I never planned to build a guitar this large, but 2020 was a pretty strange year all around, including in my wood shop. When the right person asked if I’d build a J45-like guitar (and convinced me that it would be a blast to play), I caved.
I’ve played and repaired many slope-shouldered dreadnoughts over the years, and based this new model on the best one I’ve ever played, a maple-bodied banner-era J45. It belongs to Jim Nelson, a terrific old-time fiddle accompanist from the St. Louis area. What makes that guitar so great is that it has a dry, fast sound with a touch of a devil-may-care edge to it, while avoiding the trap of tubbiness so common in this shape of guitar. It’s a terrific specimen of the git-r-done aesthetic of the war-era J45s.
The most sought-after examples of J45s were built during the war years (World War Two) with pretty much whatever materials were available, and on a budget for cash-strapped players. They built a reputation as a blue-collar guitar that was never intended to be too sophisticated or elegant, but was ready to play when you were. I respect the come-as-you-are aesthetic of these instruments, and tried to hew close to the original unfussy, make-it-work ethos, in part by using sustainable domestic woods.
For this guitar, my goal was that it have nice balance, but not be too sweet. To accomplish that, I chose a crisp Adirondack spruce top and paired it with red maple back and sides. Red maple’s mass falls in the middle of the maples, and structurally it is a lot like Honduran mahogany but a bit harder. Maple is a good choice to help fill out the trebles that stiff red spruce produces. All of the woods for the box and neck were sourced from Old Standard Wood.
The result achieved the goal–the low end has the chest-shaking thump you expect, but the mid-range and trebles are surprisingly full and usable. Playing it is a tactile experience! I dyed it to an all-over sunburst anchored by a deep russet brown and finished it by applying shellac using the French polish method. The neck angle (and playing action) is adjustable, using a version of Mike Doolin’s neck adjustment approach. I worked with the owner to add a custom phoenix headstock inlay in mother of pearl and maple. We wanted it to be fairly contemporary in style but pay homage to the classic gryphon and other mythical inlays of the past. I think we ended up with something that is both sharp and fun. Finally, Taylor Mullins (Holter Pickguards) made a custom pickguard as the cherry on top.
Altogether, it feels great in the hands, is very responsive (especially for this style of guitar!), and is a blast to play. Dreadnoughts–who knew?
And here’s the same audio, but this is the raw output of the K&K Mini pickup run directly from the endpin jack to my audio interface:
|Sides & Back||Red maple|
|Binding & Accent Wood||Granadillo|