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Made By Hand: The Story of Gibson Acoustic

Dave Hunter
|
02.12.2009
It’s a long, long road from Kalamazoo, Mich., to Bozeman, Mont., and Gibson Acoustic has paved every mile of it with craftsmanship and innovation, but there have certainly been a few pit stops and detours along the way.

The company’s standing in the field of acoustic guitars is almost immeasurable, but despite Gibson’s enormous legacy, it was not born into this world as a maker of the flat-top guitars that are the stock in trade of the Gibson Acoustic division today.

Gibson Guitars - Kalamazoo, MI   Gibson Acoustic Factory - Bozeman, MT
Kalamazoo Factory   Bozeman Factory


Orville GibsonCompany founder Orville Gibson invented the archtop guitar in Kalamazoo, Mich., in the 1890s and produced these and archtop mandolins in his small one-man workshop from then until 1902 when, unable to meet the growing demand for his products, he sold the name to a consortium of music store owners and lawyers. Up until the 1920s and ’30s Gibson’s archtop acoustic guitars remained the most popular type of “Spanish” style guitar with players in dance bands, swing orchestras and western swing outfits, but early in this era flat-top acoustic guitars from other manufacturers were beginning to make inroads into the market. 

Gibson had offered its first flat-top in the late 1910s in the form of the affordable “Army Navy” model, which was aimed primarily at servicemen stationed on duty at the close of World War I. But these are a mere footnote in the company’s history today; a far more significant development of around the same time was Gibson’s managers’ hiring of mandolin virtuoso and design dabbler Lloyd Loar in a bid to revive the fading mandolin craze. Loar went some way toward doing that with his refined creations (his F-5 mandolin is widely considered the finest such instrument ever made), but this little eight-stringed instrument’s era was still on the wane. More significant to any history of the Gibson acoustic guitar is Loar’s development of the L-5 guitar of 1922, originally conceived as the largest member of the new mandolin line, but soon put forward in its own right as Gibson’s flagship instrument.

With its archtops settled in as the leaders in their field, however, Gibson finally bowed to another growing market and released its first flat-top proper in 1926 in the form of the simple L-1. A quick look at the L-1 tells us that Gibson still didn’t believe in the virtue of the flat-top as a serious instrument — the L-1’s small 13 1/2” body, rigid cross bracing, and lack of a truss-rod single it out as still being more of a “beginner’s guitar” than contemporary Gibson archtops — but servicemen, college students, blues belters, and even a few country and cowboy singers were playing these flat-tops, so it was clearly time to jump on the bandwagon. Just two years later Gibson accepted that a quality flat-top was a viable product, and signed up Nick Lucas, the first recorded guitar star, as a signature artist. The Nick Lucas model debuted with the same body size and shape as the L-1, but had an increased body depth and was constructed with considerably more consideration for tone and playability. This guitar reached its epitome in 1933, with a slightly larger and still quite deep body, a 14-fret neck, and back and sides of solid rosewood. The Gibson flat-top was here to stay.

Nick Lucas L-1

Although Gibson was struggling, like so many other guitar-makers, merely to survive the Great Depression — and achieving this partly by making ultra-cheap Kalamazoo-branded guitars and even wooden toys—the early to mid 1930s proved a time of major development, in design terms at least. In 1934, no doubt partly in response to competition from newcomer Epiphone, Gibson boldly “advanced” the bodies of the four largest of its six-strong archtop range from 16” to 17”. This made the cutting maple-bodied archtops even louder and better able to compete in the volume wars on the bandstand (the polite rivalry between the two makers would eventually be put to rest with Gibson’s purchase of Epiphone in 1957).

That same year, Gibson’s most serious and long-lasting foray into the flat-top market arrived in the form of the round-shouldered-dreadnought shaped Jumbo. This single round-shouldered dreadnought model was replaced by two in 1936, the J-35 and the Advanced Jumbo. Each carried the same body shape and 16” width, but the latter featured rosewood back and sides for the first time on any Gibson, making it as richly toned as it was loud. All the while, the company was having success with its smaller L-1, L-0 and L-00 flat-tops, but its most striking model of the breed came in 1937 in the form of a custom instrument originally made for singing cowboy Ray Whitley. This 17” flat-top had rounded bouts that made it more curvaceous than the thick-wasted dreadnought look, and was a striking instrument on stage. Production models were introduced as the Super Jumbo, later Super Jumbo 200 or merely SJ-200. Made with rosewood back and sides before the war, and maple after, the SJ-200 became a prime status symbol for performers playing the Grande Ole Opry and the Country & Western circuits.

Gibson Flat-tops

World War II slowed Gibson’s production, but didn’t halt it entirely as it did that of some other makers. Steel shortages required guitars to be built without truss-rods, but Gibson introduced several new models nevertheless, notably the J-45, J-50, and Southern Jumbo. The war years also marked a transitional period between the dominance of the archtop guitar and that of the flat-top, which would become far and away the most popular style of acoustic instrument in the years to follow. The company had segued relatively smoothly into flat-top production, and its position as a market leader rarely seemed in any great danger. In 1944 Gibson was taken over by the huge Chicago Musical Instruments corporation (CMI), but this did little to disrupt the flow. Postwar introductions came only in dribbles, and included the J-185, in appearance very much a smaller 16” version of the SJ-200 (which was now simply the J-200), the CJ-100 with pointed cutaway and optional pickup, and J-160 with standard pickup — the latter made famous for its use by The Beatles on many early recordings. A square-shouldered dreadnought called the Hummingbird arrived in the early 1960s, followed by the maple-bodied Dove, and an Everly Brothers signature model with the rounded contours of a J-185.

