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Gibson SJ-200

On the Trail to the Original
 
On the Trail to the Original

Is this the first Gibson SJ-200? Maybe. Technically, Gibson called it the Special L-5, but it is also known in guitar lore as the prototype SJ-200. Photos courtesy of Ken Grosslight.

In the ever-widening world of vintage flat-tops, few topics in recent years have been so thoroughly studied, so often discussed, and so vociferously debated as those surrounding the origins of the Super Jumbo 200 (SJ-200), Gibson’s “King of the Flat-Tops.” Although the four major theories attempting to identify the original SJ-200 have proven interesting, each has been either unsatisfactory or incomplete.

A credible, popular thesis was put forth by Douglas B. Green (Ranger Doug of the Opry’s “Riders in the Sky”), who, in 1975, interviewed western movie star Ray Whitley. In a well-written article for Pickin’ magazine published a couple of years before Whitley’s death, Green concluded that a custom SJ-200 made for the cowboy crooner in December, 1937, was the first SJ-200.

In 1992, an article in 20th Century Guitar stated that an SJ-200 made for 1930s pop star Joe Wolverton was, in fact, the first, claiming that this guitar may actually have been made in 1934.

The third major theory was first discussed publicly in a September, 1994, article in Vintage Guitar by SJ-200 expert Fred Schrager. In it, he theorized the original SJ-200 sprang from within a 1937 prototype batch. This theory, with considerable revision, now must be considered as bordering on fact, if not fact itself, in light of new information that has accompanied the surfacing of a wonderful old SJ-200 custom.

Finally, a fourth article appeared in Vintage Gallery, claiming that an SJ-200 made in 1936 for cowboy stuntman Ray Corrigan was the first.

By examining each of these hypotheses, we hope to offer the last word (or close to it) in this debate. Some essential background material must first be examined – namely the state of the Gibson Company and their instrument-building mentality in the 1930s on the one hand, and an accurate portrayal of the musical relationship among the singing cowboys of the Silver Screen on the other. Where their trails cross, the granddaddy of the SJ-200s sits.

The personality of the Gibson Company in the ’30s is essential to this prototype-batch hypothesis. In short, Gibson’s very way of doing business – its corporate mentality at the time – adds credence to the prototype theory. A brief walk through the evolution of Gibson flat-tops during the 1930s shows how a recently-uncovered SJ-200 custom is the logical conclusion to the company personality of the time and is most likely that granddaddy that’s been talked about so much.

The Gibson Flat-Top Evolution – The Trail to the SJ-200 Begins
With the introduction of their 14-frets-to-the-body Jumbo in 1934, Gibson entered the large-body Spanish guitar market. As early as 1929, they had produced this body shape for the HG-24, which was an internal-wall Hawaiian model. Gibson was conservative at the time, both in the appearance and in the design of these huge flat-tops. After all, the company had formally been in the flat-top business for only eight years and, in 1926, offered the L-0, the L-1, and the Nick Lucas models (Gibson had actually produced some Army/Navy model flat-tops as early as 1918, but without the Gibson name).

Gibson designers wanted a flat-top with a big-sounding bass, but without compromising the structural integrity of the oversize body. As an example of creative design, the company accomplished this bass sound by making the Jumbo with extremely deep ribs in the upper bout, thus avoiding the construction of a body that would be too wide or too lightly built. The design of an upper bout with deep ribs was to some degree familiar to Gibson, imitating (as it did) their Nick Lucas model, which had been their largest flat-top up to 1934, though narrow-waisted and measuring only 147/8″ wide at the lower bout. The Gibson Jumbo and Martin’s D-18 and D-28 were both introduced in 1934, and were the first production guitars with 14-fret necks, advanced bracing, a wide waist, deep sides, and a lower bout in the 16″ range.

Mahogany was used in the Gibson Jumbo to enhance the warm, bassy tone in demand by musicians wanting guitars for vocal backups. At the same time, the soundhole was made smaller to enhance the low-frequency response. Gibson used a single “X” advanced bracing system with three tone bars to assure tonal brilliance, along with the Jumbo’s big, bassy sound. Some top braces were scalloped and some were not, depending on the strength of the top used. The use of three tone bars on their large mahogany guitars was standard practice for Gibson from the first Jumbo in 1934 until about 1939, when they totally redesigned their bracing system. In attempting to extend the limits of the jumbo-body guitars, the designers in Kalamazoo built a prototype in 1935 – their new top-of-the-line Advanced Jumbo (AJ) – thus putting into production a guitar that raised their level of experimentation.

