David Mead examines a round-shouldered dreadnought from Gibson…
When I was a mere strip of a lad with my nose firmly pressed up against music shop windows, I thought that Gibson was the only name to have on the headstock of a guitar. Now I’ve grown up – well, kinda – I’m a lot more broad-minded. But the name “Gibson” still has that sort of reverberant thrill for me from those years long past. So there was a great deal of glee on my part in anticipating the arrival of this guitar and I’ve got to say, I wasn’t in the least bit disappointed…
I suppose it’s fair to say that Gibson’s acoustic range has always taken second place to their catalogue of celebrated electric instruments. The Les Paul, 335, SG and sundry other models have been coveted by hordes of players for around 60 years or so, but the acoustics have always been there too, quietly in the background and championed by players as diverse as David Gilmour, Greg Lake, The Everly Brothers and this month’s cover star, James Bay.
The J-29 is a round-shouldered dreadnought with the traditional Gibson short scale of 628mm and is stage ready, fitted with an L R Baggs Element pickup. It has a Sitka spruce top with rosewood back and sides – not an unusual combination and one that you will see practically every month within these pages, but Gibson claim it to be new to the series. I’m told that the bracing underneath the soundboard is Gibson’s 30s-style advanced X pattern, aimed at producing a combination of power with warmth. From what I can see of the interior, everything looks superbly neat and tidy, as you might expect from a prestigious builder.
The J-29’s antique natural nitrocellulose finished body is bound with multi-ply black and white plastic which is mimicked by the soundhole rosette. There’s a mock tortoise pickguard to round off the décor nicely, too.
On to the neck now and this is made from a single piece of mahogany with the customary fillets each side of the headstock to produce Gibson’s accustomed trademark design. The neck is a reasonably deep C which feels substantial in the hand without being too clubby. Strangely, it’s reminiscent of a couple of older Les Pauls that I’ve played in the past.
The tuners are the renowned Grovers with a 14:1 tuning ratio and the headstock fascia is black with the Gibson decal in gold at the top. The guitar’s strings pass over a Tusq nut and hover over a rosewood fingerboard with 19 frets and mother-of-pearl position markers. The action is what I’d describe as being medium to low and feels very comfortable under the fingers. It’s rosewood once again for the bridge which is Gibson’s traditional rectangle design with six white capped string pegs in line behind the Tusq saddle.
As you might expect, the finish is flawless and so the only thing left to do is to buckle up and take the J-29 for a test drive…
The thing about dreadnoughts is that you always know approximately what you’re going to get from the very first strum. Famous for that full-bodied powerhouse sound, many of them are merely variations on a theme, but here we have Gibson’s short scale to take into account and so things tend to feel and sound a mite different to, say, a Martin D-18. As it turns out, Gibson promised warmth and that’s exactly what I’ve got – plus a good amount of power and volume, too. Played with the fingers, there are good amounts of everything you need: tone, good treble to bass balance and none of the boominess that you get from some dreads. But the J-29 really comes alive when played with a pick. As such, chords ring out strongly and single notes are capable of going from the politely restrained to turbo driven with a flick of the wrist.
Despite the general impression that short scale acoustics don’t fare too well with drop tunings, I lowered the bass string to D and the J-29 took to it with no trouble at all and I think it could probably adapt well if I mined a little deeper, too.
As I have said, the J-29 is fitted with an L R Baggs Element pickup which comprises an under saddle transducer with a single volume control hidden away inside the soundhole. This might sound like it’s a little limiting, but in practice I found that I was able to get a perfectly acceptable amplified sound with my AER Compact 60’s preamp controls set flat. The overall warmth of the instrument’s acoustic nature came through with no trouble at all and by experimenting with the mid range control on the amp, everything from shimmering strums suitable for singer songwriters, to more complex single note enhanced rhythm parts were easily attainable. All the aforementioned add up to making this guitar something of a real all-rounder for anyone searching for a versatile stage ready instrument with bags of power and presence to add to their collection.
I’ve said before that I find dreadnoughts a little too large to handle comfortably, but this J-29 has charm enough to make me reconsider my thinking. Whereas I thought it was the body size that I found unmanageable, perhaps it was the scale length all along. Maybe the fact that I seemed to have felt immediately at home with this guitar is down to the fact that I have been spending rather a lot of time with a Les Paul in my hands recently. As I said, the neck is not at all dissimilar. In any case, this Gibson acoustic was bags of fun to spend time with and I think it would suit a wide range of different players’ styles. Then there’s the price; it’s a very competitive range with many bewilderingly tempting alternatives, but here you would be getting a superbly made instrument from a prestige maker that is ready, willing and able straight out of the case!
Pros: An adaptable, stage ready round shouldered dread from a top maker
Cons: It’s possible that the short scale could deter some players
Overall: There’s a whole wealth of warm, powerful sounds inside this instrument – it’s well made, the right price and, heck – it’s a Gibson!
Model: J-29 Rosewood
Retail Price: £1,599
Body Size: Dreadnought
Made In: USA
Top: Sitka spruce
Back and Sides: Rosewood
Nut Width: 43.8mm
Scale Length: 628.6mm
Onboard Electronics: L R Baggs Element
Strings Fitted: Gibson light gauge .012 – .053
Gig Bag/Case Included: Gibson hardshell case