1965 Gibson J-45, as made famous by Donovan
The guitar behind Donovan's catalogue of hits from the 60s - written and played almost entirely on his 1965 Gibson J-45. And the one he taught a certain fingerstyle to John Lennon on, soon to be heard on songs like Dear Prudence, Julia and Happiness Is A Warm Gun. Same year, same spec, beautiful player.
Emerging from the 60s British folk scene, Donovan rose to be hailed initially as "the British Dylan", albeit with a slightly more psychedelic edge. With his first releases in 1965, the comparisons with Dylan started - and, to be fair, first single "Catch The Wind" has more than a touch of Dylan to it (even a harmonica outro to bring it to a close). But later releases set him apart and brought that more experimental edge to bear, leading the way in fusing Indian influences into British rock and folk. Listen to "Hurdy Gurdy Man", "Season Of The Witch", "Sunshine Superman", "Mellow Yellow", and you'll get it - perfect for the times, a summer of love or two, and a culture looking to tune in and drop out.
No surprise then that he was one of the gang that arrived in the jungles of Rishikesh with The Beatles in 1968. There wasn't much to do. Sleep, eat, meditate, repeat. But there were acoustic guitars, and Donovan had brought his J-45 along with him, playing it almost constantly, and prompting John Lennon to ask him how he played the clawhammer style that he was known for. Lennon learnt it in three days, with Donovan's tuition, Paul McCartney wandered in and out of earshot with guitar in hand, and learnt it, or a more unique adaptation from listening in. All of which came to bear on The White Album, with Lennon's songs "Dear Prudence", "Julia" and "Happiness Is A Warm Gun", and McCartney's "Blackbird" and "Mother Nature's Son". Not bad for a few lessons in the jungle. And a story best told by the man himself. Check him out telling it to Rolling Stone magazine in 2012, following his induction into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame.
The J-45 he bought in 1965 lasted him throughout the 60s, until it was stolen at a gig in 1970. It's never been found. But following that Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame induction, Gibson offered to make a limited edition spec-matched signature model of that same guitar. It brought back some memories.
As does this beauty from the same year as Donovan's original J-45. As far as I know, it's not that lost J-45, but otherwise shares the tone and playability that went into so many of the songs he wrote through the 60s. Beautifully and naturally aged, with some glorious lacquer checking to the body top, this guitar sounds great. That fat warmth the J-45's known for, with plenty of cut on the upper strings. No wonder it's been so popular a part of the Gibson story for more than 80 years!
See & Hear It In Action
Hurdy Gurdy Man (1968): Some 60s psychedlia for you. Donovan with that J-45, playing along to the studio original - which, incidentally, features some soloing from a young session musician on the cusp of nailing his own god-like status, Jimmy Page.
John Lennon in Rishikesh, 1968: And here's the young student, with Donovan's J-45, picking out the beginnings of Dear Prudence . . .
1966 Gibson J-45, with Lemmo from Norman's Rare Guitars: An unbelievably clean J-45 from 1966, with an equally unbelievably bright cherry red sunburst. Chords or picking, does the business!
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Cherry Sunburst, faded
Number of Frets
Sitka Spruce top; Mahogany back & sides
6 x Schaller M6 180s (non-original)
Adjustable belly-up bridge, rosewood
1942. The United States has only recently been drawn into World War II, supplies and production time are almost exclusively focused on supporting the war effort, not to mention the human resources needed to keep that production going (90% of Gibson's staff for starters). In such terrible times, you might think twice before launching a product that has nothing to do with what's dominating the small hopes and deep fears of the population.
But that's just what Gibson did with the J-45. Built for austere times, a no-frills "workhorse" acoustic that has proven to be one of its most popular guitars for more than 80 years. A classic flattop "Jumbo", hence the "J", with a launch price-tag of $45, hence the "45", it's stood the test of time - despite some short-lived design changes that, for some, could have cast it into the pit of epic fails (plastic bridge, anyone?). If you want to know more, it has a depth of documented history to rival the height of its legendary status - check out the Sources & Links below.
This one comes from 1965, one of the periods that falls foul of the J-45 purists, due to the as-standard height-adjustable bridge. First introduced as an option in 1956, the adjustable bridge became the standard in 1961 and throughout the 60s. Donovan's famous 1965 J-45, this one, and even the limited edition Donovan Signature J-45 launched in 2014, sport that bridge style. It can't be that bad!
Whatever your feelings about Gibson's design steps and mis-steps along the way, you can't beat down the legend. The shape for a start - that beautiful round-shouldered body, the slightly narrower neck that came with the 60s models - and the simplicity of the "frills" (dot inlays, three-layer top-binding, big and bold tortoiseshell pickguard) that draw the focus and reward to the sound and playability more than the glitz. This is one lovely guitar.
One mystery is that big black triangular inlay around the back strap button. I've seen one other J-45 from the mid-60s with that feature, but only one - and no mention of it in any of the authoritative spec bibles. If anyone knows anything about it, let me know!
As you'd expect from a guitar that's been around since the mid-60s, this one has its fair share of dents and nicks - but no cracks or structural issues. The gradual fade to the cherry sunburst is more than compensated for by the beautiful lacquer checking to the body top. The only thing I might do is swap out the perfectly engineered, but completely inappropriate replacement Schaller tuners for the more correct pair of 3-on-a-plate Klusons that this guitar came with originally. That said, if you check out the Hurdy Gurdy video and John Lennon picture above, it looks like Donovan might have also have replaced his Klusons by 1968. Those look very like Schallers . . . And M6 180s were first introduced in 1966. These ones are no earlier than 1973, when the "MADE IN W. GERMANY" stamp became required by law. But even so, these tuners make it even more like Donovan's original.
Apart from that, this is an all-original J-45. And it sounds gorgeous. Lovely big fat tone across the strings, with plenty of cut at the top end. And a great low action . . . thanks to that height-adjustable bridge. There really was some sense in that design after all 😉.
Sources & Links
All The Specs, All The Evolutions on Guitar HQ: Always the first stop when researching a vintage guitar, Guitar HQ is the bible. That said, he really, no, really hates the adjustable bridge ;-).
A Short History of The J-45, Vintage Guitar: If you need something more compact, then this article from Vintage Guitar is perfect - and sets the J-45 in context of the competition with Martin, and the predecessors and contemporaries of the J-45.
1966 Gibson Catalogue: Thanks as ever to Vintage Guitar And Bass for sharing this original catalogue featuring the J-45 and its near-identical J-50. The J-50 came with a Natural finish as standard, which might account for its extra $5 cost. You can hide a lot more with a sunburst.
The 2014 J-45 Donovan Signature Model: To celebrate Donovan's induction into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, Gibson created this limited edition signature model to the last detail of the original 65 spec.
Donovan Interviewed By Guitar World, 2016: All those stories - and all the guitarists Donovan played with (pretty much everyone apart from Eric Clapton). What a life!
Donovan's Website: And he's still going. New material, guitar master classes, occasional live performances. A treasure!