The Super Jumbo 200 is Gibson’s most celebrated flat-top model, and deservedly so, thanks to its use by cowboy movie stars in the pre-World War II years and by country music stars in the post-war years. The Super Jumbo 100, on the other hand, is one of Gibson’s more obscure models – a status it does not deserve. In aesthetics, as well as performance, it should be ranked among Gibson’s most noteworthy models.
As its name suggests, the SJ-100 occupied a place significantly below the SJ-200. Since the model numbers reflected list prices – $100 and $200, respectively – Gibson seemed to be saying that SJ-200 was twice the guitar that the SJ-100.
While the SJ-100 did not have the degree of ornamentation of the higher model, it nevertheless had its own distinctive sound and – as these two SJ-100s show – its own distinctive look, as well.
The lack of attention garnered by the SJ-100 began with its introduction in 1939, in the shadow of the SJ-200. Both models were the same size – 17″ wide across the lower bout – and shaped like the “advanced” (widened) L-5 Gibson introduced in 1935. They were only 1″ wider than Gibson’s dreadnought-size flat-tops, but they appeared even larger thanks to their circular lower body shape. Gibson began making the SJ-200 on a custom basis (initially just called Super Jumbo) in ’38. It featured back and sides of rosewood – then, as now, the premium tonewood for flat-tops.
In ’39, when the model was first cataloged, a second super jumbo-sized guitar made its debut; the SJ-100 had mahogany back and sides, and though its price was only half of the SJ-200, it was still higher than other Gibson flat-tops (the Advanced Jumbo and the Nick Lucas Special), and it had features to justify the price.
The SJ-100’s bridge was the same open-ended moustache shape that the SJ-200 sported, but without the long blocks of inlaid mother-of-pearl. Early examples of both models had individual height-adjustable bridge saddles. The SJ-100’s pickguard did not have the engraving of the SJ-200, but it did have its own distinct shape, recognizable by a sort of scalloped feature on the upper edge. The top binding on the SJ-100 was only three-ply, compared to seven-ply on the SJ-200, but the SJ-100’s binding was unusually thick – around 0.25″ thick. Not only did it surpass the SJ-200’s binding in thickness by about .05″, its wide white layers outlined the body with a stronger visual effect than the seven thin plies. The SJ-100’s back binding was single-ply, but it, too, was extra thick.
The SJ-100 had the maple neck and ebony fingerboard of the SJ-200, but with pearl dot inlays instead of the 200’s crests. The 100’s peghead represented its biggest departure from the 200, and from Gibson tradition as well. Where the 200 was bound and sported an ornamental inlay, the 100 had no peghead binding and no ornament. It was further distanced by a series of notches on the sides. The reason or inspiration for the notched design is unknown, but it appeared on two other new models in ’39 – the mahogany-body dreadnought Jumbo 55 and the electric archtop ES-250.
In 1941, Gibson downgraded the SJ-100 slightly. The notches disappeared from the headstock and the open-ended moustache bridge was replaced with a more compact bridge. The new bridge, with pointed ends and a point extending from the lower edge, was arguably as elegant as the moustache, but it made the SJ-100 easy to identify. No other Gibson except the J-55, which received the same spec changes in ’41, ever had the sculpted bridge. The scale length was also shortened slightly, from 26″ to 251/2″.
Like most Gibson models, the SJ-100’s run officially ended at the end of ’41, when the U.S. entered World War II and Gibson diverted most of its production to war products. Total production, according to new research by A.R. Duchossoir, was 177 units, which was only 19 more than SJ-200 sales. One would expect the lower-priced model to have greater sales, but perhaps it didn’t meet the expectations of Gibson’s new owners, the Chicago Musical Instrument Co., which purchased Gibson in 1944.
In terms of sound, the typical SJ-100 exceeds expectations, especially compared to the rosewood-body pre-war SJ-200s. One would expect the 200 to have a voice as big as its body – bigger than a dreadnought – but the typical example simply does not produce the booming sound associated with large-bodied rosewood guitars. The typical SJ-100, however, sounds like a big guitar with an extra bit of sustain, and is sonically as good as Gibson’s other pre-war mahogany guitars, such as the Jumbo and J-35.
One wonders if the people at CMI actually compared an SJ-100 to an SJ-200 or to Gibson’s newly introduced J-45. Apparently, they did. Duchossoir notes that two SJ-100s were shipped to CMI headquarters in July, 1944, as were examples of most other models, presumably for review. Duchossoir also notes that those two SJ-100s were probably newly made, so it’s impossible to know how closely they followed the pre-war specs.
When the war ended, production resumed on the SJ-200, but with maple back and sides instead of rosewood – possibly a result of the sampling by CMI. The mahogany-body dreadnoughts J-45, J-50, and Southerner Jumbo had been successfully introduced during the war, and Gibson continued producing them when the war ended. Given the moderate success of the SJ-100, one would think there would be a niche for a mahogany super jumbo, but the SJ-200 was the only pre-war flat-top the new regime revived after the war.
The SJ-200 went on to lasting fame, billed by Gibson as “The King of the Flat-tops,” while the SJ-100 became one of Gibson’s most obscure – and most intriguing – flat-tops.
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This article originally appeared in VG December 2010 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.