Gibson Guitar Factory in Memphis,
pictured in May 2009
|Gibson Guitar Corp.|
|Founded||1902 in Kalamazoo, Michigan|
Gibson Brands, Inc. (formerly Gibson Guitar Corporation) is an American manufacturer of guitars, other musical instruments, and professional audio equipment from Kalamazoo, Michigan, and now based in Nashville, Tennessee. The company was formerly known as Gibson Guitar Corporation and renamed Gibson Brands, Inc. on June 11, 2013.
Orville Gibson started making instruments in 1894 and founded the company in 1902 as the Gibson Mandolin-Guitar Mfg. Co. Ltd. in Kalamazoo, Michigan, to make mandolin-family instruments. Gibson invented archtop guitars by constructing the same type of carved, arched tops used on violins. By the 1930s, the company was also making flattop acoustic guitars, as well as one of the first commercially available hollow-body electric guitars, used and popularized by Charlie Christian. In 1944, Gibson was bought by Chicago Musical Instruments (CMI), which was acquired in 1969 by Panama-based conglomerate Ecuadorian Company Limited (ECL), that changed its name in the same year to Norlin Corporation. Gibson was owned by Norlin Corporation from 1969 to 1986. In 1986, the company was acquired by a group led by Henry Juszkiewicz and David H. Berryman. In November 2018, the company was acquired by a group of investors led by private equity firm KKR & Co. Inc. (formerly known as Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co. and KKR & Co. L.P.).
Gibson sells guitars under a variety of brand names and builds one of the world's best-known guitars, the Gibson Les Paul. Gibson was at the forefront of innovation in acoustic guitars, especially in the big band era of the 1930s; the Gibson Super 400 was widely imitated. In 1952, Gibson introduced its first solid-body electric guitar, the Les Paul, which became its most popular guitar to date— designed by a team led by Ted McCarty.
On May 1, 2018, the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, and announced a restructuring plan to return to profitability by closing down unprofitable consumer electronics divisions such as Gibson Innovations.
Orville Gibson patented a single-piece mandolin design in 1898 that was more durable than other mandolins and could be manufactured in volume. Orville Gibson began to sell his instruments in 1894 out of a one-room workshop in Kalamazoo, Michigan. In 1902, the Gibson Mandolin-Guitar Mfg. Co. Ltd. was incorporated to market the instruments. Initially, the company produced only Orville Gibson's original designs. Orville died in 1918 of endocarditis (inflammation of the inside lining of the heart chambers and valves).
The following year, the company hired designer Lloyd Loar to create newer instruments. Loar designed the flagship L-5 archtop guitar and the Gibson F-5 mandolin that was introduced in 1922, before leaving the company in 1924. In 1936, Gibson introduced their first "Electric Spanish" model, the ES-150, followed by other electric instruments like steel guitars, banjos and mandolins.
During World War II, instrument manufacturing at Gibson slowed due to shortages of wood and metal, and Gibson began manufacturing wood and metal parts for the military. Between 1942–1945, Gibson employed women to manufacture guitars. "Women produced nearly 25,000 guitars during World War II yet Gibson denied ever building instruments over this period," according to a 2013 history of the company. Gibson folklore has also claimed its guitars were made by "seasoned craftsmen" who were "too old for war."
In 1944 Gibson was purchased by Chicago Musical Instruments. The ES-175 was introduced in 1949. Gibson hired Ted McCarty in 1948, who became President in 1950. He led an expansion of the guitar line with new guitars such as the "Les Paul" guitar introduced in 1952, endorsed by Les Paul, a popular musician in the 1950s. The guitar was offered in Custom, Standard, Special, and Junior models.
In the mid-1950s, the Thinline series was produced, which included a line of thinner guitars like the Byrdland. The first Byrdlands were slim, custom built, L-5 models for guitarists Billy Byrd and Hank Garland. Later, a shorter neck was added. Other models such as the ES-350T and the ES-225T were introduced as less costly alternatives. In 1958, Gibson introduced the ES-335T model. Similar in size to the hollow-body Thinlines, the ES-335 family had a solid center, giving the string tone a longer sustain.
