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The SJ-200:
Uncovering the Origins of Gibson's Legendary Flat-Top Jumbo Guitar

April 1995
by Hank Risan
with sidebar article by Bianca Soros


he history of Gibson's Super Jumbo, later named the SJ-200, would not be complete without understanding the life of Ray Corrigan, the man who inspired Gibson to produce the largest and most ornate production flat-top in history. In 1936, Variety Magazine announced that Ray Corrigan was voted Hollywood's #1 Box Office Western Cowboy for his starring roles in The Three Musquiteers, a popular western film series loosely based on characters from Dumas' Three Musketeers and characters in William Colt MacDonald western novels. As tribute to this achievement, adventurous camaraderie of the western genre, this guitar may have been the prototype for the SJ-200, one of the most successful flat-tops ever built.

    According to Tom Corrigan, Ray's son and an expert on the Hollywood western and its related memorabilia, this guitar was the first of its kind. Ray Corrigan's Super Jumbo guitar became the envy of every cowboy film star hanging around the Corrigan Ranch. Stars like Gene Autry, Ray Whitley, Tex Ritter, Roy Rogers, and Jimmy Wakely all had to have this flashy western icon, and one by one they ordered their own custom Super Jumbos.

    Ray "Crash" Corrigan (1907 - 1976) learned the cowboy way as a young man in Milwaukee by befriending the legendary William "Buffalo Bill" Cody. In the late 1920s he moved to Los Angeles and went to work for Wyaatt Earp, who, after the gunfight at the O.K. Corral on October 26, 1881, left Tombstone and moved to California to start Wyatt Earp Reality, selling oil leases on Signal Hill in Los Angeles. Corrigan, hearing stories of the wild west from Buffalo Bill and Wyatt Earp, longed to be a cowboy star on the silver screen.

    Corrigan started his career in Hollywood as a stunt man (he was a part-time gymnastics instructor at the Hollywood Gym in the early '30s) and doubled for Johnny Weissmuller in Tarzan The Ape Man (MGM, 1932). He was a willing to do just about any stunt to get work and became known throughout the industry as "Crash." He rapidly rose in the ranks of Hollywood actors and ultimately starred in 107 feature films with over 275 credits. Some of his western films include Wild Horse Rodeo (1938), The Purple Vigilantes (1938), and West Of Pinto Basin (1940). He also played the devil in Dante's Inferno and was in De Mille's Cleopatra (1934).

    In 1935 he purchased a 2,000 acre ranch outside of Los Angeles in the Chatsworth hills. At the Corrigan Ranch (later named Corriganville, America's first theme park and now a state park) over 3500 westerns were filmed between 1935 and 1972. Almost all of the Republic films starring Corrigan, Autry, Rogers, and others were produced there. This is where Corrigan first met Autry, who was filming Tumbling Tumbleweeds (1935) while Corrigan was filming The Three Mesquiteers, one of the most expert and enjoyable of all westerns.

    Crash learned to play guitar from WLS National Barn Dance radio and film star Eddie Dean. In the late 1930s and 1940s, they traveled across America with the Corrigan Western Show where Crash would do tricks on his horse Sultan, twirl his staghorn-handled Colt revolvers, and sing "Goldmine In the Sky" while playing his 1936 custom-built Super Jumbo.

    Corrigan's guitar bears the production number 177B on the inside of its neck block, which indicates that the guitar was built in 1936. The guitar is 16-7/8" wide, 21" long, and slab-cut Honduras mahogany. The neck is curly maple, finished in chocolate-brown lacquer. The top is constructed from the finest Adirondack spruce and finished in rich Cremona-brown sunburst.

    The guitar is trimmed with large pearl crown inlays in the fingerboard and peghead. The top and back of the body, fingerboard, and peghead are bound in alternating strips of white and black celluloid. The tortoise-shell celluloid pickguard is hand engraved and painted with colored floral designs. The back strip includes fancy marquetry. The guitar is fitted with gold-plated Grover De Luxe individual machine heads. The pearl inlaid ebony bridge, designed in a western horseshoe motif, has individual adjustable bone string bearings. Other features include a white bone nut, tortoise-shell celluloid side position marker, white Catalin bridge pins and end pin, and gold-plated brackets for tying the included silk neck cord to the endpin and peghead. Corrigan's guitar also came with a #600 waterproof Aeroplane case lines with American beauty silk plush.

