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