Wesman Todd Shaw started playing the guitar when he was 12 years old. He loves nothing more than to pick one up and pluck some strings.
In 1937, Gibson guitars debuted the Gibson J-200. It was referred to as a super jumbo guitar at the time. The guitar was profoundly distinct in many ways. Though its tonewood recipe has been changed over the years, most of its original attributes are present today.
The J-200 is one of the most instantly recognizable guitars in the world. With recognition comes notoriety. With notoriety comes imitation and flattery. The very large jumbo flat top guitars remain popular today, and there is no reason to consider this will ever change, as the jumbo guitar offers some things smaller guitars simply do not.
People talk a lot about the amazing guitars American guitar manufacturers were building before world war two. There is no doubt those guitars were truly works of art. But what is overlooked is that today, not yesterday, is the golden age of guitar manufacturing. Yes, certain materials have become much more scarce, and thus, precious in value. Other newer materials have been raised up, and in time, people will see today's guitars as the masterworks they are.
With all of today's technology, better guitars than ever before are made right here and now. We're going to talk about five makes of fine jumbos, not just five individual guitars. Five big bodies with very big sounds from five of the most reputable manufacturers of fine guitars.
Why Buy a High-End Jumbo Acoustic Steel-String Guitar?
These guitars we will discuss are not cheap, and neither are the inexpensive. They are also nowhere near small. One needs to be sure going into it all they can comfortably play a jumbo steel-string acoustic guitar before buying one. That said, you need not be six feet tall or so in order to find a jumbo suitable for you to spend countless hours playing. I'm five foot eight inches, and I've no trouble with these.
You know going in that because the jumbo acoustic guitar has so much air space beneath the soundboard it is going to have a loud, bass-dominated tonal response. The tonal character will be a little uneven in favor of booming bass notes. What these guitars are most exceptionally suited for are chugging chordal rhythms. Think power chords, barre chords, and aggressive Pete Townshend style strumming. For rhythm playing in acoustic steel-string guitars, nothing sounds so full and powerful as a jumbo guitar.
Another reason to buy a fine jumbo is precisely because you are a large human. You've got long limbs, and to you, a dreadnought seems like a child's guitar. And the overwhelming bass response of a jumbo can, of course, be controlled by the picking or strumming hand or fingers. I've read about people who were saving their dollars to buy a jumbo precisely because they loved the big bodacious looks of the things.
For someone like me, the notion a body needs a reason to buy a guitar is absurd. Guitars are love. The valid reason to buy any guitar is you want it, you love it, and that is all. So here are five of the very finest jumbo steel-string acoustic guitars across an array of tonewood combinations and prices.
If there were jumbo steel string acoustic guitars before the Gibson J-200 and, or the Gibson J-250 monarch, they've all but been forgotten. One can't create an article with the title this one has without the mention of the two. And they are essentially the exact same guitar. The difference is only the J-250 monarch is dressed up in a tuxedo, the J-200 in a fine suite. Then we've the under-appreciated J-100, a working man's jumbo.
These guitars are still larger than most of the other jumbo guitars in their physical dimensions, and then their legacy looms quite large too. You own and play a J-200 and people will often remember you as the person who had the Gibson J-200. That's just how it goes, and isn't it always preferable to have something people remember you by? I'll answer that for you, the answer is 'of course it is.'
Then we also have the Gibson J-200 'Tree of Life' guitar, which is only a J-200 with some outstanding work put into the fretboard inlay. And tree of life guitars are a bit of a theme you see again and again, but only in the circles where people can afford such things. It is a heavy and costly extravagance, to be sure, as the cutting and fitting of fine abalone pieces is rather detrimental to anyone's health should they inhale the dust.
The oldest J-200s were made of rosewood. For most of its history, however, the J-200 has been a maple bodied guitar with a spruce top. You often see beautiful figuring on the curly maple bodies of the J-200.
There are many ornate distinctions to these fine guitars. Maybe none so noticeable as the mustache bridge design. The mustache bridge is synonymous to the Gibson super jumbo guitars. Also the huge dimensions of these guitars make them indeed, almost larger than life. With such a large soundboard and dimensions, these are loud guitars unplugged. In today's market most come with electronics so you can plug them into an amp and make them ever the more loud.
Why am I talking about three distinct different models of Gibson as though they are one? Because the primary differences are all ornamental. Ornaments such as engraving and inlay won't make a guitar play better or sound better, they are purely visual aesthetic. There are non ornamental differences I find to be far more important, namely, tonewoods.
The J-200s are maple bodied guitars with spruce tops. Maple is often described as being transparent. This is to say it doesn't really provide a tonal coloring of its own, but makes the spruce soundboard stand out and provide the sound.The J-250 Monarch hearkens back to the debut era J-200s by employing Madagascar's rosewood for its body. With the Gibson J-100, however, you have more options. J-100s can be purchased new today with either solid walnut back and sides, or solid mahogany back and sides.
