Legendary Guitar: Elvis Presley’s Gibson J-200
Music historians have thoroughly documented how blues and country came together with an extra shot of energy and a dash of panache to give birth to rock and roll. You could define one of the genre’s biggest stars, Elvis Presley, in precisely the same terms, then turn around and apply the formula to Elvis’s all-time favorite acoustic guitar — the Gibson J-200. Developed as the ultimate punchy, cutting rhythm machine for country stars of the late 1930s, the J-200 (originally, and again today, called the SJ-200) offered the maximum volume and clarity available from an acoustic guitar in its day, while also stepping out in the bold, flashy looks that really helped a performer stand out on stage. Both its look and sound translated perfectly to rock and roll, and Elvis embraced his own Gibson J-200 with a passion that The King rarely, if ever, displayed for a musical instrument.
You can see — and hear — Elvis’s blonde J-200 in the movies Jailhouse Rock, King Creole and G.I. Blues, as well as on surviving concert footage from the period, where he puts it to good use cranking out the rhythm chops in his own inimitable and under-sung style. It’s interesting to consider, though, that this enormous star came to his instrument, very likely, out of his admiration for those who had played it before him, and who had already established it as the pinnacle of its breed.
The forefather of the J-200 hit the scene in 1937 when “Singing Cowboy” Ray Whitley ordered a 17”-wide flat-top from Gibson 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. C&W 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.
Aside from being the grandest looking flat-top on the planet in its day, 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 1/2” 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 TV made today by Gibson’s acoustic craftsmen in Bozeman, Mo. 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).
Elvis came into his own J-200 just as he was approaching the early peak of his career, and Presley lead-guitarist Scotty Moore’s memories of those days provide some interesting insight into how his employer acquired the instrument. As Moore tells it, Elvis was given a 1956 J-200 in October of ’56 (actually a J-200N, the “N” denoting the natural finish on this model) thanks to Moore’s own endorsement deal to play a Gibson Super 400CESN. Ever tight on the reins, however, Presley manager Tom “The Colonel” Parker wouldn’t let his star accept endorsements, so Elvis was invoiced for the guitar, and purportedly paid in full (further fascinating details of the story of this guitar and others are available in Scotty Moore’s own words).
Elvis’s Gibson J-200 quickly became his favorite instrument, and he sought protection for it a year later in the form of a custom-made tooled-leather cover, which the guitar is frequently seen wearing in live concert photos and film footage. Originally a stock-factory model, the guitar received the custom appointments that it was later known for after being sent out for restoration upon Elvis’s return from Army service in 1960. In addition to getting it back into playing condition, the famous “ELVIS PRESLEY” inlay was added to the fingerboard, and the original pickguard was swapped out for a pointy, black custom affair, first prominently seen in the movie Wild in the Country.
This is the guitar Elvis again turned to for his live performance comeback of 1969-’71, a period that is well documented in photos and on film — a great proportion of which beautifully shows off his modified 1956 J-200. The guitar is now on display with other Elvis Presley memorabilia at the artist’s Graceland mansion in Memphis, Tenn.