Last Updated on December 16, 2023 by AG
The Gibson J-45 Banner is a historic guitar made during World War II. Gibson’s reputation before the war was mainly built on its intricately designed archtop guitars, but the company’s focus shifted during the war.
Economic conditions dictated that Gibson should help with the war effort, so men who didn’t serve in the war, were put to use elsewhere. So Gibson’s workforce was primarily made up of women with no experience in making guitars and faced a material shortage. As a result, there is great variability in the instruments produced during this period.
The Banner J-45 was one of two new models introduced during the war, and it is now considered one of Gibson’s finest guitars. As resources were scarce, there is inconsistency in the building materials of war-era Gibson guitars. You can see that they used whatever they had to finish a guitar.
Materials the Gibson J-45 Banner was built with
Most of them have an adirondack (red spruce) top, mahogany back and sides, and a mahogany or maple neck. The banner gibson has brazilian rosewood fingerboard and bridge and a forward-shifted, scalloped X-bracing, which is exceptionally light.
The mahogany neck is meaty and helps the strings to transmit more sound vibration to the body than a lighter neck would, which leads to a better tonal response.
Some guitars of this time have a truss rod, but many don’t, as metal and especially steel wasn’t to be used „uneconomically“ in times of war. The vacant run, meant for the truss rod, was often filled with maple.
So if there isn’t a truss rod cover and it looks like someone filled in the truss rod cut-out with wood and painted over it, you have a vintage Gibson with a maple rod.
There are also a lot of variations found in the build of the guitar top. There are guitars with mahogany tops instead of red spruce and you can find two-piece and four-piece tops with variable binding combinations. So with some guitars, you have the feeling every guitar was built differently.
On their headstock the wartime guitars all feature the iconic banner logo with the lettering “only a gibson is good enough” and the body shows a beautiful sunburst.
Sound of a Legend
The acoustic guitar that was the inspiration for this article has incredible volume and deep back-tones, the whole guitar resonating beautifully. It sustains perfectly, allowing you to play on without dampening. This model has a mahogany top, but with a crisp character, it has a thin finish and a unique character.
However different they are built, I have yet to encounter a banner acoustic guitar that doesn’t deliver sound-wise, and I haven’t met anyone who was disappointed.
Although there was a lack of consistency in the production of war-era Banner Gibsons due to a lack of resources and inexperienced workers, these acoustic guitars are still highly sought after. The women employed by Gibson caught on quickly, and their guitar-making skills resulted in some of the finest guitars ever built.
Gibson made six Banner models, four of which were flat-tops, but the banner logo disappeared after the war ended.
The J-45, along with the Southern Jumbo, introduced a new bracing system and structural features that would go on to form part of their enduring reputation. Nevertheless, the J-45 has endured as one of the most iconic guitars of all time, like the holy grail, played by legends like Bob Dylan and John Lennon.
The Story Behind It
One of the interesting things about these war-era Gibsons is the story of the women who built them. At the time, most of the male employees were either fighting in the war or working on war-related projects, so Gibson had to rely on a largely inexperienced female workforce to keep their guitar production going.
This was not solely the case for Gibson, as many other industries also had to adapt to the new wartime reality by employing women in roles traditionally held by men. However, the story of these “Kalamazoo Gals” as they came to be known, is particularly interesting because of the high level of craftsmanship they were able to achieve in such challenging circumstances.
Overall, the war-era Gibson Banner J-45 is a testament to the ingenuity and resilience of the human spirit in times of adversity. Despite the challenges posed by wartime economics and a largely inexperienced workforce, Gibson was able to produce some of the finest guitars in their history. These instruments have a unique character and sound that sets them apart from other Gibson models, and they continue to be sought after by collectors and musicians alike.
The Kalamazoo Gals
During World War II, when many men were fighting overseas, women stepped up to take their place in the workforce. One of the lesser-known examples of this was the group of women who worked at the Gibson guitar factory in Kalamazoo, Michigan, during the war. These women, known as the “Kalamazoo Gals,” played an essential role in the production of guitars.
Before the war, Gibson was a prominent manufacturer of guitars, but the company’s production was limited due to the shortage of materials caused by the war. In response to this, the U.S. government established the War Production Board (WPB) in 1942 to oversee the allocation of resources to industries deemed essential for the war effort.
Up to today the official statement of Gibson remaines, that there where no guitars build during the world war. But there were documents proofing different, including the photograph you see below.
This picture started John Thomas on his search to uncover the truth. He discovered that Gibson hired a significant number of women to work in their factory during the war.
He dubbed these women the “Kalamazoo Gals,” they worked on a number of strings and a range of guitars, including the L-5 and the ES-150. The Kalamazoo Gals worked long hours, often seven days a week, to meet the demand for instruments. About 24000 instruments were shipped during the war, including 9000 “banner” Guitars.
Despite the challenging work, the Kalamazoo Gals took pride in their work and produced guitars of exceptional quality. In addition to their skill, the women were known for their meticulous attention to detail. They often had to work with materials that were in short supply, and they had to be creative in finding ways to make the most of what they had. One example for this is how these women used old aircraft aluminum to create tailpieces for the guitars.
After the war, the Kalamazoo Gals returned to their pre-war roles or left the workforce. However, their contribution to the war effort and the music industry did not go unnoticed. Today, the guitars produced by the Kalamazoo Gals are highly sought after by collectors and musicians alike. In recent years, their story has also gained recognition, with a documentary and a book (by John Thomas entitled Kalamazoo Gals) shedding light on their remarkable contribution. There is a very interesting interviews of the author and Irene Stearns (one of the Kalamazoo gals) with Michigan Radio and a follow up 3 years later.
The story of the Kalamazoo Gals is an inspiring example of how women made a significant contribution to the war effort and the music industry. Their work not only helped to boost the morale of soldiers but also left a lasting legacy that continues to inspire and influence musicians to this day. Their story is a reminder that even in the most challenging times, individuals can make a difference and leave a lasting impact on the world.
The Reissue of the Celebrated Version
Triggered by John Thomas research and book Gibson released a reissue of the historic 1942 banner j 45. Luthiers in Montana meticulously crafted a J-45 just like the iconic and celebrated version in components and structure.
This new 1942 banner j 45 has a thermally aged red spruce (Adirondack) top hand-sprayed in the historic-style burst just like the vintage acoustic guitars, hot hide glue top bracing for better tonal response, and a bone nut and saddle.
So there is the possibility to get your own historic 1942 banner j 45 with the typical banner logo for just a fraction of the price of an original one (provided you are lucky enough to find the rare vintage one for sale).