The special Gibson Woody Guthrie Southern Jumbo is an authentic and a handsome guitar based on Woody’s 1945 guitar

Gibson Woody Guthrie SJ (Stephen Pate/NJN photo)

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 researched 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 Gibson Woody Guthrie SJ so much I bought one four months ago and will share what I learned along the way.

The 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 (Gibson photo)

Gibson Woody Guthrie Southern Jumbo

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 my first decent guitar it was a 1960 Gibson J-45.  They were only $250. I was only earning $70 a week so it seemed expensive.

Neck and headstock of the Woody Guthrie SJ (Gibson photo)

The Gibson J-45 is probably the best known rhythm guitar in folk and country music.

Gibson modified the Martin-designed 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.

The Gibson Woody Guthrie Southern Jumbo 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 Woody 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.

Woody Guthrie SJ 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.

Gibson Woody Guthrie SJ body (photo Gibson)

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 SJ 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 Gibson Woody Guthrie SJ.

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 Gibson Woody Guthrie SJ is the perfect replacement for my old J-45.

The street price for the Woody Guthrie Southern Jumbo 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
Hardware
Bridge Rosewood Belly Down Rosewood Belly Up
Bridge Pins White White
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
Neck
Species Mahogany Mahogany
Profile Traditional V Comfort Contour Neck
Scale 24-3/4″ 24-3/4″
Angle 3 Degrees 3 Degrees
Peghead Angle 17 Degrees 17 Degrees
Peghead Inlay Gold Logo and Banner Decal Mother of Pearl Logo
Nut Bone Black Graphtech
Nut Width 1.725″ 1.725″
Joint 14th Fret 14th Fret
Fretboard    
Species Rosewood Indian Rosewood
Inlays MOP Parallelograms MOP Dots
Number of Frets 20 20
Miscellaneous
Case Exterior Black w/Logo Black w/Logo
Case Interior Blue Blue
Finish Antique Natural Sunburst Vintage Sunburst
Street pirce $2,450 $2,450

Links to Gibson.com

Gibson Woody Guthrie SJ

Gibson J-45