Gibson Factory Walkthrough
by George Mangos (aka El_Jalepeno)
Over the 4th of July holiday, my wife spotted a time that we would be in Memphis, TN to see the Gibson guitar factory.
Gibson has three factories: Memphis, TN makes the ES 335 and other hollow and semi-hallow body guitars; Nashville, TN makes the rest of the Gibson solid body line including Les Pauls; and Montana is the location where Gibson acoustics are made. Craftsmen are trained at the Nashville plant for several weeks before moving on to their desired location. While the Memphis factory churns around 35-40 guitars a day, it takes 2-3 weeks from start to finish for one guitar.
The ES 335 stands for "Electric Spanish" series. The number 335 was the price, $335, upon its introduction to the world. BB King's "Lucille" is also made in the Memphis factory and sells for $4,000.
Upon entering the factory, you see guitars upon guitars in various stages of production.
Orville Gibson started out as a Cobbler... A shoemaker back in the late 1800’s. He was interested in the Italian mandolins, and wanted to make an arch top guitar. Orville took a piece of poplar sandwiched between two pieces of maple veneer and steamed them and then did a guitar imprint to create his arch top. Today, arch tops are made the same way, and there is a huge press in the factory for this purpose specifically.
The bodies are glued, then routed for the binding. Many older guitar players firmly beleived that the binding held the guitars together. Binding used to be made out of Whale teeth, but has since moved towards the friendlier plastic variety.
Once the bodies are glued, they are wrapped in rubber bands for a couple of days to set. On the topic of glue, the set necks use glue that is so strong, that it sets in about 2 hours and the guitar is strong enough for playability.
Necks are made from a chunk of wood that is sanded down on a belt sander, then hand sanded to get the exact shape of the neck. The black veneer with the Gibson logo is made in Nashville, then glued on to the headstock. Fret boards are also brought in from Nashville, however the frets are pressed in the factory making the guitars.
As you can see from this slightly blurry picture, that is a rack of "Lucille" guitars.
One night BB King was playing a little shack just on the other side of the Mississippi in Arkansas, and there was a lot of dancing going on. It was cold out, so there were barrels with kerosene and logs for heat. Well, two big guys started fighting and knocked over a barrel. The whole place went up in flames. Standing outside watching the fire, BB said "This is bad". Then he said, "This is real bad. My guitar is still in there." So BB ran into the burning building and got his guitar. He did get some burns on his legs. When BB came out, he saw the two big guys and asked them why they were fighting. One of the big boys said they were fighting over the waitress, Lucille. BB Wrote the name Lucille on his guitar so he would be reminded not do anything so stupid again!
After the guitars are assembled, they move on to the painting area.
Three ladies work on each guitar removing paint from the binding. When asked why the binding is not taped off, the response was that this way is the traditional way.
Paint is applied in several thin coats before moving onto the lacquer stage, where about 9 coats of nitrocellulose lacquer are applied.
Once the lacquer is applied and inspected, the guitars move on to the buffing stage where two large buffing stations are at.
At this stage, Gibson decides if the guitar is perfect or not. Since 1982, Gibson no longer releases Factory 2nds into the market. 2nds were "almost" perfect guitars with minor imperfections somewhere. The two owners of Gibson decided it was devaluing the name by releasing factory seconds into the market, so now they are destroyed. Less than 10% of the guitars are considered imperfect.
Once the guitar is finished with the paint and buffing, it moves to the electrical set up where the pups and any wiring are installed. This stage of production, the craftsmen are all guitarists so they can try out their work. Man, I wish my job required that!
Once the guitar is setup and tested, it is ready to be put in a case, then a box, and finally delivered.
All in all, it was an excellent site to see. There were so many gorgeous instruments just sitting there begging to be played, but alas, no one had the balls to go pick one up.
It was a fascinating trip into the world of guitar making. My 10-year-old son was with me and was just as floored as I was. Definatly a "Priceless" moment.
Copyright George Mangos, 2005