To create a guitar more like Martin’s popular D-28, Gibson moved to a two-bar system, a longscale (251/2″ instead of 243/4″ of the Jumbo and the J-35), and rosewood back and sides. The top bracing and tone of each Advanced Jumbo was hand-tuned to a specific note by the Kalamazoo craftsmen. Gibson made the guitar waist slightly narrower, to compensate for the longer scale and the lightly-constructed bracing. Gibson designers were attempting to take the jumbo-body design, with various modifications, to its limits, and may have done so. The Advanced Jumbo, in spite of being one of the better-designed guitars ever conceived (and in some minds, the best), sold poorly, with fewer than 300 of the instruments bought by the public. Whitley himself played an Advanced Jumbo prior to switching to the larger Super Jumbo.

The Advanced Jumbo was not long for the music world. A replacement to fill Gibson’s top-of-the-line flat-top niche appeared in 1938, in the form of the production SJ-200, and sales of the AJ dropped to 85 units sold, from the previous year’s figure of 140. In 1939, the guitar-buying public purchased only 44 AJs, a figure implying that production of the model perhaps had ceased in 1938. In any case, it was missing from the 1938 catalogue, indicating that the company had switched from the AJ to a bigger and fancier rosewood flat-top, the SJ-200. For a few years, Gibson had known that the time was ripe to capture a large share of the guitar market for vocal backup and rhythm instruments. Supporting Gibson marketing and the buyer’s desire for larger guitars is the sales chart, on page 111, showing an increase in demand for the big-bodied Spanish guitars.

In 1937, sales of these big guitars lagged far behind their smaller cousins. But that would change. Then, in the West, Gene Autry appeared (introducing the concept of the singing cowboy in a “B” movie titled Tumbling Tumble Weeds, filmed by Republic Pictures), and by 1939, the jumbo-body guitars were the better sellers.

The emergence of crooning cowpokes ensured the success of the SJ-200, for any self-respecting sagebrush singer would no sooner be caught dead without his Gibson SJ-200 than he would without his pearl-handled Colts. This hot, old, dusty trail leads to another singing cowboy, Whitley, and his famous SJ-200.

Singing Cowboy Ray Whitley and His SJ-200
This story is well-known, having been best presented by Green in his April, 1975, article in Pickin’ magazine. Whitley donated his custom-built SJ-200 to the Country Music Hall of Fame in November of 1974. In Mr. Green’s role at the Hall of Fame, he interviewed Ray about this historic guitar. The following is a summary of that article.

Every fall for over 20 years, Whitley was the star of Colonel W.T. Johnson’s Rodeo in New York City and Boston, a role he sometimes shared with Autry and Roy Rogers. Gibson’s Guy Hart first saw Ray perform at the rodeo in Madison Square Garden. They met and struck up a friendship based on their mutual interest in guitars. Ray related his ideas for a fancy flat-top to Hart, suggesting something ultra-fancy and, of course, ultracountry. Hart followed up on the idea, inviting Ray to Kalamazoo, where he would be Gibson’s guest for a week, following his series of rodeo shows.

Ray took him up on the offer and spent a week at the Gibson headquarters in Kalamazoo, where he and company luthiers planned and built the guitar that was to become not so much a fancy flat-top as the fancy flat-top. Ray had recommended that Gibson build a better-looking, deeper-sounding guitar than anything on the market. Gibson responded that they would build Ray the guitar of his dreams. And they did.

The results were a landmark in the evolution of the acoustic flat-top. In early December, 1937, Gibson presented him with the world’s first Super Jumbo, honoring the musician who had guided its construction step by step. This beautiful guitar, now prominently displayed in Nashville’s Country Music Hall of Fame Museum, has been commonly believed to be the original SJ-200. Interviews with Whitley showed his recollections to be detailed, logical, and credible, at least to the best of his memory of events that had occurred more than 50 years before. A nagging question has always lurked in the background, however is it possible or even likely that Gibson could design a totally new guitar in concert with Whitley, build the ornate and intricate custom guitar, apply the finish, and present it to him with some fanfare, all in a week’s time, as the story asks us to accept? It is difficult to believe that Whitley took blueprints and specs with him to Kalamazoo to get a head start on such a big project, but that or something equally farfetched would be required to make this story fit.

And even more intriguing: what was the guitar he was pictured with in the 1938 Gibson catalog? It was shaped like an SJ-200, but with a 12-fret neck, block fingerboard inlays, and a rectangular bridge. In fact, everyone pictured with an SJ-200 in the 1938 Gibson catalog – Autry, Tex Ritter, and Whitley – were all playing 12-fret SJ-200s. However, Whitley’s guitar at the Hall of Fame was a 14- fret SJ-200. To many of us who have been researching this model’s origins, a different scenario seems likely.

