A Heritage of Guitar-Making

The site of Heritage Guitar, Inc. in Kalamazoo, Michigan.  Former home of Gibson Guitars.  Photo credit:  Julia Crowe

The site of Heritage Guitar, Inc. in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Former home of Gibson Guitars. Photo credit: Julia Crowe

The address of 225 Parsons in Kalamazoo, Michigan should be a bucket list destination for any fan of vintage Gibson guitars. It is the original factory site where former New Yorker Orville Gibson founded Gibson guitars in 1894. Now a designated National Landmark, the factory continues as the home of Heritage Guitars, established by ex-Gibson employees who chose to stay in Kalamazoo after Gibson left town.

When Gibson packed up in the 1980s for a new base in Nashville, three former employees—Jim Deurloo, Marv Lamb and J.P. Moats–established Heritage Guitars, where they continue to produce high quality electric and hollow-body guitars in Gibson’s abandoned Kalamazoo site, using traditional guitar-making techniques.

“I believe Gibson moved out in the 1980s after making the decision to move forward with their guitar-making technology,” says Ron Howard of Heritage Guitars, Inc., “but the founders of Heritage have maintained their old way of craftsmanship. For example, the workmen still use clothespins to hold kerfing in place and wood pieces are soaked, heated and bent by hand to create the guitar body.”

The years of experience devoted to guitar-making of Heritage’s founders is formidable: Heritage’s founder, J.P. Moats, had worked for Gibson since 1957 before establishing Heritage guitars, serving as quality control manager in addition to traveling to Germany to select woods. Moats, who died last year, made guitars for Steve Martin, Roy Clark and Charlie Daniels. Jim Duerloo, who currently oversees manufacturing at Heritage, also worked at Gibson as their former plant manager since 1958.

Marv Lamb started working at Gibson in 1956, when he was sixteen years old. He and Moats started out with sanding instruments and sweeping floors,” says Ron Howard.  “Lamb was a former plant superintendent at Gibson and works at Heritage as a builder.  And our former co-founder and Heritage Guitar Accounts Manager Bill Paige has retired.”

“I have a great story about Marv Lamb and Frankie Ballard,” Howard says, “When he was a teenager, Frankie Ballard, a local Kalamazoo musician, came by all the time to check out the guitars. He spotted one that always seemed unfinished so he hounded Marv relentlessly about that guitar. Marv told Frankie that if got signed, the guitar would be his. He was signed by Reprise Records in Nashville in 2010. You can check Youtube for a video of Frankie with that guitar.

When I made the trek to 225 Parsons for this story, it was during a slightly chaotic time. Heritage Guitars has been transitioning to new ownership and, on the day I arrived, a special reunion of Heritage Guitar owners and workers were gathering to celebrate. I thought it was odd that their phone system played classical guitar music like Asturias Leyenda, though the company makes primarily electric guitars and hollow-bodies.

“We’re having our IT guys look into changing that music over to Heritage artists but that’s actually provides a great segue to mention that we will be looking into considering the possibility of making an acoustic line at some point,” says Howard.

225 Parsons.  Photo credit:  Julia Crowe.

225 Parsons. Photo credit: Julia Crowe.

Rendall Wall, a second generation Gibson employee who worked at the company from 1960 to 1982 before working for Heritage Guitars for over thirty years, took me on a quick, drive-by of the factory operations.

“Our bread-and-butter guitar happens to be the H535 semi-hollow body, like the kind B.B. King plays,” says Howard. “After that, we have our solid body electric guitars, the H150 and H157. The H157 is more dressed up and has a plastic pick plate but can be upgraded to maple, which is more work. It takes at least seven coats of lacquer and two weeks extra work to install.”

Curly Spink, wizard of guitar bindings, at work at Heritage Guitar, Inc.  Photo credit:  Julia Crowe.

Curly Spink, wizard of guitar bindings, at work at Heritage Guitar, Inc. Photo credit: Julia Crowe.

Guitars awaiting Curly Spink's magic with binding at Heritage Guitar, Inc.  Photo credit:  Julia Crowe.

Guitars awaiting Curly Spink’s magic with binding at Heritage Guitar, Inc. Photo credit: Julia Crowe.

A neat, skeletal stack of what will be made into hollowbody guitars at Heritage Guitar, Inc.  Photo credit:  Julia Crowe.

A neat, skeletal stack of what will be made into hollowbody guitars at Heritage Guitar, Inc. Photo credit: Julia Crowe.

Wooden forms at Heritage Guitar, Inc.  Photo credit:  Julia Crowe.

Wooden forms at Heritage Guitar, Inc. Photo credit: Julia Crowe.

Renn Walls showing off Heritage Guitar, Inc.'s handcrafted wooden pick guards.  Photo credit:  Julia Crowe.

Ren Walls showing off Heritage Guitar, Inc.’s handcrafted wooden pick guards. Photo credit: Julia Crowe.

