Guitar Aficionado

'Kalamazoo Gals' Tracks Down the Women Who Built Gibson's Prized “banner guitars”

During World War II, when the materials necessary for guitar building were tightly rationed by the War Production Board, Gibson, like virtually all other companies who produced products nonessential to the war effort, tried to stay afloat by securing government contracts to build vital non-guitar-related items, such as bomber radios.
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Kalamazoo Gals: A Story of Extraordinary Women & Gibson’s “Banner” Guitars of WWII
By John Thomas (American History Press, $21.95; 288 pages)

By Tom Beaujour

During World War II, when the materials necessary for guitar building were tightly rationed by the War Production Board, Gibson, like virtually all other companies who produced products nonessential to the war effort, tried to stay afloat by securing government contracts to build vital non-guitar-related items, such as bomber radios.

While Gibson officially claimed to have ceased guitar production during this period—and former employees maintained this untruth for many subsequent years—shipping records and print advertisements placed in music trades at the time suggest otherwise. Instruments were actually being built, and they were excellent, to boot. Today they are referred to as “banner guitars,” because of the “Only a Gibson Is Good Enough” banner that appeared on their headstocks.

In Kalamazoo Gals, author and banner-guitar aficionado John Thomas posits that one of the reasons for Gibson’s reticence to acknowledge its war-time guitar output was that, at the time, the instruments were largely made by women who had replaced male factory workers who had been conscripted into the warmed forces. For his book, Thomas traveled to Kalamazoo to interview many of the women, now in their eighties, and his conversations with them are the heart and soul of a work that is more the document of the bravery and perseverance of the greatest generation than a mere guitar-nerd’s odyssey.

There is, of course, plenty of arcane guitar information to engage players and collectors of banner guitar. Thomas x-rayed several of the instruments and analyzed the construction and fabrication idiosyncrasies that make these guitars different from any produced before or after war, and he even recorded numerous examples for the accompanying CD. Clearly, this was a labor of love for the author, and the tenderness with which he treats both his human and wooden subjects illuminates the tome from cover to cover.

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