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20 Essential Facts About the Gibson J-200

Michael Leonard
|
01.23.2012

Ask a guitarist to name the ultimate Gibson acoustic, and many will reply – it’s the J-200. Elegant and flamboyantly curvaceous even by Gibson’s top-line standards, the J-200 has found fame in the hands of numerous legends: Elvis Presley, John Lennon, Pete Townshend, Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Jimmy Page, Neil Young and The Edge, to name but a few. Heck, even kids’ TV cowboy Rex Traylor played a J-200.

The J-200 entered production in 1937, and continues to this day as one of the most-desirable guitars in history. The J-200 is known as the “king of the flat-tops” for good reason.

Here are 20 essential facts (and trivia) about a guitar that simply conveys: now, this is a Gibson.

1. In 1938, the guitar was launched as the Super Jumbo, Gibson’s top-of-the-line flat-top guitar. Made at Gibson’s famous factory in Kalamazoo, Michigan, it boasted a super-large 16-7/8” flat-top body, with a double-braced red spruce top, rosewood back and sides, and initially only a sunburst finish. Given the weak, post-Depression economy and upcoming wartime austerity, the ornate Super Jumbo was initially produced in very limited, made-to-order quantities.  

2. In 1939 it was renamed the Super Jumbo 200. As with Gibson’s model-numbering practices of the era, the “200” referred to its initial retail price of $200. That would be circa $3,100 in 2012. If you had the money, an extra 50 bucks got your name inlaid along the fretboard. Bling!

3. The original Super Jumbo 200 was super rare – records suggest that in the first four years before the U.S’s involvement in World War II, Gibson shipped only 100 SJ-200s.

4. It was 1947 when the tonewoods changed – the back and sides were now being made of maple. Soundwise, many guitar aficionados prefer maple as it allows for clearer separation of the notes. But early models made from rosewood are highly prized by acoustic guitar collectors, purely for their rarity.

5. It was 1955 when the name was simplified again: from hereon, it was mostly called the Gibson J-200. That said, the model name SJ-200 has since been used on special models.

6. What’s that guitar pictured on the album cover of Bob Dylan’s Nashville Skyline? It’s Dylan’s J-200. Dylan was given the guitar by The Beatles’ George Harrison. Dylan played the guitar live at 1969’s Isle of Wight festival in the U.K.

7. The Beatles’ George Harrison himself was keen a fan of the J-200 – he “upgraded” from the Epiphone acoustics he previously favored to record The Beatles, a.k.a. “The White Album.” “For You Blue,”  “Here Comes the Sun,”  “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”, “Long, Long, Long” and “Piggies” all feature Harrison playing one of his Gibson J-200s. Harrison also composed most songs for his solo debut, All Things Must Pass, on a Gibson J-200. Was this the very same guitar given to Dylan, and later given back? Fab Four fanatics, let us know the truth!

8. The Gibson J-200 eventually came with a “mustache” bridge. We just like that. A mustache bridge.

9. A Gibson J-200 was the defining acoustic sound of The Who’s Pete Townshend. He wrote “Pinball Wizard” on his J-200, which starred on most all recordings beginning with The Who’s Tommy album. “I picked it out from about five at Manny’s in New York in 1968,” Townshend told Gibson.com. “ It had a crisp sound and an easy neck. It was only later I found how well the J-200 records when you play it hard. Like the Everly acoustic, it has a rather dead soundboard and that allows you to really dig in when strumming. They are hard to bring to life with piezo pickups because the sound is so distinctive in real air, but the body shape, the necks and the sheer strength of the guitar are all very important to me. They also look utterly beautiful.”

10. Townshend’s favorite J-200 “exploded.” He was working on his solo album Iron Man in 1990 when disaster struck. Townshend told Guitarist magazine:  “I don’t have romantic misconceptions about musical instruments – they’re just wood, probably far more useful as pulp than anything else. There are actually a couple of instruments that I would miss, and in fact a weird thing happened to the J-200 that I’ve had for a long time. Half-way through Iron Man it got wet in the studio and exploded. It was almost like the guitar getting back at me – the only guitar I cared about dying on me!” Pete donated the original guitar to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1993. Townshend and Gibson later collaborated on his own signature model.

