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Gibson Johnny A. Signature Guitar

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Talking cash straight off the bat here may come off crass, but at some point I have to reveal that Gibson’s Johnny A. Signature guitar-from the Custom Shop-carries a $5,562 price tag. So, better to get that out of the way now before I go on describing the instrument because you’re going to want one of these, maybe two.

Not long ago, the guitar’s namesake, a Massachusetts-based instrumental artist with two chops-heavy albums on the Favored Nations label, came across a lonely prototype guitar in Gibson’s Nashville Custom Shop. It wasn’t intended for production, but, recognizing the instrument’s potential, Johnny A. set things into motion with Gibson to turn the prototype into the guitar of his dreams.

Hollow all the way through, the Johnny A. Signature’s thin body comes across as the renegade child of a three-way encounter between a Les Paul, an SG and a 335. Together, the devilish double cutaway, the honey-dipped finish and the Bigsby tremolo system give the guitar a striking, stare-demanding presence that is at once modern and retro. Closer inspection reveals the body’s art-deco elegance: a slightly swooped, black-plastic pickguard and thoughtfully carved, bowed tone slots. The deco touches continue up the 22-fret neck, with mother-of-pearl inlays split in three, evoking the look of a seashell, and a headstock inlaid with a fancy fleur decoration, also in pearl. Plus there’s that sloped Gibson logo, which despite being the standard trademark on nearly every contemporary headstock by the company, still appears stolen out of the 1930s. All of this tasteful design work is tied up with a couple yards of creamy, pale-yellow binding, inlaid with faux tortoise-shell fret markers where it runs along the neck.

As much as there is to admire about the look of the Johnny A., the real joy comes from playing it. The thing wants to play itself, it seems. The ax exhibits expert craftsmanship, which is no doubt partial reason why it’s so comfortable. Its scale length (25 1/2 inches) is comparable to that of many archtops, which may be a factor in why this guitar lets me move along the neck with such ease. (The scale length also contributes to the tightness of its low-end sound; there’s no flab.) String resistance isn’t slinky like that of a shredding metalhead’s guitar, however-the strings snap back into place quickly when releasing a bend. Additionally, the neck, shaped from a single piece of mahogany, is one and 11/16 inches wide at the nut (a standard Gibson measurement found on most SGs, 335s, Les Pauls, etc.) and should feel comfortable to anyone who already plays a Gibson; the neck’s profile is a hair beefier than that of an SG Standard.

At the heart of the matter is tone, and by now it should come as no surprise to find out that this guitar sounds every bit as good as it looks and plays. The key word here is variance, as Johnny A. and Gibson have built a guitar capable of delivering sounds that range from standards-set jazz to soul-jazz to blues to rocking blues to roots rock to hard rock. Hollowbodies have no shortcomings in the warmth department, but thin hollowbodies (especially ones like this that are 100 percent hollow) do have a characteristically edgier sound than deep, boxy archtops or heavy solid-body guitars like a Les Paul. So getting something along the lines of that easygoing, Barney Kessel/Jim Hall mellowness out of the Johnny A. takes more than just plug and play-taking the edge off with the two humbuckers’ separate tone and volume knobs provides pleasing results. Still, even when it’s set to sing sweetly, a confident attack on any string can wake any drifting audience-the Johnny A. is built to sting when you want it to.

Playing in a four-piece band with drums, electric bass and Fender Rhodes-a Fender Twin Reverb supplying means for amplification-I found the Johnny A. proved to be the perfect tool for our movements from subdued improvisations (think In a Silent Way) to just-a-little-dirty boogie rock. Blending into textured ensemble playing was no problem, nor was rising above it all for a stringy solo or a singular wail. Sounds like a minor point, but the pickup selector switch has a lot to do with it. Johnny A. has the switch placed just above the tone-control knobs and set at a 45-degree angle, right in line with the movement of the picking/strumming hand.

The guitar is available with a stopbar tailpiece instead of the Bigsby for a lower price-but why stop short of the full options package when you’re already laying out this kind of cash? Aside from being a focal point of the guitar’s beauty, the Bigsby offers yet another way to mess with the sound, from subtle dips and lifts in pitch to shaking surf expressions-all without worry of sending the strings out of tune.

Fact is, Johnny A.’s ultimate guitar happens to be mine as well. I had a hunch that would be the case when I first read about the guitar in Guitar Player. And unless you’re one of those guitarists who won’t touch electrics, I can’t see you not loving the way this guitar looks, plays and sounds as well. While it’s still an investment worth thinking over, I’m convinced that the Johnny A. Signature is worth its price, whether you have the money to spend now or whether you’d have to sell, save or steal to afford it.

Originally Published