In the 1950s, Gibson also produced the Tune-o-matic bridge system and its version of the humbucking pickup, the PAF ("Patent Applied For"), first released in 1957 and still sought after for its sound.
In 1958, Gibson produced two new designs: the eccentrically shaped Explorer and Flying V. These "modernistic" guitars did not sell initially. It was only in the late 1960s and early 70s when the two guitars were reintroduced to the market that they sold well. The Firebird, in the early 60s, was a reprise of the modernistic idea, though less extreme.
In the late 50s, McCarty knew that Gibson was seen as a traditional company and began an effort to create more modern guitars. In 1961 the body design of the Les Paul was changed due to the demand for a double-cutaway body design. The new body design then became known as the SG (for "solid guitar"), due to disapproval from Les Paul himself. The original Les Paul design returned to the Gibson catalog in 1968.
On December 22, 1969, Gibson parent company Chicago Musical Instruments was taken over by the South American brewing conglomerate ECL. Gibson remained under the control of CMI until 1974 when it became a subsidiary of Norlin Musical Instruments. Norlin Musical Instruments was a member of Norlin Industries which was named for ECL president Norton Stevens and CMI president Arnold Berlin. This began an era characterized by corporate mismanagement and decreasing product quality.
Between 1976 and 1984, production of Gibson guitars was shifted from Kalamazoo to Nashville, Tennessee. The Kalamazoo plant kept going for a few years as a custom-instrument shop, but was closed in 1984; several Gibson employees led by plant manager Jim Duerloo established Heritage Guitars in the old factory, building versions of classic Gibson designs.
The company was within three months of going out of business before it was bought by Henry E. Juszkiewicz, David H. Berryman, and Gary A. Zebrowski in January 1986. Gibson's wholesale shipments in 1993 were an estimated $70 million, up from $50 million in 1992. When Juszkiewicz and Berryman took over in 1986, sales were below $10 million. New production plants were opened in Memphis, Tennessee, as well as Bozeman, Montana. The Memphis facility is used for semi-hollow and custom shop instruments, while the Bozeman facility is dedicated to acoustic instruments.
In 2011, Gibson acquired the Stanton Group, including Cerwin Vega, KRK Systems and Stanton DJ. Gibson then formed a new division, Gibson Pro Audio, which will deliver professional grade audio items, including headphones, loudspeakers and DJ equipment.
Gibson announced a partnership with the Japanese-based Onkyo Corporation in 2012. Onkyo, known for audio equipment and home theater systems, became part of the Gibson Pro-Audio division. In 2013, Gibson acquired a majority stake in TEAC Corporation. In 2014, Gibson acquired the Woox consumer electronics brand from Royal Philips. In October 2017, Gibson announced plans to relocate its Memphis operations to a smaller location and plans to sell the Memphis property. Gibson opened its Memphis facility 18 years before, which occupies just a portion of a massive 127,620 square foot complex. According to the Memphis Daily News, Gibson plans to search for a new facility for its Memphis operations and will stay in the current spot for the next 18 to 24 months. The facility, which sits across from the FedExForum along South B.B. King Boulevard, is expected to list for $17 million.
Since its opening, the Gibson Memphis shop has mostly focused on building hollow and semi-hollowbody guitars, such as the famed ES series. Presumably, this shuffling of assets is meant to address Gibson's well-publicized financial troubles.
Gibson issued a press release about the move, with former CEO Henry Juszkiewicz stating:
- "We are extremely excited about this next phase of growth that we believe will benefit both our employees, and the Memphis community. I remember when our property had abandoned buildings, and Beale Street was in decline. It is with great pride that I can see the development of this area with a basketball arena, hotels, and a resurgent pride in the musical heritage of the great city of Memphis. We continue to love the Memphis community and hope to be a key contributor to its future when we move nearby to a more appropriate location for our manufacturing based business, allowing the world the benefit of our great American craftsmen."
On May 1, 2018, the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. As part of its debt restructuring, the company closed and liquidated the unprofitable Gibson Innovations division, which was focused on selling audio equipment outside of the U.S., allowing Gibson to focus on its most profitable ventures, such as musical instruments. Gibson and Epiphone branded guitar production was not interrupted by the bankruptcy. Additionally, $135 million was provided by existing creditors to provide liquidity to maintain existing operations.
