Review: Gibson SG Junior, SG Standard ’61 Maestro Vibrola, SG Standard ’61 Sideways Vibrola

The last 12 months have seen major changes at Gibson Brands Inc, with the company’s Original Collection intended to give Gibson fans the guitars they want at prices that won’t break the bank. As we head towards 2020, does this horned trio of red devils prove that a vintage-style SG can still deliver the goods?

Gibson SG

Knowing what your customer wants is one of the keys to any successful business, but for the last couple of decades, it often felt like Gibson wasn’t listening. Relentless model year updates, gimmicky tech and undesirable changes to the classic recipe – not to mention a general perception among the guitar-buying public of falling QC standards – made for a baffling array of models and a perception that if you wanted Gibson to make ’em like it used to, the premium prices of the Custom Shop were the only option.

A change of management so often brings a change of mindset and here, it’s a change for the better. With Gibson’s electric-guitar product line-up now streamlined into the Original, Modern and Custom Shop Collections, vintage features no longer come only at near-vintage prices. Here, we’re looking at a trio of reasonably-priced SGs from the Original Collection featuring hand-wired controls, vintage-correct neck profiles and lightweight Fijian mahogany. Time to dive in.

Student tone

As you might expect from its stripped-back specifications, the ‘student’ model SG Junior is the lightest of our three review guitars by some margin. Even the headstock is a fraction smaller – it’s slightly narrower across the top. The neck profile is a little rounder than the other two instruments, with a slightly fuller ‘C’, rather than a flat and wide ‘D’.

Handling the neck’s soft, vintage-style shoulders, it’s pleasing to note that Gibson can still cut it with the best – both past and present – when it comes to neck profiles. It feels very vintage, in the best sense and that impression is reinforced when the frets are viewed from the sides.

Gibson SG 2019
The SG Junior

They have that wide-but-low look of old wire, but they’re plenty high enough for bending strings and you don’t get that ‘speed bump’ feel as your fingers slide along the fretboard. Although they’re seated well enough and nicely crowned, we do think a few extra minutes with a file would raise comfort levels even further. Both the Standard models have fret nibs, so it’s only an issue for the Junior.

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The published specs for all three guitars include Orange Drop tone capacitors and Gibson has worked on the pot tapers for a more vintage-style response. The wiring certainly appears very vintage-correct, with black trunking and yellow plastic insulation on the ground wires. On our review model, however, the Junior’s tone capacitor is tiny and light blue – we’d guess it’s probably ceramic.

Gibson SG 2019
Both vibrato models have Orange Drop capacitors and Gibson has worked on the pot tapers for a more vintage response

Given that Gibson’s attempt at intonation compensation during the 1960s was optimised for wound-G string sets, the uncompensated bridge we have here is actually preferable and the intonation sounds just fine.

Double whammy

When is an SG not an SG? It’s understandable that Gibson would want to avoid confusion in its 2019 product range, but back in 1961, when this version of the SG was first introduced, it was actually the new Les Paul Standard.

This was the sleek, streamlined and modernistic guitar that was designed to replace those ‘shrunk-in-the-wash’ jazzboxes known as Goldtops and ’Bursts (after all, they were not doing great business for Gibson at the time). The very earliest examples of the new model even had Les Paul’s name on the truss-rod cover, but here it’s left plain.

Gibson SG 2019
The SG Standard ’61 Maestro Vibrola

The first of our twin-humbucker SG Standard ’61 reissues features the Maestro Vibrola with a Lyre engraved on the tailpiece cover. In addition, there’s a ‘Slim Taper’ mahogany neck with a bound rosewood fingerboard and a 22nd-fret neck joint. The hardware is nickel-plated and the Burstbucker 61R and 61T humbuckers are designed for “a classic voice with added power and top end”. Aside from its infamous lateral-motion vibrato system, all the specifications for the Sideways Vibrola model are identical to the Maestro-equipped instrument.

As luck would have it, we have a vintage 1961 Maestro Vibrola-equipped SG on hand to compare with the reissue models. The weights are fairly similar, with the old and new guitars measuring 3.25kg/7.16lb and 3.33kg/7.34lb respectively. There are, however, a few aesthetic differences. The headstock on the vintage model is wider, whereas the reissue headstock has less of that ‘paddle’ look. The pickguard shapes are different, too, with the longer vintage guard extending closer towards the pickup-selector switch and conforming more closely to the body outline.

Gibson SG 2019
The SG Standard ’61 Sideways Vibrola

On all three of our review models, the tuners are Gibson’s current standard fittings, which are more vintage-inspired than vintage-accurate. It’s certainly not worth losing sleep over, but a more pedantic reissue might have tuners with single-line casings and double-ring buttons. The machineheads on these guitars are the other way around, with double-line casings and single-line buttons, apart from the Junior, which has the simpler buttons reserved for ‘student’ models.

