The special Woody Guthrie version of the Gibson Southern Jumbo is an authentic and a handsome guitar based on Woody’s 1945 guitar
The 100th birthday of Woody Guthrie in 2012 has given people a chance to revisit one of America’s enduring icons of folk music.
The man who wrote and sang “This Land is Your Land” was an inspiration to Bob Dylan and a generation of singers and songwriters.
As part of my journey in the Woody Guthrie 100th Birthday quest, I got to research the guitars that Woody Guthrie played. I also was fortunate to audition the Gibson recreation of Woody Guthrie’s 1945 Southern Jumbo.
I like the guitar so much I bought one four months ago and will share what I learned along the way. The purchase decision was based on decades of wanting to replace my old Gibson J-45 and the cool factor in owning a quality replica of Woody Guthrie’s guitar.
Gibson Woody Guthrie SJ
The Southern Jumbo is a dressed up Gibson J-45 – the mahogany body, spruce top, sloped shoulder jumbo that was called the “working-man’s” guitar selling for $45 when it was released. When I bought a J-45 about 1970, they were only $250 but then I was only earning $70 a week so it seemed expensive.
The J-45 is probably the best known rhythm guitar in folk and country music. Gibson modified the dreadnought guitar to their own style. It has a unique warm, full tone with rich harmonics. It plays loud picked or strummed and can take a fair amount of abuse.
The Southern Jumbo that Woody Guthrie bought in 1945 has a little more flash than a standard J-45. Gibson collaborated with Arlo Guthrie, Woody’s son, to recreate that guitar.
It is somewhat ironic that when Woody and Cisco Houston headed to the music store, they put down their hard-earned money from the Merchant Marine on flashy guitars. For most of his career, Woody had played on loaner and cheap guitars.
It has a double ring rosette around the sound hole, parallelogram fingerboard inlays, a dark tiger-stripped pick guard, and 15:1 Gotoh tuners.
The neck is V-shaped and like all guitars a matter of personal taste. Every guitar I own has a different neck radius. I had no trouble adjusting to the difference and find it a pleasure to play.
The Woodie Guthrie SJ has an antique finish that looks old out of the case.The finish is nitro-cellulose but Gibson does not add the last high-gloss coat and buffing. I like the look but again it’s a matter of taste. Check out the picture at the top of the story for a close-up of the finish.
The table at the end of this story details the differences between this guitar and the J-45 and they are slight. Some online comments think Gibson puts a little more into this guitar than usual which intrigued me.
Fit and Finish
There is a “myth or reality” knock against Gibson acoustic guitars that they vary in quality. I had two different Woody Guthrie SJ’s before I bought one and they were essentially identical. They did vary slightly in tone and I will post audio samples in the next article.
To test the variable quality myth, I took the first guitar to Denis Larocque of Real Instruments, a luthier to professional musicians. Denis was pleasantly surprised at the build and finish quality of the Gibson Woody Guthrie.
Denis said he would give the guitar an overall 9 out of 10 for fit and finish. The workmanship was “not sloppy” although he didn’t like the pickup wire glued to the back of the guitar. He also wondered why they covered the rosette with the pick guard.
The guitar had a “balanced tone”, said Denis and the saddle placement was perfect. The neck was dovetailed, he liked that, and the neck set angle was just right for reducing unnecessary pressure on the neck, bridge and top
He also noted the guitar had less sustain than a rosewood body guitar and I agree with him there. The Woody Guthrie will sustain on a chord strum for 8-10 seconds, which is why it is a great rhythm guitar. When the rhythm guitarist is strumming 60 times a minute for a 4/4 time at 120 bpm, you don’t want the guitar ringing forever.
The mahogany body and spruce top delivery decent sustain on finger-picking, although I prefer one of my Martin’s for that style.
The Woody Guthrie SJ has plenty of volume picked or strummed. The tone is warm, round and full, just what you expect from a Gibson dreadnought.
Plugged in, the pick up works amazingly well. L.R. Baggs Element Active Acoustic Pickup System has an under-saddle pickup, end-pin preamp and volume control that makes the guitar sound close to the acoustic sound. The LR Baggs system is good enough for recording unless you are going to mic it with sensitive condenser mics.
In the next article I will post sample recordings of the guitar, along with a reference recording of a Martin D-35.
In the end, any guitar has to feel and sound right for you. Most of the on-line reviews of this have been very positive. For me, the Woody Guthrie SJ is the perfect replacement for my old J-45.
The street price for this guitar is between $2,430 and $2,450. Amazon.com sources it from 6 major vendors in that price range.
Gibson Woody Guthrie SJ and J-45 feature-by-feature
Differences are noted in bold italics.
|Body||Woody Guthrie SJ||J-45|
|Body Style||Round Shoulder||Round Shoulder|
|Top Species||AA-grade Sitka spruce||AA-grade Sitka Spruce|
|Back and Sides||Honduran mahogany||Pattern grade Honduran mahogany|
|Binding||Multi-ply Top, Single Ply Back||Multi-ply Top, Single Ply Back|
|Bracing||X-Bracing, variable hand-scalloped, and radiused||X-Bracing, variable hand-scalloped, and radiused|
|Rosette||Double Ring||Multi-ply Single Ring|
|Bridge||Rosewood Belly Down||Rosewood Belly Up|
|Bridge Inlay||Mother of Pearl Dots||Mother of Pearl Dots|
|Tuners||Gotoh Nickel White Button 3-In-Line||Nickel Grover Rotomatics|
|Pickguard||Firestripe Teardrop||Tortoise Teardrop|
|Pickups||L.R. Baggs Element||L.R. Baggs Element|
|Profile||Traditional V||Comfort Contour Neck|
|Angle||3 Degrees||3 Degrees|
|Peghead Angle||17 Degrees||17 Degrees|
|Peghead Inlay||Gold Logo and Banner Decal||Mother of Pearl Logo|
|Joint||14th Fret||14th Fret|
|Inlays||MOP Parallelograms||MOP Dots|
|Number of Frets||20||20|
|Case Exterior||Black w/Logo||Black w/Logo|
|Finish||Antique Natural Sunburst||Vintage Sunburst|
Links to Gibson.com