Thursday, December 10, 2015

1934-1943 Rosewood Gibson "J" guitars for Bluegrass Rhythm

 The goals of this blog are quite broad, ranging from the science of sound all the ways to personal stories about our life with vintage guitars.  I kind of have a backlog of personal stories, expect to see some of them as this gets started.  Here is a story I told on the Gibson Acoustic Guitar Forum.

I have never really told this story, even though I have been seriously engaged in this activity for most of my life -- really intensively for the past decade.

I must tell you I was born into a Gibson family -- we were a Ford, Evinrude, Remington, Gibson family. Southerners are like that. Not that we owned any Gibsons -- we were too poor for that. So when I bought my first good guitar in 1961, it was a Gibson -- LG1.  Just what we did.

I was a folk revival guy in the 60s, and I married well in that regard. The folk revival was/is a wonderful inclusive genre where the bar was not too high  -- everybody played.

Later the genre sort of went away -- we never followed it when it went electric. After that we wandered in the musical wilderness for about a decade (1970s), but then we found traditional bluegrass -- as played near us in North Georgia. We were blown away by this powerful music and we wanted to join in, but our pitiful mild guitar and vocal skills were not very useful for bluegrass. Neither were our instruments.

Over the next 40 years, we aspired to bluegrass, continued our folk interests, and started collecting instruments for both. We did end up with a lot of Gibsons and a lot of Martins. We basically used all the Gibsons and the smaller Martins to play folk music (revival, traditional, and old time) and the large Martins to play bluegrass.

I am not going to talk about the many Gibsons and many Martins we use in so many ways. I am only going to talk here about prewar Martin D-28s (RW) and prewar Gibson RW Js.

Starting in the late 1940s, Martin's prewar D-28s (herringbone) rose to predominance as the rhythm instrument of choice for traditional bluegrass -- in many ways that guitar was a key element defining that genre. In my experience, playing a prewar herringbone as the rhythm player with accomplished bluegrass players is pretty close to a religious experience. The tonal features in the old D-28s that defines its role is the big, wide, roaring (RW) midrange that fills out and completes the bluegrass rhythm.

So, by the early 2000s we had acquired three old herringbones, an loved the opportunities they gave us. We used our old Gibsons too -- but not for bluegrass rhythm.

But I come from a Gibson family -- although I had proved to my own satisfaction no common Gibson model worked for us for BG rhythm. But also I had heard for years -- from Gary Burnette, from who we had bought several guitars -- that 30s AJs were "bone crushers." But they were really rare (less than 300), and although not as expensive as old herringbones, they cost a lot. So I started watching out for one, and eventually bought one from George Gruhn. Normally we did not buy from high end dealers, but if you want something really rare, sometimes that is what you have to do.

Well, it lived up to its hype -- maybe not a bone crusher, but the same class of guitar with the power and tonal properties so necessary for power bluegrass. It was a major hit with my flatpicking friends, and bluegrass bigots even admit that if you close your eyes, you would "never believe it was a Gibson."  Oddly, that is high praise.

I had taken the jump, and it had paid off. I was happy.

But then something else happened. A friend from Seattle needed a new neck for a Roy Smeck Radio Grand -- the old one had been butchered. I put him in touch with Randy Wood, who does a lot of our work and that led to a meeting that put our AJ and his RSRG nose to nose. Well the RSRG blew me away -- it was in the same class as the AJ, although the center frequency for the midrange was a bit different. Of course, you can't just use a RSRG to play bluegrass because it has to be converted. But it does not cost as much as an AJ.

Long story short, I got one and had Randy Wood build a new neck for it -- carefully done so it could be returned to original Hawaiian with the original neck if desired. Once again success -- a guitar in the same class as the AJ and old D-28s.

I figured I was through -- but never say never. I also had heard of a yet even more rare guitar. The first few batches of SJs from 1942/43 were RW. There are not even 200 of them -- maybe quite a bit less. I did not really have much hope that (a) I could get one and (2) I would like it -- we have several banner SJs and J-45s, and they just don't have the power to compete with the old AJ, RSRG, and D-28s or D-18s. But there was a very well known BG player who had one and claimed it was as good as his old herringbone. I really did not believe it, and they were so rare I figured I would die without one regardless -- but then one popped up. Gary Burnette had one. So I went to see it and brought cash just in case. Glad I did -- it had the required tone and power too. I don't know if they all do, but this one does.

So I had found something that is not very well known -- there are old Gibsons that can truly hang in and excel in roles that are normally reserved for old Martins. But their rarity and the lack of visibility associated with rarity have robbed them of their accolades. Don't get me wrong -- those old herringbone deserve their reputation. But the Gibsons in my experience are just as good.

You might think something similar might be true with the mahogany guitars -- but that we have not found to be true. But that is another story.

Here they are.

