Monday, July 28, 2008

Memphis I

The family and I were away in Memphis for the weekend; the following are some pictures of the Gibson guitar factory here. It's the "baby" of the three that are here in the US. The tour guide -- a large man with a lisp, a pony tail of frizzy hair, a scruffy beard, and Jerry Garcia glasses (pictured here to the right) had a dry wit that you'd have to strain to catch normally, never mind all the sawing and machine noises going on all around us. The wood for the guitars is brought in from all over the world and is kept in this humidified warehouse setting.

Hundreds of gallons of water have to be used up daily to keep the wood from drying out. The table here to your left is where many of the telltale curved fronts and backs of Gibson guitars (think B. B. King's "Lucille" for this town's signature example of such) are clamped down for shaping.

It was good to see that the vast majority of the entire process of crafting Gibson guitars was still just that: a handcraft, and obviously so. The factory employs around fifty craftsmen who cut, shape, sand, fit, and finish the wood themselves; the machine to your right was one of the few (perhaps even the only) automated steps in the process of making the guitars. This machine is what carves the mirror-image "F" shapes (think the Stradivarius violin, after which the Gibson was originally patterned) and other holes into the bodies of the guitars.

Sadly, this has led to the mass production of items bearing names of unrepeatable local legends. This holds true as well, I hate to say, for the local restaurant on Beale Street which bears the name of the man in question and which, in my opinion, is something of a "Disneyland of the Blues," to make use of a phrase of Memphis' own Ochlophobist (whom I had the pleasure of meeting and with whom we worshipped just yesterday at his parish church).

Once the wood has been curved and carved, it is glued together and bound with canvas rope, after which it is hung to dry for about two days (seen here to your right). One of the things I didn't know was that the large, wooden block that goes through the middle of electric guitars is what leads to long, middle or short sustain, depending on the density of the wood; King's Lucille is something like maple, if I remember our Garcia Guide correctly, so her medium sustain is the resulting tone.

The next part was, I believe, the part that most impressed me. While most of the craftsmanship was being done all around us, the men were very much at a distance (understandable, as we wouldn't want to disturb them). These two pictures, however, were taken of men who were behind glass in an enclosed area, hand painting guitar after guitar with airbrushes (the ever-popular "sunburst" design -- yellow with dark border color -- is what you see to your left), followed by lacquer finishes.

The guitars were hanging up just between us and the men, who worked mere feet from where we were. That they were able to maintain concentration while all of us gawked and took pictures like the no-doubt annoying tourists we were is admirable.

These buffers administer coats of wax and other sealants onto the guitars; the wax/sealants are actually absorbed into the buffers and so the spinning wheel is itself the means of final polishing.

At the end of the tour, we were led to several tables of men who were stringing and tuning the guitars -- oh, and did I mention shredding? Yes, this was, no doubt, the best part of the tour, musically speaking. A guitarist, once finished with stringing and tuning a finished guitar, puts it through a "rigorous testing" (translation: he wails on it for about ten minutes. I tell ya', it's a tough job, but...). Once he's satisfied that the guitar lives up to the Gibson name, he signs off on it and the guitar is set to ship out.

There are, of course, guitars that fail to make the grade; these guitars are put into boxes, stacked one on top of another in a dumpster and incinerated. Amazingly, only about five percent of all guitars that go through this process wind up being incinerated; quite a testimony to the accuracy of their craftsmanship.

And here, of course, is the guitar shop outside the factory where my brother-in-law and I sat and played some of these incredible guitars. Time well spent, to be sure.


Mimi said...

Awesome photos! It sounds like a great trip.

Andrea Elizabeth said...

It is always amazing to me how such beautiful sounds can come from what start out as raw materials.

Glad you're home! We missed y'all at Liturgy yesterday, but I'm glad you were able to worship up there.

s-p said...

sooo cool! I own a couple Les Pauls. I never play any more but I can't part with them.

Thom Crowe said...

Looks like a great trip!

David Shinabarger said...

i just got back from memphis about a week ago, and I wasn't able to go to the guitar factory, we opted for the civil rights museum instead, so seeing this post is really amazing. it's like I went there, just... not quite as awing. thanks for the post!