There are so many editions and variations of the J-200 form we could publish a book; but to me one stands head and shoulders above all the rest. The Gibson J-200 Bob Dylan is the single most desirable of all the Gibson super jumbos outside of one of the ones from the earliest years they were made. The Gibson J-200 Bob Dylan guitar is distinct from the get go due to its double pickguard; and to me, the Bob Dylan J-200 is more attractive than the J-250 Monarch.
Now there are not one but two Gibson J-200 Bob Dylan guitars, the players addition and the collector's edition. We'll talk about the player's addition here because it is half as expensive, and it is everything one could need in terms of amazing visual aesthetic and play-ability. While these are new guitars, they employ hot Hide glue construction which is something from the past making a big comeback in guitar building.
You get a huge Adirondack spruce soundboard and the finest flamed maple back and sides Gibson has in its storehouses of fine tonewoods. The J-250 Monarch guitars I've seen don't even have an Adirondack top on them. I think the use of abalone inlay on the J-200 Bob Dylan is much more tasteful for being more elegant and less ostentatious.
There is also the finest of everything else Gibson has to offer on this guitar, including gold plated Gotoh tuning machines and L.R. Baggs best acoustic/electric pickup. Below are the basic bullet point specifications for this gem:
- Electronics: LR Baggs Anthem pickup
- Strings: Gibson light gauge .012 - .053
- Tuning Machines: Gold Gotoh
- Pickguard: Double tortoise guards, with engraved design and MOP dots
- Bridge: Rosewood moustache with four bar MOP inlay
- Scale: 25 1/2”
- Fingerboard: 12” radius rosewood with MOP Bella Voce
- Bracing: Traditional scalloped x-bracing
- Neck-to-body: Compound dovetail secured with hide glue at the 14th fret
- Neck: Maple, two-piece, round profile with 1.725” bone nut
- Finish: Vintage Sunburst, Nitrocellulose Lacquer
- Binding: Multi ply body binding
- Wood: Adirondack red spruce, AAA flamed maple back and sides
- Body Style: Super Jumbo
The Taylor 415 is not currently in production over at Taylor guitars. There are a lot of them available on the used market. I'm seeing these for sale between thirteen hundred dollars all the way up to twenty-seven hundred dollars. It's all a matter of how many dings and scratches the instrument has sustained over the years.
So far as I can figure it, the reason most jumbo acoustics have maple back and sides is purely because most of the Gibson guitars they were designed after are maple bodies. There's nothing about maple which makes it more suitable for a jumbo than a parlor guitar. But for me, I find the idea of a jumbo with a solid ovangkol body very very appealing. Ovangkol has a very assertive character to it, tonally, where maple does not. And a big and deep ovangkol body with a gigantic spruce soundboard on top would seem like an ideal guitar to us to flatpick with.
What in the world is ovangkol? It's another great tonewood that is new to fine acoustic guitars. Over a decade ago, Taylor introduced the guitar world to a sustainable tonewood known as ovangkol. An African relative of rosewood, it's a great sounding wood that shares many of rosewood's tonal properties, with a slightly fuller midrange and a top end that's not quite as bright as maple. Being lesser known than rosewood, ovangkol has been a sleeper hit over the years, asserting itself as an instant contender among unsuspecting players who test-drive a variety of Taylor models.
Ovangkol may be related to rosewood, but it does not look like rosewood. Ovangkol can be honey-hued like good mahogany. So basically it has a grain pattern that would suggest to your discerning eye a similarity to east Indian rosewood, but the color can be much more blonde. It can also be darker but isn't usually as dark as rosewood.
For someone like me, it would be unlikely I'd have the money to go off and buy a new Gibson J-200 Bob Dylan. But a great used Taylor like the 415 could possibly be had for a nice price on the used market. Used guitars sometimes sound much much better than a comparable new guitar because it can take some time and playing before a spruce top is broken in to where it puts out the sound its potential has within.
Blueridge guitars are made in China. Be sure you note this in no way means they're cheap or shoddy in any way. These are very well-made guitars that sell for prices where you feel like maybe you're stealing something.
This is modeled after the J-200; anyone can see that. The Taylor jumbos were more or less dimensional copies of the big Gibson too. Well, you'll pay less for a Blueridge, and you won't be getting a lesser quality guitar at all.
This is an all solid wood construction guitar with solid maple back and sides and a solid spruce top. The Blueridge BG-2500 is their top-of-the-line jumbo acoustic steel-string guitar. And the guitar is both beautiful and affordable. Blueridge does inlay work as well as anyone on the planet. At sixteen hundred bucks, this is the clear bang for the bucks winner all day, every day.
