Plenty of classic Gibson models started life as custom-made guitars designed to suit the needs of major stars of their day. Perhaps none fits this template so prominently, however, as the “King of the Flat-Tops,” the SJ-200. Gibson’s original Super Jumbo went from being the ultimate badge of honor for country and Western stars of the prewar years to pumping out the rhythm of rock and roll in the ’50s and beyond, and remains the flat-top to beat for that big, bold thrang.
In the 1930s, Hollywood’s Western stars were the pop idols of their day, and rather than trying to outdo each other with bling and Cristal, they gunned it out with rhinestone suits and pearl-encrusted guitars. Prior to 1937, the guitar in question was very often a round-shouldered Gibson dreadnought―still the “Jumbo” of its day―until one such matinee idol commissioned Gibson to build something considerably grander and kicked the whole game up a notch. “Singing Cowboy” Ray Whitley ordered a 17 inch-wide flat-top with a unique, rounded profile and deluxe cosmetic appointments. The original one-off was labeled “L-5 Special” for the similarity of its neck and body proportions to those of Gibson’s L-5 archtop, and other early examples of the design were made on a custom-order-only basis. Crooners Gene Autry, Tex Ritter, Roy Rogers, and Ray “Crash” Corrigan commissioned their own customized versions of the instrument (some historians believe Corrigan’s to in fact be the first SJ-200 built). The guitar appeared in the Gibson catalog a year later as the Super Jumbo, and was soon known simply as the SJ-200. Whatever you called it, that bovine body, abalone-festooned fingerboard, and intricately scrolled moustache bridge could be mistaken for no other flat-top on the planet―and when you custom-ordered it with your name inlayed along the fingerboard, as so many country and Western stars of the day did, there was also no mistaking you for anything other than a singer who had landed.
Aside from being the grandest looking flat-top on the planet, the SJ-200 had the goods to get these stars heard, too. The prewar model had a solid spruce top and solid rosewood back and sides for a full, rich voice that could really fill a room, partnered with a maple neck and 25 ½ inch scale length. After the war, however, the SJ-200 (soon shortened for a time to J-200) returned in 1947 with back and sides of solid maple, and this is the most famous incarnation of the model, accurately represented in the SJ-200 True Vintage made today by Gibson’s acoustic craftsmen in Bozeman, Montana. A crucial ingredient of many large-bodied archtops, maple helps to add brightness and definition to a guitar that already produces plenty of warmth from the sheer breadth of its dimensions. (At least one maple-bodied SJ-200 is documented as having been custom-ordered prior to WWII, as is a custom-ordered rosewood-bodied J-200 in the 1950s).
The change in materials perfectly suited the guitar’s move to the big stage, as the musical forms that it helped to propel found their way to larger and larger audiences. Porter Wagoner frequently used an SJ-200 and a collection of blinding suits to help him broadcast the country and Western message to the masses from the stage of the Grand Ole Opry, and it remained the symbol of success for stars of the country music boom. Meanwhile, more rebellious figures like Johnny Cash were also tapping into the SJ-200’s potential, while the model also helped to drive the new sounds of rock and roll in the hands of Elvis Presley and his guitarist Scotty Moore, as well as Buddy Holly, and the Everly Brothers.
And as country music itself evolved to suit the moods of the nation to which it was born, the SJ-200 went right along with it. Emmylou Harris and Gram Parsons established the “King of the Flat-Tops” as the choice of a new generation of artists, while rockers such as Pete Townshend and folk-rockers Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young further emphasized the SJ-200’s versatility. In addition to the True Vintage and Signature Artist Models, Gibson today offers a range of guitars based on this great template. The SJ-200 EC and SJ-200 Modern Classics reformat the instrument for the needs of the contemporary performer, while the Western Classic Prewar Custom makes the SJ-200 circa the late 1930s available once again. The J-250 Monarch takes the style to new heights with extremes of decorative inlays, and of course the SJ-200 was chosen as the format in which to celebrate the achievements of Gibson’s Bozeman luthiers, as embodied in the meticulously crafted Montana Gold Custom.
Today, the legendary Gibson SJ-200 endures as a substantive nod to country and Western’s forefathers and remains one of the company’s best-selling and best loved acoustics, for guitarists of all genres.