A new take on a Gibson dreadnought causes a few raised eyebrows from reviewer David Mead
In direct contrast to the incredibly ornate Bob Dylan SJ-200 we recently looked at, this guitar is from the other end of Gibson’s range of acoustics. A slope-shouldered dreadnought, the J-15 is true to the heritage of the company’s staple J-45, but with slightly reduced spec and a fairly hefty £500-£1,000 off the price, depending on the exact model ’45 you’re looking at. In addition, the woods in use here are all from mainland North America and so I’m expecting a few surprises along the way…
I love the smell of a Gibson guitar in the morning. When I opened the J-15’s case, that distinct vanilla smell filled the room. If I could award points for an instrument’s aroma, this one would already have a five!
I’m intrigued by this “all American woods” tag that Gibson has attached to this guitar. Turning it over in my hands for a quick cursory look reveals that the back definitely isn’t mahogany, as it would be with a J-45, and neither is the neck – and what have they used for the fingerboard? I’m going to have to go forensic with this one.
As it turns out, the soundboard is Sitka spruce and seeing that the city of Sitka is in Alaska, this fits in with Gibson’s “all American timbers” agenda perfectly. It looks like a very nice piece of wood, too; very ably bookmatched and displaying plenty of the patterning that many know as “feathering” as well. Behind the scenes – or under the top, at least – there’s Gibson’s standard X-bracing and back on the surface there’s a teardrop tortoiseshell pickguard, abalone rosette and multi-ply binding on offer.
Moving round to the back and sides, the J-15 features walnut, a proven tonewood and much cheaper – and less controversial – than Honduran mahogany. It’s a nice colour, too; a sort of milk chocolate, with a grain pattern that is straight on the guitar’s sides, but with a few moderate curly swirls to the back. I’ve played some great guitars that have had walnut backs; it’s an interesting wood with a set of tonal properties all of its own and it will be interesting to hear how it works out on this dread.
Gibson has abandoned mahogany for the J-15’s neck as well, substituting a single piece (apart from the usual headstock fillets) of American maple with a centre strip of walnut instead. We’re all used to seeing this particular wood used on necks from Fender, but it is something of a culture shock – for me, at least – to see it here. However, maple is a great neck wood with a reputation for strength and durability that lasts a lifetime and so all’s well in this department.
Six mini Grover machine heads deal with the guitar’s tuning and this end of the instrument is finished topside with a black fascia plus the gold coloured Gibson logo.
We’ve seen a couple of departures from the norm so far and we’re about to meet another one. Just after the Tusq nut, the J-15’s fingerboard is walnut, as opposed to the more familiar Indian rosewood or African mahogany in common use among manufacturers worldwide. I’m guessing that this keeps some sort of fidelity with the American woods plan, but I think it’s the first time I’ve ever seen walnut as a fingerboard material. It’s certainly unusual, but why not?
The J-15 has a short scale neck, in keeping with many of Gibson’s guitars, and I guess that there is probably two camps out there among players: one that prefers short scale and the other that needs the extra 16mm or so. It doesn’t matter much to me, but it’s certainly easier to bend strings on a shorter scale acoustic, if that sort of thing is important to you.
Finishing off our tour around the J-15, we return to the opposite end of the aforementioned scale length to find the bridge – and guess, what? It’s walnut. So I think it’s safe to say that I’m detecting something of a theme from Gibson here…
The neck of the J-15 feels very similar to a modern day Les Paul in that it’s not exactly chunky, but feels quite substantial in the hand. So if you own a Gibson electric guitar, you’ll probably feel immediately at home. The action is comfortable under the fingers as well and so the initial playing experience is a good one. But it was the sound that took me a little by surprise.
I don’t know exactly what I was expecting; I was trying to formulate a sound in my head, based around a walnut/spruce/maple combination, but couldn’t quite come to a conclusion. In any case, what I heard was deep, crisp and beautifully articulated chords and an exceptional response to fingerstyle. There is just about everything you need in good quantities all around: trebles are sweet, basses are full and mids are all present and correct without being in any sense overpowering. Playing with a pick produces a good amount of power, volume and sustain and the response from fingerpicking should delight any singer of songs or player of tunes in equal measure.
The J-15 is fitted with an LR Baggs Element pickup that has a single volume control concealed just inside the soundhole’s upper edge. I’m a great fan of these pickups as I’ve found them really easy to work with in the past. In the case of the J-15, you might have to reduce the bass a little on your amp or preamp if you want to try some fingerstyle, but with a pick you can go virtually flat as far as EQ is concerned. Tonally, you get more of the same; the crispness and power of the guitar are both preserved and well represented and the simplicity of the single volume control means that soundchecks could be mercifully short, once you become accustomed to the instrument’s behaviour in a live environment.
I like this guitar a lot. I didn’t think I would because of the shock of the new and being deprived of my own preference for fingerboard and neck materials for acoustics. But I’m living proof that you can teach an ageing dog some new tricks – and I’d be perfectly happy to live with this particular combination of tonewoods any day of the week. Of course, there’s also an underlying ecological point to be made here, in that none of the woods in use are in the least controversial or endangered. So I feel that Gibson can be doubly applauded: once for producing a very good-sounding guitar at a very reasonable price and secondly for sourcing environmentally sound timbers in order to do so.
Retail Price: £1099
Body Size: Dreadnought
Made In: USA
Top: Sitka spruce
Back and Sides: Walnut
Nut Width: 44.8mm
Scale Length: 629mm
Onboard Electronics: LR Baggs Element
Strings Fitted: Gibson Light Gauge .012 – .053
Gig Bag/Case Included: Gibson hardshell