Vintage Instruments: Gibson Guitars

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1949 Gibson J-45

This guitar arrived at Folkway on trade, with no pickguard or tuners, and with terrible frets. It had a reglued top center seam and a couple of minor side cracks, but was otherwise in surprisingly good shape despite some pretty heavy playwear. The saddle slot in the original bridge had been filled and re-cut and filled again, but was intact and well glued - it’s always a huge plus when a guitar comes in with its original bridge still well glued. The original bridge plate was in the guitar and it was made of spruce, which was another kind of surprise altogether, and the braces were almost all still well glued in place. I became quite enamoured with this guitar through the process of bringing it back to life; here’s a recount of what went into the restoration.

Being a repair shop that specializes in vintage guitars – and particularly vintage Gibson guitars – has its perks. We have a lot of original vintage parts that we keep for the kind of rainy day this 1949 J-45 offered us, and sorting through the boxes I found an original late 1940’s Gibson pickguard that fit the original footprint on this guitar perfectly. It was a Cinderella’s slipper moment and I was thrilled. The pickguard glued on as if it was the original being reattached and it looks exactly right. It even matches the top’s playwear. Next were the tuners; and we had a nice set of c.1949 Kluson open-back tuners ready for action. The headstock had been drilled for Grover tuners at some point, so the larger post holes were plugged and re-drilled accurately for the 3-on-a-plate Klusons. There’s no finish work on the headstock, and the original press-fit bushings precisely cover the plugs. With the tuners installed there’s little visible evidence of them being unoriginal.

The guitar’s original bridge plate was made of spruce. That’s weird and completely uncommon. It’s also not good for tone or a top’s structural integrity. The plate was cracked and badly damaged, and someone had glued a maple cap over it that, in turn, had cracked as well. I chose a piece of very old and very hard maple for the new bridge plate, and machined it so as to leave the old oxidized and aged surface visible inside the guitar so it looks the part. The new plate is dimensioned identically to an original, and fit in the footprint of the one that was removed. I fit an original set of bridgepins, made a new old-looking saddle, and refretted the guitar. The original nut is in great shape and needed only minor adjustment.

As with any restoration, there were all kinds of steps that are likely too mundane to wax poetic about. In all, the guitar came off the bench in top playing shape, with great frets, full height saddle, and a whole lot of small-guard J-45 tone. The guitar has excellent top arch, scalloped braces, and a top that measures the ideal thickness for J-45 tone. It’s a clean-sounding and present J-45, with amazing string-to-string balance and a real dry woody midrange. It’s got plenty of volume and warmth and isn’t overly thumpy. Plenty of fundamental with just enough echo and overtones to keep it soulful.

Round neck with 1-11/16” nut, 24.75” scale. Set up with 12’s and an action of 5-6 64ths at the 12th fret.

While structurally in excellent condition, the guitar shows deep playwear localized between the pickguard and bridge. The fretboard has been restored in the first position, and the back of the neck shows some over-brushed old finish that has itself mostly worn away. Strap-button added to the heel of the neck.

With hardshell case

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