Gibson Guitar Factory(This post also appears in moore:music)
Memphis boasts an impressive ‘to do’ list, and one item on that list that we ticked off yesterday was a visit to the Gibson guitar factory. This is the newest of three Gibson factory, and has been in Memhis for around 9 years. It is dedicated primarily to the production of semi-hollow and hollow body electric guitars. The one exception being the arctic white Les Paul. This is manufactured here because of their state of the art air filtration and exhaust system. It helps keep the pristine Les Pauls dust-free during manufacture, as the slightest blemish would show up on its pristine finish.
We entered a giant lobby, where the reception desk had as a giant backdrop a40 foot replica of BB King’s “Lucille” guitar. The area also boasted an impressive display of three grand pianos in red, white and blue around an American flag. There was also of course the obligatory shop, filled with expensive delights. Yours truly bought a modest glass slide!
We started the tour by filing past around 25 beautiful examples of the craft, ranging from the ES-120, through various versions of the 335, the Les Paul etc. Then it was on to the factory floor, where we learned about the wood selection process, some from around the world, some home grown, such as the poplar. We saw the humidity tent, where the air was kept moist to prevent the wood from drying out. We saw how they “sandwiched” the wood with three layers, then put the arc on the tops with a special press. The whole manufacturing process was extremely interesting. Although there is a great deal of automation, it struck me that the key points in assembly required the human touch, and the precision (no Fender pun intended!) of this work was astounding. Special tools to check the neck relief as it is carefully planed by hand for just the right fit. A room where women (chosen becausew they are more accurate with this kind of work) razor off the lacquer from the binding of every guitar by hand, keeping it exactly a quarter inch all round.
The guy who applies the stain to the body is amazing. Apparently, his skill is such that he can airbrush one in 5 minutes. Staring with a light coat, then a slightly darker one, then a very dark one, to capture that signature ‘sunbnurst’ look we all know. They are then ready fopr the lacquering process.
The lacquer process was amazing. A total of 8 coats per guitar, but 6 hours has to be allowed between each coat. After 4 coats, the lacquer is too smooth to accept the remaining coats, so the guitaris taken back a stage and roughed up with a sander again. Then the next 4 coats are applied, with the same 6 hour intervals. The resultant final coat has an orange peel like quality, so it is taken and sanded smooth. This gives it a very dull finish, so then the polishing begins. It is a painstaking process which results in the beautiful finishes we musicians often take for granted.
We really enjoyed this peek into the world of guitar manufacture, and I’ll certainly look at my own collection with new eyes when we get home.