By Adam Perlmutter
Spending a few minutes with Gibson’s J-45 Vintage, it’s easy to understand why this guitar is known affectionately as the Workhorse. It’s got a brawny, but balanced voice and is just as friendly to fingerpicking as it is to flatpicking. This iteration, introduced as part of Gibson’s 2016 lineup, that also includes a Hummingbird Vintage, L-00 Vintage, and SJ-200 Vintage, is particularly strong in the departments of warmth, resonance, and projection. In fact, it just might be the most satisfying modern J-45 I’ve auditioned, not to mention one of the finest recent production-model acoustics in general.
The J-45, which was introduced in 1942 and has been offered continually since, takes its model number from its initial price tag of $45 ($657.42 in today’s money). This no-frills, slope-shouldered dreadnought has long been Gibson’s most popular flattop as well as the benchmark for so many other makers, and it’s been played by everyone from Buddy Holly to Woody Guthrie.
Overall, the J-45 Vintage is a faithful recreation of the earliest iteration of the J-45, with its banner headstock, silkscreened with the phrase “Only a Gibson is Good Enough.” To capture the brilliant voice of the original, Gibson used an Adirondack or red-spruce top, thermally cured for sonic enhancement and structural stability, along with hide glue on the top bracing and neck joint. This adhesive, used on Golden-Era instruments, is thought to better transfer sound than modern glue.
Some skeptical guitarists might see phrases like “thermally cured” and “hide glue” as mere marketing tools, but there’s no denying that the J-45 Vintage has a full, rich voice with excellent definition and note separation. When I play it in the Carter style, I’m struck both by the depth of the bass notes and the crispness of the chordal accents. When I pick some G runs, I’m taken with the string-to-string balance and the thickness of the single notes.
Subjected to fingerpicking, the J-45 Vintage is just as responsive to a gentle touch as it is to a forceful attack—the notes ring together with great clarity in standard tuning as well as DADGAD, open-G, and even open-C. No matter the tuning, the guitar never tends toward murkiness, and its warm resonance and dynamic nature make everything from ragtime to Celtic fare pleasurable to run through.
Better Than the Original
Original J-45s are known for their playability, but the J-45 Vintage is an even better player than any early example I’ve come across. The moderately large C shaped neck is easy to zip around on, thanks to low action and softened fingerboard edges, which also give the guitar a broken-in feel. The intonation is perfect and so is the fretwork, which has received a Plek treatment, or computerized leveling. There aren’t any buzzing sounds or unwanted transient noises anywhere on the neck.
The rest of our test model is as clean as the fretwork. The binding and inlay work is meticulous, and so are tricky areas like the finish about the neck-to-body junction. Inside the box, the braces are smoothly shaped and sanded and there aren’t any artifacts from the manufacturing process. While the guitar is lightweight at three pounds, 11 ounces, it feels sturdy and built to last.
The J-45 Vintage looks almost as good as it plays and sounds, but it’s not a perfect doppelgänger of a 1940s example. The sunburst finishes on the original J-45s tend to have more gradation in color, ranging from a deep brown at the edges to a warm amber in the center, while the ’burst on the J-45 Vintage is more subtle and seems overly dark.
Then there’s the relic treatment. While the dulled nickel tuners and their screws do look convincingly old, the VOS (vintage original spec) finish on the neck and body looks and feels not so much aged as dulled, dissimilar to the finish on a 70-year-old guitar, which tends to take on a complex topography as the result of lacquer checking and wear. On the plus side, the J-45 Vintage’s nitrocellulose finish is appropriately thin and you can practically feel the grain on the soundboard.
If our J-45 Vintage test model is any indication, Gibson is making some of the best flattops in its long history—guitars that sound convincingly like their legendary wartime counterparts, but play even better. With a street price of around four grand, the J-45 Vintage isn’t exactly the workingman’s guitar that it was originally intended to be. But, considering that a 1940s example in good condition can go for thousands more, it’s a relative bargain.
Solid thermally cured Adirondack spruce top
Solid mahogany back and sides
Vintage Sunburst hand-rubbed VOS finish
Vintage-style nickel tuners
Hand-rubbed VOS finish
Care kit with Masterbuilt Premium 80/20 bronze wound strings (12–53), plectrums, leather keychain, and Gibson Acoustic sticker
Lifetime limited warranty
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$5,190 list/$3,999 street
Made in the USA.