On September 6, 2018, the company announced that a global settlement has been reached with respect to the company's reorganization plan upon emergence from Chapter 11. Under the plan, the company would focus on its core musical instruments business with "essentially no debt." Juszkiewicz stepped down as CEO and assumed the role of consultant.
On October 23, 2018, the company announced the appointment of James “JC” Curleigh as the new President and CEO; Cesar Gueikian as Chief Merchant Officer; Kim Mattoon as Chief Financial Officer; and Christian Schmitz as Chief Production Officer. The appointments were effective November 1, 2018.
Origin of "lawsuit guitars"
Gibson also sued PRS Guitars in 2005, to stop them from making their Singlecut model. The lawsuit against PRS was initially successful. However, the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit reversed the lower court decision and ordered the dismissal of Gibson's suit against PRS.
FWS raids & Lacey Act violation
Gibson's factories were raided in 2009 and 2011 by agents of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). In November 2009 authorities found illegally imported ebony wood from Madagascar. A second raid was conducted in August 2011, during which the FWS seized wood imports from India that had been mislabeled on the US Customs declaration. Gibson Guitar Corp. filed a motion in January 2011 to recover seized materials and overturn the charges, which was denied by the court.
The United States Department of Justice found emails from 2008 and 2009 in which Gibson employees discussed the "gray market" nature of the ebony wood available from a German wood dealer—who obtained it from a supplier in Madagascar—as well as plans to obtain the wood. It filed a civil proceeding in June 2011, the first such case under the amended Lacey Act, which requires importing companies to purchase legally harvested wood and follow the environmental laws of the producing countries regardless of corruption or lack of enforcement. Gibson argued in a statement the following day that authorities were "bullying Gibson without filing charges" and denied any wrongdoing. Arguing against the federal regulations and claiming that the move threatened jobs, Republicans and Tea Party members spoke out against the raids and supported Juszkiewicz.
The case was settled on August 6, 2012, with Gibson admitting to violating the Lacey Act and agreeing to pay a fine of $300,000 in addition to a $50,000 community payment. Gibson also forfeited the wood seized in the raids, which was valued at roughly the same amount as the settlement. However, in a subsequent statement Gibson maintained its innocence with Juszkiewicz claiming that "Gibson was inappropriately targeted" and that the government raids were "so outrageous and overreaching as to deserve further Congressional investigation." Juszkiewicz continued to state, "We felt compelled to settle as the costs of proving our case at trial would have cost millions of dollars and taken a very long time to resolve."
In the midst of the controversy, conservative commentators alleged that the raid was a politically motivated act of retaliation by the Obama administration, as Juszkiewicz had frequently donated to Republican politicians. Chris Martin IV, the CEO of Gibson competitor C.F. Martin & Co., had donated over $35,000 to the Democratic National Committee and Democratic candidates in the same time period. Though Martin featured several guitars in its catalog made with the same Indian wood as Gibson, but with correct documentation filed, the company was not subjected to a raid.
Gibson filed a lawsuit November 18, 2010, in Federal court, the Central District of California, against WowWee USA and their Paper Jamz battery operated guitar toys charging trademark infringement. The lawsuit claimed the Paper Jamz toy guitars copied the looks of some of Gibson's famous guitars, the Gibson Les Paul, the Gibson Flying V, the Gibson Explorer, and the Gibson SG. On December 21, 2010 Gibson was granted a request for an injunction against WowWee and retailers in the United States which were selling Paper Jamz guitars: Walmart, Amazon, Big Lots stores, Kmart Corporation, Target Corporation, Toys "R" Us, Walgreens, Brookstone, Best Buy, eBay, Toywiz.com, and Home Shopping Network (HSN) The case was dismissed with prejudice (dismissed permanently) January 11, 2011 by Federal Judge R. Gary Klausner.
Gibson also owns and makes instruments under brands such as Epiphone, Kramer, Maestro, Steinberger, and Tobias, along with the ownership of historical brands such as Kalamazoo, Dobro, Slingerland, Valley Arts, and Baldwin (including Chickering, Hamilton, and Wurlitzer).
