Hands-On Review:
Gibson CJ-165 EC

A beautiful small-bodied guitar with powerful Fishman Electronics
By Dan Day

Gibson Acoustic CJ-165EC Rosewood Acoustic-Electric GuitarWhen I first took the Gibson CJ-165 EC Acoustic-Electric guitar out of its hardshell case I was struck once again by how much I’ve always preferred the deep, dark woods that Gibson uses on its guitars topped off with the with the gorgeous sunburst on the premium Sitka spruce top. Too bad I can’t enjoy it as much when I’m playing it, but like a custom-made suit, I sure do look good wearing it. Then I saw there was no control panel on the outside of the upper bout. I thought Gibson had sent me the wrong guitar to review. A co-worker with a better view pointed out to me that the Fishman electronics were mounted inside the soundhole.  It made perfect sense to me: Gibson is using a patented neodymium magnetic mounting system—no holes are drilled, no special adhesives are used. You get the additional electronics without spoiling the natural beauty of the solid wood sides of the guitar. My review guitar has rosewood back and sides; another model comes with maple back and sides.

The  CJ-165 EC Rosewood Modern Classic and Maple Modern Classic are small-bodied guitars that have the same shape as Gibson’s classic flattop Super Jumbo J-200 introduced in the 1930s. Why have smaller body guitars become so popular? Of course, a smaller guitar is easier to transport and carry around. One thing I like about smaller body guitars is how my upper right arm rests more comfortably over the lower bout without cutting off circulation the way my dreadnought does, which leads to arm fatigue and discomfort. With the smaller guitar, my right hand can more easily and naturally reach over the strings so I get better coverage and better articulation. In a strictly acoustic playing situation, a dreadnought will be louder and have more bass response. That’s what they were designed for in the days before amplification—to fill a room acoustically. But today’s smaller acoustic-electric guitars can more than make up the natural differences.

Loud and clear

Gibson Acoustic CJ-165EC Rosewood Acoustic-Electric Guitar

 CJ-165 EC Rosewood Modern Classic

Basically, I want to accomplish two things with an acoustic-electric. First, make the guitar loud enough to be heard in any listening environment, and second, reproduce as accurately as possible the tonal qualities of the acoustic guitar. But my immediate concern was how was I going to learn how to access and adjust the Fishman system control mounted inside the soundhole? As it turns out, the controls are laid out in such a way that you can learn to navigate by feel in no time at all.

The controls closest to me, from left to right, are the Volume slider, the Phase button that improves bass response at low volume and suppresses feedback at high volume, and the Blend slider control to adjust the balance between the piezo pickup and the selected mic model. Because the shaft of the phase button sticks up higher, I use it as a base to navigate to other controls. Behind those controls are the Sound Image controller—a switch that slides among the four settings to select microphone models. To the left is the Anti-Feedback on-off switch and the Measure button that use a notch filter to seek out and eliminate feedback-causing frequencies. To the right is the battery indicator and the Low Frequency Tone Shaping selector that has two settings: bass boost for solo guitarists and flat voicing that cuts through the mix when playing with other instruments. To the extreme right is the USB connector that can be used to download other mic models from Fishman.

A good blend

The Gibson CJ-165 EC has a built-in piezo transducer pickup that you can blend with microphone modeling from the Fishman Ellipse Aura system. Because rosewood and maple respond to string vibrations differently, each model has a slightly different set of microphone models. The rosewood guitar I’m evaluating came pre-loaded with four mic models that were created by recording the CJ-165 EC a dynamic cardioid mic; the Shure Beta 58; two small diaphragm condenser mics—the DPA 4011 and the Neumann KM84; and a large diaphragm condenser, the Neumann U87. The maple guitar also has the Shure and the DPA, as well as a small diaphragm Schoeps CMC64G, and a large diaphragm condenser Soundelux E47.

When comparing how the mic models reproduce the sound of the CJ-165, I should point out that no guitar has one perfect sound. That sound depends a lot on the person playing the guitar: what type of strings being used, how the guitar is held (is the arm draped over the guitar, dampening the sound somewhat), what kind of fingerpicks, or bare fingers, and what style of music is being played.

Mics for all seasons

To compare the mic models I ran the 1/4" output of the CJ-165 EC Rosewood Modern Classic into a small club PA with flat EQ settings. All of these mics have a great reputation for being excellent for live sound or recording and each mic model reproduces guitar frequencies differently based on its characteristic frequency response curve and how the mic was placed when recording the CJ-165 EC to create the mic model.

There are a couple of differences to note in the types of microphones that affect their performance. The small diaphragm mics are especially good at reproducing high frequencies and large diaphragm condenser mics are very sensitive and used in studios to record vocals and a wide variety of instruments. For each model I experimented with the Blend settings with the piezo mic. When playing with other instruments I wanted the more lively, responsive sound of the piezo mounted under the saddle, so I moved the slider past 50% piezo (except when using the Shure Beta 58 which has a fairly lively response, so I didn’t use as much piezo in the blend). For solo guitar performances I wanted a little warmer, woody tone, with just a bit of ambience, so I favored the mic model for the DPA 4011 in the blend. For a little extra ambience, extra clarity and even more pronounced woody tone I favored the studio workhorse Neumann U87 —a mic that normally wouldn’t be found onstage in a live setting. The Neumann KM84 provided lots of detail and clarity without getting too woofy in the bass or too bright in the treble range.

Features & Specs:

  • Handcrafted in Bozeman, Montana
  • Vintage sunburst, antique natural finish
  • 15" SJ-200 body style with cutaway
  • Top species: Premium Sitka spruce
  • Back and sides: Premium Indian rosewood or premium AAA maple
  • Body binding: 4-ply top, single-ply back
  • Neck species: Maple
  • Scale: 24.75"
  • Profile: V-shaped
  • Fingerboard species: Indian rosewood
  • Binding: Single-ply
  • Inlays: Mother-of-pearl parallelograms
  • Nut Width: 1.725"
  • Traditional Gibson rosewood bridge
  • Pins: White
  • Grover Rotomatic tuners
  • Pickups: Ellipse Aura system with soundhole-mounted volume control
  • Abalone rosette, bone nut and Tusq saddle

Rosewood Guitar:

  • Shure Beta 58 - dynamic cardioid
  • DPA 4011 - small diaphragm condenser
  • Neumann KM84 - small diaphragm condenser
  • Neumann U87 - large diaphragm condenser

Maple Guitar:

  • Schoeps CMC64G – small diaphragm condenser
  • Shure Beta58 – dynamic cardioid
  • DPA 4011 – small diaphragm condenser
  • Soundelux E47 – large diaphragm condenser