We believe that by the time Whitley visited Kalamazoo, Gibson had taken Whitley’s advice and built three guitars for him to try. Gibson built what we believe to be a prototype batch of three 12-fret custom L-5 flat-tops (in other words, the original SJ-200s before they were so named). They then gave Whitley his choice of the batch. He took one with him, had a second sent to him later, and most likely looked at, but passed over, the third guitar during his visit to the Gibson factory in 1937 (we will explain later why we think he passed over the third, which we believe to be the very first of these prototypes).

Gibson then started working on a custom-built 14-fret guitar especially for Ray, with a more western motif. This guitar was completed in December, 1937, and is now reposing in the Country Music Hall of Fame; it is not the progenitor of the long line of the famous model that continues to the present. That honor belongs to a 12-fret prototype, one of the three Gibson had built with guidance from Ray.

Ray liked the guitars and told Gibson he could get some of these western motif guitars into the hands of his singing cowboy buddies, namely Autry (Ray wrote Gene’s signature tune, “Back in the Saddle Again”), and Tex Ritter. Gibson, of course, accommodated the singers, and SJ-200s proliferated, becoming a cowboy icon in the process. Gibson’s 1938 catalogue pictured this cowboy trio, each with his early, 12-fret Super Jumbo.

Gene’s two custom SJ-200s were the most blatantly western-looking of the guitars, with a lariat binding, horseshoe inlay in the fingerboard, horse and rider inlays in both peghead and fingerboard, and western scenes engraved in the pickguard (he also had a miniature version of this big SJ-200, a one-of-a-kind based on an early L-1 body, Robert Johnson-style, that he often held when photographed on Champion, his famous charger).

Tex Ritter also owned a rosewood SJ-200 12-fretter, which was downright sedate compared to Autry’s. It is possible that Ritter owned two, but evidence for that appears slim. He is pictured with a sunburst one earlier in his career and later with a natural-top version. We examined the one at the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville in July, 1994. It has been refinished with a natural top, a rosewood bridge, and a 1950s pickguard added. The work appears to have been done by Gibson, who then put in a label contemporary with the time that the modifications were made, with a new serial number, which might indicate the guitar might not have been serial numbered when it was first built. Also, there are no factory order numbers on the neck block.

Prior to picking up his museum-piece 14-fret SJ-200 in Kalamazoo, Ray must have obtained one, if not both, of the 12-fret prototypes, one with a natural top and the other a sunburst finish. Gibson and Whitley must have considered these guitars as “demonstrators,” as many other musicians of the day are often photographed with them. These guitars, especially important to this discussion, featured pickguards of Super 400 (a contemporary fancy archtop) design, L-5 (another fancy archtop) fingerboard and headstock and a rectangular bridge like the Advanced Jumbos and J-35s. Interesting as the other cowboy SJ-200s are, it’s these latter guitars that offer important clues in the search for the first SJ-200.

Dead-End Trail Number One: The 1934 Prototype
Another hypothesis about the origin of the SJ-200 involves Joe Wolverton. It has far too many problems to be taken seriously but, in the name of thoroughness, its main points should be mentioned.

The thesis runs this way: the first SJ-200 prototype was built in 1934 for non-cowboy star Joe Wolverton. But the guitar offered as evidence damages, rather than supports, its own case. The instrument in question shares so many similarities to the second generation SJ-200s, made in 1938, that this thesis is implausible. While researching our Gibson flat-top book, we spoke with Joe Wolverton about his SJ-200. Unfortunately, he was unable to recall when he bought the guitar, but he thought about 1939 or 1940. Many of its features point to a post-1937 date of construction: a pickguard of the later shape, the “moustache” bridge with individual saddles and bridge bolts (Gibson was not anchoring their bridges in 1934, the Wolverton theory’s supposed date of construction), the standard western fingerboard inlay, and the “rising sun” fingerboard and headstock design, an inlay introduced by Gibson a few years later.

The article presenting the Joe Wolverton theory offers as evidence the fact that the tuners on this guitar were open-face Grover Style 98s. In reality, the G-98s on this guitar are of the late-1930s style, not the earlier type. It’s also important to remember that Gibson was notorious for their inconsistent use of parts, making it difficult to date instruments by examination of a single detail or feature.

