“I woke up this morning with the Monday morning blues,” as Mississippi John Hurt sang, “I couldn't hardly find my Monday morning shoes.” Yes, another week is right on us, folks. But at least we have some fine music to help you thru.
It’s the time of the month when we consider one of the classic guitars that contributed to the great blues sound. Actually, today’s guitar is usually associated with county music, but it’s also been employed by some blues musicians, including one of the foremost blues & ragtime guitarists in the history of this music. The guitar is the Gibson J-200, & the guitarist to whom I refer is the great Reverend Gary Davis.
Gibson introduced the :Super Jumbo” in 1937 as a top-of-the-line guitar. The prototype was built to the specifications of the “Singing Cowboy” Ray Whitley, who wanted a guitar with a 17” lower bout (the bottom part of the guitar’s traditional “hourglass” shape); as such it was over an inch wider than a Martin Dreadnought (which measures 15-5/8”); in addition, the Super Jumbo had a flared upper bout, as opposed to the dreadnoughts “sloped shoulders”; the Martin is 11-1/2 inches across the upper bout, as opposed to the 12-1/4 inches for the Gibson; the body is also a full inch longer than the Martin. This essentially made a flat-top guitar that had the dimensions of the powerful Gibson archtop jazzboxes like the L-5.
Other country stars soon were ordering similar guitars based on Whitleys—these included Gene Autrey, Tex Ritter, Roy Rogers & Ray “Crash” Corrigan. The Super Jumbo appeared in the Gibson catalog for sale to the public in 1938.
Besides the old singing cowboys already mentioned, other big stars of both country & rock have used the J-200; these include Gram Parsons, Emmylou Harris & Pete Townsend. But we’re interested in its use as a blues intrument, & in addition to the very notable Reverend Davis, we find that “Hacksaw” Harney (second video below) used one pretty much exclusively, & that Mance Lipscombe, Brownie McGhee & the famed blues mandolin player Yank Rachell also made at least occasional use of this model.
A flat-top guitar with these dimensions is going to be a powerful instrument; it also will have both outstanding bass & treble response. As with the dreadnought size, which shares those general characteristics, this makes the J-200 very effective as a rhythm instrument in country music where the “boom chicka boom chicka” rhythm is really enhanced. But when we think of acoustic blues guitar, we think primarily of fingerstyle playing, & in general one thinks of smaller size guitars for that—something like the 00 or Classical size, which is between 2 & 3 inches smaller than the Jumbo in all dimensions. Still, in the hands of the Reverend Gary Davis, his “Miss Gibson” played some of the most intricate fingerstyle blues & ragtime you’ll ever hear. & as you hear in Harney’s “Down South Blues,” he also used the big guitar to great musical advantage.
Three videos this week, mainly because both of the Reverend Gary Davis ones are short. I thought it was important to find live videos of the Reverend playing, just to watch the ease with which he plays these intricate figures—not to mention the way he uses “Miss Gibson” as a drum during the final chorus of “If I Had My Way”—AKA “Samsion & Delilah.”) Great music in all three—enjoy!
Photo of Reverend Gary Davis & "Miss Gibson" links to its source