One of the most-fabled flat-top guitars Gibson ever produced is the Gibson J-185. Introduced in 1951, and discontinued in ’59, only 270 natural-finish and 648 sunburst J-185s were made. Guitarists from delta bluesman Skip James to Sons of the Pioneers guitarist Ken Curtis played it as their instrument of choice. Why? In the words of Gibson’s Fabulous Flat-tops (Miller-Freeman, 1994), “The J-185 is one of the nicest Gibson flat-tops ever built.” Many players and collectors bemoan the fact Gibson made so few of them.
While the J-185 has been reissued sporadically by Gibson’s Montana factory, it has never been a standard production instrument except for a very brief period in the early ’90s. Well, that has recently changed. It’s once again a current model. Gibson is so proud of the J-185’s current incarnation that they sent me one to review. I’m more than a little glad they did.
The Plain Facts
The J-185’s body is 201/4″ long, 16″ wide at its lower bout, and 47/8″ deep at its end pin. Its shape is identical to the J-200, but its dimensions are slightly smaller. The top is solid spruce triple-bound with white/black/white plastic strips, while the back and sides are maple. Its neck is constructed of one-piece mahogany with a rosewood fingerboard and bridge. The fingerboard is bound and inlaid with double parallelograms similar to that of a Gibson ES-175 archtop. The small Gibson tulip headstock inlay and Kluson tuners are also like the ES-175. The J-185’s only unique cosmetic feature is a pair of iron cross inlays on either side of its bridge saddle.
The review sample featured a classic Gibson sunburst finish that begins at a dark yellow center and slowly fades to a jet black at the edges – as nice as you’ll see on a lacquer-finished guitar. The back sports a tiger-stripe flame guaranteed to make you spend more than a little time staring at its posterior. The sides also exhibit a nice deep flame. At the risk of belaboring the point, this isn’t just veneer, but genuine solid wood. The visually spectacular nature of this particular specimen is especially worthy of note. Since this is a standard production model guitar, not a custom order instrument, it’s most impressive. Is this a fluke, or a specially selected review sample? I suspect not. Considering that Gibson Montana is currently a year backordered on all their instruments, I seriously doubt they have the time or inclination to make special review sample for little ol’ me. I saw several J-185s while touring the Gibson factory, and they all were constructed of similarly outstanding woods.
Gibson has often been justifiably accused of inconsistent build quality, even on its more expensive models. Because of this history, I spent a lot of time examining this J-185. The verdict; almost perfect. The exterior finish has a fine gloss with no “orange peel” or “fisheye” spots. The only external area that could have used a bit more finishing attention was at the base of the fretboard, where it meets the soundhole. There’s a bit a roughness there that mars the otherwise impeccable finish. Inside the J-185, the bracing work looked fairly tidy, without gobs of glue oozing out or any ragged-cut strut ends. There was only one spot that had a bit of glue showing through the kerfing. Compared with vintage Gibsons, this J-185’s interior was astonishingly neat, but it was not as impeccable as other new Gibsons I saw during my factory tour.
The setup of new Montana-made Gibsons has been a sore point in the past.
I’ve seen more than a few new mid-’90s flat-tops that were nowhere near optimally arrayed for maximum playability. This was certainly not the case with this J-185. Not only was the action low and buzz-free, but the neck shape and overall feel were exemplary. The neck profile reminded me of a really nice mid-’50s Les Paul – fast and easy to play. Perhaps the neck shape is a bit less robust than many mid-’50s Gibson flat-tops I’ve experienced, but I think most guitarists will prefer this slightly more modern feel.
Intonation on this instrument was good, but not perfect. The B string was four cents sharp by the fifth fret, and the low E needed to be tuned a hair flat to sound right on a first-position G chord. Another gauge or new set of strings would most likely have had slightly different intonation characteristics. The trick is to find the strings you like best, then have a saddle specially made for those particular strings. Any factory-made saddle is only going to be an approximation of the proper compensation. But for a standard uncorrected saddle, the J-185’s intonation was surprisingly close to optimal.