The pickguard, too, is a problem, being an oversized SJ-200 shape but of the mottled material used in the Super 400s, and bound. Whether this guard was added after the guitar was refinished by Gibson in the 1950s, or whether Wolverton had it added to match his main guitar, a Super 400, is unknown. It’s also likely that the guitar’s original finish was a sunburst. The features of Wolverton’s guitar, except for the finish, pickguard, and tuners, are identical to any SJ-200 of 1938 vintage. The facts imply 1938 as the date of construction for this guitar, rather than 1934. The most intriguing part of the article about this guitar was a recollection from the late Clarence Havenga, a Gibson employee. He said he remembered a prototype SJ-200 being made for Joe Wolverton. It turns out that his memory was only partially accurate; a prototype was made for a star whose last name started with W. But it wasn’t Wolverton…

Dead End Trail Number Two: The 1936 Prototype
The feature article in the April, 1995, issue of Vintage Gallery alleges that a guitar owned by a western movie stuntman and sideman, Corrigan, custom-constructed for him in 1936, was – by two years – the oldest SJ-200. The following claims were made to support this notion:

CLAIM 1: The Corrigan guitar has a Factory Order Number (FON) of 177 B. The article also claimed that Gibson official historian Walter Carter indicated that this is the lowest batch number found in Gibson ledgers.
REBUTTAL: We spoke at length with Walter Carter, who denied this claim. In fact, he said that the FON didn’t really fit any sequence pattern until possibly very late 1938 or early 1939, and even then it would not be a 117 B, but possibly a 117 D or 117 E. Actually, the alphabetical letter after the three digit number during that period was only an approximate way of telling the year. There was often overlap of these numbers from one year’s end to the beginning of the next. The rough guide, however is as follows:

A = 1935 B = 1936 C = 1937 D = 1938 E = 1939 F = 1940 G = 1941 H = 1942

Not many Hs were used in 1942. These stamped numbers are a rough guide only, and are often faded and hard to distinguish. The letter B on the 177 B FON may actually be a D or E. We have seen many that were indecipherable – and it’s especially difficult to distinguish a B from an E after it they have faded.

Corrigan’s guitar is listed in Tom Wheeler’s book, American Guitars, as a 1938. Later in this article we will give a complete listing of the SJ-200s from 1938, based on Gibson ledgers as supplied by Walter Carter. This will help to further clarify the numbers issue. These numbers also validate Gibson historian Julius Bellson’s totals for pre-war SJ-200s.

CLAIM 2: The Corrigan guitar bears no batch placement designation, which indicates it was built on a single-unit basis (standard Gibson production practice at that time was to issue the single FON to a group of guitars built at a particular time, which was anywhere from one guitar to the usual maximum of 45 in batch. If multiples were built, a “batch number” would be penciled in after the FON, indicating where an instrument fit in the completion sequence of that particular group).
REBUTTAL: Not much time is needed to discuss the claim. Common knowledge among Gibson researchers is that this “no sequence number” is in fact quite common.

CLAIM 3: The Corrigan guitar is a prototype because it uses mahogany back and sides rather than rosewood.
REBUTTAL: The mahogany perhaps indicates this guitar is most likely a one-of-a-kind SJ-200; however, to conclude it is the prototype SJ-200 is only wishful thinking. Also, mahogany was used in the soon-to-be released SJ-100, a poor man’s version of the SJ-200.

CLAIM 4: It is a prototype because of its three unscalloped tone bars, a feature found on no other SJ-200. Also claimed is that the prototype Advanced Jumbo had three tone bars, as did the Jumbo and J-35 of the 1935 era.
REBUTTAL: It is true that no other pre-War SJ-200 we are aware of had three tone bars, but the Corrigan guitar is the only mahogany SJ-200 known. Also true is that Jumbos and J-35 also had three tone bars during 1936. Some of these Jumbo and Jumbo 35s had scalloped braces, some did not. Moreover, the only documented Advanced Jumbo prototype has two tone bars, not three. All large-bodied mahogany Gibson flat-tops had three tone bars until the company redesigned its bracing in about 1939. The usual SJ-100 bracing configuration also included three tone bars. Speculation is that the three tone bar system in the large mahogany guitars was to enhance the tonal brilliance (a tonal characteristic of rosewood is exceptional brilliance). A simple fact is that the large rosewood guitars of that period have only two tone bars.

CLAIM 5: The Corrigan SJ-200 has Grover Deluxe tuners that were introduced in 1935 and that have a very early serial number.
REBUTTAL: Dating by tuners is a trap for those who attempt to ascertain the specific year of a vintage Gibson. Some vintage guitar buffs believe there was some infallible sequencing of parts put on Gibson guitars. In fact, Gibson was notorious for using out-of-sequence trim or hardware, especially such bolt-on features as tuning machines. Tuning machines were purchased in quantity and then used in random order until a new shipment was ordered. The tuners were used not only on the SJ-200 during that period of Gibson’s history but also on the Super 400, which complicates even further any specific sequence of usage.

