Exploring the skills (and electric skillet) that go into creating the legendary Gibson ES Series.
Gibson Memphis at night.
This time I head south with Musician’s Friend Private Reserve to visit the Gibson guitar factory in Memphis,Tennessee. What a town! You’ve got Graceland, Beale Street, Sun Studio and Gibson guitars!
An oversized Lucille greets visitors.
Guitar production at Gibson Memphis is overseen by Mike Voltz. His team is dedicated to faithfully creating and recreating GIbson’s famous ES line of guitars. The ES designation stands for “Electric Spanish,” and these instruments were among the first electric guitars to appear in the late 1930s. Today the ES line is best known for its essential role in both jazz and blues. A Gibson ES has either a hollow or semi-hollow body, usually with F-holes.
Here is a sweet family gathering of Gibson ES models in the Gibson Memphis conference room. They sounded great through that little Gibson combo.
Check out this video I made with an ES-175 at Gibson Memphis. Nothing sounds like a 175.
The Gibson factory is in the heart of Memphis, a short walk to Beale Street’s live blues and barbeque. This legendary street pulsates with music venues including B.B. King’s Blues Club. B.B. did a lot of playing on Beale Street in his early years and also served as a DJ at a local station where his “Blues Boy” handle stuck. It’s fitting that Gibson crafts guitars in this city that helped birth the blues, rockabilly and greasy southern soul.
B.B. King’s Blues Club is a must-visit for blues pilgrims.
In the Gibson conference room I enjoyed playing current models, prototypes and vintage “donor” guitars used as references by Gibson luthiers in recreating vintage models. It was here that I was privileged to play through Scotty Moore’s Magnatone amp. Mike is a friend of Scotty Moore’s, and the former Elvis sideman was nice enough to give Gibson his amp as well as his gigging briefcase and some original master tapes. It was really cool to be around these artifacts.
Mike also showed us improvements the Memphis team are making. These include moving to yellowed binding and unpotted MHS pickups, the historic truss rod assembly as well as the window in the ES 335 block and period-correct Mickey Mouse cutaways. One thing clearly emerged from the conversation: the Gibson team are music lovers and welcome just about every guitarist that comes around.
The 1963 ES-335’s weight-reducing “window” center block.
Scotty Moore changed music forever backing Elvis Presley—his guitar style still inspires players today. He gave GIbson Memphis his gigging briefcase when he retired.
I was lucky enough to get a personal tour from Mike Voltz on the factory floor—he knows the place inside-out. He can, and has, singlehandedly built guitars from start to finish in the Gibson Memphis factory.
Since the ES models are traditionally hollow or semi-hollow, the Memphis plant looks more like an acoustic guitar factory than one engaged in making electric guitars. There are lots of craftspeople bending sides (also known as rims), gluing bracing to tops and fitting necks.
Top bracing being glued and clamped on a pretty flame top.
Riding an elevator with Mike, I asked, “Why is it that nothing sounds like a Gibson ES guitar?” His response was simple. “It’s the wood, and specifically the lamination process.” During our factory tour he showed me a lamination machine that presses the wood for ES guitars. Gibson brought this machine down from its Kalamazoo, Michigan plant where it had been bought used in the 1930s. Noticing a bucket on the floor intended to deal with an oil leak, I innocently asked Mike if they planned to replace the press. He looked at me like I was crazy and said, “No way.”
Mike Voltz talks about the evolution of the Historic ES-335TD.
This machine has been pressing tops for GIbson ES guitars for more than 75 years.
The ES lamination process involves metal plates that when loaded into the machine, not only press and glue the wood but also produce the classic carved appearance of the body’s contours.
The lamination department at Gibson Memphis. Note the tops and backs hanging from the workbench. Gibson uses contoured metal plates when pressing the wood to produce a guitar body that has a carved look.
Gibson ES-335 tops and backs.
Aside from the antique equipment and plates used to form the ES tops and backs, Gibson craftspeople resort to unusual, low-tech tools. For example, in order to make the wood flexible enough to produce the sharp Florentine cutaway of an ES-175 or ES Les Paul, they turn to an electric skillet.
Gibson luthiers heat wood in an electric skillet to make it pliable enough to bend into the sharp florentine cutaway found on the ES-175 and other models.
Gibson ES-175 rim. Notice the sharp cutaway.
An inner view of the ES 335. Here the center block is being glued into the sides of the body.
Gibson ES tops and backs ready for assembly. Rim material awaits.
ES-175 tops and backs.
Once the top and backs are pressed and braced, they are joined with the rims to form the guitar body. The body is then routed for binding, F-holes and other appointments.
This ES-335 has been routed to receive period-correct binding.
Wonderful Gibson necks being glued into ES bodies. Gibson Memphis uses a lower fret wire and rolled binding edges for ultimate playability.
Assembled Gibson ES rims, tops and backs after receiving their set necks.
After all the body and neck components are assembled, the guitar is ready for a classic Gibson finish. Whether it’s a vintage sunburst, ‘60s cherry or natural, the meticulously applied finish always looks good. The smell of nitrocellulose in this part of the Memphis factory is guaranteed to get a Gibson fan’s pulse rate up.
There’s a lot of of hands-on work at Gibson Memphis including this buffing station.
Gibson ES guitars during the finishing process. I love the cherry red finish on the Trini Lopez in front!
A rack of dream guitars!
Mike Voltz has strong ties to many of the greatest guitar players around the Memphis area, including Elvis’ guitarist Scotty Moore and the late Chet Atkins. At his suggestion we headed to Sun Studio. Still a working recording studio, it’s also a museum packed with the instruments, artifacts and stories of the musicians who recorded there.
In the main recording room an X on the floor denotes the spot on which Elvis stood to record his first single, “That’s Alright (Mama).” The upright piano that Jerry Lee Lewis played has a cigarette burn on one of the keys establishing its rockabilly pedigree. Envisioning this museum, Sun Studio founder, the late Sam Phillips was insistent that visitors gain close access to the relics and instruments that made music history. Guests are encouraged to touch or sing through the microphone that Elvis used.
No glass cases: a Gibson ES-295 long associated with guitarist Scotty Moore sits out in the open in accordance with Sam Phillips’ wishes.
Rounding out a great day, we also enjoyed live music on Beale Street and a mandatory stop at Gus’s Fried Chicken.
I currently own and have owned many Gibson guitars. And as a working jazz player, the instruments in the Gibson ES line are my guitars of choice. I believe if you purchase a Gibson ES guitar from Private Reserve, you will no doubt own one of the finest instruments on the planet.
Check out the complete playlist of guitar videos we shot at Gibson Memphis.
Explore the entire collection of Private Reserve Gibson Memphis instruments.
Special thanks to Musician’s Friend Private Reserve, Mike Voltz, and the whole Gibson Memphis crew.
Until next time, keep playing!
Read more Guitar Notes from Brian Baggett: Guitar Notes The HUB
Visit www.privatereserveguitars.com or contact Derek White directly at 866-926-1923. He can get you the absolute lowest price on your dream guitar. Connect with Private Reserve Guitars on Facebook and Instagram.
Brian Baggett is Video Presenter for Musician’s Friend Private Reserve Guitars. He curates the Private Reserve guitar collection on video, visits guitar factories and works closely with luthiers and signature artists to gain insight into the greatest guitars being built today. He is also a professional guitarist playing every Wednesday and Saturday night at The Green Lady Lounge in Kansas City. A former jazz guitar professor, Brian continues to teach guitar lessons and has a book and DVD titled Keys To Unlocking the Fretboard. Find Brian on Facebook and twitter.