How much? And the real thing? Gibson’s new stripped-down SG offers the promise of genuine rocking thrills for remarkably little outlay. Review by Martyn Casserly
Description: Solidbody guitar. Made in the USA
Contact: Gibson Europe – 0031 347 324010 – www.gibson.com
There are some words that you just don’t expect to see alongside each other. ‘Reality TV’ and ‘quality’ are a few, ‘Edward Snowden’ and ‘fair trial’ are more, but two that nary grace a well-constructed sentence are ‘Gibson’ and ‘cheap’ – unless you also add the words ‘Mel’, ‘takes’, and ‘a shot’ into the mix, maybe with a dash of ‘drunken outburst’ for good measure. So it was with tremulous fingers that we unzipped the padded gigbag and withdrew from its white, soft padded interior the rarest of creations… the SGJ.
In these bleak financial days it feels odd to think that it would be Gibson that held out its hands to the struggling artists of the world and said ‘here, impoverished minstrels’ – we’re paraphrasing, obviously – ‘take these wondrous tools of musichood and do glorious battle against community choirs and tightly-choreographed boy bands.’ But that’s exactly what they’ve done… except for all the words.
The SGJ is the spiritual successor to the classic Junior models that have graced Gibson catalogues for over half a century. The stripped-back, no-frills approach is evident throughout the design, but the real eye-catcher is the price… less than £499 on the street. In the past we’ve had a few issues with the less-expensive Gibson offerings, many of them suffering from sharp-edged frets or dry boards that made the playing experience less than stellar. Of course these could be addressed by a bit of handiwork or a decent setup, but it shouldn’t take that much effort to turn a pricey guitar into an enjoyably usable instrument. The SGJ is a different beast: it looks fantastic, plays beautifully, and sounds like a Gibson in all departments.
So how has the Kalamazoo company managed such a feat? Well, first, it’s eschewed expensive paint jobs, pickguards or trapezoid fret markers, instead covering the mahogany body with choice of stained wood colourings – this one is chocolate – protected by a thin grain-textured nitrocellulose lacquer. Gibson call this a worn-look finish and there’s no doubt that after a few hard gigs there will be some nicks and dents… but that’s personality over resale value.
Closer inspection reveals that the body is made up of at least three pieces of mahogany, probably recycling offcuts from the more expensive models, and we think this is great. Not only does the guitar sound big and hold sustain impressively well, but it also means that the production is environmentally friendly, or at least friendlier, which is important as supplies of many wood types begin to dwindle.
The maple neck is carved into a rounded ’50s profile that’s glued into the body at the 19th fret. This means you have unfettered access to the dusty end in classic SG fashion, and can widdle away for hours until the local cats rally together and take you down in a maelstrom of claws and teeth. Before the feline deluge you’ll also appreciate the 24 medium jumbo frets that give the rosewood fingerboard a spacious and comfortable action, perfect for rhythm or lead gymnastics.
Visually there’s an air of menace about the SGJ. The darker-toned wood is matched by the two humbuckers that at first glance look like EMGs or some other variant of active pickup thanks to their black plastic covers. In actuality they are a pair of Modern Classic non-active ’buckers with a 490T at the neck and 490R in the bridge position. These are voiced to perform as slightly hotter PAF-style pickups, which they certainly do. The rest of the hardware is standard fare, with a Tune-O-Matic bridge and tailpiece, a three-way switch and twin controls for the pickups. Even the tuners are Kluson-branded vintage-style ones rather than the nameless wonders that can be employed to cut costs.
With all the rock and roll vibe emanating from the SGJ it’s hugely tempting to slam on the overdrive and break out your best Angus Young chops, but that would be missing out on a significant part of the guitar’s arsenal. Played clean the SGJ is a sweet, sweet instrument. The neck pickup is warm but retains a definite edge that rewards fingers rather than plectrums for Hendrix-style melodic chordal techniques. Jazz chords get you into Robbie Krieger territory, which isn’t surprising as he was one of the many that fell under the SG’s charm.
Of course you can only resist so long before the urge to rock out overcomes you, and as you might expect the SGJ is ready and willing to play. Keeping the overdrive to a reasonable level and sticking on the neck pickup finds long, fuzzy sustaining tones that hark back to Clapton and Santana in their heyday. Switching to the bridge increases the focus and bite, so AC/DC and Stereophonics riffs appear as if by magic from your fingers. Load up the gain to sillyville and the pickups retain good clarity while delivering some crunching power chords and deeply satisfying lead tones. It can get a little messy down low, but a quick adjustment on the volume control sorts that out without any fuss.
The SG has always been a favourite of ours thanks to its aggressive tone, drop-dead gorgeous looks, and lightweight frame. The SGJ retains most of those qualities, but adds a sense of modernity that will sit better with today’s players. At the price, we’re not entirely sure how Gibson has managed to make an instrument this good. Sure, a full-blown SG is smarter, sounds more refined, and will sell on for a good deal more, but that requires that you look after your investment. The SGJ is built to be used, abused, then used again because you had so much fun the last time. It’s a road warrior that will age quickly due to the thin finish, and look all the better for it.
Actually the only thing that looks or feels cheap are the top hat knobs, which you can change for next to nothing. With Gibson also making an LPJ as part of this 2013 range celebrating the ‘Year of Les Paul’, we’re left wondering whether they’ve made a mistake; when you can get something this good for this little, why would you spend more? The SGJ is probably only going to be around for a limited time, so go out right now and buy one. You’ll have to get in the queue behind us.