CLAIM 6: The guitar does not have any bridge reinforcement bolts, which dates it as pre-1937.
REBUTTAL: A lack of bridge reinforcement bolts probably means this may have been a custom-order guitar, nothing else. A close look at Autry’s 1938 SJ-200, for example, reveals that it also did not have these bolts.

CLAIM 7: According to the article, Corrigan’s son claimed Gibson designed, built, and presented this guitar to his father in 1936 as a tribute to his achievements as a western movie star, and that it was the first SJ-200. The son also stated that the fingerboard was replaced with Corrigan’s name about 1937.
REBUTTAL: There are many reasons why we do not believe this claim is accurate. Most importantly, there is a mountain of evidence leading over and over again to Whitley’s guitar as the granddaddy of all SJ-200s. Later in this article, we will offer new evidence to document this piece of history.

Ray (“Crash”) Corrigan was not nearly as big a western movie star as the article would have the reader believe. Check a dozen books on singing cowboys from the mid-to-late 1930s and you will find that Corrigan is rarely mentioned, let alone featured. You will find, though, volumes on such singing cowboy stars of the Silver Screen as Ken Maynard, Autry, Fred Scott, Smiley Burnette, Tex Ritter, Jack Randall, Bob Baker, and Whitley.

Autry, Ritter, and Whitley were the most influential and talented of this group. Specifically, Whitley appeared in more than 50 westerns and went on to perform regularly at the Grand Ol’ Opry. He was also inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.

A look at all the data points directly to Whitley, not Corrigan. If we imagine for a minute the Corrigan guitar was indeed made in 1936, it would have been a major marketing gaffe on Gibson’s part, for no other SJ-200s appeared until very late 1937, and in fact that prototype batch differed greatly from the one containing the Corrigan.

Even Whitley’s 14-fret had major differences. It wasn’t until 1938 that the SJ-200 had the same decor as the Corrigan guitar.

Heading Down The Whitley Trail
Whitley made more appearances and put in more performance miles than anyone except Ritter. Of the big three, Autry and Ritter already had established themselves as fancy Martin guitar players. Whitley was already a loyal Gibson player, a loyalty that was rewarded by Gibson marketing a Montgomery Ward line of Ray Whitley Recording King guitars. Enlisting Whitley to help introduce this guitar was a good decision. Gibson wanted to get this guitar into the hands of the Silver Screen’s singing cowboys. These were the very people who respected Ray as a musician and trusted him as a friend.

In addition to his own radio and movie stardom, he worked with Fred Rose and Autry, writing hundreds of western songs, primarily for movies. He was also a very successful recording artist and manager of some other big names, such as Sons of the Pioneers (when Len Slye – aka Roy Rogers – was with them) and Jimmy Wakely. Rose later asked him to manage Hank Williams, but Ray declined, because of other commitments. When you paid your dime at the Saturday matinee to see your favorite cowboy movie, chances were good that you would be treated to a musical western “short” starring Whitley. These were masterfully marketed westerns, filled with music and comedy, and lasting about 20 minutes. Ray often plays one of his custom-built Super Jumbos in these movies, giving a lot of exposure to Gibson.

Autry told us movie directors would not let him use his SJ-200 very often in his westerns, because his name was so prominently inlaid in pearl in the fingerboard. If he had an unidentifiable guitar they could more easily insert him, singing a particular song, into another movie when they chose; the thought was that the audience would remember a particular scene from a particular movie if Gene were playing his unforgettable SJ-200 custom.

Further questions regarding when Gibson first introduced the SJ-200 are raised in their 1938 catalog. Only three cowboy star endorsers appear – Autry, Whitley, and Ritter – and they are all shown with 12-fret SJ-200s. Whitley is, in fact, shown with one of the prototype 12-frets featuring a rectangular bridge and L-5 inlays. A fourth endorser, Corrigan, didn’t appear until the 1939 catalog. His guitar did not have his name in the fingerboard at that time. One would wonder; if the guitar had in fact been made specifically for him, why his didn’t have has name inlaid in the fingerboard while the other three crooning cowboys did.

All this suggests the Corrigan theory doesn’t adequately explain which guitar influenced which. Corrigan’s guitar does not fit any of the early evolutionary patterns of the other very early SJ-200s. Corrigan’s has the standard bridge, headstock, inlay, fingerboard inlay, pickguard motif, etc., of every other 1938 SJ-200. We will soon offer much more evidence about what is now known regarding this evolution of the guitar designed specifically with and for the singing cowboys.

