The legend of John Lennon's lost–and found–J-160
The J-160, first introduced at the Gibson & Epiphone factory in Kalamazoo, Michigan in the mid 1950s, was one of the first modern acoustic guitars specifically made to "plug-in" and went on to earn fame as the guitar that appeared on every Beatles recording beginning with their first session at Abbey Road in 1962 for "Love Me Do."
For almost 50 years, John Lennon's original J-160–purchased just before The Beatles premier session as EMI artists–was at the center of one of Rock's most enduring mysteries after it disappeared during a Beatles tour in late 1963. That mystery was finally solved when the guitar re-appeared in virtually the same condition as when last played at a Beatles performance and was auctioned for over $2 million this year.
Lennon and George Harrison both purchased their original J-160s at Rushworth's Music House in Liverpool in September 1962 for £161 each. Beatles manager Brian Epstein co-signed for the guitars and set up a payment plan, which took a year to pay off. They were not custom models but most likely the only two of their kind in the United Kingdom at the time. A photo of the sale featuring Harrison and Lennon appeared in Bill Harry's Merseybeat: "John Lennon and George Harrison of The Beatles, seen at Rushworth's when they received their Gibson guitars–the only ones of their type in the country–which were specially flown to England by jet from America."
John and George put their new guitars to use in the studio the next day for their first official session at Abbey Road for "Love Me Do." Lennon especially used his J-160 throughout the sessions for the Beatles’ first two albums as well as many of their live shows. You can hear the guitar's distinctive tone during "'Til There Was You" and playing the opening chord to "All I've Got To Do." In December 1963 during The Beatles' residency at the Finsbury Park Astoria Theater, Beatles Roadie Mal Evans accidently left behind John's J-160 at the venue (Evans recalled it as the lowest point in his career). The guitar then disappeared until it showed up at Blue Guitar in San Diego in 1967 where it was traded-in and then purchased by Tommy Pressley, a 21-year old carpenter's apprentice. Two years later, Pressley sold the J-160 to his friend John McCaw.
"What you see today is exactly the way it looked the day I bought it 46 years ago," McCaw told Guitar World. "All the little dents and nicks and dings that you see were all there." McCaw brought the guitar to a group guitar lesson in San Diego where he saw a copy of Guitar Aficionado magazine with Dhani Harrison, George's son, on the cover. Reading the feature, McCaw noticed that George's J-160 had a similar serial number to his own J-160 as well as some of the same trademark wear patterns. He soon contacted Beatles Gear author Andy Babiuk.
"When John McCaw first contacted me over a year ago asking about his guitar, I told him to send me some photos," recalled Babiuk. "I get Beatle Gear inquiry stuff like this all the time and 99% of the time it's nothing. When I got McCaw's photos there was something about them that caught my eye. It was the pick marks by the bridge. So I dug into my vast photo archive and found some good photos of Lennon with his J-160E in the day. Not only did the pick wear on the top match, but the woodgrain was a dead on match. And as we know, woodgrain is like a fingerprint, no two are the same. When I examined the guitar I noticed how well it was made and kept for all these years. Just a real cool guitar!"
Babiuk soon got to play the mystery J-160 and just as Conan O'Brien had noted the remarkable tone of George Harrison's J-160, so did Babiuk find that the considerable playing time that Lennon gave to his J-160 had made a tremendous difference in the sound. "I played the guitar for about two hours. It was bone chilling!! I played the Beatles song "This Boy" on it. John used this guitar to record the song, and when you play the opening chords it was 'that' magical sound! Very unique and ultra cool. I sat there and played every Beatle song I know!
Babiuk also noted the same wear marks on George Harrison's J-160, which Lennon borrowed in the studio for the rest of The Beatles' recording career. "When you watch old videos of John playing the J160E he holds the guitar real high up and strums it by the bridge. His pick left a lot of pick wear on the face of the guitar taking off the finish down to the wood. When he used George's J160E for a while he left the same wear marks on George's J160E. All in all, it was one of the coolest guitars I've ever played."
John Lennon's original J-160 was sold at Julien's Auctions in November 2015 for $2.41 million, which McCaw split with Yoko Ono, who donated her proceeds to the Spirit Foundation. "It was at that point that I realized I can't keep the guitar," McCaw told Guitar World after finding out the guitar was belonged to John Lennon. "It's too big for me. It's not going to fit in my house anymore."
Be sure to check out the new Epiphone Ltd. Ed. EJ-160E Acoustic/Electric which is made to the design specs and built with the same tonewoods as early 1960s era J-160s. Like vintage J-160 Jumbos, the new Ltd. Ed. EJ-160E Acoustic/Electric has the same distinctive profile and solid craftsmanship and features a Solid Spruce top with ladder bracing to make the Jumbo style acoustic less prone to feedback. The Mahogany neck joins the body at the 15th fret to make ample room for the Epiphone Stacked P-100™ humbucker pickup which helps to give the EJ-160E the same warm tone as the vintage original.
The P-100™ humbucker was designed for the EJ-160 and can reproduce both the familiar sound of the guitar when played without amplification (as heard in the introduction to "This Boy" and "A Day In the Life") as well as its classic plugged-in "hollowbody" tone heard in Beatle classics like "All My Loving" and "She Loves You." And compared to a vintage model–especially one from the early 60s–you will pay considerably less for a new Ltd. Ed. EJ-160E than you would have if you visited Rushworth's Music House in Liverpool in 1962.
Visit your select Authorized Epiphone Dealer to try a Ltd. Ed. EJ-160E Acoustic/Electric while they last and read the full story of The Beatles Gear in our exclusive interview with Andy Babiuk.