It's nearly impossible to downplay the J-45's role in making Gibson one of the most widely known guitar makers out there. This was a mass-production model and stood out because it was high quality at a relatively cheap price. They were almost all black or tobacco burst in color, had a fancy Gold Gibson logo at the top of the headstock, a simple pickguard, white Gibson tuners, a flat top, 20 frets (a recent development), maple back and sides with a spruce top, and white/black/white binding.
The guitar is actually the property of Ben Shannon. I'm simply the bassist in his band, although working in the music industry and being a gearaholic I've become a purveyor of fine instruments over the years. His 1956 Gibson J-45 is worth around $4,000, even though it's pretty well beat, with large gouges in the top from pick strokes that got a little too close.
It has an amazing warmth and a great bass tone. Fingerpickers absolutely go nuts over an instrument like this. With just enough space between strings to get your fingers in but not too much to make it slow, a low action neck and a soundhole close to the neck, it gets a deep and clear tone. The maple back and sides add a touch of brilliance to it, preserving the depth of the lows but adding a treble sheen that keeps the guitar sounding clean and articulate, while the spruce top and triple binding adds volume.
Once you start to strum with a pick or with your fingers, it's not hard to see why this particular instrument often has marks from heavy picking, particularly the 1942-49 and 1950-60 models. For some odd reason, the clean sound of the maple wood gets overpowered by the bass tones of the guitar when strumming, and the overall tone can become very low-end dominated and muddy, causing players to dig in harder than they normally would on other guitars. You can see it in the way Elvis played his in the movie 'Loving You.' He practically slams the strings to get every bit out of it.
Well, it certainly can take a beating, but something to watch out for with these early Gibson guitars is that many of them LACK truss-rods completely. Gibson saved money in the short run by doing this. With the way vintage guitars may have been treated, always check to see if the one you're buying has a truss rod in it before making a purchase. It could mean the difference between a playable (or at least fixable) guitar and a several-thousand-dollar wall ornament. This particular model (thankfully!) does have a truss rod in it, and it manages to hold itself together quite well. Many of the truss-rod enhanced models have kept all of their original parts, as has Ben's, and it's a beauty to hold. Even the small and delicate-feeling tuners have managed to hang together over the last 54 years.
It's one of the best fingerstyle guitars out there, and it has the kind of bass richness to rival a post-war Martin in a much more affordable price range. Strumming can often yield a muddy respone, though, and many were made without truss rods, leading to some very unfortunate ends for these great instruments. In the grand scale of vintage guitars, this gets a 4, but it's still probably worlds better than your Alvarez. Just keep that in mind when you're staring down the $2,500 and up price tag. There's a reason for that, and it's not just because it's collectible.
Check under the cover on the headstock or just under the neck side of the soundhole to make sure there\'s a truss rod installed. If there isn\'t, unless you really want it for a collection don\'t buy it. If you\'re just going to display it, get one without a truss rod and save the ones that do have one for those of us who want a playable vintage guitar! We\'ll all go home happy in the long run. Thanks.