Guitar Stories

The Gibson Custom ShopGibson Custom Shop

by John Southern

The Gibson Custom Shop. Ahh, just the sound of it conjures up visions. Thoughts of primo pieces of spruce and curly maple, inspired imaginations, and skilled and sensitive hands had left me restless a few nights before my trip to Nashville.

I was greeted at the airport by Dave Kyle, another freelance writer and photographer from Vintage Guitar. Lucky he had his truck. After unloading more stuff that couldn't be left in the back of a parked truck, we were off down a flurry of nicely paved Nashville pikes (no toll!).

We raced to not a first, nor second, but a third Gibson Industrial building. At first glance I would have guessed that fishing lures were made inside. But once past the security guard and inside an office, secretaries, copy machines, and yes, faxes, whirred around us. Steve Halfhill was to be my guide around the plant, some of his duties included arranging for the interview and photo session of the luthiers and management, and even including holding a banjo worth over $20,000 out over the Cumberland River to be photographed for Vintage Guitar Classics. We even had protective assistance from the Nashville Police Department while photographing the 100th Anniversary Less Paul, which is valued in excess of $200,000!

General Manager Rick Gembar stated it most aptly. "Without the people who work here, this building is meaningless."

Sort of sums up my overall analysis of the shop or "Custom Division," as they call themselves. So please, allow me the privilege of introducing these people and processes to you.

A couple of years ago the Custom Division was nothing more than a couple of guys in the back corner of the main production plant, the shipping department of which was evidently modeled after the government storage facility you see at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Needless to say, these guys were getting lost in the shuffle. Gibson's recent owner, Henry Juskiewicz, soon set about the task of finding another building nearby and began assembling the best management and luthiers he could hire. Since unemployment in Nashville is only 2 percent, the process has moved more slowly than normal. Dave Kyle muses that the few who are unemployed are probably Nashville guitar players who refuse to get a "real job."

We begin with Mike McGuire, Sr., who came to Gibson after selling his own guitar making business, Valley Arts, to Samick. Mike was spending every other month in Korea, doing technical advising, when he ran into Dave Berryman, for whom he had previously made prototypes. Dave asked him if he was happy, and Mike admitted he wasn't. Dave told Mike "..call me when you get back to the States."

Soon, Dave and Henry were handing Mike the keys to an empty warehouse. Mike was told they wanted a Custom Division that was unequaled in the music business. Mike was given not only the best employees he could find, but the best state-of-the-art equipment they could find or make.

When asked if he thought he was building the best guitars in the world, he answered yes.

"But we're even going to get even better," he proclaimed. "Were now doing our own R & D and we have also opened the Pro Shop, which employs the very best people Gibson has, doing restorations and repairs on any brand of guitar. There is an artist hotline 800 number that an artist can call and we'll be there to eliminate the problem. The artist must be 100 percent happy," he said. "We want to bring the level of the service up to the level of our instruments."

McGuire hopes to have a 30 percent growth every year. In fact, they are preparing a 20,000 square-foot expansion to facilitate spraying finishes on instruments. Mike looks at running the organization like a really good band with great musicians. In many cases, the band leader restricts what the individuals are doing and it cramps the overall sound of the band.

Mike credits Gembar for the buiness' operational guidance. Gembar had his own interior cabinet making business for many years before coming to Gibson Montana. Gembar arrived in Nashville about five months after McGuire started with the Custom Division.

Gembar was in the architectural millwork business for 12 years before moving to North Carolina to get his business experience by working for a company that sold sweepers and scrubbers. It was there he learned to deal with a level of customer pickiness which was equal to or worse than guitar making.

Gembar's cabinets were built in the shop then moved to the building site and installed with no margin of error.

"Only when you build something yourself do you know the flaws," he said. "Sometimes, in the pursuit of perfection, someone has to go over and say, 'Hey! It's done!' or they'd work on it forever. When you set standards high enough, the customers are generally happy."

