Gibson Jackson Browne Signature Review

AG 224 August 2011 Cover

Posted by Teja Gerken

In 1934, Gibson introduced one of its earliest signature-model guitars named for multi-instrumentalist Roy Smeck. Based on the company’s round-shoulder dreadnought body, the guitar had a 12-fret neck and was set up for lap-style slide playing, with a high nut and frets that were flush with the fingerboard. Smitten by the model’s unusually big voice, guitarists began modifying the instruments for standard playability, and in recent years, various companies (including Gibson, who offered a limited edition run in 1994 and builds similar guitars in its custom shop) have begun offering Roy Smeck–style instruments set up with standard necks. One of the earliest and most vocal advocates of this style has been singer-songwriter Jackson Browne, whose collection of vintage specimens is legendary. After several years of collaborating on prototypes, Gibson has introduced a Jackson Browne model, perhaps the first signature model based on another signature model.

Extra-Deep, Spruce and Walnut Body

Built in Gibson’s Bozeman, Montana, shop under the supervision of luthier Ren Ferguson, the Jackson Browne signature model includes several design and material choices that set it apart from the guitar that inspired it. While vintage Roy Smecks were built with mahogany or Brazilian rosewood backs and sides, Browne chose English walnut, a sustainable wood that fits his environmental concerns. The guitar’s top and scalloped top braces are made of Adirondack spruce. Perhaps the most significant design change is an increase in body depth. Measuring a whopping 4.83 inches at the tailblock, this body offers a lot of internal volume.

The guitar’s craftsmanship is impeccable throughout. It includes the typical Gibson fingerboard binding that covers the fret ends, beautiful internal construction, and a thinly applied sunburst finish with the authentic look that only Gibson seems to nail. Other than the fingerboard’s snowflake inlay and the Gibson logo on the headstock, there are no abalone or pearl appointments; the guitar relies on a simple two-ring rosette, white binding, and a great-looking fire-stripe pickguard for its handsome, if somewhat austere appearance. The thin rosewood bridge is fitted with an open saddle slot, but unlike the glued-in saddles of many vintage guitars, the Jackson Browne model’s bone saddle slides in like a modern drop-in saddle. The slot is quite shallow, however, so players who wish to retrofit an undersaddle pickup will most likely need to have it routed deeper. The plastic bridge pins, while perfectly functional, seem a little out of place on such an otherwise classy instrument.

Effortless Playability

Our review guitar’s low action made me wonder if it had been set up by one of Gibson’s Les Paul experts: it was as low 
as you’d expect from an electric solid-body. Combined with the guitar’s short scale and slightly V-shaped, but not too thick, neck profile, it was one of the easiest-playing acoustics I’ve ever experienced. The deep body and short 12-fret neck make the guitar feel a bit stout, however, and I suspect that some players with short arms may find the depth uncomfortable.

I expected a lightly built, 12-fret guitar with scalloped top bracing to be very responsive, and my supposition wasn’t wrong: the lightest touch resulted in a rich, fully developed tone, even when played at a whisper level. It may seem like an odd match, but some of the things I enjoyed playing most on this guitar were pieces from the classical guitar repertoire, which benefited from the guitar’s playability and relatively wide string spacing. The instrument produced respectable volume without much effort, but with its low action, it reached its volume ceiling fairly quickly. But played alongside a Taylor dreadnought in a jam, it held its own, regardless of whether I played fingerstyle or with a pick, though I had to be careful to control the strength of my attack to maintain a clean sound without buzzes. The guitar’s tone has a touch of the typical Gibson dry, somewhat thumpy-sounding bass, but not as much as many other Gibson flattops: overall, it presents a clear and balanced tonality.

Trance Audio Electronics

Our review guitar included the optional Trance Audio Amulet electronics package. Long heralded by many as one of the most high-end systems available, this system is identical to the rig used by Browne on his own stage guitars. Consisting of two triaxial (sensing vibrations on all three physical planes) Acoustic Lens soundboard transducers mounted to the bridgeplate, an internal preamp mounted to the guitar’s back, and a special five-pin output jack, the system also includes a custom cable and external control unit.

The Trance Audio system is often described in almost mythological terms, and Browne is not the only high-profile artist known for using it and sounding great in concert. But many guitarists have little actual experience with the rig. The Gibson Jackson Browne signature model is the only production guitar I’m aware of that’s available with the Trance Audio system, and I was curious to hear it in action.

The system’s two Acoustic Lens pickups—small, rectangular boxes about 3/4 inch long and 1/4 inch wide and high—are glued to the guitar’s bridge plate, directly beneath the saddle line and in front of the bridge pins. A preamp is mounted to the inside of the guitar’s back, and the endpin jack uses a special five-pin connector instead of the standard 1/4-inch type. Trance Audio’s external Amulet preamp (which fits into the guitar case) can be operated with two nine-volt batteries or a power adapter, and it includes a volume control and two 1/4-inch outputs that can be used to route the two pickups separately in stereo or summed as a mono signal.

I tried the guitar through a couple of different amps—an AER Compact 60 and a Fishman Loudbox 100—as well as a PA at a club gig. In all these situations, I found the sound coming out of the speakers to be remarkably similar to the acoustic voice of the guitar. In contrast to some soundboard transducers that require careful applications of EQ, depending on what they’re plugged into, the Trance Audio was surprisingly simple to use. It sounded more open and less compressed through the large 15-inch speakers of the club’s PA than the small speakers in the amps I tried it with, but overall the setup should yield pleasing sounds in many performance settings. But the need for a special cable does diminish the rig’s user-friendliness.

Vintage Meets Modern

The Gibson Jackson Browne signature model is a cool instrument that takes a classic design and brings it up to contemporary performance standards. With a full sound, easy playability, and a top-shelf pickup system, this guitar is worth checking out whether you’re a Jackson Browne fan or not.

SPECS: Round-shoulder 12-fret dreadnought. Solid Adirondack spruce top. Solid English walnut back and sides. One-piece mahogany neck. Rosewood fingerboard and bridge. Dovetail neck joint. Scalloped X-bracing. 24.75-inch scale. 1.8-inch nut width. 2 3/16-inch string spacing at saddle. Nitrocellulose finish. Gold Waverly tuners. Trance Audio Amulet pickup system. Light-gauge Gibson phosphor-bronze strings. Made in USA.

PRICE: $7,738 list/$5,999 street as reviewed ($5,799 list/$4,499 street without Trance Audio pickup system).

MAKER: Gibson: (800) 444-2766; gibson.com.

Excerpted from Acoustic Guitar August 2011

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