By Adam Perlmutter
“My name is kind of my Achilles Heel,” Grover Jackson says. “I’ve got a lot of notoriety in the guitar community, but so many people think I’m just this metal guy. And that’s a notion I’m trying to rebut.”
Jackson earned this reputation in the Eighties by pioneering a namesake line of what came to be known as “Super Strats”—high-performance solidbodies favored by fleet-fingered players who found traditional designs inhibiting to their speedy effusions. His rebuttal can be seen in GJ², the new line of electric guitars that he and a small team craft at their headquarters, in Laguna Hills, California. “While these instruments can certainly handle metal, they reach out across all genres,” Jackson says, “everything from country to reggae.”
The son of a furniture maker, Jackson spent much of his childhood in a woodshop and built his first guitar at 11. In 1973, he moved to Southern California, intent on establishing himself as a professional guitarist, but five years later he bought Charvel, a guitar repair shop that also sold pickguards, replacement bodies, and other aftermarket parts. Jackson expanded the shop’s offerings to include his own custom-made necks, which companies such as B.C. Rich and Music Man procured for their guitars.
In 1980, he met Randy Rhoads, an encounter that resulted in the first Jackson guitar, with its radically asymmetric V-shaped silhouette and neck-through-body construction. “In a marathon, Randy drew the guitar on a napkin, and 12 hours later I had completed it,” Jackson recalls.
By the mid Eighties, the Jackson brand was a behemoth. The company was based in a state-of-the-art, 28,000-square-foot factory, where 135 workers produced 400 guitars a month, with—rare for the day—a computer system dutifully tracking the progress of each instrument. Jackson says, “Many great names got started with us during this heady time, like Todd Krause, a Fender Master Builder who makes guitars for Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck, and John Gaudesi, who until recently was with Yamaha and moved to Schecter.”
Disillusioned by a series of distribution deals that he felt resulted in inferior guitars, Jackson left his company in 1990 (it is now owned by Fender) and quietly disappeared behind the scenes. The move allowed Jackson, a single parent, to focus on raising his two daughters. During this period, he acted as a consultant to Washburn, Rickenbacker, Fender, and other guitar makers; he also became expert in CNC machining and worked on not only musical equipment but also everything from medical equipment to automobile parts.
But Jackson never stopped designing guitars. “I had a gestation period of about 12 years where I collected a ton of new ideas and drawings,” he says.
With his daughters now teenagers, Jackson has found time to bring these ideas to life in GJ² guitars. The company’s flagship model, the Arete (shown here), is available in three levels, each with progressively deluxe features. Listing for $5,499, this five-star example is the fanciest of the bunch, its hand-rubbed oil finish lending it the appearance of artisan furniture. Built on a 25 1/2–inch scale with a neck-through-body design, the guitar features a three-piece neck that incorporates a central maple strip flanked by walnut pieces. The body’s wings are also made from walnut, which Jackson describes as sounding “bright and clear but warm, with lots of sustain.”
The Arete has numerous special details that aren’t necessarily apparent at a glance. While the binding might look as if it was made conventionally, it is carved from a single piece of maple, a feat made possible through the use of a CNC machine. The machine is also used to create the pickup surrounds, cavity covers, and ergonomic knobs. The guitar’s electronics include a pair of Grover “Habanero” vintage-style humbuckers; Jackson finds their low output provides a more pleasing frequency range than that of the high-output electronics on original Jackson guitars. “With lower-output pickups, I can make a guitar that sounds immediately good by itself, before the stomp boxes and other distractions,” he says.
With the Arete and other GJ² guitars, Jackson believes that he has finally realized the instruments he set out to create some three decades ago. “At Jackson, I made some great guitars and also some that were just okay,” he says. “But with CNC machinery, I can build guitars on which everything lines up perfectly within medical-level tolerances. Everything fits together perfectly, and the instruments play better and more in tune. I’ve never made better guitars in my life.”
Photos: Massimo Gammacurta