Unlike older Montana Gibsons, which came in tan vinyl-covered hardshell cases, the latest crop of instruments come in black vinyl-covered TKL hardshell cases complete with a classic pink interior. Also, instead of the pitiful little clay-filled plastic cups that passed as humidifiers in the past, current Montana Gibsons have snake-type humidifiers that mount in the soundhole by way of a tight-fitting cover. As long as you follow Gibson’s instructions and don’t overfill the humidifier it should do a fine job keeping the guitar’s interior from drying out.
The Fancy Sounds
I’m a big fan of the J-185-sized body. I’ve owned several J-200 Jrs, which have a similar body with slightly different cosmetic appointments. I currently own a J-2000. This guitar has the same dimensions as a J-185, but with a venetian cutaway, much fancier real abalone inlays, and an Indian rosewood body. It’s my favorite “modern” Gibson. I was eager to hear how this new J-185 stacked up against the almost 10-year old J-2000. I was surprised by the results.
It would take someone with a serious case of tinitus not to recognize the striking sonic similarities between these two instruments. Both have a ringing, harmonically rich treble response that is the very essence of the Gibson flat-top sound. Also, both instruments have an ever-so-slightly nasal midrange that is typical of most Gibson acoustics. I was surprised to discover the J-185 was just as loud as the J-2000. Only when you really lean into your picking does the J-2000 reveal that it is capable of more dynamic contrast. The J-2000 does have a more complex tonality. It’s slightly warmer in the lower midrange, due most likely to its rosewood body. Also the J-2000 has a custom-made saddle to correct its intonation, so it sounds a bit sweeter with fewer odd-order harmonics due to intonation inaccuracies.
The bottom-end is where you can hear the strongest differences between the J-2000 and J-185. Not surprisingly, the J-185 sounds like a new guitar. The bass is tighter, with less bloom and power. This addtional low-end stiffness is due to a number of factors. First, the finish lacquer is still soft and quite a bit thicker than it will be after a couple of months of curing. The finish will actually be only half its original thickness after a year. Also, the glue is still hardening and the wood is getting used to its new (and hopefully final) shape. Peter Rowan once told me, “You have to remember that a new guitar needs time to develop. At first it still thinks it’s a tree.”
While I’ve played a lot of “new” guitars in my time, I’ve probably never played one quite as new as this particular J-185. It arrived on my doorstep straight from the factory with no time to age in a warehouse or on a showroom floor. Even after a month, it still smells strongly of lacquer. Every time I open the case I’m immediately reminded of the odors on the main floor of the Montana factory. Since it first arrived I’ve noticed the finish has gotten harder and the bass extension has increased slightly. I expect this trend to continue for quite some time.
This new J-185 also compares very favorably to earlier Montana-made J-185s and J-200 Jrs I’ve played and owned through the years. It is certainly louder than any of the J-200 Jrs I’ve experienced. It is also louder and better-made than several of the 1994 centennial J-185’s I’ve seen recently. Considering that the review sample J-185 is a very new guitar, a couple years of aging should produce an even louder instrument. It’s heartening to find that this J-185 delivers a level of sonic performance that puts it right up there among the best post-war Gibson flat-tops.
The Last Notes
Anyone who tells you Gibson’s latest flat-tops aren’t as good as their old ones hasn’t played any from Montana’s most recent production series. I went into this review as a skeptic; sure, the new Gibsons look nice, but I needed serious convincing to conclude they are as fine as their best vintage counterparts. Well, now I’m a believer. This J-185 is a great new guitar that has the potential to be just as excellent as any of their original mid-’50s instruments. Only time will tell just how splendiferous-sounding it will become. Hope I’m around to find out.
Photo courtesy of Gibson.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s Dec. ’00 issue.