When I was getting the guitar out of the back of the car, my wife, Ann, told me that the kids shouldn’t play this guitar. The implication was clear. This was not just a special guitar; there was likely some financial heft behind it as well.

As I looked around the Web, I found a lot of information about J-45s and some J-60s. But none with the Walnut.

Not much, that is, until this post — a walnut J-60 for sale in England at JustGreatGuitars.com. It is essentially the same guitar. The only difference I can see at all is that the pick-guard on Stephanie’s J-60 was slightly different. I’m going to copy some of the historical information and paste it below because this post is for a guitar for sale in London — and I don’t know how long the page will be up.

But here’s the really amazing thing. It sounds like only 12 of these guitars were made. While there were “regular” ’96 editions with Rosewood and some in sunburst, there were only 12 ’96 Jumbo “Bone Crusher” guitars made using the Walnut and Bearclaw Spruce. 12! Here’s part of their write-up:

Gibson Bone Crusher

Gibson’s J-45 lineage of acoustic guitars has had some noteworthy players over the years. John Lennon and The Beatles rocked the world with his J-160E, Bob Dylon called his early J-50 “a great guitar” and Noel Gallagher joins the multitude of J-45 players – we certainly can’t fault his taste in musical instruments.

Of course, The CF Martin company had its own series of jumbo-sized guitars, called dreadnoughts: notably the mahogany bodied D-18 and the rosewood bodied D and HD-28. Nowadays, each of these models is acknowledged to be a great design and what they all have in common is a 16” body, mahogany neck and scalloped “X” bracing. (The braces supporting the vibrating guitar’s top form an X behind the sound-hole. Scalloping the braces makes them lighter and more responsive to vibration. Today’s finest acoustic guitars are usually X braced and scalloped.)

In 1934 Gibson decided to show Martin just who could make the better guitar, and came out with the rosewood bodied Gibson Advanced Jumbo. You’ve maybe never heard of this guitar, and unless your name is Mark Knopfler, you almost certainly don’t own one. The Advanced Jumbo is a truly beautiful instrument, with a very powerful and clear voice. Its secret weapon was “Advanced Jumbo bracing” – deeply scalloped X bracing shifted forward to be even closer to a larger sound hole (potentially trading structural strength for volume and tone).

Since Martin’s HD-28 featured decorative herring-bone inlays, Gibson nicknamed their louder and more toneful guitar the Bone Crusher. Only 300 Bone Crushers were made between 1935 and 1940 (if you have one, please do let us know – I’ve tracked down just two so far).

In the nineties, those talented and dedicated Gibson craftsmen at Bozeman, Montana decided to come out with a square-shouldered re-issue of the bone crusher, and gave it, appropriately, the model designation J-60. Most were rosewood bodied and finished in antique sunburst as the originals, but some had a maple body with a natural finish spruce top. They had the Gibson logo in pre-war style “spaghetti” script inlayed in mother of pearl on the headstock and open gear tuners.

Then, for no apparent reason they created what is believed to be a run of just 12 high spec J-60 guitars. These had walnut back and sides, fabulous sitka spruce tops and enclosed gold plated tuners.

This guitar presents a real problem for anyone wanting to buy the best acoustic jumbo guitar ever made. Nicknamed “The Bonecrusher”, it’s mightier than the pre-war Martin HD-28, whose herring-bone inlays it was originally designed to crush, and is an upgraded modern version of the famous Gibson Advanced Jumbo. Only 300 of the original Advanced Jumbos were made and if you can find one for sale it’s probably going to run you upwards of £20,000.

The J-60 of the 1990s was effectively the re-issue of the Advanced Jumbo, plenty were made, and they fetch something of the order of £1500. However, the master builders at Gibson’s Bozeman Montana workshop came up with the idea of building a very few J-60s from walnut and bearclaw spruce. It’s rumoured that only 12 of these guitars were made, hence the dilemma – find one of 300 pre-war Advanced Jumbos, or one of 12 walnut J-60s!

This only leaves me with one conclusion: I’m not really worthy of this guitar. But I’m trying.

Sometimes when I’m in downtown Seattle and I want to kill a couple of hours between meetings, I go to a guitar store. (I fully realize the riskiness of this diversion.) One afternoon, not long after theJj-60 I stopped by Emerald City Guitars in Seattle’s Pioneer Square. Given that these guys specialize in vintage guitars and equipment, I figured I’d learn something. I wasn’t sure what.

Since playing Stephanie’s Gibson J-60, I was an appreciation for a really well-built guitar, with great woods and a bit of history. I still had it in my head that if I were going to go out and and buy my dream acoustic guitar, it would be a Martin. Probably the D-28. If I hit Emerald City Guitars on the right day, I might find some real gems and spend an hour checking out different old guitars.

So that’s what I did, and after a while I got to talking with Trevor (the owner’s son). He was saying that in his eyes (or ears) the guitars to really look at were the old Martin D-28s and the Gibson J-45s. But, in either case, you never know with a guitar — you just have to play them to make sure you get one that sounds good.