    Corrigan decided that he wanted his name inlaid on the fingerboard in the singing cowboy tradition of Jimmy Roger's Weymann and Gene Autry's 1933 Martin D-45. He returned the instrument to Gibson around 1937 when they inlaid his name in fancy pearl script into a new ebony fingerboard. The final result was the Custom-Built Super Jumbo, which in the 1938 Gibson catalog Z was described as 'personal' guitar - "your own name and special decorations etched on pearl inlays in the fingerboard. $250. Write for complete information." This ultra-rare model was Gibson's highest cataloged flat-top ever and was discontinued the following year. Fewer than ten were made.

    The Corrigan guitar has similar design features to the other large-bodied Gibson flat-tops circa 1936. The back and sides are mahogany like the Jumbo and Jumbo 35 flat-tops. The single X-brace pattern includes triple ton bard under the top similar to the Jumbo, Jumbo 35, and prototype Advanced Jumbo flat-tops. The braces are not scalloped. The bridge is not reinforced, which means that it was glued, not bolted onto the top (reinforced bridges have bolts and are hidden by pearl dots on both sides of the bridge pins). The reinforced bridge was first introduced in the 1936 Gibson catalog, published late that year, and became a regular production feature on Gibson's flat-tops by 1937. Corrigan's guitar had early Grover De Luxe tuners, introduced in 1935 on select top Gibson models such as the L-5 and super 400. these tuners with their engraved, gold-plated die-cast stair-step buttons were later named Grover Imperials. Early production Grover De Luxe individual machine heads had serial numbers that are hand inscribed on the inner housing dust cover cap. The serial number on the Corrigan SJ-200's tuning machines is 19, one of the earlier numbers known for this particular machine head, which is consistent with other instruments constructed between mid 1935 to early 1936.

    According to Gibson historian Walter Carter, the Corrigan guitar's batch number is lower than any found in Gibson shipping ledgers of that period, which only go back to March 10, 1936. Gibson typically built their production instruments in small batched that ranged anywhere from six to 40 units. In addition, Gibson would red pencil in a number after their work order signifying its placement in the batch. The Corrigan prototype bears no batch placement designation, indicating that it was built on a single-unit basis. The Corrigan guitar is prototypical due to the use of mahogany on the back and sides, its non-reinforced bridge, and its triple tone bars - features changed in subsequent versions of the Custom-Built Super Jumbo and Super Jumbo. In this author's extensive research on the subject of pre-war Super Jumbos, the Corrigan guitar is the only one possessing the triple tone bar configuration. All of the subsequent Super Jumbos studied possess the double tone bar configuration below the bridge plate. It is also the only known Custom-Built Super Jumbo constructed with mahogany back and sides.

    Based on conversations that Ray Whitley had with historian Ranger Doug Green of the band Riders In The Sky, guitar experts have assumed for many years that the first Super Jumbo was built for Whitley. Green's account was first published in 1975 issue of Pickin' magazine. The story has appeared in print so many times that it has almost become American folk legend. Actually, the Whitley guitar, currently housed in the Country Music Hall of Fame, was built in late 1937, almost two years after the Corrigan guitar. According to Curator of Collections, Chris Stinker, Whitley's Custom-Built Super Jumbo bears the neck block work order number 95_C where the third digit in the work number is illegible, possibly a "3" or an "8." Stinker comments that there is no batch designation in red pencil, suggesting that this guitar was built as a single unit. The Whitley Super Jumbo may be the first of the Custom-Built Super Jumbos inspired by Crash Corrigan's prototype. It should be noted that in the early 50s the guitar was sent back to the Gibson factory where it was refinished and the bridge was replaced. At that time a paper label was added to the guitar bearing serial number A12572. Both the Corrigan and Whitley guitars were designed as 14-fret modules with 26" scale lengths.

