Many musicians have that one instrument that stays in their arsenal as other instruments come and go. That instrument for me is a 1962 Gibson Southern Jumbo acoustic guitar. I came upon it through luck and good fortune, and my decision to purchase it has enriched my musical experiences tremendously. It’s been a constant companion throughout my travels, and has never given me any trouble. It performs as well as it did when it left Kalamazoo, Michigan over 50 years ago – a testament to true craftsmanship of yesteryear before instrument manufacturing largely moved overseas. Gibson is as American a tradition as Harley Davidson, and it carries a similar legacy of quality and aesthetic enjoyment.
The story of how I stumbled upon this treasured piece goes back to 1999 when transplanted Englishman Steve Woodcock was running a luthier and repair shop in the front room of his row house on King’s Road in St. John’s, Newfoundland. This quaint workspace smelled deliciously of lemon oil, with instruments of all shapes and sizes strewn about in a haphazard fashion. I had been bringing my acoustic guitars to Steve for a few years at this point, and during a visit to his shop in September of 1999 to drop off a guitar I noticed a beat-up sunburst Gibson acoustic hanging on his wall. It had no strings on it, and it was full of battle scars and pick wear. It even had song lyrics etched in its body. It was a rough beast. I enquired about it, and Steve told me that a guy in Bay Roberts had brought it in for repair but upon finding out the prohibitive restoration costs decided to put it up for sale. Apparently several guitarists in town had considered buying it, but without it having strings or any sensible frets to speak of, no one was ultimately willing to put down the $800 the seller wanted for this dubious guitar that also had structural damage and collapsed bracing.
My dear grandmother had recently passed away, and she had generously left a few dollars to my brothers and me. So I had the money to get it but was also nervous about spending the $800 plus the costs to have the work done. There was no way of knowing if it would have good tone or not. The purchase would have to be “sound unheard,” so to speak. And Gibsons are notoriously inconsistent from one instrument to the next. You really need to try each one to find a good piece. So I came up with an idea. I decided to offer the seller $500 so that way I’d have wiggle room to get the repairs done and my risk wouldn’t be as big in the event that the guitar turned out to be a dud. The seller begrudgingly accepted my offer, so I gave Steve carte blanche to do whatever he saw fit to restore this abused relic back to its former glory.
It needed bracing work, repairs to cracks on top and sides, a new set of frets, and a hardshell case. I also needed to install a pickup in it for live work. It was no good to me as a purely acoustic instrument because at the time I made a living in the bars playing solo acoustic and I wasn’t about to spend this money to have a showpiece at home. Therefore, the costs ran in excess of $500. It would be worth it if the guitar turned out to be a gem. I knew that the Beatles’ Gibson J160’s were ‘62s, so if nothing else this SJ likely had the same batch of spruce and mahogany as those famous guitars and would be a conversation piece if nothing else.
Steve called me at the house about a week later when he had the work done, his normally stoic and staunch British accent over the phone sounding a bit more animated. I asked him how it turned out, and he simply told to come by and see for myself without further elaboration.
When I entered his shop he had the guitar up on his bench, balanced on its end with his hands on it as if he were about to strum a chord. Those who knew Steve knew him generally to be a bit of a poker-faced character. He wasn’t prone to openly expressing excitement, at least not to his customers. So the big smile across his face as he strummed an E chord on the guitar was an unfamiliar but very encouraging sign. As the guitar rang out loud and true in the shop, I knew I had made the right decision to buy it and put it in the trust of this talented luthier. Steve was truly impressed with the rich, deep tone of this early ‘60s Gibson. It was one of the good ones, thank God. I put it in its new road case and left a happy customer. Over the next few months I grew very attached to this instrument, and a Gibson ’67 J200 acoustic that had been my prized possession at this point took a back seat to its older, more modest cousin.
In March of 2000 I got a solo gig opening for Blue Rodeo, and I proudly brought both vintage Gibsons with me for this weekend of shows at the Delta Ballroom. My dressing room was across the hall from the Blue Rodeo guys (who had been casual friends since I first opened for them in 1989 at the university as a member of a band called the Brats). Not long after getting to my room I was visited by Greg Keelor as I sat tuning the Southern Jumbo. After initial greetings, he casually asked about the SJ and I told him the quirky story about acquiring the guitar. He just kept staring at it. He loved the look of it. The battle scars really gave it visual appeal.
A few months later I made the decision to sell the J200 because I wasn’t using it much and couldn’t really afford to retain two vintage Gibsons as a struggling songwriter. I called Greg and told him I had the J200 for sale. He told me he’d otherwise be interested if he hadn’t already owned five of them. Then after a short pause, he asked, “What about that SJ? Are you selling that one?” I said no, and that in fact the SJ had sort of knocked the J200 out of the picture for me. He understood, and we left it at that. Later that year, songwriter Ron Hynes bought the J200 and used it exclusively for many years. It is the one that’s cradled in his arms on the marble statue of him at the end of George Street. And eventually Greg found an SJ just like mine (pictured with it below).
The furthest I took the Gibson SJ was in 2000 to Los Angeles for a few songwriter open mics. Visiting Voltage Guitars, a famous instrument shop just off Sunset Boulevard, I enquired about guitar appraisals. The grizzled old hippie who owned the place told me it was $75 an appraisal. I said thanks and continued to browse. (The SJ was in the rental car). A few minutes later he approach me and asked what I was wanting to have appraised. I told him it was a ’62 Southern Jumbo and it was in the car. He smiled and told me to go get it and that he’d appraise it for free. After a few strums he marveled at its tone. He said it was one of the nicest-sounding SJ’s he’d ever heard and that he’d be able to find a celebrity buyer by the end of the day if I’d let it go for $1,500 US which was at the exchange rate a nice chunk of money at the time. Still, I declined. He was understanding about it, and after a little jam with him I left and went about my business in Los Angeles.
The guitar continued to serve me well in the ensuing years. I used it for all my live work and studio sessions. In addition to the Brothers in Stereo album, the guitar can be heard on albums by the Novaks and Barry Canning as well. In 2005 I was doing a gig at the hotel bar in the St. John’s Delta when I was approached by a burly American guy with a bone-crushing handshake. He asked about the SJ that was in my hands, and I told him it was a guitar I’d owned for several years. He said “his boss” had noticed it while walking by the bar’s main doors and had sent his subordinate in to ask if I’d be interested in selling it. I asked him who his boss was. The answer: George Thorogood. He was in town doing a show at Mile One stadium and must have been checking in when he saw me playing it in the bar. I told Thorogood’s road manager that even though I was a fan of his boss, I had no interest in selling the guitar. I once again laughed to myself at how many times this guitar could have ended up in famous hands but still remained with me.
These days I don’t do many acoustic gigs. I play mostly electrics. But I still take out this lovely guitar all the time and strum it around the house. It’s been a great friend through the good and bad, and I’m so glad I didn’t fall prey to the temptation to sell it. Like adopting a sick animal and bringing it back to good health, I felt the same connection with this guitar. I know every nick, groove and scratch. It as close to me emotionally as an inanimate object can be. I’ve never babied it. And I loan it out. And I leave it in bars. It’s never been broken or stolen, and it’s not needed one adjustment since Steve Woodcock restored it all those years ago. Steve has since passed on from this world, but he has left his legacy of deep skill in this restoration. The guitar is a testament to both the skill of the American luthier who originally built it a half-century ago and the British luthier who brought it back to life decades later.