Sunday, March 6, 2011

James Taylor's Gibson J-50 - J-45 with Natural Finish

"Oh, I've seen fire and I've seen rain. I've seen sunny days that I thought would never end..."

Taylors J-50 with
no pickguard
James Taylor was probably around 18 or 19 years old when he penned the lyrics for his 1970 hit, Fire and Rain. The  Massachusetts born Taylor was living in London when he brought some demo tapes to Peter Asher. At the time Asher was the record producer for the Beatles' Apple label and formerly a recording star in his own right with Peter and Gordon.

During these early years Taylor relied on a Gibson J-50 guitar. Many of his most famous hits featured this instrument.

The Gibson J-50 is the natural top version of Gibson's J-45 model. The  Gibson J-45 was introduced in 1942 and as many Gibson guitars, its model number reflected its original price, which was $45.

This guitar was designed to compete with Martin's dreadnought - D series flat top guitars. Where Martin's model featured squared shoulders, this Gibson model was more sloped and rounded.

Gibson J-45

The J-45 was an updated version of Gibson's J-35 1930's guitar. Gibson had changed the bracing in the J-45 by using 1" struts to strengthen it and updated the neck to a more rounded shape, though some early models have a slight V shape. All of the J-35 neck were V shaped. This was common in older instruments to prevent the neck from warping.

The logo on the J-45 and J-50 was a Gibson decal, where the J-35 logo was silk-screen on the headstock. Both featured the Gibson motto, "Only A Gibson Is Good Enough" until 1946, when the motto was removed. The logo was script style through 1948 when it became the more familiar block style lettering.

The J-45 featured mother of pearl position markers on its rosewood fretboard.

The guitars top was made of solid red spruce, which was updated to Adirondack spruce in 1943. Some early examples had mahogany tops, as spruce was restricted to building airplanes during WWII.

The back and sides were solid mahogany, although some earlier models featured laminated backs and sides. Later models featured a black strip in the center of the back between the two book-matched sides. Earlier models did not have this embellishment.

The necks on the original J-45's were made of mahogany, but within a year changed to maple with strips of walnut.

The necks were huge due to the fact this was a war year guitar and did not have a truss rod, as metal was scarce and used only for the war effort. The guitars laminated maple and walnut neck gave it added strength. By 1945 the neck was once again being made of mahogany.

The strip style tuners were made by Kluson.

The neck block on the first models was made of poplar and beveled. Gibson soon made them of mahogany which was not beveled.

The rosette was simple multi layered binding. The binding around the top consisted of seven layers, while the back was only one layer. The unbound neck featured 19 frets.

The bridge appears to be rosewood and originally was rectangular with black pins. In 1950 this was changed to a belly style bridge and the pins were now white.

In 1947 Gibson introduced the J-50, at a higher price. The J-45 sunburst model could hide blemishes in the spruce top, but a natural top needed to be perfect. Because of the scarcity of spruce during the war years, it was all but impossible to find perfect spruce.

By 1950 the neck featured 20 frets.

In 1956 Gibson added an adjustable bridge feature as an option. In 1961 it became standard. This was featured on other Gibson models as well. Many players believe this bridge literally killed the tone from the guitars.

The original pick guards were made of celluloid tortoise shell material and the shape has changed slightly during the years. In 1955 they were slightly larger.

In 1963 the pick guards were made using an injected molding technique and were much thinner. For reasons unknown, in 1968 the pick guards were screwed into the top instead of being glued.

1969 J-45
In 1969 the J-45 and J-50 changed to a square shouldered shape. The J-45 and J-50 models were discontinued in 1982. Gibson made another run in 1984 for a year. 1984 was the year that Gibson left Kalamazoo and opened up shop in Nashville Tennessee and Bozeman Montana. The J-45/J-50 was again in production in 1990 through 1995. Then Gibson re-introduced the guitars again in 1999 and they are currently in production, although the street price is no longer $45. A new sunburst Gibson J-45 will set you back 2,400 US dollars. It is available by special order in a natural finish for the same price, but is no longer called the J-50, but the J-45 natural finish.  The current models come with a L.R. Baggs acoustic pickup.

I'd like to think that much of James Taylor's sound came from his J-50, but like most players, his sound comes from his personal style of playing. His finger style playing method approached the guitar like it was a piano by using his thumb for the bass keys and his fingers for the treble.

Taylor has retired the J-50 and now favors guitars made by luthier James Olson.

One other notable J-50 player was Bob Dylan.


Acoustic Picker said...

Great post Marc. New to blogging myself, but here is my recent JT guitar post:

Best, Eric

Vintagelicks said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Vintagelicks said...

James Taylor takes us on a rare tour of his guitar vault.

Dwight Morgan said...

A bit of a correction, the j-45 also came in natural top finish as the J-50 did. I own my fathers' 1963 J-50 and purchased a brand new J-45 in 1984 directly from my Gibson rep when I was a dealer, in natural, Both great guitars!