The Trail Narrows: More About The 1937 Prototype Batch Theory
While the Whitley story up to now has seemed the most plausible in the minds of those who have a good understanding of guitar production, and especially of 1930s Gibsons, there were still some gaps. Fred Schrager started filling them in his excellent Vintage Guitar article in September, 1994. He considers such questions as how Gibson could have designed and built the Whitley 14-fret on such short notice, as the Green Pickin’ article suggests. Asking us to believe that such an elaborate guitar could proceed from dream to stunning completion in one week is not consistent with any required timeframes known to quality guitar construction methods. As Schrager hypothesizes, could there have been a prototype or set of prototypes already constructed for Whitley when he arrived in Kalamazoo?

Whitley’s 12-fret SJ-200s have been right under our noses all along. It took the appearance of a 12-fret prototype in George Gruhn’s shop to direct our eyes down this trail. In the form of a guitar purchased in 1994 by collector Ken Grosslight, evidence has surfaced that clearly points to the existence of a prototype batch in 1937. Grosslight’s gorgeous guitar was purchased from Nashville dealer George Gruhn, who acquired it from a gentleman from Bristol, Tennessee. This gentleman bought it in 1953, and the sales receipt indicates it was purchased in New York.

As soon as Ken purchased this guitar, we were invited to examine it. This near-mint guitar has rosewood back and sides, sunburst finish, a 12-frets-to-the-body L-5 neck constructed of three-piece curly maple, block inlays in the fingerboard, and a pearl flowerpot of L-5 design in the peghead. Tuning machines are gold Grover Style 98s. The bridge is rectangular and lacquered-over, like those on the Advanced Jumbos and J-35s of 1937. The scalloped braces form a “single-X” pattern. The pickguard, like that on Whitley’s 14-fretter, is for a Super 400 archtop. Its serial number is 95048, which dates its completion to around October, 1937, two months prior to Whitley picking up his “one-week miracle.” Stamped is the Factory Order Number 598 C 1, which also indicates 1937, as well as specifying in the last digit, penciled in red, that this was the first guitar made in the batch of prototypes. The label reads GUITAR SPECIAL L-5: the Super Jumbo 200 designator was still to come.

The SPECIAL L-5 model indication is a familiar pattern with Gibson – build a prototype, give it a name and then decide what it is really to be called. An example of this is an early Super 400 owned by Dexter Johnson of Carmel Music, which is being researched as a possible prototype Super 400. While the tailpiece and heel cap are labeled SUPER 400 in the standard fashion, the truss rod cover reads SUPER L-5, and the inside label refers to it as a DELUXE L-5.

Clues in the soundbox indicate Ken Grosslight’s SPECIAL L-5 is the prototype. Pencil markings on the underside of the top lay out experimental locations for the bridge plate. Under black-light illumination, pencil lines show that the bridge was moved about 1/2″ during construction; the bridge saddle slot was also relocated for intonation, while the final scale length of 251/2″ was settled on. In this trial-and-error process, the bridge plate and bridge pin holes were misaligned; the holes were located so near the back of the bridge plate that part of it splintered in the drilling. All this work looks original and was not made during modification, whether months, years, or decades later.

While these are indications of an experimental guitar, they are invisible. The neckset on this guitar was slightly to the treble side, making it difficult to play. This is why we think this guitar was passed over by Whitley (Grosslight had guitar wizard John Arnold correct all issues that interfered with good playability of this guitar).

Did Whitley look at this guitar and pass on it? It’s certainly probable, given what we now know. An examination of the peghead shows the guitar to be a hybrid; not a true SJ-200, but getting there. Like the archtops of the day, the Grosslight guitar has an elongated peghead, which is in itself hardly notable, since it uses an L-5 neck. The oddity is the location of the tuners on this long peghead. Rather than being symmetrically laid out side-to-side as well as top-to-bottom, they are grouped at the peghead bottom, giving an obvious unbalanced appearance.

How could Gibson do this with such a fine guitar? It was easy: they used a drill location template intended for the short (standard for flat-tops) peghead. Only the Grosslight guitar and the two 12-fret SJ-200s owned by Whitley share this irregular peghead feature. Both of the 12-fret SJ-200s Whitley owned are constructed identical to the Grosslight guitar, and no others have surfaced. They also fit the time period of late-1937 as well as the previous and now more detailed story of how the SJ-200 was developed, in addition to numerous Whitley family recollections, as well as movie stills of Whitley playing one of these 12-fretters, copyrighted 1937.