Blueridge BG-2500 Features:
- Solid spruce top
- AAAA grade solid, highly flamed maple back, sides and neck
- Laminated maple neck with ebony stripes for strength
- Adjustable truss rod for perfect neck alignment
- Elegant bound tortoise-style pickguard
- Natural finish
- White body binding with alternating white-black purfling
- Ebony fingerboard with large, Art Deco-syle white pearl position markers
- Vintage-style gold-plated tuning machines with Green plastic buttons
- Special X-bracing of top is lightweight and strong for best tone and volume
- Original design Deco ebony bridge with white pearl panels
- Shop adjusted
A few years back, I had written another article like this one about fine jumbo acoustics, and at the time, this Martin guitar did not exist. This is their Grand Jumbo body size, the largest body I believe C.F. Martin & Company has ever produced. But this guitar is pretty exciting to me for several other reasons too.
The Martin CEO-8 guitar is priced at a little over five thousand dollars, so it is priced to compete with the Gibson jumbos. But it isn't like the Gibson for having sycamore back and sides. I will have to admit here that I have never seen a guitar with sycamore back and sides so far as I can recall. And new tonewoods are just plain exciting to me, and they should be to you too, especially if C.F. Martin & Company is employing them in their fine guitars.
Another thing Martin guitars hasn't always been so keen to do is to make acoustic/electric guitars. They have apparently seen the light that such a guitar is the acoustic guitar of the present and the future, though, and so this CEO-8 grand jumbo is equipped with electronics to ease the live performance amplification burdens.
This is also a VTS guitar. Virtual Tone System is yet another new technological advancement employed by Martin these days on some guitars, such as this one. Martin's Vintage Tone System (VTS) uses a unique recipe that is based on the historic torrefaction system. What this means is the woods are artificially aged via the use of technology so as to make the guitar sound like an older guitar. Further specifications below:
Martin CEO-8 Guitar Features:
- Body type: Grand Jumbo
- Cutaway: Non-cutaway
- Top wood: Solid Sitka spruce
- Back & sides: Solid Sycamore
- Bracing pattern: Standard "X", progressively scalloped tone bars
- Body finish: Polished Gloss with custom cherry burst
- Orientation: Right handed
- Neck shape: Modern low oval/PA taper
- Nut width: 1.75" (44.45mm)
- Fingerboard: Solid Black Ebony
- Neck wood: Solid Sycamore
- Scale length: 25.4"
- Number of frets: 20
- Neck finish: Polished Gloss with Custom Cherry Burst
- Pickup/preamp: Yes
- Brand: D-TAR
- Configuration: Condensor mic
- Headstock overlay:
- Tuning machines: Gold with Pearloid Keystone Buttons
- Bridge: Solid Black Ebony
- Saddle & nut: Compensated/White Tusq, Bone
- Number of strings: 6-string
- Special features: Pickup System
- Case: Hardshell case
- Country of origin: United States
If you're like me, then when you think of Paul Reed Smith you think immediately about amazingly beautiful flamed maple tops and creamy thick tones in conjunction with fine PRS solid-body electric guitars. It can be easy to forget Paul Reed Smith's guitar manufacturing operation involves acoustic guitars because you just don't see too many of them around. Well, there is a reason for that - his acoustic guitars aren't all mass production instruments, and some of them are extremely expensive.
Like the PRS Tonare Grande jumbo acoustic guitar. It is an exceptionally expensive guitar when you get into the PRS 'private stock' versions. The main production instrument is more competitive than what we're discussing on this page. It sells for less than four thousand dollars.
I've seen these guitars with mahogany back and sides. But the impression I have is that most of them have cocobolo back and sides. They are sixteen inches wide at their widest, which is two inches less wide than the Gibson and bodies copied after the famous Gibson benchmark jumbos. The soundboards here are of European spruce. There are many types of spruce in Europe. But I haven't been able to find out what specific species of European spruce PRS is using here - but you don't really even need to know. You know already PRS does things right.
If you are familiar with PRS electric guitars, then you'll find the necks of these guitars to be pretty similar in thickness and feel. And they'll come new with the beautiful set-up, and action PRS guitars always seem to come from the factory with. This is an acoustic/electric jumbo steel-string guitar. Paul Reed Smith knows his electronics, of course. And this guitar will match the best of Taylor or Takamine or anyone else in its sound from its pickup and pre-amp.
© 2016 Wesman Todd Shaw
Wesman Todd Shaw (author) from Kaufman, Texas on August 08, 2016:
Thanks very much, Athlyn; and I'm glad you liked the videos. I usually watch several before deciding which one to use, and I worry about it a little :)
Athlyn Green from West Kootenays on August 08, 2016:
What a great comprehensive article, and I loved the vids, to hear the differences in guitars. The big body guitars certainly resonate wonderfully.
I have a 6-string and 12-string but would love to pick up another guitar. Reading this page, has given me some good insights.