Sometimes when you pick up a steel-string, you know immediately that you’re holding an extraordinary instrument—a guitar that just seems to vibrate excellence even before you play your first note. I’ve had that feeling with a handful of vintage instruments and a few new ones over years of playing and geeking out, and each left a lasting impression. The new Collings CJ-45 T is one that I’m going to remember long after I reluctantly return it to its builders. It radiated excellence from the moment I opened the case, beheld the guitar’s beautiful sunburst finish, and wrapped my hand around its ample neck. With this new addition to Collings’ Traditional series, the Austin-based guitar maker reconsidered its slope-shouldered dreadnought and delivered a new instrument that shows how much can be achieved with a mix of CNC manufacturing, handcrafting, and vision.
A Nod to History
Collings’ CJ series is inspired by the slope-shouldered designs unveiled in the mid-1930s in response to the introduction of Martin’s dreadnought at the beginning of that decade. While the Collings CJ-45 T is not an attempt to re-create one particular vintage instrument, it channels several distinctive features of early slope-shouldered models and funnels them through Collings’ meticulous attention to materials, construction, and finishing, while adding plenty of new touches and ideas. The result is a guitar that stands apart from anything else Collings currently offers.
The company’s Traditional series uses select woods, different internal construction, and a thin nitrocellulose finish, among other specs, to accentuate midrange fundamentals and clear trebles in a guitar that has a more broken-in feel than those in Collings’ standard series. The CJ-45 T has a Sitka spruce top with Sitka spruce bracing (and uses two scalloped tone bars), tall and thin bracing on the Honduran mahogany back and sides, a large wartime neck carve, and Collings’ exceptional finishing and setup.
The neck’s large, round shape and 1-3/4-inch-wide nut are meant to capture the meaty profile of prized prewar guitars. In this age of vintage-correct shapes, the CJ-45 T’s neck stands out with a nearly one-inch thickness at the first fret, and for some players, its robust shape may be a “love me or leave me” feature. I can’t think of another new guitar that felt so made for my hands, and I’m crazy for it, so count me in the “love me” crowd. It felt like the best of a substantial vintage neck, but with all the benefits of a brand-new guitar—like a functional truss rod, exceptional fretwork, and no capo damage on the back of the neck.
Exceptional Old-Timey Sound
The CJ-45 T’s features all add up to a guitar with robust and defined bass, clear trebles, and a thick midrange that exudes warmth when flatpicked or fingerpicked. Though my tester was (naturally) brand-new, from its first notes it had an old-timey sound that was exceptionally rich with fundamentals and dreadnought warmth. And the tone only improved over the weeks I played it. Each chord’s notes rang clearly, and they worked so well together that I just wanted to play in C and G all day long. But as delightful as playing cowboy chords was for me, this guitar can definitely handle much more, from the punch and bounce of swing comping to fluid Tony Rice-inspired solo lines.
Dynamically, the CJ-45 T felt like it had an enormous amount of headroom on tap, ably handling the hard-hit notes with as much clarity, definition, punch, and warmth (there’s that word again) as the delicately subtle notes. This gave solos tremendous expressiveness along with the ability to just keep getting louder without compressing. As a short-scale dreadnought with a wide neck, the CJ-45 T is a great vehicle for fingerpicking. Playing it solo, I treasured its definition, clarity, and dynamic ability in standard and open tunings. It’s the sort of guitar that not only makes everything sound better but also feel better.
On the Gig
I took the CJ-45 T to a gig where a few other guitarists checked it out. While players and audience members agreed that the guitar sounded good flatpicked and fingerpicked, its neck carve was polarizing among the guitarists. The ragtime fingerpicker loved the picking- and fretting-hand spacing and the neck’s full, hand-supporting shape as he worked up and down the neck. Next, we passed it to a hot bluegrass picker. We jammed on “Lost Indian” as I accompanied him on a vintage Gibson L-5, and his solos on the Collings showed off its ability to produce powerful lows and singing woody highs, along with a volume that had no trouble flying over the rhythm guitar. A third player quickly decided that the neck shape was not for him, despite appreciating the tone and workmanship.
While dreadnoughts often leave me wanting something more tonally balanced and physically comfortable to play, the neck and the depth and warmth of the Collings CJ-45 T captivated me. I could—and did—play this guitar for hours without feeling uncomfortable. After hearing it fingerpicked and flatpicked by other players, I know I wouldn’t tire of listening to its expressive sounds, either. At $6,400, the CJ-45 T has an entry fee that will keep it out of the hands of many players, but it rewards listeners and players with a singularly satisfying sound. And it sure looks good.
- BODY 14-fret slope-shouldered dreadnought shape; Sitka spruce top with scalloped Sitka spruce braces; solid Honduran mahogany back and sides; ebony straight bridge with bone cut-through saddle and 2-5/16″ spacing; ivoroid plastic binding, bridge pins, and endpin; tortoise pattern pickguard; high-gloss nitrocellulose lacquer finish
- NECK 24-7/8″-scale Honduran mahogany with CJ-45 wartime neck carve; adjustable truss rod; mortise-and-tenon hybrid neck joint; 19 nickel-silver frets; Indian rosewood fingerboard with 12″ radius and mother-of-pearl long-dot pattern fingerboard inlay; 1-3/4″ bone nut; haircut headstock shape with ebony overlay and mother-of-pearl logo
- OTHER Waverly nickel 16:1 tuners with ivoroid buttons; D’Addario EJ17 strings (.013–.056); deluxe TKL/Collings hardshell case; left-handed available
- MADE IN U.S.A.
- PRICE $6,400 street
This article originally appeared in the September/October 2021 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.