Collings CJ35 Review

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Posted by Adam Perlmutter

Gibson’s J-35, a distinctive slope-shouldered flattop intended to compete with Martin’s dreadnought, was conceived as a budget model, selling for a mere $35 when it was introduced in 1936. The J-35 was replaced in 1942 by the J-45, which had slightly different bracing and cosmetics, also a bargain at $45, which would become affectionately known as Gibson’s “workhorse,” as a result of all the great music that players like Buddy Holly and Bob Dylan made on this no-frills instrument.

Despite the slope-shoulder’s humble origins, numerous high-end makers have been crafting their own interpretations, including Collings Guitars’ CJ series. Having conducted an exhaustive survey of golden era designs of all kinds, it is only natural that the Austin, Texas-based company has long offered a range of slope-shoulders, and earlier this year, it added the new CJ35.

At Once Vintage and Modern

The CJ35 departs from Collings’s standard CJ (which has a long scale, making it more like a Gibson Advanced Jumbo) in a few different structural ways. The soundboard support incorporates unscalloped Adirondack spruce bracing with three tone bars as opposed to scalloped Sitka spruce with two tone bars (the earliest J-35s had three). The scale on the CJ35 is shorter at 24 7/8 inches and the new straight-style bridge has a saddle that is 2 5/16 inches wide rather than 2 3/16.

The CJ35 we received was assembled from an especially nice selection of tonewoods. The grain on the spruce is consistently fine, and the grain on the mahogany is straight but complex. With its swirls of rich browns along with black streaking, the African rosewood used for the fingerboard and bridge closely resembles Brazilian rosewood, particularly on the bridge.

            At a glance this CJ35 could be mistaken for a 75-year-old guitar in museum condition. Graduating from a deep brown to a glowing orange, the sunburst finish looks vintage-correct, an effect enhanced by the plastic firestripe pickguard. The back, sides, and neck have been given a warm brown stain, also consistent with the old school. And, as on a typical original slope-shoulder, the CJ35 doesn’t have much in the way of ornamentation—just grained ivoroid binding on the body, matched by a heel cap and end stripe, a walnut back stripe so inconspicuous that it almost blends in with the mahogany, and a rosette with cream-and-black rings. All that’s on the headstock is an ivoroid Collings script logo, complemented by pearl dots on the fingerboard.

But the CJ35 is modern in subtle ways. The top of the headstock, for instance, has Collings’s trademark “haircut,” or asymmetric contour. A more significant detail isn’t visually obvious: as on all Collings guitars, the neck has a mortise-and-tenon joint that is bolted to the body rather than a traditional glued dovetail joint.

As expected, the craftsmanship on our CJ35 is breathtakingly fine. The gloss nitrocellulose lacquer finish doesn’t have a single imperfection and has been buffed to a splendid luster, while the binding is perfectly flush with the wood throughout. The nut, bridge, and fretwork are all meticulous, free from any sort of jaggedness. Inside there’s no roughness or evidence of glue on the prewar-style scalloped bracing or kerfing, and even the mahogany wood plugs have been carefully selected and aligned to blend in with the neck block.

Highly Responsive, Huge Sound

The CJ35’s generous, vintage-inspired neck profilewasdeveloped specifically for the model. The nut width and saddle string spacing are a generous 1 3/4 and 2 5/16 inches, respectively. As a player accustomed to smaller and narrower necks, I initially found this neck to be cumbersome, partly because the factory action was slightly higher than I’m used to, especially up on neck (about 1/8-inch at the 12th fret and about 5/32 at the 19th).

But the neck’s girth and action must influence the sound of the instrument, which is refreshingly buzz-free and deeply resonant. It completely won me over with the first open E chord, exquisitely balanced and defined, impressively sustaining, and unexpectedly loud (considering its mahogany body) when played with an unforceful strum. The natural harmonics are uncommonly crisp and vivid, even at odd locations like the second and fourth frets.

When played with open-position cowboy or basic barre chords, the CJ35 responds beautifully to the most delicate strumming as well as the most aggressive, on account of its generous headroom. It’s easy to discern the individual notes of each chord, and voicings that use open strings sound especially robust and shimmering. The CJ35 also works just as well in more complex situations, such as fingerstyle jazz comping with walking bass lines.

Single-note lines on the CJ35 are thick and warm in all registers. Played with palm muting, bass riffs leap out with great power. Excursions on the higher strings are similarly satisfying. The treble is just as sturdy as the bass, and lines played with a light attack from the flatpick have a surprising amount of presence and color.

Given its wide nut and saddle, the guitar is accommodating for both flatpicking and fingerpicking. Playing Bob Dylan’s “Girl from the North Country,” capoed at the third fret, the guitar responded beautifully, amplifying picking-hand nuances while resonating with a marvelous natural reverb—as it did for improvised fingerpicking in tunings like D A D G A D, open G, and open D. And the Waverly tuners, with their 16:1 gear ratio, make it a breeze to switch between different tunings.             

With its new CJ35, Collings has created impeccably built and awesome-sounding slope-shouldered guitar with vintage vibe and outstanding playability: a modern workhorse and future classic for sure. 

SPECS: Slope-shoulder dreadnought body. Solid Sitka spruce top. Solid mahogany back and sides. Prewar-style straight X-bracing. Bolt-on mahogany neck. African rosewood fingerboard and bridge. Bone nut and saddle. 24 7/8-inch scale. 1 3/4-inch nut width. 2 5/16-inch string spacing at saddle. High-gloss nitrocellulose lacquer finish. Nickel Waverly tuning machines. Medium-gauge D’Addario phosphor-bronze strings. Made in USA.

PRICE: Starts at $4,320 ($4,860 list as reviewed with sunburst finish).

MAKER: Collings Guitars: (512) 288-7776; collingsguitars.com.

Editor’s Impressions

TEJA GERKEN: The Collings CJ35 embodies everything that fans of the Austin, Texas–based brand have come to expect: it looks gorgeous, has flawless craftsmanship, sounds amazing, and plays great. I was surprised by how versatile a dreadnought with unscalloped bracing could be. I enjoyed playing the guitar on any style I tried. Whether it was traditional fingerpicking, strumming, or flatpicking single-note lines, the guitar responded with a highly complex voice and huge dynamic range. The wide string spacing is more often seen on smaller guitars, but it resulted in excellent playability for tricky fingerstyle maneuvers.

SCOTT NYGAARD: An immaculately constructed, deliciously flamed instrument, the C-J35 has piano-like note separation and the dry clarity of a prized vintage specimen. Though it seems odd to single out on such a fantastic-sounding and -looking instrument, what struck me most about this guitar was the neck. Its perfectly set up medium action and rounded shape allowed me to really dig in without any fear of the guitar breaking up. I’ve played few guitars that were so precisely aligned that I could slam into single notes up the neck and have them ring out as clear and round as on this guitar. 

Excerpted from Acoustic Guitar June 2013

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