I asked Trevor if he’d ever heard of the J-60. He hadn’t, which only piqued my interest more. He said it was probably a limited edition. Clearly I needed to do more research.

Still curious about the difference between Martins and Gibsons, I looked online for comparisons. And I came across something pretty interesting. A guy, who was an unabashed Gibson J-45 fan had a write-up on the history of the guitar as part of his thesis for why they were so great. Here’s an excerpt:

After the war, the J-45 flourished on the market and was a favorite of blues players, flat pickers (e.g. Doc Watson, et al) and working musicians of all ilks. Quality remained consistently good through the 1950s, but in the early 60’s Gibson began to make some changes to the design of this proven guitar classic, and it was the beginning of the company’s darkest days. The design was beefed up with laminate bridge pads, a bulky bottom-belly bridge, thicker pick guards and eventually, larger braces. These modifications greatly affected the sound of the J-45 for the worse, sucking the life out of it.

Worse, the Gibson company was purchased in 1969 by Norlin Industries, a conglomerate more interested in profit than quality, and operations were moved to Nashville in 1974, which added another set of problems, not the least of which was the climate. Consumer confidence plummeted as the quality of Gibson flat tops declined. The venerable round shouldered J-45 (as well as all round shouldered models) was dropped in lieu of a square shouldered design which would allow the company to make all its jumbos (except the J200) in the same mold. They also beefed up the “double-X” bracing and made other modifications. Less than a thousand J-45s and J-50s (it’s natural finished twin) were sold in 1979, which was less than a fifth than 1971 sales. The J-45 was dropped from Gibson’s line in 1982. A sad day for one of America’s most noble treasures.

Then, in 1985, a private group of individuals which had long admired Gibson flat tops bought the company from Norlin. It proved to be the end of the Dark Ages. The new owners then bought the Flatiron Mandolin Company located in Bozeman, Montana in 1987 and built a new climate controlled factory there in 1989. Production of Gibson flat top guitars was transferred to Bozeman and put under the management of master luthier Ren Ferguson, division president Larry English and product specialist Robi Johns. These three remarkable men (or angels as some of us believe) almost single-handedly restored the quality to Gibson guitars and the reputation to the company’s good name. And, as angels do, they blessed us with a gift, the reinstatement of the round shouldered J-45 to the Gibson catalog, and this is why the J-45 is still available today, and why it is as well made as ever. (See the whole review here.)

From the paperwork in the case, I knew Stephanie’s J-6o was finished on May 12, 1996 (just before she won it in a raffle at Seattle’s Folklife Festival on Memorial Day weekend in 1996). My guess is that this was a guitar they were pretty proud of and they were excited to be using it as a showcase of Gibson’s return to its roots.  a

I pulled the J-60 out of the case and rested it on my knee. I took it in. Some sort of Spruce face — though darker than on many guitars. Walnut back sides, neck and headstock. Ebony fretboard. Beautiful mother-of-pearl inlays for the Gibson name and fret markers. I wondered what a guitar with walnut would sound like.  The answer was immediate: loud. Big, bold bass. I thought to myself that this was one big bear of a guitar.

When I first started playing I bought at Taylor 210e. It’s and acoustic electric and has a really bright tone. Great guitar for the money. But there was something about the bigness of this Gibson that was really alluring. I figured it was the all solid woods (my Taylor has a laminate Indian Rosewood back and sides). Maybe it was the Walnut. But as I played it, I just seemed to play better.

Still, I began to miss the really crisp highs and mid-ranges from the Taylor, so I wondered what the Gibson would sound like with new strings. After a little asking around, I was told that new Gibson J-45s ship with D’Addario EXP-16 Phosphor Bronze Light strings. I played it on a new J-45 (a really nice guitar, too), and they were big and bright. Little bit of an odd touch given the coating, but I figured I would get used to it.

So I restrung the guitar and, wow, what a difference it made. The sound was even bigger, if possible — but now across every tonal range. I actually thought my family would harp on me because it’s almost impossible to play this guitar quietly. It struck me — a blinding flash of the obvious — new strings can make all the difference.

I remember opening the case. It was heavy, and better constructed than any of our other guitar cases. Inside was the super-plush, dense purple cushioning. The mother-of-pearl inlay said Gibson (but not in the usual Gibson way).

Ann was telling me the story. Stephanie (Ellis-Smith) won this guitar at Folklife the first year they were in Seattle. But because she doesn’t play, she’s loaned it out to friends over the years. Since they were moving to London for a year, she asked Ann if I would look after it. (And I’m sure Ann figured that this would keep me from wanting to buy another guitar, so she said yes.)

Gibson. Given that I’d  only been playing the guitar for about eight months, I didn’t know a lot about Gibson guitars. Sure. I’d learned about Martin acoustics. And I knew about the Les Paul. But not so much Gibson acoustics.

I had some learning to do. I knew this journey would be fun.