Over the years I have owned and played dozens of acoustic guitars from Martin and Taylor, as well as lesser known names, and many of them have been very good instruments. But I have never actually played a Gibson acoustic before – I do not know how this happened! Anyway, I recently came across a pretty nice Gibson J-35, and figured I would pass my thoughts along to my loyal readers.
The flattop J-35 has been around since before WWII, with the original being introduced in 1935 when it cost a whopping $35, which made it a fairly good deal in the Gibson line-up. This price point was a wise choice (the Great Depression, remember?), and it was a top seller for the Kalamazoo, Michigan company until the model was retired and the J-45 took its place. Never one to kick a winner (though they do beat a few to death), Gibson has re-issued the J-35, this time with its production based in Bozeman, Montana.
I have never played one of the pre-war J-35 guitars, so I have no idea how to compare the two. But chances are good that you never played one either, so I will stick with describing what I have in front of me, and this steel string round shoulder dreadnought is a cannon.
The J-35 is handmade of all good stuff, and woods are a good place to start. The back and sides are solid mahogany, and the top is solid Sitka spruce. No laminates are being used here, folks. The body is sprayed with nitrocellulose lacquer, so you do not get the strangling effect of a poly finish, and they did not stain the body dark, so it has a pale reddish color. It is kind of cool looking, I guess, and supposedly the originals were like this. The body measures about 16-inches wide, so it is big but not too huge. There is a bit of ornamentation to found, with multi-ply binding, a tasteful rosette, little MOP dots on the rosewood bridge and a kind of bizarre tiger-stripe pickguard. I am not totally sold on the latter.
The neck is also mahogany, and it has a rosewood fretboard. Why is it that Gibson has to use a goofy rosewood substitute on their Les Pauls, and the cheaper J-35 gets real rosewood? I don’t get it. Anyway, it is a 24.75-inch scale neck with a 1.725-inch wide nut and a 12-inch fretboard radius. There are dot inlays in that fretboard as well as 19 frets, 14 of which are free of the body. The fretboard is unbound, in case that makes a difference to you. At the headstock there are vintage-style nickel tuners, and at either end of the scale you will find a Tusq nut and compensated saddle.
Examining the J-35 as a whole, I have to say that Gibson got the vintage look right. It is simple, the color and shape are right, and it is just a cool-looking instrument. A nice touch is the “Only a Gibson Is Good Enough” and old-style script Gibson logo on the headstock. I do not know if these were on the originals, but it sure looks cool and I would happy to be seen with this instrument on stage.
Gibson touts that this is handmade using vintage techniques, and this is true. Hide glue was used for the dovetail neck joint and everywhere else, apparently, because I see gooey trails of it all over the place inside the body cavity, mostly around the crudely cut braces and backstrap (ooh! Scalloped X-bracing!). If that is their idea of vintage techniques, I think I will go with the modern techniques instead, thanks. Their buddies in El Cajon and Nazareth do not have these kinds of problems. That being said, nothing is loose inside this guitar, and there probably never will be.
Let’s forget abut that for now and get on with what it is like to play this thing, and how it sounds…
The J-35 is a joy to hold, and it is very comfortable to play. The round shoulder profile makes It easy for most folks to hold, and it would be comfortable for extended sessions. The neck and heel profile is rounded, which is a departure from the pronounced V on many vintage re-issue acoustics. I like either the V or rounded profiles – I am not super-picky and there are advantages to both. This acoustic will not kill your wrists.
I got this guitar with the original Gibson light-gauge strings and set-up, and frankly I was not expecting much in the playability department. After years of trying brand-new Les Pauls with uneven frets and lumpy fretboards, I figured this one would not be any better. I was wrong, and this J-35 had a great set-up and intonation right out of the box, and it is an equally great strumming guitar of fingerpicking machine. It is truly a joy to play. Maybe there is a little something to the vintage construction techniques after all. Heaven forbid that Gibson ever sends the Les Paul-building robot to Montana.
The sound has got it going on too! It is ungodly loud, but it has a sweet and rich tone with a lot of cool harmonics. It has a lot of complexity that can be brought out by using different pick or pressures, and I really like it a lot. The volume was also quite even from string to string, which is a must-have for any acoustic that is going to stick around my studio for a while. This would be a great folk, country, or even blues acoustic, and it will only get better as the top ages and it opens up a little.
But that is not all, as you can also plug the Gibson J-35 in, which obviously was not an option on the factory originals. For the 2014 version they spec’d out an L.R. Baggs Element undersaddle pickup and preamplifier system with a small, soundhole-mounted volume control and a single nine-volt battery stuck to the neck block. This pickup reminds me of why mahogany acoustics are suck good recording guitars, as it does not come off as shrill when going into the mixing board, and just a tad of EQ tames that fat bottom. Running it through my Fender Acoustasonic combo amp was also a pleasurable experience, and this could be the perfect coffee house gig guitar.
Compared to other acoustics in Gibson’s stable, the J-35 is still a good deal ($500 cheaper than a J-45), but it is not cheap. It has a list price of $2190, and a street price of $1699, which includes a sweet hard case. Though it is a good-sounding instrument, its ho-hum internal construction might make you consider Taylor and Martin’s catalogs, as they really have the art of guitar making figured out. So the answer is to go with the tone you like best, as all three makers have got it in spades, but they are all a little different. Compare them and see for yourself!