Headquartered in Nashville, Gibson Guitars has been making high-quality stringed instruments since 1896. The company has impacted the music instrument business as well as music culture through its various innovations. Gibson Guitars builds a variety of instruments, perhaps the most famous being the Les Paul series of electric guitars.
The founder of what would become Gibson Guitars was Orville Gibson. Born the youngest of four siblings in 1856 near Chateaugay, New York, he relocated in 1881 to Kalamazoo, Michigan, and by 1896 he was making instruments. Gibson believed that the wood used in musical instruments should not be stressed by the bending process and so built his guitars and mandolins (which were the dominant stringed instruments at this time) using a top carved with a slight arch. The development of the archtop guitar meant that Gibson’s acoustic guitars needed no internal bracing as their shape made them self-supporting. This new design would be the first of many innovations of Gibson Guitars.
Although successful, Orville Gibson in 1902 sold his company to a group of investors, who created the Gibson Mandolin-Guitar Manufacturing Company Limited. Gibson lent his name to the fledgling company for a lucrative royalty agreement. The new managers made several innovations that revolutionized guitar production. Gibson employees invented the adjustable truss rod, which allows the neck of the guitar to have a flexible pressure, along with the height-adjustable compensated bridge, which allows for better individuation of guitars and helps account for the different needs of the strings.
The company also has a long history of using novel approaches to sales and marketing. In the early twentieth century, Gibson began cultivating a network of “teacher-agents” by offering discounts and catalogs to music teachers in the hope they would sell instruments directly to their students. Although successful, this network of “teacher-agents” would be replaced in 1924 by the more traditional approach of selling guitars through music stores.
Gibson has also always cultivated a wide variety of celebrity endorsements as part of their overall marketing strategy. Nick Lucas, a jazz star in the 1920s, was one of the first high-profile artists to provide an endorsement, and in the 1930s, Roy Smeck, the “wizard of the strings,” endorsed one of Gibson’s acoustic Hawaiian guitars. Many other artists have played Gibson instruments, including Bill Monroe, Roy Rogers, Emmylou Harris, Jimi Hendrix, and Bob Dylan. These players, along with many others, have helped to define Gibson as one of the most prominent instrument makers and as a cultural icon.
Les Paul’s endorsement deal with Gibson remains the most famous. Paul’s popularity peaked in the 1950s, but he had been attempting to perfect electric guitars for years before that. He is often credited with the invention of the electric guitar, but there were already electric guitars available as early as 1929. However, a solid-body electric guitar had yet to be invented. Paul began experimenting with a solid-body design, famously using a four-inch-by-four-inch block of pine with homemade pickups to create a prototype of a solid-body electric guitar. In 1946 Paul brought his “log guitar” prototype to Gibson so that a production model could be made, but company officials rejected it quickly. This “log guitar” can now be seen in the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville.
In 1950 Fender introduced the first commercially available solid-body guitar, and it was very successful. In direct response, Gibson began designing its own solid-body guitar with a team of designers. Given that Les Paul was incredibly popular at the time and recalling that he had brought the company a prototype for a solid-body guitar a few years earlier, Gibson contacted Paul to play the new guitar in public; instead, the parties reached an agreement whereby the guitar would be named after Les Paul and Paul would receive a royalty for every guitar sold. In 1952, the Les Paul guitar’s first year of production, 1,715 instruments were shipped. The year after that, 2,245 instruments were shipped, making the Les Paul guitar a success. Gibson produced Les Paul guitars until 1963, when, due to dissatisfaction with some new design choices, Paul opted out of renewing his contract. He returned in 1968 and has continued endorsing these Gibson models ever since. Gibson currently offers ten variations of the Les Paul guitar and re-creations of classic Les Paul models.
Another dynamic performer who would forever impact the resonance of the Gibson name was B. B. King. King had played Gibson guitars for more than thirty years by the time an official endorsement deal was made. Like Les Paul, King experimented with electrifying his own instruments, doing so in the 1940s with a Gibson L-30. He played his greatest hits with a Gibson ES-355 and, in 1980, partnered with Gibson to create a B. B. King model of that guitar.
The structure and ownership of the business has gone through many transitions since its inception in 1902, and while remaining a prominent luthier, the company has experienced considerable highs and lows. In 1944 the last of Gibson’s five founding partners sold the company to the Chicago Musical Instrument Company (CMI). CMI saw the company through its most productive and innovative period, which peaked in 1965 with more than 100,000 guitars manufactured. In 1969 CMI was taken over by the Ecuadorian Company Limited (ECI) in 1969. This period of ownership by ECI and later Norlin Industries (a name change for ECI) was particularly difficult, typified by an overall decline in quality and mismanagement.
In 1975 the company opened a manufacturing plant for guitars in Nashville, Tennessee, because of overcrowding at the Kalamazoo plant. However, the original intention was to continue operations at the Kalamazoo plant. In 1983 Gibson Guitars decided to relocate both their manufacturing operation and corporate headquarters exclusively to Nashville, owing to Tennessee’s company-friendly right-to-work policies and the company’s desire to better cultivate celebrity endorsements and music-industry contacts. All operations in Kalamazoo were discontinued, and the move was completed to Tennessee, effectively ending an association with Michigan that had lasted for nearly a century.
In 1986 Henry Juszkiewicz, who also became CEO after the purchase, David Berryman, and Gary Zebrowski purchased the company for $5 million. With the intention of bringing the company back to its former glory, they made several fast decisions to increase the quality of the instruments being produced. Juszkiewicz and partners analyzed old models to determine what the secrets of their tonality were and started to replicate it.
The new investors have expanded the Gibson brand name across the state. They have opened several restaurants and cafes in Nashville, succeeding most recently with the Gibson Showcase in Opry Mills, which is also where their mandolin production now takes place. They have opened another manufacturing center in Memphis. Finally, they increased their visibility in the state and reaffirmed their commitment to it by sponsoring the installation of forty guitar sculptures around Nashville in 2005. This temporary installation, called “Guitar Town,” consisted of larger-than-life guitars designed by famous musicians such as Dolly Parton, George Jones, and Charlie Daniels.
After their success in restoring the Gibson name, Juszkeiwicz and his partners made strategic purchases to diversify the company’s holdings, and some of the subsidiaries that are now owned by Gibson include Epiphone, Wurlitzer, Baldwin, and Slingerland. In 2008 Gibson Guitars merged with TC Group, a holding company headquartered in Denmark that specializes in audio products.
Gibson has predominately, through all of its business endeavors, been known for stellar guitars more than anything else. The company’s guitars are now, again, well known for their quality and highly coveted by musicians and collectors alike.
Walter Carter, Gibson Guitars: 100 Years of an American Icon (1994)