Gembar credits his success to consistently being able to make payroll. He'd grown tired of playing "Power Boss" and began searching for new employment. While searching the Wall Street Journal, he spied an ad for a position at Gibson. He sent an application but heard nothing for two months before he was approached and flown to Montana to see the Bozeman operation.

He told Henry he would take the job on one condition - that he could move it to a new facility. Henry agreed. In November, 1993, he moved to Bozeman and spent 3 1/2 months developing a 12,000 square-foot facility. Now he's very much into the team concept.

"I'd much rather a worker told me how his work station should best be set up, than to come in and arbitrarily set it like we wanted," he said. "Everyone is an expert in something, in their own right."

He gives the example of the new Corvette guitar, which most of the employees had some input into. There was and still is a "collective enthusiasm" for it.

Now, Gembar wants to set up an annual dealer convention to improve dialog and idea exchanges. He readily admits his market is not the 16 and 17-year-old enthusiast.

"My customer wanted a certain guitar when he was young, and now can afford an ambition they could not then afford," he said.

Corvette buyers, are you listening?

"Today, they're stepping up to the plate to pay lots of money for these guitars."

But the passion and understanding we aficionados have seems to get broader and deeper the more we know, touch, play and appreciate fine details. Most of Gembar's customers are collectors and guys that are passionate about the instrument.

Warren Haynes, of the Allman Brothers, was in the shop for five hours examining a guitar before leaving, satisfied with it. Duane Eddy stopped by and took his friend Mike McGuire to lunch. They work on Vince Gill's Fender, and Sheryl Crow used an L-5 on her unplugged. The Pro Shop is setting up a database of artist and entertainers who use their guitars, so they will have a record of their set-up preferences.

The Custom Shop recently developed the Bantam Elite and the Bantam Elite Plus guitars. The Bantam Elite plus is the hollow body "F"-hole Les Paul. It's pictured here awaiting hardware and finishing. The guitar weighs only 7 1/2 to 8 pounds. The Bantam Elite Plus has a highly flamed top, with a see-through finish and much binding. It retails for $4,000. The Bantam Elite with opaque finish sells for $3,000.

Gembar is helping develop another 10,000 square foot expansion to include a better painting facility, better drying space, and a neck line (no, not like on a dress!). There will be a rough-cut mill and other facilities to make the Custom Shop less dependent on the factory or outside suppliers.

Right now the capacity is low, so the guitars being made have to be in the Historic Collection price range. And even though Gibson raised the price on the 1959 Reissue Less Paul, there appeared to be little market resistance.

Gembar says these people work here because it is their life's work, they are very serious about their craft.

"A lot of guys are here because it's Gibson. Gibson's been around for 100 years and it's what they want to do. And there's no better place to do it than the Gibson Custom Shop."

There is even some talk of starting a luthier school. Gembar says you're either a growing business or you're getting out of business.

"There's no getting to the point of saying this is as big as we want to be," he said.

James "Hutch" Hutchins started in the Gibson machine shop in 1963. Within a couple of years he was transferred to the pattern shop next door after the company eliminated the machine shop. He spent 18 years in the pattern shop. The pattern maker was kind of a luthier/toolmaker combination in those days. He recalls it was a really interesting job. Then Norlin came along. Hutch stayed on as a pattern maker "...until we started rolling downhill, of course."

That would have been the Seventies, or "Dark Age of Gibson," when the corporate bottom line all but toppled what was once a thriving, happy company.

Then the plant laid off people until there were only 29 left. Gibson then moved to Nashville while Hutchins and his wife stayed behind in Michigan. Hutchins opened a kitchen remodeling business of his own for a few months, until a fellow from Nashville, named Bruce Bowen, called him back to work.

Mrs. Hutchins liked Nashville, so they stayed, and they've been there 11 years.

"Hutch" is one of the few guitar makers in the Custom Shop who doesn't play an instrument, write songs, or aspire to musical. Yet he feels like a part of his pride and workmanship is up on stage with every artist who plays one on "his" guitars.

