Smoking J: Jorma Kaukonen’s Legendary “Embryonic Journey” Gibson J-50

June 16th, 2014

By Alan di Perna | Photos by Scott Hall

“That guitar is the story of my musical life for many, many years,” guitarist Jorma Kaukonen says. The instrument in question is a significant piece of psychedelic rock history: the 1958 Gibson J-50 acoustic that Kaukonen played throughout his tenure with the Jefferson Airplane and well into the career of his post-Airplane group, Hot Tuna.

The guitar is currently on exhibit at the Psylodelic Gallery, a museum of artwork, posters, stage clothing, and other hippie relics, located in Pomeroy, Ohio. Laden with memorabilia of the Airplane, Grateful Dead, Moby Grape, and other Haight-Ashbury hipsters, Psylodelic is housed in a silo—hence the name—located on Kaukonen’s Fur Peace Ranch Center for Art and Culture.

Kaukonen’s J-50 was first heard by many rock fans on the drop-D solo-acoustic tour de force “Embryonic Journey,” from the Jefferson Airplane’s seminal 1967 album, Surrealistic Pillow. Kaukonen purchased the guitar new in 1959 at Pop’s Music Store in Dayton, Ohio. “I paid $100 cash for it and traded in a five-string banjo that I had,” he recalls. “It’s a great guitar. Fifty-eight was one of the last years before Gibson had that, in my opinion, forgettable idea about adjustable bridge saddles for each string on acoustic guitars. This is just the old-school J-50.”

The instrument is all original except for the tuning keys, truss-rod cover, and a segment of the headstock that was replaced in the mid Sixties. “On the Gibson peg head, they have these glue-on ears that the tuners sit behind,” Kaukonen explains. “And on my guitar, one of those ears was starting to come off, and the facade that says Gibson was cracked. A guitar builder I knew in Berkeley named Richard Talbot reglued the ears and replaced the cracked black lacquer headstock overlay with a piece of rosewood.”

Kaukonen retired the guitar from active duty in the early Nineties, but he still pulls it off exhibit at the Psylodelic Gallery from time to time and plays it. In all, he figures he made a smart purchase at Pop’s back in 1959.

“I got the Gibson because I couldn’t afford a Martin D-18,” he confides. “But you know something? That turned out to be a good thing, because my whole acoustic style is really about my thumb rhythm. And if you want that thunky sound, Gibson is the guitar.”

  • Peter Macomber

    I have a 59 J-50. It plays great. Everybody likes to play it when I take it to jam.

  • Wow! ‘Embryonic Journey’ to this day still blows my gourd. So cool that JK still has this J-50. Loved Jefferson Airplane, loved Hot Tuna. Still do 🙂