Ray’s were identical in construction to the Grosslight guitar. Whitley must have liked these guitars, for they were featured with him in the Gibson catalogues from 1938 through 1942. According to Whitley, both are now gone, one having been stolen and the other lost in a fire.

Further evidence of Whitley owning these three Super Jumbos was obtained through a comprehensive photo search. We were able to dig up 28 different photos of Ray in which he is shown with the following guitars.
1) Advanced Jumbo (3 photos).
2) Natural-finish 12-fret Super Jumbo (4 photos).
3) Sunburst 12-fret Super Jumbo (8 photos).
4) 14-fret Super Jumbo (8 photos).
5) 3/4-size clone with moustache bridge (1 photo).
6) 3/4-size clone with rectangular bridge (3 photos).
7) J-185 (1 photo).
8) L-4 archtop (movie).

All but the earlier L-4, the Advanced Jumbo, and the later J-185 had “Custom Built for Ray Whitley” inlaid in pearl in the headstock. In one photo, Ray’s wife, Kay, is playing the 14-fret Super Jumbo; in another, he is with Kay and their daughter Judy, with whom he often performed.

Other photos show him with such notables as Wakely and Johnny Bond. Johnny is playing one of the 12-fret Super Jumbos in one photo. Many photos are of Whitley playing to children in hospitals – a pastime important to both Rogers and him.

We also stumbled across two other photos: one of Merle Travis and Carolina Cotton, from May of 1945, with Travis playing Whitley’s sunburst 12-fret. The other is of Travis playing Whitley’s natural-top 12-fret. Whitley had the right friends and did exactly as he had agreed to with Gibson – he got those “demonstrator” SJ-200s into the hands of other stars.

The Trail Leads Back Toward The Bunkhouse
Educated speculation and hard research are incomplete without attempting to hear from people who were there in 1937. Like any persistent Sheriff pursuing the truth, we asked as many questions of as many involved people as we could, in the process learning a lot about the relationships of these early singing cowboys, their interaction with each other, and about their guitars.

Autry, Dorothy Bond (wife of the late Johnny Bond), Mrs. Ray Whitley, and his daughter, Judy, were all extremely helpful. The goldmine, though, was on the Whitley family property. Ray’s grandson, Scott, who learned to play guitar from his grandfather on Ray’s 14-fret SJ-200, told us that the stories of his grandfather helping design the SJ-200 had been a part of the family history for as long as he can remember. Through Scott, we were able to interview his Aunt Judy and his grandmother, who was 89 at the time of the interviews. Both Kay Whitley (Ray’s wife) and Judy were on the road entertaining with Ray during the last half of the 1930s.

They pieced together a history, and felt their memories were very accurate, but said they may have been off by a few months on some. They used many important life events to help associate and pinpoint events relevant to this article.

Throughout the interviews, they affectionately referred to Ray as “Pop Pop,” his family nickname. Their recollections confirm the SJ-200 origins hypothesis. The following is a summary of some of their memories.

In the mid 1930s, Ray was on tour performing at rodeos, and recording. Mid-year 1937, he met a Mr. Hart at one of the rodeos. Ray recommended to Mr. Hart that they build a model flat-top that was more suitable for country singers. He recommended a guitar with more bass response for singing with and one with more projection for the live performances they were often in. He recommended a large lower bout to accomplish this.

He also had some suggestions regarding the neck. He felt a shorter neck (fewer frets) would be better, because country singers didn’t play out of the first position much, anyway. Gibson said they would build him his dream guitar if he would be willing to help them promote it through his many connections with the music and movie industry. Ray always preferred Gibson guitars and agreed to do this.

Gibson made a few for Ray to try. He picked out a blond one, and Gibson inlaid his name in pearl on the peghead. Both Ray’s wife and daughter were quite sure this was his first SJ-200 and that he got it in the fall of 1937, prior to getting his famous 14-fret version. Immediately after giving him this guitar, Gibson started to work on an ultra-fancy cowboy SJ-200. He received this second guitar the same year, and later got another sunburst-top shortneck SJ-200 from Gibson (Gibson ledgers indicate a 12-fret Deluxe Jumbo was shipped to Ray in May, 1938). Ray’s family is positive Gibson gave him at least two guitars and maybe more.