He remembers when Johnny Smith was going to close his Colorado Springs music store at year's end. Mrs. Smith had a Christmas surprise for her husband, which was to build The Johnny Smith Model guitar to end all Johnny Smith guitars. And she secretly telephoned Hutch and begged him make it. He did, and shipped it before Christmas. Imagine, if you can, making the ultimate instrument for the most scrutinizing musician of all.

Mrs. Smith was able to covertly intercept the shipment from the store and ferret it off, to be undiscovered until Christmas morning when she photographed each step of Johnny opening the package. Let's just say the only person who could have imagined a more beautiful Johnny Smith than Johnny himself was James Hutchins.

When Kalamazoo closed, the Nashville makers didn't know how to build an archtop. They had been doing solid instruments. Much of the machinery for carving arched tops was left out in the Nashville elements for too long to function well. So in 1984 and 1985, Hutch made a few Super 400s and L-5s entirely by hand. Soon, however, others were hired to help with the various connected phases of construction.

By the time we saw labels signed by James Hutchins in the Eighties and early Nineties, he was more or less signing off on the construction of the ready-to-paint guitar. The day of neckfitting is used in the serial number to determine the guitar's birthday.

"I tell them I've done all I can for [the company] when I send it over to be painted," he declares.

He still knife-fits the necks to the bodies, and procures special inlays, tailpieces and other "cool" things. A super 400 comes to him as a neck and a box chamber. It leaves as a guitar. You might call him the midwife of these new baby wooden-headed babies. And yes, they still cry.

If Hutchins is the midwife of the crew, Bruce "Lucky" Kunkel is the Gepetto of the custom shop. A wood carver? Yes, and an excellent one.

He's pictured with the Elvis/Scotty Moore Commemorative guitar that Rick Gembar suggested he design. These little wooden boys do occasionally come to life and get to dance around. Kunkel is also a well-known night club performer in the highly competitive Nashville music scene. Yes, he writes songs.  (See an upcoming issue of Vintage Guitar Classics, where we photographed the All American Banjo carved by Bruce.) He also paints details with equal precision. After holding his autumn guitar, which some of you may have seen at last year's Arlington show, I knew of the patience and attention to detail this man was exuding. I hope to soon hear his music.

Bruce came to Nashville from his native Pennsylvania nearly 2 1/2 years ago, after a brief cabinet-making stint in Murfreesboro, where he gravitated to making guitars, banjos and mandolins. Woodcarving has always been a labor of love. Keep laboring Bruce, we love the fruits of your toil!

Sawdust must run in Bruce's veins, because his father and brothers are all woodworkers. Bruce first had the idea to go to work for Gibson four years earlier. After an interview with Dave Berryman, he did and by his 90-day review, he had completely designed and built the Stephen Foster banjo. Bruce made two one-offs for each of the NAMM shows, as well as winter, spring and summer art guitars.

Phil "Philly" Jones started working on guitars in 1974 at the Guitar Workshop, then worked for Harly Day and Michael, instrument builders in St. Petersberg. Then, in 1978, he was Nashville-bound to work for George Gruhn at Gruhn's Guitars.

There, he did repairs and refins for three years, like every other guy worth his salt. He says he had a good cross-section of guitars to work with, as well as several fine vintage pieces. His preference was for the Fifties and Sixties Fender and Gibsons. Philly also plays bass guitar in local groups. He, like any Nashvillian, admits that everyone has a dream of being involved in the music business, and he seems to enjoy his fate of getting to make the finest instruments in existence. As you see, nearly everyone involved here has some other deep-rooted love for music and they have, one-by-one, found their way to working for the sheer enjoyment of it. Most of us are envious.

Phil had the chance to make some acoustic guitars for Gibson before the acoustic operation was moved to Bozeman. Among Phil's favorite things to build are the "Artist" models and the "one-offs." He'll soon finish sanding one of the last Korina Explorers.