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You can find examples here of the 36 AJ and 43 RW SJ being demoed along with old D-28s (35, 39, and 48), old D-18s (35, 38, 54, and 63) as well as a 34 Martin 00-40H (once owned and played a lot by Norman Blake) and some other stuff.

Let's pick,


Wednesday, February 11, 2015


My long term interest in traditional American music, American history, vintage instruments and acoustic science is sort of the perfect storm – and the process started many years ago.

  1. First, I spent my professional life as a university researcher in acoustics and signal processing (Georgia Tech). It was a fine, satisfying and rewarding career – my greatest visible success was setting the low bit rate speech communication standard first for the US federal government and then for NATO. As part of these activities I received the 2014 IEEE Jack Kilby Medal for Signal Processing. I spent 40 years immersed in the science of sound and DSP.

  2. I came from a expatriate Appalachian family that immigrated to North Florida, before and during the depression, to work in the construction trades. My father, while in High School, had played in an traditional string band. I played the grooves off of “Wabash Cannonball” when I was a kid. 

  3. The other trick I learned as a kid from my resourceful, craftsman family was how to live better than your income by trading skills, searching for good junk, and fixing stuff – the search for good deals was a major and useful form of entertainment which I learned as a kid.

  4. I was educated in Boston (MIT) in the 60s, and acoustic folk revival music was the music of my youth. I bought a Gibson LG-1 in 1962, played and sang “folk music,” and met and married a “folk singer” – who was beautiful, has a great voice and also was a trained biologist who supported me through my graduate education. A killer combination!

  5. After coming to Atlanta to work in 1971, I developed a huge interest in 19th and 20th century American history – I pretty much gave up recreational reading for the study of history for about 20 years. This also included the history of 20th American music. My wife also loved to search for bargains at flea markets and such, and we decorated our lives and home with historical artifacts – many of these were (usually cheap) musical instruments which we could also play.

  6. Somewhere in the early days we came up with a vintage Martin – a 1943 00-17 that was actually in good playing condition. Well it blew us away – we had never heard anything like that! We would just put that guitar on the couch and play individual notes and listen to them until they faded out – we were hooked.

  7. In the late 1970 we found the bluegrass culture of the Southern Mountains – populated with people who shared the cultural values (and dialects) of my youth. As folkies, we believed this to be a dying culture fading into history – what was found was anything but. The music was an intrinsic part of the culture and was very powerful – it made our puny folkie skills almost irrelevant. Virtuosity was common, not only on the instruments (guitar, banjo, fiddle, mandolin and bass), but also in the extreme vocal styles of the mountains. We heard things in those misty mountain parking lot jams that we did not believe were possible – something so strong it could never be captured on stage or in recording. 

  8. The bluegrass culture of the 1970s was also an instrument culture, albeit narrowly focused – mostly on old Martin dreads, prewar Gibson mandolins and banjos, fiddles, and old Kay basses. These instruments were discussed hour after hour, and passed around between songs in the endless jam sessions in the parking lots of small mountain festivals. By the late 70s, this community already knew all the stuff that the rest of the world would not recognize for another 25 years.

So by 1980, all the pieces were in place – a shared (with my wife) love of traditional music, an aspiration to be part of the traditional bluegrass community, a scientific interest in sound, and a drive to find bargains. Well I have always been better able to make money by building things (my degree is in engineering) than by investing – I just never had the passion to learn the stuff I would need to know to invest in the stock market. So when were were looking for a way to store retirement money, vintage instruments seemed like a good alternative. Here we did have the passion to know (and to play) – so we decided we would allow about 10% of our retirement money to be invested in instruments.

And so it started. My goal was not to collect instruments, but to collect historic sounds. Thus we never (or seldom) bought multiple copies of the “same” instrument. A major focus is bluegrass instruments because we aspire to play that, but also “lesser” instruments to populate our broader traditional and folk revival interests. From an investment perspective, we often bought classes of instruments which were not “hot” – D-18s rather than D-28s, 000s rather than dreads, and (if truth be told) Gibsons rather than Martins.

Our passion exploded in the 1990s when I needed a lot of stress release from intense technological professing and entrepreneuring – we wanted something that did not have anything to do with technology.

I am now retired and guess I can say I am living my dream – really our dream, because this was all done with my wife. We have a bluegrass band (THE NEXT BAND), which has slowed down now but which played a lot starting in the early 1990s. We are not really good musicians in a profession sense, but we gig maybe 40 times a year and play in three of four times that many sessions of various sorts. People bring me instruments all the time so I can play them. And we have a great collection of old instruments which we get to interact with every day. 

We were inducted into the “Hall or Honor” of the Atlanta Country Music Hall of Fame in 2006.

The people we have met, the music we have played, and the stories we have heard are breathtakingly beautiful.  You can't make this stuff up -- no one would believe you!




My name is Tom Barnwell.  I have decided to start a blog on my three favorite topics: Traditional American Music, Vintage American Instruments, and acoustic science.  Stay tuned for the beginning of the story.