Pete Townshend still didn’t stop smashing J-200s, though. Watch Townshend on Letterman in 1993. Oh, Pete. Why did you do that?

11. Elvis Presley was a famous J-200 player. In October of 1956, Elvis acquired a new Gibson J-200N guitar, serial number #A22937. Elvis played the guitar for most shows in 1957.

12. Coldplay’s Chris Martin has auctioned his best-known J-200s. At the end of 2009, the U.K. band hosted an “End of Decade Clearout Sale” for members of their “Coldplaying” message boards, comprising instruments, clothes and memorabilia. Martin’s Gibson J-200 KC1, used to record “Til Kingdom Come” was auctioned for £5100; his J-200 M1 used to play another X&Y song,  “A Message,” went for £5650. The complete auction raised over $400,000 for Coldplay’s designated U.K. children’s charity, Kids Company.

13. If you want to “go large” on the already flamboyant J-200, you’ll be wanting the Gibson SJ-250 Monarch. It’s amazingly ornate, with gold-plated tuners, detailed inlays, intricate bindings and the very finest AAA tonewoods.

14. If you want to “go smaller” on a J-200, check out Emmylou Harris’s smaller Gibson L-200.  Harris played J-200s on all most of her classic albums, including Angel Band where she holds the J-200 given to her by Gram Parsons on the cover photo. The L-200 is just as nice as a J-200, but more manageable for smaller hands.

15. At the end of 2010, early J-200s came sixth on Vintage Guitar magazine’s “Most Valuable” list. Specifically, Vintage Guitar rated a 1938-42 Gibson Super Jumbo/SJ-200s at being worth between $90,000 and $120,000. The early use of rosewood = rarity.

16. The Everly Brothers played customized Gibson J-200s on breakthrough hits “Bye Bye Love” and “Wake Up Little Suzie.” In 1962, Gibson launched the Everly Brothers guitar model, a design blend of the J-200 and J-180.

17. Jimmy Page played a Gibson J-200 on most acoustic Led Zeppelin tracks. Some suggest Page “borrowed” his first J-200 from U.K. session player “Big” Jim Sullivan… in Page’s pre-Zeppelin session days, he was sometimes known as “Little” Jim, so producers knew who was booked. But Page definitely used his Gibson J-200 on Led Zeppelin cuts “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You,” “Your Time is Gonna Come” and “Black Mountain Side.”

18. Edge’s J-200 is his “bedrock” acoustic for U2 albums. The solo on “Love and Peace or Else” from How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, is a J-200 stuck through effects and played with slide.
Edge can still “busk” acoustic, though. Another Letterman performance below – even if you hate U2, this is impressive: two 40-something men in chairs + a Gibson J-200 = singing with a cowboy vibe. Bono gets his own lyrics wrong, but Edge keeps a strummin’. Rex Traylor would be proud.

19. Noel Gallagher plays a J-200. But before the royalty checks started rolling in, Gallagher wrote many songs on its more cost-conscious sibling, the Epiphone EJ-200. It was Noel’s EJ-200 used to write and record Oasis’s “Wonderwall.”

20. After all this, much credit must go to pioneer Ray Whitley. The 1930s C&W singer worked with Gibson in 1937 to help develop the SJ-200. Whitley was the first performer to own a Gibson SJ-200 and that very first SJ-200, custom built for Whitley by Gibson, remains on display in the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. Gibson is currently building a 100-only limited-edition run of SJ-200 Ray Whitley Specials. Completely hand-tooled, these SJ-200s include a diamond dotting the “i” in Gibson’s logo on the headstock and handpicked, precious gems unique to Montana, are set in each bridge pin. It looks utterly beautiful, even for an SJ-200, and is a fitting tribute. Hats off to Ray Whitley... you helped start it.

More Gibson acoustics:
John Hiatt and his J-45
20 Essential Facts About The Gibson J-180

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