in the wow of the collection...

Maybe youve seen or heard of a similar being to yourselves ?

 

Well, our guitars are part of a broader lifestyle that includes music, history, family activities, and retirement investment. We had very strict rules for what guitars we were interested in, and I guess we were not the prototypical collector. Part of it was I did sound research -- mostly speech systems -- as a career. So I was collecting historic sounds. So for an instrument to be desirable it had to be an excellent sound example of an instrument from the periods and types that interested us. To get on the list, an instrument had to be something we might use in our music life. So for example we have a 1944 Martin D-28 -- all original body but a replaced neck. A typical collector would reject that guitar because of the repro neck, but since that did not effect the sound we were ok with it. However, because to be able to afford this we had to manage the collection as an investment portfolio, we had to price them in the broad market.. The sound determines the desirability, the market determines the price.

 

Maybe we are a bit odd in the breathe of interests -- at some point I decided it would be better to play lots of different instruments and styles ok rather than one well. So the breathe of instruments types is a bit odd. We live to jam -- we play with people all the time. It is our social life. We have bluegrass guitar friends, bluegrass banjo friends, clawhammer banjo friends, folk revival friends, singer songwriter friends, traditional folk friends, country friends, Maritime folk friends, old time friends, down east friends, gospel friends, and blues/ragtime friends. Each of those genres is interested in different instruments, and there are a lot of great instruments out there. We generally like quality journeyman model instruments and not one with a lot of decoration.

 

This is pretty much our life. I am retired and we play several times a week. We chose instruments to match what we are going to play -- our life is thus a perpetual instrument test. Can't last forever, but for now we are really enjoying it.

 

Best,

 

-Tom

 

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A weekend wouldnt be near enough...

And i agree tom you and your cave is a real life phenomenon.

 

I know a gentleman like you wouldnt like to boast , but is there a collection that rivals yours anywhere ?

I know numbers may be beaten , but the organisation and logs that accompany it should be included in the wow of the collection...

Maybe youve seen or heard of a similar being to yourselves ?

 

Don't think there is - Richard Gere fx. had a great collection, but nothing like tpbiii's living museum.

 

 

Well, our guitars are part of a broader lifestyle that includes music, history, family activities, and retirement investment.

 

It's a true treasure and a privilege to sometimes access via this Board. Those family group portraits never cease to thrill and enchant.

 

Thanx

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Tom, beautiful guitars,living history there. Interesting are your well thought out factors which determine whether you buy or not. That all guitars must be applicable for your purpose,the sound,you want for the music you play is very interesting.So logical.I wish I was so consistent in buying guitars.

 

Now I know that all Gibsons' were built with what has now been identified as Indian rosewood.Or so the current wisdom goes.

Looking at the AJ's I see almost identical wood properties,primarily straight grain.

The others show a far different appearance,with wild grain lines.I have seen almost identical on the very earliest SJ-200s'.

 

With that thought,and the fact that straight grain Indian rosewood is commonplace now and then,I'm curious with the b/s wood selections on the non AJ guitars.

Would the rosewoods with wild grain have been graded for building the same as the straight grained wood do you think?.

Is there any belief that Gibson sourced rosewood from both India and South America,Brazil maybe even specifically,and just mixed it all together.Rosewood is rosewood from a builder standpoint.

 

By the by,I know there is/was an pre war AJ down here in Nova Scotia.I have seen pictures of the gentleman who owned it, and his bluegrass band,playing.

Have you ever seen an pw AJ down here in Novi?Curious on your thoughts on my ramble questions.Your experience with these guitars is first hand and very discriminating.

Bravo to you and your wife.

Thanks Todd

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Now that Tom has made the case for the legendary Gibson rosewood slope-J's, it would be nice if Gibson would step up to the plate for a guitar to celebrate them. Yes, I know we already have the AJ, which appears to be under-appreciated by the market.

 

But how about a near-repro of Tom's batch 910 rosewood SJ?

 

Specs could be really simple, and would not need to be absolutely "pure" in order to control costs.

 

IR back and sides (Madagascar if you wanted to blow the budget out, but since the original is probably IR, I could live with the IR)

 

torrefied Adi top with hide-glued torrefired adi bracing

 

scalloped advanced top bracing

 

19-fret neck, no fretboard binding

 

vintage-style full-C neck profile (nut could be standard modern width)

 

belly-down bridge with slot-through saddle

 

bone nut and saddle

 

celluloid vintage-style pickguard

 

open-back vintage-style tuners

 

wider multi-ply top and back binding

 

 

This wouldn't necessarily be as good as Tom's SJ, but it might be as close as we mere mortals could hope for. I could probably find a couple of guitars to part with in order to buy one.

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May want to find yourself a used Dwight Yoakam Honky Tonk Duece. Fits the specs fairly close. May have too much bling for you. Looks like a 50's SJ. RW back and sides. Tall scalloped bracing.

 

Actually, aside from the rosewood B&S, the honky tonk deuce isn't even close to ticking the boxes from my perspective. Not much closer than a J-45 Custom.

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Now I know that all Gibsons' were built with what has now been identified as Indian rosewood.Or so the current wisdom goes.

