Saturday, June 22, 2013

Gibson Guitar Factory Tour --- Memphis, Tennessee


I am endlessly fascinated by the manufacturing process, and coupling this with my interest in guitars it was a no-brainer to check out the Gibson guitar factory tour when I was in Memphis recently to tour the Graceland mansion.

The Gibson guitar company has three factories in the United States (their Epiphone line is built overseas). They build acoustic guitars in Bozeman, Montana, solid-body guitars in Nashville, Tennessee, and hollow/semi-hollow body guitars in Memphis, Tennessee. The only facility that offers tours is Memphis.

The Memphis Gibson factory is their newest facility, and it employs about 60 people that finish about 50 to 60 guitars each day. It takes up a full city block, just a stone’s throw from the famed Beale Street and across the street from the FedEx basketball arena. By the way, do not wear good shoes if you are going to Beale Street.

The building has a retail store with an impressive array of their Gibson and Epiphone guitars, basses and mandolins. They also have a nice selection of apparel and accessories. None of it is cheap. You will pay $10 for the tour at the retail store for the tour, and you should really call ahead for reservations so you don’t get shut out.

We went on a Saturday, and all of the tours that day had sold out ahead of time, so it was good that I called ahead earlier in the week. They had us wait in the lobby until the tour started, and the lobby is huge, with not much of anything to look at. There are a few jukeboxes that don’t work and some pianos you are not allowed to touch.

At the appointed time, the tour guide gathered us around and gave us our instructions: no photography, you have to wear safety glasses (provided), stay with the group and do not step over the black and yellow lines on the floor. Easy enough. He also warned that it would be dusty and there would be fumes present. The tour was supposed to take no more than 45 minutes.

We started by walking through a corridor lined with all manner of Gibson guitars, where he explained a bit of the history of the Gibson company. Then we went to the far end of the shop, where he showed us where they humidify the wood and how presses are used to form the tops, backs and rims. There was some machinery running, so he plugged a microphone into a PA speaker so he could be heard. He was most unenthusiastic, and I had trouble making out what he said. But, I have been to other guitar factories before, so I could see what was going on and could explain it to my son.

Then we went to another station where he explained how the body is assembled, what adhesives are used and how the binding is installed. Across from there was a CNC machine that was routing neck joints, and this was actually the only manufacturing that was going on that day (Saturday afternoon, you know). He talked a bit about how the necks were assembled, and said that the fretboards are actually made in Nashville, and that the frets are installed and Plek’d at the Memphis factory. Maybe that explains why so many Gibson necks are crappy these days.

Then we went on to where the guitars are sprayed, and it smelled heavenly in there! He explained about the different steps of the process and why they use the finishes that they do. This stuff is fascinating, and it the vapors gave me a nice light-headed feeling.

Finally, we ended up in the final assembly area, where he talked a bit about how the electronics and hardware are installed, and how the guitars are tested. It turns out that 4% of the guitars they build are scrapped because they are so flawed that they cannot be fixed. I would not be proud of this statistic.

And that was it. The tour only lasted about half an hour. I liked seeing the facility, but did not come away impressed with the Gibson company. The manufacturing facility was dirty and seemed disorganized, and the tour guide was unkempt, apathetic, and was wearing a torn and dirty t-shirt. If this is the best that Gibson can do, they should really think twice about allowing their customers in to see the operation.

I have to contrast this with the Martin guitar factory tour, which was fabulous. Their facility is much nicer (though it is older), the tour guide appeared happy to be there, and they provided headsets so that you could hear what the tour guide was saying. Oh, and the Martin guitar factory tour and parking are free.

So, I would not make a special trip to downtown Memphis to see the Gibson factory tour, but if you are in town doing something else, and do not mind spending $10 (and $10 more for parking), it would be an ok thing to check out.

As I said earlier, if you want to go on a tour of the Memphis Gibson guitar factory, call ahead to get a reservation as the tours sell out quickly. The tours are offered on the hour, and keep in mind that you might not see as much activity on the weekends.


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