Jumbo Steel-Strings Of The Folk Boom

RARE BIRD by George Gruhn
October 1984, Guitar Player

THESE TWO equivalent-model Gibson and Epiphone flat-tops both date from 1964, and were developed in response to the folk music boom of the early '60s led by groups such as the Kingston Trio, Bud & Travis, and Peter, Paul, & Mary. Many folk guitarists of that period played classical guitars, and teachers -- as evidenced by the Pete Seeger instruction books -- often recommended that their students begin with classical instruments because the nylon strings were easier on the fingers, and then graduate to steel-strings when their calluses had developed. This method is unique to the period, as are the instruments produced in response to it. The Gibson FJN and the Epiphone FT-98 Troubador were designed to perform well with either nylon or steel strings -- although they both sound best with steel strings -- and their specifications show a mixture of features of classical and steel-string flat-tops.
The Gibson FJN (folk jumbo natural) is the same size and shape as Gibson's SJ Southerner Jumbo, a 14-fret guitar popular with country and western players. The FJN, however, has a 12-fret neck, white flamenco-style tapping plates, and a non-compensated bridge saddle. The Epiphone Troubador is almost identical in specifications to the FJN. At the time, Epiphones were made in the Gibson factory by the same builders and of the same materials. Since Gibson had traditionally offered restricted franchises to its dealers in order to avoid concentrations of dealers in any particular city or area, the acquisition of Epiphone in the late '50s by Gibson's parent company, Chicago Musical Instruments, provided a means to double their number of dealers. As CMI's second line, Epiphone included several equivalent but slightly lower-priced guitars (such as the Troubador), mandolins, and banjos. Incidentally, both lines also offered smaller, plainer versions of the FJN and the Troubador: the Gibson F-25 and the Epiphone FT-95 Folkster.
The FJN has a spruce top, mahogany back and sides stained a dark walnut color, mahogany neck, and rosewood fingerboard and bridge. The top and back of the body are multi-bound in black and white, and the fingerboard is bound in white and inlaid with pearloid double parallelograms. The headstock is inlaid with the Gibson logo in pearl. Everything on the guitar pictured is original, with the exception of Schaller tuners instead of stock Klusons.
Examination of the body reveals that the top is almost identical to those of Gibson's 14-fret models. The soundhole is placed the same, and the non-scalloped X-bracing is positioned the same as a 14-fret guitar's. The bridgeplate, however, has been moved to meet the bridge, which is located lower on the body. It appears, therefore, that Gibson simply used the same top as the 14-fret guitars (the SJN, for example), attached a shorter neck ( 18 frets instead of 20) that meets the body at the 1 2th fret, and adjusted the bridge position to allow for proper scale length. In contrast, Martin 12-fret guitars of the same period, such as the 0-16NY and 00-21 NY (also developed for steel or nylon strings), have their bridges in the same position on the body as on their 14-fret models, and the upper bout of their bodies are lengthened to meet the neck at the 12th fret. I consider the Martin construction to be more desirable, since the bridge -- the driving force of the soundboard -- remains in a more acoustically favorable position.
The bridge saddle on the FJN is straight -- not compensated for steel strings. Therefore, on the one hand, the guitar has proper intonation with nylon strings, but its heavier bracing is more appropriate for steel strings -- making it difficult to obtain a strong sound from nylon strings. It should be noted, however, that most Gibson (and Epiphone) flat-tops of this period had adjustable bridges whose metal parts absorbed a good deal of sound, rendering them acoustically inferior to a standard bridge. Despite its problems the bridge on the FJN is clearly an improvement over the adjustable ones.
The FJN's neck is well-contoured and comfortable, though wider than standard due to the preferences of most folkies. It measures 2" at the nut and 2-3/8" at the 12 fret. The body is 4-15/16" deep, 15-7/8" wide at the lower bout, and 11-1/2" at the upper bout. The white flamenco-style tapping plates are another classical feature. They can be easily removed if a standard pickguard is desired instead; however, on a guitar this old, with exposed finish darkened by exposure to light, their former positions would be clearly visible.
As stated earlier, the Troubador is very similar to the FJN, but with a few obvious differences, such as the Epiphone headstock shape and inlay, and rectangular fingerboard inlays. The body is almost identical, except that the Epi is about 1/8" larger in each dimension. The back and sides are stained a walnut color, as on the Gibson, but are made of maple rather than mahogany. Although the Troubador has a plywood back and the FJN's is solid, it has a very nice sound -- in my opinion, better than that of the Gibson. A contributing factor might be the fact that, while both have standard X-bracing for a 14-fret neck, the builder of the Epiphone neglected to reposition the plywood bridgeplate to allow for the altered bridge position. Thus, the bridge misses the bridgeplate by about an inch! While this could have caused problems, in that the ball ends of the strings are flush to the inside of the guitar's top, it may also have improved the acoustics of the instrument not to have the plywood at the acoustically important bridge position. Like the FJN, this Troubador is all original with the exception of Grover tuners replacing the stock Klusons.
Neither of these guitars were expensive when new: In 1964, the FJN was priced at $220.00 without a case, and the Troubador slightly less. Today, they retail for only double their original prices, in contrast to some collector's items of the same period that retail today for as much as ten times their original price. They do play well, however, and are among the best-sounding guitars produced by Gibson in the early '60s. They are relatively rare, historically interesting hybrids specifically a result of a particular movement of the early '60s -- the folk music revival.