Behold a Dark Horse: Gibson's J-45 is Under Fire

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Singer/songwriter Aimee Mann bought her first J-45 after a car crash claimed her old J-160, and she hasn’t turned back since. When I ased her what made her choose the J-45, she said she wanted a guitar that not only sounded right, but felt right. “It’s a very personal thing,” she told me. “...You want to play a guitar that’s an extension of you.”

When you lift the J-45 into your arms, you’re shocked at how solid it feels for a bantamweight. The guitar is surprisingly light; it’s clear why spruce was used to make airplanes. The J-45’s smaller size, shoulders and childbearing hips make it mildly suggestive—a little sexy, demanding intimacy. You want to sit down to play it. The soft-shouldered body seems to curve perfectly into your own. When you graze your fingers from E to E, you feel the humid notes vibrate against your ribs. They release easily, a drunk and lovely exhalation.

This guitar lacks the ostentation that others famously strut. There aren’t any flashy tuners, ornate pick guard designs, or glowing mother-of-pearl merit badges along the neck. The bridge looks like something a boy scout could whittle. The sound hole is as basic as a coffee coaster. This is not a guitar that dresses up and buys you drinks. The J-45 gets to the point.

The glory of the J-45 is well-noted, but its troubles less so. In 2003, Gibson CEO Henry Juskiewicz vowed that the company would never manufacture guitars from rare Brazilian rosewood, even going so far as to demand Gibson luthiers at a Montana factory to stop using tainted wood they’d already purchased. In a 2007 interview with Premier Guitar magazine, he said, “We want to be part of the solution instead of the problem.” The next year, Gibson representatives made a trip to Madagascar, another source of wood, to foster goodwill between the two worlds. It seemed clear that Gibson had realized that being environmentally-minded was not only good for forest ecology, but—in an ever-greening economy—good for business, too.

But in November 2009, the Gibson Corporation was raided by the U.S. government under allegations that the company had used endangered hardwoods from Madagascar to build its high-end acoustics, including the J-45. Federal agents from the Fish and Wildlife Service crashed into the Nashville offices and seized wood, files, computers and guitars. The allegation was a violation of the Lacey Act, the U.S. law—and first law worldwide—that protects endangered animals and plants, including forests. Gibson hasn’t yet been charged, but the company is cooperating with the investigation. Following the raid, Juszkiewicz stepped down from his board membership with the Rainforest Alliance, a position he’d held for 15 years; requests to interview him for this article were denied.

“I was stunned,” says Scott Paul, the director of Greenpeace’s Forest Campaign, of his reaction to news of the raid. Paul worked directly with Gibson in 2007 on the Love Your Wood campaign, for which a number of guitar companies—including Gibson—pledged to exclusively use woods approved by the nonprofit Forest Stewardship Council. “I personally believe if they are proven guilty, all they really need to do is deal with the issue,” Paul says. “In my heart, I don’t think that [violating the Lacey Act] was their intention.” He explained that the raid wasn’t about guitars in particular—it was about Madagascar and the lack of proper regulation in the modern logging industry. The Feds could have just as easily traced the bane hardwoods back to coffee tables or humidors, but they didn’t.

I asked head luthier Ren Ferguson if he thought the investigation had done anything to tarnish the workhorse’s reputation. After all, Gibson has provided instruments for some of the scrappiest musicians of the last 100 years; J-45s were in the laps of Dylan, Donavan and Guthrie, artists that championed progress, peace and hope—not tree-rape and corporate corruption. But Ferguson demurred. “No,” he said. “I don’t think so at all.” Gibson makes guitars, he explained, not foreign policy—and they have to trust their chain of suppliers. “We just order the wood.”

Environmental activists and fossa fans alike are paying close attention to the situation as it continues to unfold. Greenpeace’s Paul says the raid was unfortunate for Gibson, but that it was an example that needed to be made; if the Lacey Act, the only law on the books protecting endangered forests, isn’t being enforced, the loss could be far greater than a guitar-maker’s reputation and a few instruments.

Either way, for whoever’s on the losing end, it seems like exactly the kind of hard luck one might wail about while playing a J-45.

George Gruhn, he of the domesticated jungle cats, assured me that there are better guitars out there—even better Gibsons. Like a good salesman, he offered up all the specs to back it up. I listened politely but remained stubbornly enamored; this affair isn’t about craftsmanship, it’s about raw attraction. The guitar compensates for its shaggy pedigree by simply being itself. It was born a scrapwood-bastard prodigy, conceived during an atrocious war when supplies were scarce—but what came out of that Michigan workshop back in the ’40s has evolved into legend. It’s been in the hands of soldiers, hippies and rock stars. Its sound is dark, warm and complicated. It’s been dragged through our sloppy, selfish history and now it’s got the Feds on its back. It made some of us believe again in love at first sight, and has stood the test of time regardless of the constant competition. That’s a hell of a biography for an inanimate object. The J-45 has long been identified by its signature black stain. As the Gibson investigation unfolds, let’s hope it doesn’t wind up with another.