    Many of the cowboy stars, including Ray Whitley, Tex Ritter, and Gene Autry, ordered Custom-Built Super Jumbos with a 12-fret neck configuration. These guitars were built on a custom-order basis and not in a single batch. According to Walter Carter, Gibson shipped a 12-fret guitar to Whitley on May 31, 1938, and the factory shipping records listed it as "deluxe Jumbo 12-fret with a Super case and cover." Autry ordered two Custom-Built Super Jumbos. According to James Nottage, Chief Curator of the Gene Autry Western heritage Museum in Los Angeles, California, the first one was made in 1938, bearing factory order number 885D or 835D, with no red pencil batch designation. For many years this instrument was thought to have been lost in a fire, but it is indeed alive and well, residing in Gene's living room along with his ELS Euphonon. Autry's other Custom-Built Super Jumbo, built in 1939, was donated to the National Cowboy Hall of Fame, and according to Curator of Collections Don Reeves, bears factory order number 462E with no red pencil designation. Both of Autry's Super Jumbos feature elaborate pearl and ebony rope binding, cowboy motifs inlaid with the fingerboard and peghead, and his name inlaid in pearl in the fingerboard. They were the fanciest of the bunch. Tex Ritter's 1938 12-fret Super Jumbo now resides in the Country Music Hall of Fame and, according to Curator Stinker, the batch number is illegible. Jimmy Wakely, one of country music's major stars during the 1940s and early 1950s, ordered a 14-fret Custom-Built Super Jumbo in 1939 with his name engraved in the pickguard and a horseshoe inlay in the fingerboard.

    By late 1937, the Super Jumbo went into regular production at the cost of $200 and was first listed in the 1938 Catalog Z. Late 1938 super Jumbos have batched numbers listed as low as 19D.

    The rest is history. Crash Corrigan's guitar remains in original condition and is one of the only celebrity Custom-Built Super Jumbos held in a private collection. End

Singing Cowboy Stars from the Film Western's Golden Age
by Bianca Soros


   Western films made in the early 20th century, such as Custer's Last Flight (1912) by Thomas Ince, usually featured authentic dress and atmosphere. William S. Hart, one of the first screen cowboys, insisted on constructing an accurate authentic wardrobe. Compared to Hart, many other screen cowboys from later decades such as Tom Mix, Gene Autry, and Jimmy Wakely had a circus clown-like appearance.

   Hollywood producers were more concerned with clean-cut fashion and less focused on the unglamorous appearance associated with an authentic wardrobe. The flashy, impractical, and uneconomical costumes seen in many Westerns were not entirely foreign to the real West. Cowboys often purchased fancy clothing to indulge their vanity for a special event like the rodeo. In the 1910s and 1920s, Tom Mix augmented cowboy attire with meticulously designed shirts and intricately carved boots, and introduced fancy riding gloves to the Westerner's outfit.

   The mid 1930s are considered the golden age of the "B" Western film. Production costs were low, and profits were high. Just as the boom seemed to be burning out, Gene Autry and his musicals rescued the genre. The most prolific producer of Western Films was Republic Pictures who made quality Westerns and serials such as the popular Three Mesquiteers series. Republic films were characterized by exciting stunts, chases, and fights. The camera work was first rate, and many of the movies were filmed on the Corrigan Ranch. Their soundtracks were the best in the industry. Republic built up an outstanding library of musical themes: mysterioso, agitato, pastorale, and menace. Although he was not a singing cowboy, John Wayne started his career with appearances in the last eight Three Mesquiteers series, and eventually starred in the classic Stage Coach (1939).

   Here are profiles of the most popular singing cowboy stars, all of whom appeared on screen with Gibson SJ-200s.

Gene Autry

    Gene Autry (b. 1907) set the pace for a new brand of Western hero when he starred as himself in the science fiction serial Phantom Empire. Soon afterwards, he starred in a series of musical Westerns featuring Smiley Burnette as his sidekick. Bolstered by Autry's rising popularity, Republic Pictures became well known as a movie production company. Autry's work on the film Tumbling Tumble Weeds (1935) was his first box office hit where he was billed as a singing cowboy, and in 1937 he became the number one Hollywood Western Box Office Cowboy.

