Six-String Slinger

From the company’s beginnings in a tinkerer’s Kalamazoo workshop, Gibson built some of the world’s finest fretted guitars in Michigan before moving to Nashville.
Gibson Guitar Factory
Gibson Mandolin-Guitar Manufacturing Co. Ltd. got its start in Kalamazoo in 1902, where it designed, built, and distributed musical instruments around the world. // Photo courtesy of the collection of the Kalamazoo Valley Museum

In 1939, singing cowboy Gene Autry toured the United Kingdom, playing before unprecedented mobs of people, who turned out for performances capped by his trademark song, “Back in the Saddle Again.” He sought a deeper bass sound to back up his vocals, and he found it in Kalamazoo, where Autry’s custom Gibson SJ-200 flat-top guitar was built. British fans marveled at the “Super Jumbo” instrument’s pearl and ebony “lariat” binding, the inlaid bucking broncos, and the singer’s name spelled out on the fingerboard.   

The SJ-200 was derived from a prototype made of mahogany, maple, and spruce. Gaining renown as “King of the Flat Tops,” the guitar — which was priced at $200, nearly one-third the cost of a new Ford coupe at the time — exemplified Gibson’s ability to respond to demand in a changing market.

“The Gibson-made instruments were louder and more durable than the competitive, contemporary fretted instruments, and were the go-to instruments demanded by players of the day,” said Billy Gibbons, lead guitarist of ZZ Top, in an email. By the mid-1930s, Gibson had developed its first hollow-body electric, the ES-150, upon which jazz player Charlie Christian worked out a signature sound. Gibson’s Mastertone banjo set a benchmark, as well.

The company’s origins go back more than 130 years. At the same time Henry Ford was tinkering with his quadricycle in Detroit, self-taught luthier Orville Gibson was perfecting a more robust type of mandolin. His patent application, submitted in 1895, said existing mandolins relied too much on internal bracing, bridging, and splicing. He used front boards “carved in a somewhat convex form to give them proper stiffness, and preferably the thickest at and near the center.” He claimed the resulting instrument “seems to be alive with emphatic sound at every touch.”

Gibson Mandolin-Guitar Manufacturing Co. Ltd.
Gibson Mandolin-Guitar Manufacturing Co. Ltd. got its start in Kalamazoo in 1902, where it designed, built, and distributed musical instruments around the world. // Photo courtesy of the Walter P. Reuther Library at Wayne State University

Gibson started out solo in his home workshop, but found financial backing to launch Gibson Mandolin-Guitar Manufacturing Co. Ltd. in 1902. His financial partners purchased rights to his patent for $2,500, while Gibson — taking 60 shares of stock — evidently became a salaried employee. There were three successive work-shops in Kalamazoo’s business district in the company’s first 15 years, before the company made a move to the city’s Northside neighborhood. Prior to Gibson’s death in 1918, his affiliation with the business he had started grew tenuous. Fresh design talent was recruited, and the innovative L-5 arch-top guitar helped the Gibson company flourish in the Big Band era.

Chicago Musical Instruments Co. purchased Gibson in 1944, and Ted McCarty was enticed to move to Kalamazoo from the Wurlitzer Co. A trained engineer, McCarty oversaw a guitar blitz, including the immortal Gibson Les Paul and semi-hollow-body ES-335, an early favorite of Eric Clapton’s. Echoing auto industry product names like the Ford-O-Matic transmission of 1951, the Tune-o-matic Bridge allowed a Les Paul player to adjust each string for an accurate pitch. 

McCarty encouraged designer Seth Lover’s version of the Humbucker pickup, which issued a fuller sound and eliminated noise.  

Under McCarty’s leadership, Gibson’s production increased 20-fold to more than 100,000 units, and the staff grew from 150 to 1,200 workers. McCarty retired in 1966. Soon after, a holding company snapped up Gibson and, starting in 1974, moved production to Nashville, where it continues to this day. Still, many of the Michigan-made guitars, like Pearly Gates — the name for Gibbons’ 1959 Les Paul model — are eternally treasured. “Pearly Gates possesses those rare qualities found in a precise combination of elements which miraculously came together on that fateful day of fabrication,” Gibbons says. “(It’s) a real killer-diller of a six-string slinger.”