Gibson J-185 KOA

A very limited edition: Gibson's J-185, the original small jumbo, with a custom koa refit exclusively for the UK

Amazingly, Gibson's cool and stylish J-185 acoustic remained out of production for over 30 years, until the company's revitalised Montana acoustic workshop finally introduced the first faithful vintage reissues in 1990.

Even these, however, proved a limited run, because it has always been a difficult guitar to market; somewhat overshadowed by the bigger, less subtle J-200. It wasn't until 1999 that it resurfaced as a regular production model.

Nevertheless, the J-185's relatively compact jumbo proportions pre-empted all the medium-jumbo and grand auditorium-size acoustics that have become so popular of late.

With vintage spec models, authentic reissues and limited editions all the rage these days, the market is more informed about, and appreciative of, guitars like this now.

In the light of this, Gibson's UK distributor, Rosetti, has secured 24 tantalising custom-built J-185s with Hawaiian koa back and sides. These are exclusive to our shores, so grab one while you can.

Overview

Looking inside, we find a strictly traditional bracing system, with tall, slim deeply scalloped and carefully carved soundboard struts. Vintage Gibsons were never obsessively immaculate, but today's Montana luthiers take greater care to keep the innards clean and tidy.

Still, it's not quite up to the impeccable standards of the so-called 'small shop' brands.The top's premium graded pair of Sitka spruce slices display some subtle lateral figuration (known as rays), which lend visual texture.

Its simple black/white rosette is not the cleanest cut we've seen, but the perimeter's four-ply purfled binding makes a smarter border. No excess glue around the scratchplate this time, either.

A standard J-185 carries flame maple back and sides, but the visual splendour is considerably upped here with some complex-grained golden-hued slices of koa delivering dashing tiger-stripe figuration.

The back's perimeter is the same as the top's, but there's no centre strip, while the sides' tapered end-joint inlay is matching white plastic.

Genuine mahogany may be becoming ever more scarce, but you still get a one-piece neck here. As is traditional, it's dovetail jointed.

This very dark rosewood fingerboard is generally neat, with tidy frets, but if you look closely (as we always do) you'll spot gaps around the parallelogram inlays and a few tool marks on the 'board itself.

Also, this reviewer's never got on with Gibson's binding style – it often looks rough and grubby even when new.

The bound headstock is another custom feature, but this is slightly marred by a scruffy bottom edge where the black headstock veneer meets the otherwise neat nut.

The tuners are Gotoh's take on the authentic vintage Kluson Deluxe machines - smooth enough gears, but particularly stiff.

Unique to the J-185, the mother-of-pearl Maltese crosses on the wings of this trademark Gibson 'top belly' bridge are tidier than the fingerboard inlays.

The quirky bridge style is this reviewer's favourite, and we find a very well presented example here, with a perfectly snug, upright saddle. We've found reason to criticise in the past, but here we find an impeccable, thin nitro-gloss finish.

The Fishman pickup system comes as standard, and it's pretty much stock equipment, except the usual nine-volt battery clip is replaced by a small canvas-look synthetic cloth pouch with a Velcro fastener that is itself Velcro-mounted to the neck block.

This, we assume, makes battery changes a bit easier, avoids sympathetic vibration buzzes and protects the guitar if the battery should swing loose.

While the official spec insists that this neck has a 'V'-profile cross-section, we'd conclude that it's more of a modified 'C', with merely a subtle central peak to it. Its depth tapers from 21mm (first fret) to 23mm (10th fret), and its typical width is complemented by optimally spaced strings for maximum finger room.

The binding edge corners are not as rough here as those of the previously reviewed J-185. However, the fingerboard's dry yet silky finish and the perfectly polished frets are a welcome repeat of last time. The fairly fresh nitro-gloss finish still has a little static squeakiness to it, but it's not bad.

For a traditionally dovetail-jointed neck, its alignment and its fingerboard's end-to-end evenness are impressive.

We find healthy height on the saddle, and a clean-ringing action that's on the higher side further up, but within acceptable parameters.

It's also worth bearing in mind that this is a short scale acoustic so, for a given string gauge, tension is reduced, and everything's a bit less of a stretch. There's excellent intonation on the high frets, and a comfortable, low, rounded heel to rest on.

Sounds

The J-185 Koa is a silver-tongued charmer of some distinction. It is argued that the J-185 body produces the most satisfyingly balanced tone of all Gibson acoustics, and judging by this example we can only agree.

Deep, resounding bass is often overpowering, but here it remains beautifully controlled, while a rich, hearty, wood-toned mid-range provides the kind of mellow power that fills a room and drives everything along without ever sounding too raucous.

This is a quality that all really great acoustics possess. Most impressive of all, however, is the fact that there's still quite a crisp,spicy edge to the treble - which seems to be a recurring Gibson trait - but high notes manage to remain thick and sustaining.

We don't recall the other J-185 we reviewed performing so well, so either this review model is just one of those extra special one-offs or it's the koa's benign influence. There are many opinions about koa's tonal flavour - some say it's like mahogany, others put it between rosewood and maple.

A consummate all-rounder, you can throw any playing style at this guitar and it responds in the most obedient and life-affirming way. Its presence ensures the clarity and articulation you need for fingerpicking, while its big gutsy output and decent headroom means you can go for it too.

As you'd expect, it's a bit fresh sounding right now, but it will surely be a pleasure listening to it age to perfection over the coming years.

Via the pickup system, you retain some aspects of the outstanding dynamics and tone, but it does sound much more generic. Decent outboard EQ will help you tweak out its true character more audibly.

MusicRadar Rating

4 / 5 stars
Pros

Superbly balanced. Complementary upgrade for an already classy looker.

Cons

Some minor quality issues for a guitar of this price.

Verdict

Compared to the high-end competition that exists these days, Gibson's own vintage reissues can fall short of the mark on both tone and build quality, but this one sounds very special indeed. Compared to a standard J-185 this limited edition does seem expensive, but it's worth remembering that Gibson acoustic shop prices always work out a lot less. And remember, there are only 24 of these so get your skates on.

Available Finish

Antique natural nitrocellulose body and neck

Back Material

Flamed Maple

Body Binding

4-ply top and back

Body Style

Jumbo Acoustic

Bridge

55.5mm

Bridge Material

Rosewood

Bridge Pins

White

Case Included

Yes

Country of Origin

USA

Fingerboard Binding

Single-ply

Fingerboard Material

Rosewood

Guitar Body Material

Flame Maple

Hardware

Nickel

Inlays

Parallelogram

Max Body Width

406

Max Rim Depth

122

Neck Material

Mahogany

No of Strings

6

No. of Frets

20

Nut Material

Bone

Pickguard

Yes

Scale Length (mm)

626

Sides Material

Koa Wood

Top Material

Solid Sitka Spruce

Weight (kg)

2

Weight (lb)

4.5

Width at Nut (mm)

44

Review Policy
All MusicRadar's reviews are by independent product specialists, who are not aligned to any gear manufacturer or retailer. Our experts also write for renowned magazines such as Guitarist, Total Guitar, Computer Music, Future Music and Rhythm. All are part of Future PLC, the biggest publisher of music making magazines in the world.