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Making a beater '54 J-45 playable

Ed Zeppeli

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I've had this guitar since I was about 17 in 1989. The damage was already done and repaired at that time so I don't really have an accurate history of the guitar.

I've been told it's a 1954 but would like to confirm. I just read something about the headstock taper indicating an earlier vintage.

I realize that the pickguard, possibly the machine heads and maybe the nut and bridge are not original.

My main goal is to make this playable and enjoyable. There are no obvious rattles or weak spots on the soundboard. 

Most obvious first step would be to replace the frets but one luthier told me it may need a neck reset.

Any insight and tips would be appreciated, especially regarding year and sources for fretwire.

I can't find a serial number on it so am still unsure of exact date.


Thanks for looking.






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Look on the neckblock inside the guitar. There should at least be traces of a factory order number in this period. It is definitely no later than 1954 in any case.

The tapered headstock went out in either 1952 or 1953, I believe. The tapered headstock should be about 5/8" thick just below the E tuners, and just over 1/2" thick at the top. The bridge looks original. Drop-in saddle replaced slot-through in about 1953. The finish has obviously been stripped off the back, but the top finish looks original. Can't see the tuners to be sure.

Nut has probably been replaced. Ditto the pickguard, although the shape is correct. Pickguard material would have been dark tortoise celluloid, not black.

The guitar actually looks pretty decent. It should go to a vintage specialist luthier/repair person for repair evaluation. Typical issues with a J-45 of this vintage will be loose back/top braces and the need of a neck re-set. Bridgeplates are often chewed up as well, but these can usually be repaired rather than replaced.

J-45s from this general period can be really good guitars, but they usually need some love.  ( have two 1950 J-45s, one of which I have owned since 1966.)

Feel free to message me with any questions. J-45s from this period are a bit of an obsession for me.

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Excellent. Thanks for the reply. I'll take a measurement of the headstock taper ASAP.


Meanwhile, here are a few more photos. Tuners may not be original but I'm not sure when they put the square covers and a lubrication hole on them.


Also, I don't believe the neck block is original. Possibly put in when the repair was done but I see no indications of a serial no. or factory marking on it.

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Photos are problematic unless you use an outside hosting service. If you want to message me or send an email, do so, and I'll  send you my email address and look at your pictures. If the neckblock has been replaced, there would be no factory order number. I should be able to tell from photos what is original.

If the headstock is untapered, it will have a constant thickness of around 9/16" +.

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7 hours ago, Ed Zeppeli said:

PS. That 3-4mm taper corresponds quite well with your first post which suggested a 1/8" taper.


With the tapered headstock, and if the bridge is original, probably 1952 or maybe '53.

The date is non-critical, as the general specs of the J-45 in this period are pretty much the same. 

I don't know where you live in the world, but if you want to make the guitar truly playable, someone knowledgeable needs to go over it at and see what it will take  to make it right. The cosmetics are irrelevant, but at some point the back needs some finish on it to protect the wood. Don't do anything rash at this stage, however. It's lasted this long, and isn't likely to get any worse overnight.

Whatever you do, don't be tempted to do anything to any original finish. If you want, message me and I'll send you my email address, and you can send pictures. I'm happy to help you any way I can.

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Thanks for the kind offer. I appreciate it.

Good point about the back needing a finish.

Over the years I've taken it in to a few guitar techs here on Vancouver Island. One made the pickguard for me and the other actually recommended a neck re-set. I do see that there is not much bridge height left and the action at the 12th may be a bit high but I'll have to measure it for spec. I just haven't got that far yet.

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It's hard to evaluate the condition of the frets from that one shot, or even the height of the action. Since the nut may have been replaced, it's also possible  that the nut slots could be a bit shallow. Likewise, there may be enough saddle left to take it down a bit. You do not want the thin the height of the bridge itself, which some people due to postpone a neck re-set.

Saddles, on the other hand, are easy to replace, and sanding them down is normal practice if necessary to lower the action.

All of these things work together to determine the playability.

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