Johnny Cash, the Man in Black, is one of the most iconic figures in American music history. He is known for his deep, resonant voice and his unique blend of country, rock, and folk music. But perhaps one of the most distinctive features of Cash's music is his acoustic guitar playing. In this article, we'll take a closer look at the acoustic guitars that Johnny Cash played throughout his career, exploring their unique features, the role they played in his music, and the legacy they have left behind.

Höfner Congress

While stationed in Germany with the U.S Air Force in 1950, Johnny Cash picked up a Höfner Congress Archtop in Öberammergau for a little less than $5. This no-frills instrument was used to write Cash's earliest songs, including the iconic “Folsom Prison Blues” and “I Walk the Line”, and was used on the studio recordings of those soon-to-be hits.

The Hofner Congress was a decidedly budget archtop guitar, constructed entirely from plain Maple Veneer for both the top, back, and sides. It's current whereabouts are unknown, but Cash brought the guitar home with him after his military service and used it up until he could afford his next guitar: the Gibson J-200.

 

Gibson J-200

In the early '50's, the Gibson J-200 was a sign of success in the country music world. The J-200 model had a lot of inlays and decorations, and was considered to be Gibson's top of the line model. Sometimes referred to as “king of the flat tops”, it was a perfect choice for a rising star like Cash.

Gibson built two J-200's for Cash, each with a Cherry-burst finish, double Batwing pickguards and the singer's name inlaid on the fretboard. Used on records including 1958's “The Fabulous Johnny Cash” and “Hymns by Johnny Cash” in 1959, the only surviving Johnny Cash J-200 was eventually purchased by another superstar of country music, Marty Stuart, and now resides in the Johnny Cash Museum in Nashville, TN.

 

 

Martin D-28

There are few more iconic dreadnoughts than the Martin D-28, so it seems a fitting choice for an American icon such as Johnny Cash. Cash had two D-28's, with one favoured as his main songwriting tool for the last 30 years of his life. Cash often claimed a connection to this guitar over any of the over hundreds of guitars that came and went throughout his career.

In 1982, Cash spray-painted one of his D-28's black in an early attempt to keep up with his persona as “The Man in Black”, and it made a crucial appearance  at his legendary Folsom Prison concert, and become a touring staple. The D-28 also become a recording favourite, appearing on defining records such as “I Walk the Line”, “Orange Blossom Special" and “The Man in Black."

After Cash's death, Cash's favourite un-painted D-28 was sold to lifelong fan and collector Sharon Graves, who regularly lends the guitar to exhibitions and museums.

 

Fender Kingman

An unusual choice for a country star and singer-songwriter, the Fender Kingman, as used by Elvis Presley, Ray Davies and Robbie Robertson throughout the 1960's. Cash was introduced to the Kingman by none other than Presley himself, and Fender gifted Cash a gloss black Kingman in 1966.

The Kingman was an experimental approach to dreadnought acoustic guitars, it meshed a highly-playable neck more akin to a Fender electric attached to a standard-sized acoustic body. While it was used by some major stars on it's release, it was quietly discontinued before the end of the decade.

Cash's jet-black Kingman was seen on many TV appearances, including his own TV show and appearances on the Grand Ole Opry. While not the most impressive-sounding guitar associated with Cash, it's hip looks and black finish made it one of his go-to guitars when he needed to make a statement.

 

Martin D-35S

Probably Cash's most recognisable guitar, the D-35S would become a rather familiar sight to millions of viewers across America thanks to it's near-constant use on “The Johnny Cash Show”, and would later his accompany Cash pioneer 'Outlaw Country,' the genre that defined his career throughout the '70's and '80's.

Built as a custom order, Cash's D-35S included pearl binding and Cash’s 'acorn-and-leaves' fretboard inlays. Structurally, the guitar was a standard D-35, with Sitka Spruce top, 3-piece Indian Rosewood back and sides and ebony fretboard and bridge. The D-35 is known for it's loud, booming voice - a perfect match for Cash's deep, sonorous voice.

For nearly two decades, this guitar was used to record over twenty studio albums, including the legendary 'Live at San Quentin' in 1969. This guitar was used live and on recordings right up to Cash's death, and was used even after the introduction of his signature Martin D-35JC. The D-35S is now displayed alongside his Gibson J-200 at the Johnny Cash museum in Nashville, TN.

 

Martin D-35JC

After decades of iconic performances and legendary recordings with his prized  Martin D-35S, and his reinvented stage and public presence as The Man in Black, Martin Guitars honoured Cash with his first signature model, and one that became synonymous with his later career.

The Johnny Cash D-35 JC was in fact the very first black Martin guitar, painted behind the company’s president C. F. Martin III back, as he didn't approve of black guitars. The construction itself was more traditional, with 3-piece Indian Rosewood back, Engelmann spruce top and ebony fretboard and bridge. Martin produced very few of these hand-signed guitars, and they're now a collector's dream with the price tag to match.

Cash’s D-35JC became his workhorse for the last 20 years of his life, used as his main guitar for 'Solitary Man,' and 'American IV', and can be seen in the heart-rending music video for his cover of Nine Inch Nails' “Hurt” which re-established Johnny’s living legend status. It is currently on display along with the entire Man in Black outfit at the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix, AZ.

 

Martin D-42JC

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Made to commemorate Cash’s tenure with the American Company in 1997, only 80 of the signature Martin D-42JC's were built. While it has classic D-42 styling, it's actually a highly-embellished D-35, with 3-piece Indian Rosewood back and sides. Cash used the D-42JC frequently during his American Recordings era, most notably on his rendition of Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus”.

 

Special Mention: Martin DX2 Johnny Cash

Released in 2019, the DX Johnny Cash is a nod to the history between Cash and Martin Guitar. Designed in collaboration with John Carter Cash and the Cash Foundation management team, the guitar features a classic Dreadnought body shape constructed with Jett black high-pressure laminate (HPL) top, back and sides. Like the earlier commemorative edition, this instrument includes a custom fingerboard inlaid with stars and the “CASH” logo. The DX Johnny Cash was designed to be an accessible and playable guitar for anyone looking to honour the legacy of the legendary musician.


1 Response

Bikergeoff
Bikergeoff

March 27, 2024

WOW, Now that was an incredible well written and extremely interesting dive into one of music icons history of his tools of his trade. I’ve just stumbled upon your site, think I’m gonna stay a bit ! Kudos !!

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