How Today's Guitar Legends Are Made

Gibson guitars blend handcraftsmanship with advanced manufacturing techniques.

Modern manufacturing techniques help Gibson make guitars that look as great as they sound.

Over the years, Gibson Guitars has developed a legendary status. Its long roster of great guitar players includes Eric Clapton, B.B. King, Chet Atkins, Chuck Berry and Les Paul.

To live up to its rich heritage, Gibson develops and builds unique quality instruments by blending old-world handcraft techniques with advanced manufacturing technology.

Gibson's History

Orville Gibson was born in Chateagay, NY, in 1856, and worked as a shoe clerk in Kalamazoo, MI. His great love for woodworking and a passion for music got him interested in guitar and mandolin design. His research convinced him that the best vibrating characteristics were found in solid, unbent, unstressed, carved wood. Applying violin construction techniques and inventing some new ones, he made mandolins and guitars with carved tops and backs instead of flat ones. They became an instant success upon their introduction in 1894.

When orders began coming in faster than he could fill them, Gibson was persuaded to set up a company to manufacture instruments. The Gibson Mandolin - Guitar Co. Ltd. was incorporated on Oct. 11, 1902, with Gibson serving as a consultant, not as a manager, since he had no interest in running the day-to-day operations.

The next 15 years were the heyday of the mandolin orchestra and Gibson Mandolin quickly established itself as the top of the line. Because Kalamazoo was located in the "furniture belt" of western Michigan, the company had access to the best woodworking machinery available and a pool of exceptionally talented woodworkers.

Gibson believed that handwork and manufacturing could produce large numbers of high-quality instruments. Two basic policies established by Gibson at the turn of the 20th century remain true to this day: Buy or invent machines for dangerous or repetitive operations requiring great accuracy and employ a highly skilled worker when the human touch or the musician's ear is required. This unique combination of man and machine is one of the main reasons Gibson guitars have become an enduring legend among guitar players.

The 1960s was a period of incredible growth for the music business and Gibson. An explosion of rock and roll, jazz and folk music produced unprecedented demand for guitars of all types. Major guitar makers began to experiment with new materials, designs and production changes to speed output and improve profits.

CMI bought out Gibson and was later acquired by Norlin Industries in 1969. In 1975, Gibson opened a factory in Nashville, TN. In 1986, Gibson was purchased by a team headed by Henry Juszkiewicz and David Berryman.

Instrument Construction

One way that Gibson keeps quality high for its instruments and increases production is through the use of CAD/CAM software. Kenny Tucker, manufacturing engineer of Gibson Guitar Co., says, "We have six CNC wood routers in the Nashville plant. We do a lot of our component parts for the instrument bodies that are routed out on this equipment."

Gibson uses Mastercam CAD/CAM software to design its products and program the routers.

"I spent 25 years in the metal-cutting industry and became familiar with Mastercam there," Tucker says. "Gibson hired me about three years ago to help them improve their tooling and efficiency with their CNC routers. We're developing a 3-D library of our instrument parts. We have a scanner on one of our CNC routers to scan the parts. This information is then downloaded into Mastercam to develop a 3-D model. This 3-D scanning also helps us with programming the unique carved surfaces for many of our instruments."

Tucker says the software helps provide precision, while also offering flexibility. "With this software, if I want to move something in a specific dimension I can put it exactly where I need it. For example, the contour on the top of our Les Paul electric guitar is intricately carved and has a history to it. We scanned one that was done by hand and brought the scan into Mastercam. We wanted to develop a drawing to make sure that the pitch of the neck was just right. If I wanted to move it two degrees, I could pick a point and rotate it around that point two degrees, and it would go exactly where I wanted it to. With the software, we were moving things as much as five- and six-thousandths of an inch to get guitar components where we wanted them to be. When they came off the CNC, they were perfect."

Tucker says the company's routers can hold a tolerance of plus or minus one-thousandth of an inch. "Of course, working with wood you've got its variability that we have to take into account. If we try to get it as close as we can from the routers, then it just makes everything easier down the line," he says, noting that one of Gibson's CNC routers is a new Northwood that has four heads on it and two 5-foot by 10-foot tables.

To duplicate the same profile and contour of Gibson's classic Les Paul carved-top electric guitar, Tucker says employees scanned a body of an older one and duplicated the surface with their new router. Then they took those scanned points and made a 3-D rendering of the surface. Using a 6-inch ball-nosed end mill on the CNC router, they carve the top of the new Les Pauls to as tight a tolerance as possible and then hand finish and sand them.

Tucker says, "Sometimes producing the curves and contours, along with the artistic characteristics that we add to these instruments, is a real challenge. Using the new software, however, Tucker adds, "The guitars have less variance than before, and the craftsmen can work their magic at this point with much less effort."

No Change for the Sake of Change

"One of the things with Gibson is that their guitars are often historical pieces," Tucker says. "You can't just come in and change something, because the artists that are out there playing them would find it in a heartbeat. So, you have to try and maintain the curves and feel of the guitar and the necks. Players can just pick up a guitar and look at it, and see that something's been changed."

A software feature that Tucker says he uses often is its verification ability. After a part is programmed, Tucker says he can run the program in real time on the computer to see if there are any problems. "For example, for the scarfs that go around on the outside of our Gibson SG guitars, I can make sure that what I programmed is coming out close to what I think they should be. If not, I can make some adjustments before I start cutting wood."

CNC routers also are used to machine the delicate abalone and pearl inlays for a guitar's fretboard. On some guitars, this is very elaborate and for others the pearl is just used as fret markers.

Between the pearl and pocket, the tolerance for the fit can easily be five thousandths of an inch or less. If the pockets are too large, the aesthetics of the pearl can easily be lost and the fretboard might have to be scrapped. "We try to have a really tight fit, because again, that's an aesthetic thing that's part of the Gibson history: it looks good and plays well. You have to keep those things close in order to maintain that integrity," Tucker says.

Versatile Software

Gibson uses Mastercam software to design and manufacture solid and hollow body electric guitars, acoustic guitars and mandolins. The company also uses it to develop the fixtures and tooling used for producing the instruments.

In addition, Tucker says he uses Mastercam to help design and build special machines for production at its in-house metalworking/machine shop. George Mathews, the machine shop lead man, also uses the software to program a 4040 Fadal Machining center and the CNC routers to make fixtures and prototype parts.

As a major player in today's instrument market, Gibson must hold onto the tradition of building quality handcrafted instruments, but be able to produce them at a competitive cost. Even though some of its other instrument brands are produced off-shore, many of the most sought-after ones, such as the Gibson guitar, are American-made.

Today, Gibson owns the Epiphone, Valley Arts, Kramer, Steinberger and Tobias brand of guitars, along with Baldwin Pianos and Slingerland Drums. It also produces several lines of instrument amplifiers.

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