"We had to scrap a lot of that Korina," he confides. Evidently, the climate shift is not conducive to the woods, so that should make these Korinas more rare.

Among Phil's favorite projects are the prototypes for the Explorer and Flying V reissues. He had the pleasure of exploring one of the originals with a micrometer. I cracked my guitar-posing stand during my shoot in Nashville, and went to Phil with my lower lip askew. He had it re-glued and back to me quicker than a lamb bobs its tail.

Bob Day, manager of Gibson Mastertone Banjos, has been in the Custom Shop for the past 2 1/2 years. Although he has been a part of all phases of construction, his management duties have lately kept him occupied.

"I was hired as an illustrator," he recalls. "Greg Rich hired me to do some custom work and found that I could do a lot of jobs on the floor, as well."

 A year ago, Day took over the management of banjo making, and has since been involved primarily with the business side of the operation. He has also been a master recording engineer, and plays guitar rather than banjo. But he feels more akin to the cranial aspects of music and a technical proficiency that he often sees in the customers he deals with.

Day started working on guitars by refretting his own, and he progressed from there. He has also done some real estate management. He contemplated where he could put all his diverse talents to use and Gibson seemed to make sense.

Day sees a lot of future growth in the banjo division.

"We're releasing six new banjos, the likes of which haven't been seen in over sixty years," he said. Retail prices on these instruments will range from $3,000 to $6,400, with the top of the ladder being the Earl Scruggs banjo, selling for nearly $8,000. There will probably be new Earl Scruggs banjo, along with a poster of the new model and some of  its finer appointments in close detail. For more details, contact the Gibson Custom Shop in Nashville, (615) 871-4500 ext. 500. They may have some signed ones to sell.

As a sound engineer, Day dealt with azmith and spectrum, and frequency response and dynamic range, and made masters for some famous producers. But he is excited with his current occupation. He has a special appreciation for Earl Scruggs.

"He is a player's player," Day says, smiling. He is totally concerned with how the banjo sounds and how the banjo plays. Earl tinkers with his own banjos and is a highly respected authority on the banjo, in general.

"We have considered doing a carved resonator back out of solid wood, and tap tuning it," he adds. The banjos at the Custom Shop are "...tweaked to Earl's specifications." That includes specifications for the standard Granada, the Scruggs Standard and the Golden Deluxe '49 Classic. All set to Mr. Scruggs' heights, such as 7/64 at the 12th fret.

"The banjos that go to the dealers are just like we set them up for Earl," Day said.

Gibson is closely re-examining the prevalent banjo styles of the 1920s and '30s.

"They did things to bring the most out of curly maple or mahogany," said Day. "The old banjos had very little [lacquer] on the inside of the resonator. People have gotten used to the inside of a Gibson banjo looking good."

But Mr. Scruggs, he says, will be handed a nicely carved back and say "..that's nice" then flip the resonator to look inside for something he detests; too much lacquer.

Gibson has recently narrowed the spray diameter inside the resonator to give a little dampening effect from the wood inside. The light spray is then scoured lightly to make it flat and then the instrument is assembled. The full effect of the resonator back seems to reduce the frequency levels between 3,000 and 5,000 kilohertz in the sound spectrum.

On a banjo in a warehouse in the city with free tollways.

John Southern is a freelance photographer, writer, songwriter and singer based in Tulsa. He does occasional work in local night clubs, is the only staff photographer for Tulsa People newspaper and was formerly with the Tulsa World. Southern also does luthier design, repair, refinishing and specializes in voicing of acoustic instruments. Other photos were taken in Nashville for Vintage Guitar with the help and cooperation Gibson, Dave Kyle, the Nashville Police Dept., Earl Scruggs, the Union Station depot, the Hermitage, the Nashville City Park Dept., the downtown Chevrolet dealer. Special thanks to all Nashville citizens who stood back and wondered what we were doing, but let us do it anyway. All Photos by John Southern. Thank you all.