Gibson makes authorized copies of its most successful guitar designs. They are less expensive than those bearing the Gibson name.[clarification needed] A former competitor, Epiphone, was purchased by Gibson in 1957 and now makes competitively-priced Gibson models, such as the Les Paul and SG, sold under the Epiphone brand, while continuing to make Epiphone-specific models like the Sheraton, Sorrento, and Casino. In Japan, Orville by Gibson once made Gibson designs sold in that country. Gibson has sought legal action against those that make and sell guitars Gibson believes are too similar to their own.
In 1977, Gibson introduced the serial numbering system in use until 2006. An eight-digit number on the back shows the date when the instrument was produced, where it was produced, and its order of production that day (e.g., first instrument stamped that day, second, etc.). An exception is the year 1994, Gibson's centennial year; many 1994 serial numbers start with "94", followed by a six-digit production number. As of 2006, the company used seven (six since 1999) serial number systems,[clarification needed] making it difficult to identify guitars by their serial number alone. The Gibson website provides a book to help with serial number deciphering.
In 2003, Gibson debuted its Ethernet-based audio protocol, MaGIC, which it developed in partnership with 3Com, Advanced Micro Devices, and Xilinx. Replacing traditional analog hook-ups with a digital connection to "satisfy the unique requirements of live audio performances". This system requires a special pickup, and cabling is provided by a standard Cat-5 Ethernet cable.
The Gibson "self-tuning guitar", also known as a "robot model", an option on some newer Les Paul, SG, Flying V and Explorer instruments, tunes itself in about two seconds using robotics technology developed by Tronical GmbH. Under the tradename Min-ETune, this device became standard on several models in 2014.
In 2013, Gibson introduced the Government Series of Les Paul, SG, Flying V, Explorer and ES-335 guitars which were constructed solely of tonewood the US government seized but later returned to Gibson after the resolution of the company's Lacey Act violation in 2011. The guitars were finished in "government grey" and also featured decorations which intended to draw attention to the issue of government. A year later in 2014, Gibson released the Government Series II of guitars, which were essentially the same as the first series, only finished in a new color: "government tan".
All Gibson-brand guitars are currently made at three facilities, depending on the type of guitar. Solid body electric guitars such as the Gibson Les Paul and the Gibson SG are made in Nashville, Tennessee at Gibson USA and the Gibson Custom Shop. Semi-acoustic guitars such as the Gibson ES Series are made in Memphis, Tennessee at Gibson USA. Full acoustic guitars such as the Gibson J Series are made in Bozeman, Montana. The Nashville and Bozeman facilities are off-limits to visitors.
All Gibson instruments are made in USA. Below are some of the facilities used to produce Gibson instruments, along with years of their operation:
|Address||Years of Operation||Notes|
|114 So. Burdick, Kalamazoo, MI.||1896–1897||This was the "business location" of "O. H. Gibson, Manufacturer, Musical Instruments."|
|104 East Main, Kalamazoo, MI||1899–1902||This was Orville Gibson's residence, and he built instruments on the 2nd floor of this location.|
|114 East Main, Kalamazoo, MI||1902–1906||The "Gibson Mandolin-Guitar Manufacturing Co, Ltd." was established in 1902. This building, said to be infested with cockroaches, was probably the former Witmer Bakery.|
|114 East Exchange Place, Kalamazoo, MI||1906–1911||Located quite close to the previous location, in Kalamazoo's business district.|
|521–523 East Harrison Court, Kalamazoo, MI||1911–1917||Located about .5 miles from previous location. The building was next to the Michigan Central Railroad, and stood for many decades, until it came down in the late 20th century.|
