Thursday, January 19, 2012

My Association with The Gibson Guitar Company

In 1984 I was in Nashville doing some things for Bill Monroe's birthday and I asked around to find where the Gibson was located. I knew they had moved to Nashville but I'd never had any contact with the company. I'd know some of the workers at Kalamazoo, Jim Durlu and J.P.Moats, but I'd never made any contact with anyone in Nashville.

I went down on Massman Drive and went into the receptionist area and asked if they did factory tours to which I found that they didn't. I spoke to the nice receptionist and told her of my interest in the banjo and she said "Wait a minute" and got on the phone. Shortly a pleasant sandy headed gentleman came out and they spoke for a second. He was Nick Kimmons, he came over to me and said that " said you are interested in banjos" and continued while they didn't have a tour as such, he could give me a 10 or 15 minute quick look inside.

We went into the plant and I was immediately amazed. Work stations were laid out around the plant, neck shaping, sanding, binding......... Then I looked up at a long serpentine moving line about 14 or 15 feet in the air that traveled thru out the plant. It reminded me of the moving rack that some Dry Cleaners have to call up your order, except it was a continuously moving with guitar necks and bodies....every now and then you'd see a banjo neck, a rim or a resonator on the line. The parts once they were "prepped" were put on the line which went thru the "paint booth" where the stain and finish were applied. After each application they were put back on the line in order to dry before the next coat of finish.

We went to the back of the building where the wood came into the plant then to the huge CNC carving machines creating Les Paul bodies.

I asked about the banjo department and he kind of chuckled as we walked, soon we got to this possibly 8 or 10 foot cubicle with a rack of tubes where finished banjo necks awaited assembly and a shelving unit that had some pot assemblies and resonators on it...this along with his work bench was pretty much the banjo department.

He explained that the wooden parts went thru the same neck shaping stations where the guitar necks were shaped, the rims and resonators were prepared (sanded and bound) by the same people that did the work on all the other instruments then they were put on the "line" for stain and finish.
I was amazed.
As we sat and talked he said he had been assembling banjos for a few years now and asked me since I knew something about banjos, "Were these nuts put on right?. He pulled a RB 250 pot assembly off the shelf and handed it to me. He said that some there at the factory said they went one way and others said they went the other way. They were all upside down from the way the Pre War Gibson's were done. Nick explained that they seemed to grab the threads faster the way he was doing them but if they were wrong he'd change them.

That 10 or 15 minute tour turned into 2 hours, talking about different aspect of banjo building and assembly.

I asked him about what they did when they had 2nd parts. I had for some time been buying Martin 2nd guitar parts thru the 1833 shop at Martin and 2nd banjo parts from Stewart MacDonald in Athens Ohio. I'd even purchased some 2nd Gibson parts from Dave Kennedy who would get them from the factory in Kalamazoo. He said that any thing with much of a flaw was scrapped and sent to the dumpster. I kidded him "now just where is this dumpster" which he said "As you go back out the door its to your left at the end of the building"...and from time to time you would see people going thru the dumpster. As I left, I thought what the heck and walked down to the dumpster....most of it was boxes but I could see some bandsawn parts of electric guitars...fully finished mind you but cut to where they were unusable. I didn't go diving, but I did manage to find the scroll from a F5 Mandolin and a couple of Earl Scruggs banjo peg heads that had been cut off....
I was so glad that I had went by and met Nick, little did either of us know that a few years later we would work together.

Recently I asked Nick about how he became the lead man in the banjo department.  

I had been working in the machining dept for about 2 years,starting employment in Oct.1978,  

A job posting came up for final assembly,I told my supervisor I wanted to put in for that position.  He told me the next step after that would be out the door.  I wanted to try anyway. Little did he know after 38 years I still work for them engraving.

The harder and longer the guitars took to assembled the better I  liked it.  I started working for the R & D department with Bruce Bowling and Jim Huchinson assembling;  L5's ,Super 400 , , Johnny Smith and the other carved top guitars,  I also started assembling Charlie Derrington's production mandolins. 

Kalamazoo was all gone except the banjos and orders started piling up in the R and D dept and no one was interested in them.  At about that time the Union tried to get in the plant and the company changed there job placement program, so when the banjos were offered as a position, they offered it to the senior person in final assembly which was Mary St.John. She wanted it and they flew Roger Siminoff in to train her for 1 week.  She lasted about 2 to 3 weeks and kept wanting me to help her with repairs and so on and I finally ask her why she didn't let somebody who wanted that job to have it. She ask who and I replied myself, little did I know that a tube and plate with a black rim ,3 piece neck would start my adventure with those banjos.  

I started with one model and in Oct.2002 and had 22 models going.when I left to start my own business ...  I started engraving in 1993 and continue today(12/2015) I've been engraving for them now for 23 years.  
Nick Kimmons and Earl Scruggs with an early Earl Scruggs Model Gibson Banjo...

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