 

Rolling by on the factory floor of Heritage Guitar, Inc.  Photo credit:  Julia Crowe.

A dolly rolling by on the factory floor of Heritage Guitar, Inc. Photo credit: Julia Crowe.

Incredibly, Heritage continues to use the original machinery used from the early days of old Gibson. Walking by all of it induces goose bumps. It is the musical version of a real Willie Wonka factory, where candy-colored guitars of varied makes and models continue to be created, the stuff of dreams.

“When Gibson put all of their equipment up for auction, we knew exactly what to buy,” Walls says.

The original Gibson fretboard machinery now used by Heritage Guitar, Inc.  Photo credit:  Julia Crowe.

The original Gibson fretboard machinery now used by Heritage Guitar, Inc. Photo credit: Julia Crowe.

Kevin Whittemore, fretboard inlay magician at Heritage Guitar, Inc.  Photo credit:  Julia Crowe.

Kevin Whittemore, fretboard inlay magician at Heritage Guitar, Inc. Photo credit: Julia Crowe.

Inlaid fretboards at Heritage Guitar, Inc.  Photo credit:  Julia Crowe.

Inlaid fretboards at Heritage Guitar, Inc. Photo credit: Julia Crowe.

Readers, click here to view this Instagram photo of a spectacular, custom-made Heritage guitar with its “Tiger Lily” theme. The inlay work was done by Craig Lavin at Heritage.

Workbench at Heritage Guitar, Inc.  Note headstocks and fretboards on the background board.  Photo credit:  Julia Crowe.

Workbench at Heritage Guitar, Inc. Note headstocks and fretboards on the background board. Photo credit: Julia Crowe.

The historic spraying room, where all the old Gibsons and  now, Heritage Guitars, land their beautiful coats and glazings of color.  Photo credit:  Julia Crowe.

The historic spraying room, where all the old Gibsons and now, Heritage Guitars, land their beautiful coats and glazings of color. Photo credit: Julia Crowe.

A fresh crop of drying, spray-painted guitars at Heritage Guitar, Inc.  Photo credit:  Julia Crowe.

A fresh crop of drying, spray-painted guitars at Heritage Guitar, Inc. Photo credit: Julia Crowe.

More guitars, fresh from the spray room at Heritage Guitar, Inc.  Photo credit:  Julia Crowe.

More guitars, fresh from the spray room at Heritage Guitar, Inc. Photo credit: Julia Crowe.

Thank you to Renn Walls for holding the window open so it didn't drop on my head for this gorgeous view of the old Gibson factory smokestack.  Photo credit:  Julia Crowe.

Thank you to Ren Walls for holding the window open so it didn’t drop on my head for this gorgeous view of the old Gibson factory smokestack. Photo credit: Julia Crowe.

Earlier this year, Heritage acquired a new set of owners Jeff Nicholson and Archie Leach, who have grand plans for renovating the 10,000 square foot building. While Leach has a background in manufacturing, Nicholson has extensive experience with historic renovations. “Nicholson has a great team of contractors in place. They were the group that built Hopcat Brew Pub in Grand Rapids, which they fashioned out of an old train station.

“We have plans for renovation which includes construction of a beer garden under the famed Gibson smokestack, along with a performance space and a guitar museum,” Howard says. There will also plans for a rooftop space that allows for diehard guitar aficionados to have their wedding photos taken with a backdrop of the historic smokestack.

“The factory windows will be retrofitted with period windows but they’ll be tempered to better control the heat and humidity inside the factory, which, as you know, is an extremely important consideration when it comes to guitar building.”

“We have plans to create a walk-through area where visitors can view the paint-spraying of guitars from behind a window as the guitar go through this process and are set out to dry,” Howard says. “We’re also making archival video interviews with Heritage founders. We discovered some historical items, like old guitar forms, and have a plan to create an onsite display and with the video interviews. Right now, all of it is going through an approval process. Hopefully, we’ll start to see some of this happen within the next year and factory tours will be open to the public during the reconstruction period.”

“This factory is built like a dang bomb shelter,” Howard says. “This building is 100 years old and we hope it will be here another 100 at least, as we’re making these improvements to preserve the history and the manufacturing of Heritage guitars for a future generation.”

 

Passing of the torch!  Headstock of a special guitar made for the new owners of Heritage Guitar, Inc.  Photo credit:  Julia Crowe.

Passing of the torch! Headstock of a special guitar made for the new owners of Heritage Guitar, Inc. Photo credit: Julia Crowe.

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A sampling of Heritage Guitar Artists:

Mimi Fox

David Becker

Henry Johnson

J.L. Fulks

Other Heritage Guitar Artists include:

Singer-songwriter Paul Erdman from South Bend Indiana.

Roy Clark

John Sebastian from The Lovin’ Spoonful

Frankie Ballard (see earlier posted link to a video above, in the article text!)