Sales of Gibson’s Jumbos and smaller L Series flat-tops (now ‘LG’ for ‘little guitar’) ticked along nicely, but just when the competition was capitalizing on the folk boom of the late 1950s and early ’60s, Gibson executives decided to “upgrade” many models in ways that would ultimately only make them less desirable both to players and collectors. This seemingly pointless decline in design integrity persisted through portions of three decades. A height-adjustable bridge fitted to many flat-tops in 1957 served mainly just to deaden these instruments’ tonal response, while other efforts to strengthen tops further choked off acoustic resonance. In 1971, Gibson — now under new owners Ecuadorian Company Ltd (ECL), soon renamed Norlin — began doubling its X-bracing to create sturdier, but tonally dead soundboards. Meanwhile, Gibson’s gradual move from Kalamazoo to Nashville, TN, was underway. Norlin had opened offices in Nashville in 1970, followed by some manufacturing facilities in 1974. In 1984 Gibson production left the Kalamazoo plant entirely. By this time, however, Norlin was running into difficulties. Rather than the signaling the death of the 100-year-old brand, however, the impending change probably saved Gibson entirely. A team of friends who had met at Harvard Business School applied their studies to the ailing company, trimmed and refined it, and soon was seeing a profit. The new owners turned their attention first to electric guitar production in Nashville, but soon established a plan to bring Gibson acoustic guitars back to their former glory.

Gibson Flatiron Mandolins

In 1987 Gibson bought the Flatiron Mandolin Company in Belgrade, Mont., initially with the aim of co-opting the excellent carved-top, F-5 style mandolins that this small outfit had begun to manufacture. All of Gibson’s mandolin manufacturing was moved from Nashville to Bozeman, a larger town near Belgrade where the new facility was to be established, and for a time the Flatiron workshop successfully produced mandolins under both its former and the new Gibson brand names.

Ren FergusonHeaded by the talented luthier Ren Ferguson, the small but skilled team in Bozeman established a new standard for quality hand-made mandolins, and the shop’s achievements were quickly acknowledged in the marketplace. As much as the mandolin had been a cornerstone instrument for Gibson back at its founding nearly 100 years before, however, the flat-top guitar was clearly the instrument that players and collectors most wanted to see brought back from the brink of extinction. With a team of artisans now in place, Gibson’s new management saw the wisdom in making acoustic guitars in Bozeman, and in 1989 it began moving flat-top production entirely from Nashville to a new plant that was just being finished on the outskirts of this Montana mountain town. Mandolin production was, in turn, soon moved back to Nashville in order to make room for this new priority out west. Gibson’s goal was nothing short of reestablishing the reputation for quality acoustic flat-top guitars that the company had enjoyed in its heyday, but this was bound to be an uphill climb.

“It was a slow and painful start,” confirms Gibson Acoustic’s Bill Gonder from Bozeman. “This was essentially a brand new company when production began in 1990, so there was a learning curve. A lot of good people were hired, but they were local artisans — potters, painters, poets — and it took some time to get them working on guitars in an assembly line. We had to climb out of a hole, and fight our way back into the American marketplace.” Over the course of the first few years the Bozeman plant got production times down and guitar output up, and labored endlessly toward its ultimate goal of producing the best new flat-top Gibson guitars that could be made. All along the way, too, assistance came from some surprising places.

“Everyone in the guitar industry wanted us to succeed,” says Gonder, “because Gibson was such an iconic maker of acoustic guitars. There was an incredible outpouring of help and support from other makers throughout the acoustic community, and many players with fabulous collections of vintage Gibsons came forward with guitars for us to study and work from, in order to recreate them in Bozeman.”

Slowly but surely, working from original vintage instruments, Ferguson, Gonder and the rest of the Bozeman team brought an accurate SJ-200 back to the market, a J-45, a Southern Jumbo, an L-00 and one reproduction after another of great, time-tested Gibson acoustic guitars, all of which received rave reviews from players and the guitar press alike. Gibson Acoustic’s lines gradually settled into the delineations seen in the range today: True Vintage encompasses accurate renditions of past models; Modern Classics includes guitars that adapt these templates to the varied needs of modern performers; the Legends Series includes dead-accurate, period-correct reproductions of highly prized original instruments; and the Signature Artist Series offers renditions based on the specific guitars—or tailored toward the needs — of several major artists. In addition, the Songmaker Series includes high-quality but back-to-basics models designed to suit the needs of contemporary singer-songwriters. Taken as a comprehensive range, the entire output represents the best acoustic guitars Gibson has made in some 50 or 60 years.

Montana Gold

“There’s a core group of people who work for Gibson in Bozeman now who are remarkable craftsman, remarkable luthiers, and they are very dedicated to the company,” Gonder confirms. “It’s not just a day job to them — they take a lot of pride in keeping the company going, and in making the best guitars they can make.”  The road from Kalamazoo to Nashville to Bozeman covered many hard, dusty miles, without a doubt, but ask any Gibson acoustic player today and they’ll tell you the journey was definitely worth it.
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