Review: Gibson's New J-29 is an 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-45—the J-15 and J-29—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 Martin’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 Gibson’s 1930s-style advanced X bracing. In terms of ornamentation, the guitar is appropriately streamlined. While there’s no binding on the neck or headstock, the multi-ply crème-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 soundboard’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 junction—minor details that would trouble only the most obsessive musician.
Feel & Sound
The J-29’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 it’s easy to discern their individual notes. Because of the instrument’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 “The Times They Are a-Changin’,” a G-major waltz with open chords, the guitar sounds full and vibrant, just as it does for the barre chords of “Lay Lady Lay” and the capoed chords of “Mr. Tambourine Man.” When I play “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” 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 Drake’s “Pink Moon,” 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 endpin’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
Gibson’s J-29 is an excellent addition to the company’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, it’s not exactly within reach of all working musicians, but it’s certainly a worthwhile guitar to aspire to.