Visit to the Gibson Factory
Memphis Tennessee – Saturday 11th October 2004

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.

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We had also visited the Gibson showcase in Nashville.
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.

The Lightwood Room and Scrap Rack

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The Lightwood Room
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

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Bound Guitars Drying.
We 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 edge.

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

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Necks drying after been aligned and glued. Note the guitar on the left has a flamed top whilst
 the one on the right is plain.
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 rack.

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.

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Serial Number Press

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 headstock.

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 holes.


Painting, Lacquer and Buffing

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The Lacquer Booth.
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.

Summary.

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

www.gear-review.co.uk

Click Here for a Photo Gallery of the Visit