Rather than a press-fit ring, the tuner bushings have a washer and bolt configuration, which no doubt adds a little mass to the headstocks, but not enough to cause issues with neck dive.

In use

In the world of electric-guitar construction, combining lightweight mahogany with an aluminium wrapover tailpiece is as close to a dead cert as it gets. Even so, this Junior’s unplugged tone is nothing short of astonishing – strum any chord and vibrations can be felt through the body and neck.

Gibson SG 2019
The Junior has a single Dog Ear P-90 and a wrapover bridge

The tonality is bright and chiming, but things get woody through the mids and there’s plenty of bass depth. The sustain greatly impresses and, with its perfect playability and sublime neck profile, the experience is very much akin to playing a flawless vintage model.

There are no real surprises when we plug in, and frankly, we wouldn’t want any. The P-90 is hot without being over the top, there’s a strong midrange push, growling lows and plenty of bite in the upper mids and treble for articulation.

We compare it with the bridge P-90 in a 1962 ES-330 and it has to be said that the SG Junior acquits itself very well. The modern P-90 falls slightly short in terms of clarity and depth of tone, but it’s a high bar indeed and the modern unit is still a very decent pickup. It also cleans up without losing clarity when the volume control is backed off and there’s more than enough tone control range to dial in a bright amp tone, set the tone control about halfway and use it as a faux pickup switch.

Gibson SG 2019
The vibrato-equipped models have Burstbucker 61R (neck) and 61T (bridge) humbucking pickups

There’s quite a difference between the unplugged tones of the two Vibrola-equipped Standards. With the Sideways vibrato onboard, the tone is pleasant enough, but the airy treble sheen of the Maestro-equipped model is pretty much absent. The Sideways Vibrola model has a warmer and more compressed response and it’s very much in line with what we have come to associate with many SGs, both new and old.

Unfortunately, our vintage 1961 SG is loaded with non-original pickups and unplugged comparisons are complicated by the fact that it has nylon rather than metal saddles. With all Tune-o-matic equipped Gibsons, the saddle material has a significant sonic influence.

The Maestro-equipped reissue actually sounds brighter and has a more clearly defined attack at the front of the note. In contrast, the vintage model is even warmer and woodier, and there’s a touch less sustain. Based on previous parts-swapping experiments, we’re certain that these characteristics would transfer from one guitar to the other if we swapped over the bridges.

Gibson SG 2019
The famous lyre motif adorns the Maestro Vibrola model

Plugged in, the fact that the modern Maestro and Sideways Vibrola models sound so different through an amp can be attributed to the quality of Gibson’s factory pickups. A pleasing amount of microphony, combined with vintage output, allows each guitar’s acoustic qualities to come through.

Both sound like unusually good SGs, with that throaty growl on the low strings for raunchy riffing and an articulate bite that makes single notes cut through without sounding shrill. There’s plenty of tonal contrast between the bridge and neck and in authentic vintage-style the bridge can sound a touch too bright at times. Rather than a drawback, we consider this welcome headroom and, like Joe Bonamassa, we’re inclined to play with the bridge tone control slightly dialled back to emphasise the midrange bark.

The volume controls do have a genuinely old-school response and in the middle position, it’s so easy to notch back the neck volume control to produce a pleasing quackiness. But as much as we enjoy the Sideways Vibrola model’s fluty warmth and smooth characteristics, the natural airiness of the Maestro model is so much more engaging and opens the guitar up for shimmering cleans as well as darker dirt.

Gibson SG 2019
Inside Gibson’s sideways vibrato system – it’s unconventional and but its quirks have been recreated faithfully

In combination with the excellent control response, the Maestro model can produce a stunning range of sounds. In fact, it’s one of the most enjoyable and engaging humbucker-equipped SGs we have ever played. And yes, you can include all original vintage examples in that list.

There are plenty of encouraging signs that Gibson is moving in the right direction. Although there’s nothing new about any of these SGs, at the same time, there’s a freshness and finesse that makes them hard to fault. The slightly faded cherry finish is consistent across all three guitars and we love it. It’s not too red, nor is it too washed out – it’s just about perfect.

We would also note that the quality of the finish is a lot better than we’ve seen on some Gibsons in recent years, because it feels thin, perfectly flat and there isn’t even a hint of ‘orange peel’.

Gibson SG 2019
The vibrato pair have bound ’boards with trapezoid inlays, while the Junior is unbound with dots

Our one gripe – and it doesn’t apply to the Junior – is Gibson’s persistent use of slightly peach-coloured binding. We can only assume that years ago, a bean-counter secured a killer deal on the condition that Gibson purchased colossal quantities of the stuff. We can only hope that supplies are almost used up or that somebody in authority will finally call time and enforce Gibson’s return to off-white binding.

Having two SGs spec’d identically besides their vibrato units gives us a rare opportunity to compare the Maestro with the Sideways Vibrola. We have a clear preference and would choose the Maestro every time. Although overshadowed by Bigsbys and the various Fender systems, the Maestro is actually a very usable and impressively stable whammy bar.