|225 Parsons St, Kalamazoo, MI, 49007||1917–1984||Also located next to railroad tracks, this facility had major expansions in 1945, 1950, and 1960. Various brands were produced there, including Gibson, Epiphone, (1957–1970) and Kalamazoo. During the depression of the 1930s, children's toys were produced there, and during WW2 it produced materials to support the war effort in addition to producing guitars. Between 1974 and 1984 Gibson moved its manufacturing out of this facility to Tennessee. Most of this move happened in 1974, leaving only acoustic and some semi-acoustic production for this plant. In 1985, Heritage Guitars began production, renting part of this facility.|
|416 East Ranson, Kalamazoo, MI||1962–?||Located six blocks south of 224 Parsons St., according to Julius Bellson's book, this building housed the Gibson Electronics Division. The building is still standing as of 2020.|
|Corner of Fulford and Alcott, Kalamazoo, MI||1964–1970||Located on the east side of Kalamazoo, according to Julius Bellson's book, this 60,000 sq. ft. building known as Plant 3 was the home of amplifier production, the String Division and pick-up production from 1964–1970. The building is still standing as of 2020.|
|521–523 East Harrison Court, Kalamazoo, MI||1911–1917||Located about .5 miles from previous location. The building was next to the Michigan Central Railroad, and stood for many decades, until it came down in the late 20th century.|
|641 Massman Drive, Nashville, TN, 37210||1984–present||This is Gibson's facility for production of their main solid body models, such as the Les Paul and the SG.|
|145 Lt. George W. Lee Av, Memphis, TN 38103||2000–2018||This is Gibson's facility for production of their semi-hollowbody electric guitars. This facility shares the same building as Gibson's Retail Shop and Beale Street "Showcase" location.|
|1894 Orville Way, Bozeman, MT, 59715||1989– present||This facility is dedicated to acoustic guitar production.|
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According to C.F. Martin's catalog, several of their guitars contain 'East Indian Rosewood,' which is the exact same wood in at least 10 of Gibson's guitars. So why were they not raided and their inventory of foreign wood seized? Grossly underreported at the time was the fact that Gibson's chief executive, Henry Juszkiewicz, contributed to Republican politicians...By contrast, Chris Martin IV, the Martin & Co. CEO, is a long-time Democratic supporter.
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- Duchossoir, A. R. (2009). Gibson Electric Steel Guitars: 1935-1967. Milwaukee, WI: Hal Leonard. ISBN 978-1-423-45702-2.
- Erlewine, Dan; Whitford, Eldon; Vinopal, David (2009). Gibson’s Fabulous Flat-top Guitars: An Illustrated History & Guide. San Francisco: Backbeat Books. ISBN 978-0-879-30962-6.
- Fjestad, Zachary R.; Meiners, Larry (2007). Gibson Flying V. Minneapolis, MN: Blue Book Publications. ISBN 978-1-886-76872-7.
- Fox, Paul (2011). The Other Brands of Gibson. Anaheim Hills, CA: Centerstream Publications. ISBN 978-1-574-24271-3.
- Gruhn, George; Carter, Walter (1993). Acoustic Guitars and Other Fretted Instruments: A Photographic History. San Francisco: GPI Books. ISBN 978-0-879-30240-5.
- Gruhn, George; Carter, Walter (2010a). Electric Guitars and Basses: A Photographic History. New York: Backbeat Books. ISBN 978-0-879-30974-9.
- Gruhn, George; Carter, Walter (2010b). Gruhn’s Guide to Vintage Guitars: An Identification Guide for American Fretted Instruments. New York: Backbeat Books. ISBN 978-0-879-30422-5.
- Hembree, George (2007). Gibson Guitars: Ted McCarty’s Golden Era 1948-1966. Austin, TX: GH Books. ISBN 978-1-423-41813-9.
- Ingram, Adrian (1997). The Gibson L5: Its History and its Players. Anaheim, CA: Centerstream Pub. ISBN 978-1-574-24047-4.
- Ingram, Adrian (2007). The Gibson 175: Its History and its Players. Anaheim, CA: Centerstream Pub. ISBN 978-1-574-24223-2.
- Marx, Wallace (2009). Gibson Amplifiers 1933-2008. Minneapolis, MN: Blue Book Publications. ISBN 978-1-886-76890-1.
- Spann, Joe (2011). Spann’s Guide to Gibson: 1902-1941. Anaheim Hills, CA: Centerstream Pub. ISBN 978-1-574-24267-6.
- Thomas, John (2012). Kalamazoo Gals: A Story of Extraordinary Women & Gibson’s ‘Banner’ Guitars of WWII. Franklin, TN: American History Press. ISBN 978-0-983-08278-1.
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