Looking at the AJ's I see almost identical wood properties,primarily straight grain.

The others show a far different appearance,with wild grain lines.I have seen almost identical on the very earliest SJ-200s'.

 

Hi Todd,

 

I think Gibson started using Indian Rosewood in about 1934, and then used it until they quit building RW guitars in 1943. Before that, they were using Brazilian and it shows up some in some early 30s L-2s and some other stuff. Gary Burnette always said (and still does) that his AJ was a prototype and was Brazilian. Well his does have the small burst typical of 1933-34 and ours was one of the earliest regular batches in late 1936, and it has the broader sunburst. So I think he may be right that his is an early prototype. I have known him for years, and he lets people -- including me -- play his old AJ. It is a great guitar, but it seems obvious to me that it is the same rosewood as the later guitars -- so I think it is EIRW.

 

Most of the RW used by Gibson was quarter sawed, but not always -- the RSRG above is somewhat slab sawed. The guitar was built on the 34/35 border -- so right at the BRW/EIRW border. When the wood is slab sawed, I have sometimes have more trouble deciding its type.

 

With that thought,and the fact that straight grain Indian rosewood is commonplace now and then,I'm curious with the b/s wood selections on the non AJ guitars.

Would the rosewoods with wild grain have been graded for building the same as the straight grained wood do you think?.

Is there any belief that Gibson sourced rosewood from both India and South America,Brazil maybe even specifically,and just mixed it all together.Rosewood is rosewood from a builder standpoint.

 

I think Gibson went with a reliable supplier and used what they got -- so long as it was structurally ok. They were using BRW in that period too -- for bridges and fretboards -- but not for B$Ss. We think of this period as acoustic guitar Camelot -- so much innovation. But from the point of view of the company, it was the worst of times -- because of the Depression. Martin was in the same fix, and a lot of these moves were in desperation. And in those days, archtops had been king for 30 years.

 

By the by,I know there is/was an pre war AJ down here in Nova Scotia.I have seen pictures of the gentleman who owned it, and his bluegrass band,playing.

Have you ever seen an pw AJ down here in Novi?

 

I have not come across it. We have been spending summers in Nova Scotia for 12+ years now -- I spent a lot of my youth there, but then there was this 40 year period where Nova Scotia trips were very rare. We have gotten to know many of the bluegrass people in South NS, including a number with old guitars. We have become good friends with a man named Carl Dalrymple -- one of the grand old men of NS bluegrass and country and a serious guitar collector. His son Gary plays mandolin with the Spinney Brothers -- do you know them? I'll ask him -- he would probably know.

 

I thought at first it might have been me -- I did bring the AJ north at least for one summer and the SJ RW for another. We do play shows there some -- always with a pickup band -- but I am quite certain I did not take the AJ on stage.

 

There is an AJ in (I think) Montreal. Both that AJ and ours came from South Africa -- a lot of great Gibson guitars and banjos went there in the 30s. They were doing well while the rest of the world was not. The owner sent me a wonderful picture of a pool party in South Africa where both guitars were being played. You can't make this stuff up -- no one would believe you.

 

Where do you live. Our old family house is in Shelburne (Jordan Falls).

 

We don't always carry instruments to Canada -- sometimes we fly. We keep instruments there in foster care for the winter -- good vintage instruments, but not pristine collector pieces. One that stays is a refin 44 J-45.

-- half of my daughters group "Dead Girl Songs." [For guitar geeks, I am playing a 35 Jumbo and the lead guitar player (Tony Watt) is playing a 37 D-18]

 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C1eekhERxBs

 

Best,

 

-Tom

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Now that Tom has made the case for the legendary Gibson rosewood slope-J's, it would be nice if Gibson would step up to the plate for a guitar to celebrate them. Yes, I know we already have the AJ, which appears to be under-appreciated by the market.

 

But how about a near-repro of Tom's batch 910 rosewood SJ?Specs could be really simple, and would not need to be absolutely "pure" in order to control costs.IR back and sides (Madagascar if you wanted to blow the budget out, but since the original is probably IR, I could live with the IR)torrefied Adi top with hide-glued torrefired adi bracingscalloped advanced top bracing19-fret neck, no fretboard binding

vintage-style full-C neck profile (nut could be standard modern width)belly-down bridge with slot-through saddlebone nut and saddlecelluloid vintage-style pickguardopen-back vintage-style tunerswider multi-ply top and back bindingThis wouldn't necessarily be as good as Tom's SJ, but it might be as close as we mere mortals could hope for. I could probably find a couple of guitars to part with in order to buy one.

I didn't spec out the SC model closely but it seemed cover a lot of the bases.
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Now that Tom has made the case for the legendary Gibson rosewood slope-J's, it would be nice if Gibson would step up to the plate for a guitar to celebrate them. Yes, I know we already have the AJ, which appears to be under-appreciated by the market....

Well, I wouldn't recommend loaning Gibson a guitar for the project ... :)

 

Here is my comparison of a rosewood littermate to Tom's batch 910 SJ (which I had on hand for x-raying and CT-scanning) and my own batch 2735 mahogany SJ:

 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zb-mGfC-vfI

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