Gibson SG 2019
The Junior has simpler, button-style tuners

In contrast, the Sideways Vibrola adds considerable mass for little or no practical gain. It looks cool, but it’s awkward to use and throws the guitar out of tune. You can elect to swing the arm out of the way, but be careful about injuring your picking hand on the sharp corners if you want to switch pickups. The irony is that here, Gibson has done a stellar job of recreating a piece of equipment that was never very good in the first place!

Although all vibratos are designed to achieve the same effect, it’s interesting how the feel of each leads you to approach them in different ways. The Stratocaster’s is perhaps the most playable and expressive for soloing, while Bigsbys are often more atmospheric and musical when you’re adding vibrato to chords and slurring notes.

Gibson SG 2019
The vibrato-equipped models have vintage-style tuners with double-line casings and single-line buttons

The Maestro combines elements of both, with the immediacy of the Strat vibrato, but the restricted pitch variation of a Bigsby. Consequently, it excels for fast and fluttering vibrato effects and so long as you can keep your head, a Maestro will keep you in tune. Of course, the Junior is trem free, but you can get almost as much pitch-shift simply by shaking the neck and it stays in tune remarkably well.

For entirely different reasons, the SG Junior and the Maestro Vibrola Standard are our clear winners here. There’s something thrillingly stripped back about the Junior and its neck is the pick of the bunch. But the tonal range, coupled with the expressiveness and tuning stability of the vibrato, keeps drawing us back to the Maestro-equipped Standard ’61.

Key Features

SG Junior 9/10

  • PRICE £1,149 (including hard-shell case)
  • DESCRIPTION Solidbody electric guitar. Made in the USA
  • BUILD Fijian mahogany body, mahogany set neck with medium C profile, 12” radius rosewood fingerboard with pearl dot inlays and 22 frets
  • HARDWARE Wrapover bridge, vintage-style white button tuners
  • ELECTRONICS 1x P-90 Dog Ear pickup, volume, tone
  • SCALE LENGTH 629mm/24.75″
  • NECK WIDTH 43mm at nut, 53.3mm at 12th fret
  • NECK DEPTH 20mm at first fret, 22.5mm at 12th fret
  • STRING SPACING 36.4mm at nut, 53mm at bridge
  • WEIGHT 2.6kg/5.7lb
  • LEFT HANDERS Yes
  • FINISH Vintage Cherry
  • VERDICT Instant tone, fabulous sustain and playability and nothing to fuss about make this a near perfect plug-and-play guitar

SG Standard ’61 Maestro Vibrola 9/10

  • PRICE £1,649 (including hard-shell case)
  • DESCRIPTION Solidbody electric guitar. Made in the USA
  • BUILD Fijian mahogany body, mahogany set neck with ‘Slim Taper’ profile, 12” radius bound rosewood fingerboard with pearl inlays and 22 frets
  • HARDWARE Tune-o-matic bridge, Maestro Vibrola vibrato tailpiece, vintage-style tuners
  • ELECTRONICS Burstbucker 61R (neck) and 61T (bridge) humbucking pickups, individual volume and tone controls, 3-way toggle switch
  • SCALE LENGTH 629mm/24.75″
  • NECK WIDTH 43.4mm at nut, 53.6mm at 12th fret
  • NECK DEPTH 20mm at first fret, 22.5mm at 12th fret
  • STRING SPACING 35.5mm at nut, 52mm at bridge
  • WEIGHT 3.6kg/7.9lb
  • LEFT HANDERS No
  • FINISHES Vintage Cherry
  • VERDICT A stable and expressive vibrato and articulate and versatile vintage-toned pickups make this an inspiring SG

SG Standard ’61 Sideways Vibrola 8/10

  • PRICE £1,649 (including hard-shell case)
  • DESCRIPTION Solidbody electric guitar. Made in the USA
  • BUILD Fijian mahogany body, mahogany set neck with ‘Slim Taper’ profile, 12-inch radius bound rosewood fingerboard with pearl inlays and 22 frets
  • HARDWARE Tune-o-matic bridge, Sideways Vibrola tailpiece, vintage-style tuners
  • ELECTRONICS Burstbucker 61R (neck) and 61T (bridge) humbucking pickups, individual volume and tone controls, 3-way toggle switch
  • SCALE LENGTH 629mm/24.75″
  • NECK WIDTH 43.4mm at nut, 53.5mmat 12th fret
  • NECK DEPTH 20mm at first fret, 22.5mm at 12th fret
  • STRING SPACING 35.5mm at nut, 52mm at bridge
  • WEIGHT 3.3kg/7.3lb
  • LEFT HANDERS No
  • FINISHES Vintage Cherry
  • CONTACT Gibson gibson.com
  • VERDICT A darker and smoother tone that’s very much classic SG, but the Sideways Vibrola should be regarded as largely decorative

More information at gibson.com.

 

 

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