Whilst visiting Memphis, one will
surely visit certain landmarks, especially if you are a musician.
One such location is Beale Street,
the birthplace of the blues; the other, not far from the famous
street is the Gibson Guitar Factory and Showcase.
The showcase is located opposite
the Memphis Rock ‘N Soul museum on George W. Lee Avenue, which,
we also toured later in the day.
After signing in, we waited around
for the tour to start at the Gibson Retail Store. There were
plenty of guitars, amplifiers, and accessories, which kept
us entertained, until we were called up to commence our visit.
Firstly we were taken into a large area, which seemed
like a presentation room of some kind. Our guide then briefly
explained the history of Gibson Guitars and also showed us
the different stages of guitar production with sample parts
in various stages of finishing.
The factory employs around 75
people, and produces around 45 guitars a day. From the “ES”
(Electric Spanish) line of guitars such as the well-known
ES-335 made famous by players such as Larry Carlton.
Solid bodied guitars such as Les
Pauls, are produced in Nashville, whilst acoustics are made
in Montana. Quite interesting is the fact that the ES line
was named after the original cost when they were launched.
The ES-335 was $335 when launched and the ES-137 was $137.
Lightwood Room and Scrap Rack
The first room we where shown to is known as the lightwood
room. Here most guitars, which are made with maple from mid-west,
are seen unfinished.
The “scrap rack” followed this,
which is situated in a corner of the factory floor.
Our guide explained this is where
substandard guitars end up. They are not sold as seconds as
was the practice many years ago but are simply destroyed.
The Binding Process
then continued walking across the plant floor into the binding
area. Here the binding, for which Gibson guitars are famous
for, are applied to the instruments. This is a long and laborious
process, which adds great expense to the making of the instrument.
This is the reason most Gibsons are more expensive than other
instruments with less adornments.
Although in years gone by materials
like ivory were used, nowadays plastic is a more common material.
The binding, contrary to popular belief, does not hold the
guitar together but is glued into a groove left in the body’s
Each side of the guitar takes
about 8 hours per side for it to be ready. Once everything
is glued in, the instruments are tightly bound in cloth strips
and left to dry.
Neck Alignment and Wood Choice
Next we saw the area in which guitar bodies
and necks where joined to form a complete instrument. Gibson
is well known for using a set-neck method in practically all
of their guitars. In this method the neck is permanently glued
to the guitar body via a joint called a tenon. This
provides the most contact area between body and neck and increases
sustain, a trait Gibsons are known for.
Micrometer gauges are used to
align the necks, as they must be perfectly in line with the
guitar body to provide the required action and feel. Any guitar
that does not meet the strict criteria set by Gibson is discarded.
We were also told by our guide
that all employees along the production line, act as quality
control agents and that any flawed instrument would be marked
for either repair or if the problem was too great the scrap
Also of interest, was the fact,
that guitars were marked for different finishes according
to the grade and “flame” of the wood. Plain tops were marked
for solid colours whilst, tops with naturally curly or flamed
wood were set aside for see-through finishes which show off
the natural beauty of the wood.
Fret Pressing, Serial Number and CNC Machines.
We then moved on to the fret pressing
station. Frets are pressed into the neck using clamps and
then filed and finished by hand. We also saw the machine that
stamps a unique serial number onto the back of each guitars
Also present was the only CNC
(Computer Numerical Controls) machine in the factory,
which is used to automate the process of routing the instruments
for their pickup and control cavities and also the bridge
Painting, Lacquer and Buffing
The next area we visited is the painting area, which is a
clean area, kept free of dust and other particles harmful
to the paint process. Here guitars, move around on ceiling
mounted rails, are painted, lacquered and then buffed by craftsmen.
The finishing of a guitar is the
single most expensive process in its building, as it is the
most laborious and time consuming stage.
Around nine to ten coats of nitro
cellulose based lacquer are used to protect each instrument’s
paint job. This type of lacquer is commonly used on high-end
guitars as it lets the instrument “breathe” through the finish
ensuring good tone and a natural aging process.
Caranuba wax is then used to buff
the instruments to a high gloss shine. Also it most be noted
that the guitars are painted completely. This means that once
this is complete workers have to patiently scrape away all
the paint from the binding. Very patient women workers usually
do this job.
Assembly, Electronics and Testing.
The last area we passed through
was the assembly area, where items such as pickguards, tuners
and other hardware are mounted to the now finished instrument.
We also saw electronics stations
for the installation of control knobs, pickups and wiring.
Finally, we came to what must
be the most wanted post at the factory – the testing station.
This is where completed guitars are tested and inspected before
leaving the factory.
A very interesting visit which, I would
highly recommend to any musician visiting Memphis.
The tour offers an insight into the workmanship
and methods used to create our favourite instruments and will
surely appeal to many, especially guitarists.
By Ernest H Slade
Here for a Photo Gallery of the Visit