Kay and Judy talked about the huge barbecues the Whitleys would have for most of Hollywood’s singing cowboys and musicians. Sometimes, as many as 50 or 60 people were in attendance, and there was a lot of camaraderie among the group. The Whitleys were especially close to such musicians and musician-families as Ritter, Autry, Smiley Burnette, Bond, Wakely, Hugh and Karl Farr, Pat Brady, Frankie Marvin, Tex Atchison, Cactus Mack, and Merle Travis. When asked specifically about Corrigan, they said that he was not one who was included in their friendships, nor within their larger circle of friends. Tim Holt, an actor, singing cowboy who frequently co-starred with Ray, borrowed Ray’s Cadillac convertible and blond, short-necked SJ-200 in the late-1940s to go to a job (Ray was very generous with his possessions). Enroute, Tim tossed a cigarette out, but it flew into the back seat. By the time he realized what had happened, the back seat was on fire and it was too late. The Gibson and the Cadillac burned. Ray, an adamant non-smoker, wasn’t pleased with how he lost his guitar and car.

Among some memorabilia Kay and Judy sent us is a photocopy from an early-’40s Ray Whitley songbook, with a picture of Ray playing the 14-fret SJ-200. The caption under it reads “Ray Whitley has many hobbies, one is inventing. The guitar in the above picture was designed by Ray and custom built for him by the Gibson folks at Kalamazoo, Michigan.”

This, of course, was long before any vintage guitar hype, or before anyone had anything to gain by claiming to have the “first.” Ray’s daughter and wife also sent a booklet about the story of Ray’s life as a “…country western music master and film star,” written by Gerald F. Vaughn, and published in 1973, predating Green’s article by two years. Following are two quotations from that article: “Whitley’s custom-built Gibson guitar, which he personally designed, was often seen on these films,” and “…as previously stated, Whitley’s custom-built Gibson guitar was often seen in his two-reel shorts. In addition, Gibson commercially marketed Ray Whitley Model guitars with superb tone.”

This is an often-overlooked fact that links Whitley to a Gibson promotional role. Gibson produced several models of guitar for Montgomery Ward under the Ray Whitley Recording King name. Some are now very collectible.

Additionally, they sent a copy of a letter from Gibson inducting Whitley into the Gibson Hall of Fame in 1978.

Finally, they sent a copy of a letter to Ray from old friend Lanky Neal, dated 1976. Ray had visited the Gibson factory that year and attempted to look up Neal. He missed him, but left him a note inviting Lanky and his family to visit them at the Whitley home in California. We were not familiar with Neal, and asked our friend, Marge Bellson, of Kalamazoo – the widow of the late Gibson historian, Julius Bellson. She said they knew Neal and his family well. Neal was the person who hired Julius the mid-’30s. She said he was the representative, or go-between, from Gibson to any big stars. The path was well-worn between Whitley’s door and Gibson’s.

Trail’s End: The Grosslight Special L-5 as the first SJ-200
Is Ken Grosslight’s SPECIAL L-5 in fact the first SJ-200? Logic, probability, and evidence say yes:
Gibson’s evolution of flat-tops in the 1930s would culminate in such a guitar. The company’s personality and method of operation at the time were conducive to this sort of new model.

The guitar is a logical culmination of feature developments that Gibson was involved in prior to Whitley’s visit to the Kalamazoo factory – rosewood body, 12-fret neck, L-5 neck and inlays, Super 400 pickguard, rectangular bridge, and pencil markings indicating experimentation with scale length.

The serial number indicates October, 1937, as the approximate date of completion. A Factory Order Number confirms this guitar as the first of the batch.

The label refers to the guitar as SPECIAL L-5, which pre-dates the SJ-200 model designation.

The odd spacing of peghead tuners shows that this guitar and Whitley’s 12-fretters were from the same batch, with the Grosslight guitar having been made first.

A movie still with a copyright date of 1937 shows Whitley with a 12-fret SJ-200.

There are no other known guitars with the above features and a legible serial number to validate earlier production.

A long list of documents and first-hand accounts from the people who were there.

Whitley family history told by Ray’s immediate family.

Thanks to the following SJ-200 authorities for their help: Fred Schrager, Gregg Boyd, Walter Carter, Bill Gonder, George Gruhn, Gary Burnette, John Walker, Ren Ferguson, Chris Skinker from the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, Gene Autry, Mrs. Johnny Bond, Mrs. Ray Whitley and daughter Judy, and Ray’s grandson, Scott Wartenberg. We are indebted to Ken Grosslight for allowing his guitar to be thoroughly studied.



Is this the first Gibson SJ-200? Maybe. Technically, Gibson called it the Special L-5, but it is also known in guitar lore as the prototype SJ-200. Photos courtesy of Ken Grosslight.

This article originally appeared in VG‘s Feb. ’97 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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