Posted by Adam Levy
Gibson issued its first J-35 model in 1936. The curvaceous flattop delivered rich sound, bore a clean look with a minimum of cosmetic frills, and its initial $35 price tag was an appealing selling point. Compared to Gibson’s similarly proportioned Jumbo model, priced at $60, the J-35 was a budget-wise buy. (Remember, the Great Depression was in full swing by the mid ’30s.) The J-35 became one of Gibson’s most popular prewar flattops and remained in production until 1942, when it was replaced by the J-45. The company recently reintroduced the J-35 to its Gibson Acoustic line, which is built in Bozeman, Montana, and today’s J-35 has all the sonic and aesthetic charm of its ancestor, and is once again priced competitively.
While the current J-35 has its roots in the classic 1936 design, it’s not intended to be an exact spec-for-spec replica of the original model or its subsequent refinements. It’s more an amalgam of vintage details. Perhaps inspired by the 1939 edition, the neck and heel of the new J-35 have rounded profiles—unlike the V-shaped neck and pointier “French heel” on the first J-35s. The mahogany back and sides of the J-35 we received for review are a pale reddish-brown, like those of the earliest models—whereas the back and sides were typically stained a darker brown on later examples. One particularly interesting design detail of this modern J-35 is the “Only a Gibson Is Good Enough” banner emblazoned on the headstock beneath the old-style script Gibson logo. No prewar J-35s would have had this banner, though it was featured on the 1942 J-45, and some other Gibson flattops, through 1945. It may not be “correct,” but it adds a touch of class.
In the original J-35 construction, the rectangular bridge was affixed with two small screws that went through the top—and the interior bridge plate—on either side of the E-string bridge pins. These screws were then covered with mother-of-pearl dots. Though no screws are used in the bridge assemblage of the new J-35, pearloid dots remain as a nod to the look of the original. The white/black/white rosette is another remnant of the first J-35s, as is the unique pickguard shape. The back is bound in a single ply—a feature Gibson first added to its 1937 edition. Today’s top has multi-ply binding, while original models were single-ply bound.
The build quality was very high on the review guitar. Each element looked good, and the whole had been assembled tightly and cleanly. The finish on the unbound fingerboard appeared a little inconsistent at the end—where it overlays the guitar’s top. Other than that, I could find no cosmetic hitches.
Full-Bodied and Dynamic
After giving the new J-35 a proper look-see, it was time to start kicking the tires, so to speak. The guitar seemed to be a natural born strummer, so I improvised a folky Neil Young–style chord progression, experimenting with different picks (nylon, Delrin, and faux-tortoiseshell celluloid, in various gauges). Each pick brought out a subtle variation of the J-35’s voice, but its inherent warmth always came across. The sound was full-bodied with plenty of harmonic detail across the dynamic spectrum—from murmur quiet to cannon loud.
To explore the J-35’s tender side, I fingerpicked renditions of James Taylor’s “Shower the People” and “Fire and Rain.” (Taylor favored a Gibson J-50 early in his career.) This led me to second-guess my initial impression of the guitar. It’s great for strumming, yes, but it’s a righteous fingerpicker too. In open position or capoed anywhere up the neck, it sounded like a record. That is, it seemed to be benefiting from a touch of top-quality EQ and compression when played acoustically. Playing JT-style hammer-ons and pull-offs within chord shapes felt luxurious, thanks to the J-35’s remarkable sustain.
The J-35 comes equipped with an L.R. Baggs Element undersaddle pickup and preamp system, which includes a small, soundhole-mounted volume control and is powered by a single nine-volt battery affixed to the neck block. I plugged the guitar into a few small amps and was pleased to find that its natural sonorities were well represented in the resulting amplified sound with no major EQ tweaks. Then I plugged the Gibson into my laptop—via an Apogee Jam interface—to see how it fared for direct recording. As is, with no EQ or other effects added, the sound was reasonably balanced and clear. There was more low-end rumble than would be usable on most recordings, so I applied a high-pass filter to quell the big bottom (with a rolloff at 150 Hz) and a parametric EQ to focus the low mids (175 Hz, -4 dB). EQ is highly subjective, of course. Choices will depend upon the voice of the guitar, the other instruments in the mix, and the desired quality of sound overall. Suffice it to say, the Element’s direct sound would be a useful recording resource alone or in conjunction with an external studio-quality microphone.
A Classic Redefined
With its attractive prewar styling and period-inspired construction, the Gibson J-35 is easy to love. It would make a great choice for a modern-day troubadour, old-time revivalist, or anyone else who likes their guitars with broad curves and lavish tones. It can’t be bought for $35 anymore, but with a street price at about $500 less than Gibson’s comparable J-45 Standard, it’s still a relative bargain.
SPECS: Slope-shoulder 16-inch-wide flattop with 14-fret neck. Solid Sitka spruce top with scalloped X-bracing. Solid mahogany back and sides. Mahogany neck. Dovetail neck joint bonded with hide glue. Unbound rosewood fingerboard with 12-inch radius. Tusq nut and compensated Tusq saddle. 24.75-inch scale length. 1.725-inch nut width. 2 7/32-inch string spacing at saddle. Nitrocellulose lacquer finish. Vintage-style nickel-plated tuners, 15:1 ratio, with white plastic buttons. Active L.R. Baggs Element pickup system. Gibson light-gauge strings. Made in USA.
PRICE: $2,190 list/$1,699 street.
MAKER: Gibson Acoustic: 1-800-4GIBSON; gibson.com.
TEJA GERKEN:This J-35 shows why Gibson’s short-scale slope-shoulder dreadnoughts have been popular with players of all stripes for almost eight decades. It’s responsive enough to sound great when played fingerstyle (yielding an excellent country-blues type fingerpicking tone), but not so delicate that it can’t take a heavy pick attack. The guitar produces the classic “dry” Gibson sound when strummed, and it has the uncomplicated clarity you hope for in a mahogany dreadnought. With a street price of well under $2,000, this J-35 brings real working-player’s value back to a US-made instrument.
SCOTT NYGAARD: Gibson’s J-35 may have once been an affordable model, but vintage specimens these days can run up to five figures. The importance of the Gibson slope-shoulder dreadnought sound and style, however, is proven by how many small manufacturers and luthiers offer their own versions of the J-35 and J-45. What impressed me most about Gibson’s “reissue” was its clarity and liveliness. Our review instrument did not sound like a typical new guitar: flatpicked melodies across its entire range leaped out of the instrument, tonally balanced but with impressive power, and open-position strumming and bass lines were crisp, bright, and muscular.