Gibson J-29 - Acoustic-Rock Workhorse
So much classic music has been made on a Gibson J-45. Bob Dylan, Buddy Holly, and John Lennon are just a few of the greats who have relied on this workhorse of a guitar, with its taut bass and overall warmth, not to mention its receptiveness to both forceful strumming and delicate fingerpicking. Gibson recently introduced a pair of curious variations on the J-45â€”the J-15 and J-29â€”swapping out walnut and rosewood bodies, respectively, for the traditional mahogany. A close inspection of a freshly made J-29 reveals that the rosewood imparts depth and projection to the unmistakable sound of this archetypal design.
In 1936, Gibson unveiled its first jumbo, the J-35, in response to Martinâ€™s powerful dreadnought. At $35 (about $575 today), the J-35, with its distinctively rounded shoulders, was a no-frills budget model, intended for the working musician. It was replaced in 1942 by the J-45, also a bargain at $45 ($736 today). Nearly 80 years after the debut of the J series, Gibson has many more than just two models in the J series, from exacting reissues like the 1942 J-45 Legend and 1965 Donovan Model to a standard, a custom, and such signature models as the John Hiatt and the Brad Paisley.
Add the J-29 to that list.
Though it might have modern updates, in spirit this guitar is much like the original J-35 or J-45: a sturdy, all-purpose instrument. It shares significant manufacturing and aesthetic aspects with its vintage counterparts. The neck is fit to the body with a compound dovetail, and the soundboard is supported with Gibsonâ€™s 1930s-style advanced X bracing. In terms of ornamentation, the guitar is appropriately streamlined. While thereâ€™s no binding on the neck or headstock, the multi-ply crĂ¨me-and-white binding on the top and back make the guitar feel finished. This scheme also appears in the three-ply rosette. Simple, quarter-inch pearl dots adorn the fretboard; two dots make an appearance on the rectangular bridge. The package is rounded out with a traditional tortoise pickguard, which looks especially nice with the rosewood and mahogany.
This review model J-29 is built well. The fretwork is tip-top, as are the nut and saddle setup. The binding is snug, and overall, the nitrocellulose lacquer finish is smooth and uniform. A look inside the box finds that no shortcuts were taken when gluing and sanding the bracing and kerfing. A critical eye can see the occasional anomaly: on the soundboardâ€™s center seam, for instance, the top portion of the rosette is slightly disrupted, and there is a hint of sloppiness in the finish at the neck-to-body junctionâ€”minor details that would trouble only the most obsessive musician.
Feel & Sound
The J-29â€™s C-shape neck is smaller than the typical vintage example, a big plus for the contemporary player. It has agreeably low action and is sleek and comfortable for playing barre chord-based accompaniment and single-note excursions. A 1.725-inch-wide nut gives the fretting fingers ample space to form chord grips.
Strumming open chords with a plectrum is a pleasure on this guitar. It projects a bit more and feels more responsive than expected, likely owing to the rosewood back and the 1930-style bracing. The chords have a nice balance between fundamentals and overtones, and itâ€™s easy to discern their individual notes. Because of the instrumentâ€™s present bass and an overall good balance among the registers, it works especially well for accompaniment like Carter strumming and boom-chuck. It also offers great definition and presence for bluegrass runs and single-note lines in other styles.
As Dylan has used his round-shouldered guitars to such good effect, it seems only fitting to try some of his offerings on this J-29. When I launch into â€śThe Times They Are a-Changinâ€™,â€ť a G-major waltz with open chords, the guitar sounds full and vibrant, just as it does for the barre chords of â€śLay Lady Layâ€ť and the capoed chords of â€śMr. Tambourine Man.â€ť When I play â€śDonâ€™t Think Twice, Itâ€™s All Right,â€ť I find that the J-29 is just as suitable for fingerpicking. Tuning to the open Cadd4 chord (low to high:
C G C F C E) for Nick Drakeâ€™s â€śPink Moon,â€ť the guitar loses none of its luster with the strings at much lower pitches than standard, with and without the capo.
The guitar just sounds great all-round.
The Nuanced Electronics
The J-29 comes standard with the L.R. Baggs Element. This undersaddle pickup is nicely discreet, with a single volume control tucked just inside the soundhole rather than on the hunk of plastic often found on the upper bass bout of an acoustic guitar.
Plugging the guitar into a Fender Acoustasonic amplifier via Planet Waves cable at the endpinâ€™s quarter-inch jack, I am easily able to get a sound that captures plenty of the acoustic character and nuances.
When plugged into a DAW and blended with the sound of a condenser microphone on the guitar, the pickup also works well for adding a little definition to a recording prominently featuring the instrument.
True to expectations, the Element also sounds good on its own for tracking a part that sits lower in the mix.
A Guitar to Aspire to Own
Gibsonâ€™s J-29 is an excellent addition to the companyâ€™s classic J series. Its rosewood back and sides lend a bit of color and volume to the design. The guitar features a number of original details, such as the soundboard bracing and the nitrocellulose finish, but the easy neck and the L.R. Baggs pickup make this model a more adaptable instrument than its vintage counterparts.
Perhaps the only drawback to this guitar is that, at $2,249 street, itâ€™s not exactly within reach of all working musicians, but itâ€™s certainly a worthwhile guitar to aspire to.
BODYRound-shouldered dreadnought body. Solid spruce top with solid rosewood back and sides. Nitrocellulose lacquer finish.
Mahogany neck. Rosewood fretboard and bridge. 24.75-inch scale length. 1.725-inch nut width. Grover 14:1 tuners.
L.R. Baggs Element pickup.
Gibson Light strings (.012â€“.053); hardshell case; Gibson
$2,862 list/$2,249 street. Made in the United States. gibson.com.