   Autry's wardrobe was influenced by Tom Mix's fantastically embroidered clothing. Autry's most distinctive costume items were his ornamented jet-black shirts with gold braids. His ensemble was often accessorized with a guitar -- either a Martin D-45, 000-45, or one of his two Gibson Custom-Built Super Jumbos.

Tex Ritter

   Tex Ritter (1905-1973) moved to California in 1936, where he participated in over 60 films for various production companies like Columbia, Universal, and others up until 1945. Prior to heading for Hollywood, Ritter had received a law degree. He gained experience as an actor on the Broadway stage in the early 1930's, appearing in theatrical performances such as Green Grow the Lilacs. He was one of the country's most popular singing cowboys in the 1940's, performing the hits "There's a New Moon Over My Shoulder" and "I'm Wasting My Tears on You."

Roy Rogers

   Roy Rogers (b. 1911) made his film debut singing with The Sons Of The Pioneers in the 1936 Republic film Wild Horse Rodeo starring Crash Corrigan. As Rogers became Republic's leading singing cowboy, his outfits outdid Autry's in terms of ornamentation and flash. Rogers starred in over 100 movies, enjoying immense popularity that began with 1938's Under the Western Skies and lasted until 1953. He married Dale Evans in 1947. Rogers often appeared on screen with his Martin OM-45 Deluxe or his SJ-200, singing "Happy Trails To You"

Jimmy Wakely

   Jimmy Wakely (1914-1982) was raised in Oklahoma and became the fourth most popular Western film cowboy in 1948. The following year he had the huge hit "Slippin' Around," a duet with Margaret Whiting that sold over a million copies. Wakely sang "One Has My Name, The Other Has My Heart," which influenced many Western songwriters to pen songs about marital infidelity.

Ray Whitley

   During the mid 1930s, Ray Whitley (1901-1979) co-hosted the WHN Barn Dance radio show with Tex Ritter. He was a manager and a songwriter who helped write melodies that Gene Autry later popularized, like "Back in The Saddle Again," "Ages And Ages Ago," and "Lonely River, I Hang My Head And Cry." Whitley was a talented performer who became known for his own hit songs "Blue Yodel Blues" and "The Last Flight Of Wiley Post." He was one of the first Hollywood cowboys and co-starred in many films for RKO Radio Pictures between 1938 and 1942.End

The Evolution of The Super Jumbo 1936-1942
by Hank Risan

   1936-- Production begins on Crash Corrigan's Super-Jumbo prototype. No label, neck-block stamp only. Cremona sunburst Adirondack spruce top, natural mohagany back and sides, chocolate-stained curly maple neck. 16-7/8" wide, 21' long, 4-1/2" deep. 14-fret model, 26" scale length, single X-braced with triple tone bars, jumbo body, ebony horseshoe non-reinforced bridge inlaid with four semi-rectangular pearl inserts, individual adjustable string bearings, engraved celluloid pickguard with vines and flowers, 9-ply bound top, 3-ply bound back, single-bound pointed-end ebony fingerboard with crown inlays, triple-bound peghead. Gold Grover De Luxe tuners with engraved stairstep buttons, gold-plated strap holder brackets, catalin endpin and bridgepins.

   1937-- Regular production begins. Rosewood back and sides (one with maple back and sides known to exist), reinforced bridge double tone bars, 12- and 14-fret models available.

   1938-- Super Jumbo introduced, price $200. Custom-built Super Jumbo offered, price $250.

   1939-- Renamed Super Jumbo "200." Custom-built SJ dropped from catalog. Kluson Seal Fast tuners with large amber Catalin buttons replace Grover De Luxe version. Some models shipped with open-back gold-plated Grover G-98s.

   1941-- One-piece saddle, paper label, rosewood fingerboard.

   1942-- Temporarily discontinued due to war-time shortages.

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