Gibson Montana

Guitarists are well aware of the long and storied history of Gibson acoustic guitars that dates back to the late 1800s. Although they know that the instruments were built in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and Nashville, many players don’t realize that Gibson is currently building acoustics in Bozeman, Montana. Frets recently took a tour of the factory to see first hand how Gibson creates the instruments that have graced so many famous recordings. Here, Director of Sales Robi Johns sheds some light on Gibson’s “big custom shop” for acoustic guitars.

Tell me how Gibson Montana came to be.

There were many luthiers building instruments here decades ago, and they created the Flatiron line of mandolins. This was at a time when Gibson wasn’t making that many acoustics in Nashville. Our CEO ran across these mandolins and knew that Flatiron would be a good acquisition. They had a bunch of up-and-coming luthiers and he thought this move could revive the acoustic side of Gibson as he had already done with the electric side. Our acoustic plant in Bozeman happened a number of years after the acquisition, in July of 1989. When we first started building, we were not only building the acoustics again but also building mandolins and banjos. We were the whole acoustic side of Gibson at the time. Later the mandolins and banjos left to be their own division in Nashville.

What parts of the Gibson line are currently manufactured in Montana?

All acoustic guitars with the Gibson name on them. We’ve done a few special projects for the corporation, such as the Epiphone Paul McCartney model. That was built here at Paul’s request because the original Epiphone that he played in the Beatles was made in the US.

What are the most popular models?

There’s a set of guitars that will always be popular: the J-200, Hummingbird, J-45, and J-160E—the John Lennon/ George Harrison guitar. Those are all guitars that have a life of their own. Those make up the core of the most magical guitars that we build. People still search for them. Then there’s the offspring of those categories. We have some more modern guitars that are doing quite well, such as the Songwriter Deluxe models—more of a traditional dreadnought look but they actually have the bracing from a 1930’s Advanced Jumbo. People like Jackson Browne have raved about the tone of those old designs. He loves those Gibson Roy Smeck models, and these Songwriter Deluxe guitars have that same bracing pattern. That bracing pattern has a very vocal tone, warm and woody, with an incredible dynamic range. There’s a wider X to the bracing and that opens up the top.

How many instruments a month are you building?

It varies. We try to build as many as possible, which, on average, is between 1100 and 1400 guitars a month. It’s kind of hard to believe. If you take a snapshot of any one area of the shop, most of what you see goes back to old-world guitar building. There’s lots of handwork, which makes for guitars that are very individualized. Some people love that and some people don’t. But at the same time, we build the guitars very efficiently. We hone the process in these simple ways, like how far the guitar has to physically move to the next station. It’s called lean manufacturing, and we established it a number of years ago. We keep as much of the handwork as possible but we’ve added digital technology where it made sense for efficiency, like body molds, trussrods, dovetail neck joints—stuff like that.

You can use a CNC machine for almost everything and then just put the guitar together after the fact. We only use it where we need that kind of accuracy but we don’t let it take away from the soul of the instrument. A CNC machine works wonders with inlay patterns and neck shapes, and the trussrod is exactly the same every time. It helps us to hand build so many instruments, because these steps are so consistent.

Tell me a little about the Art Shop.

Our whole factory is a custom shop in a lot of ways. The Art Shop is where our master luthier, Ren Ferguson, and some of the other luthiers work on the most meticulous, individual, one-of-a-kind pieces. They select their wood very carefully. We have incredible wood all over the factory, but they’ll choose their favorite specimens and use them on the Art Shop guitars. Ren built the Pirates of the Caribbean Custom for Johnny Depp to commemorate the movie. That was a total one-off. We couldn’t even replicate it if we wanted to. Ren built eight or nine of what we call Master Museum Pieces last year and we’re trying to do 12 this year because we have many people who want these unique instruments. They’re very expensive—like $50,000 to $100,000. There are people who want to pay top dollar for what they believe to be the premium example of something, whether it’s cars, audio equipment, paintings, or guitars.

What would you say is the overriding philosophy of Gibson Montana?

Our CEO has a really big vision about the future, but he also lets us stick with tradition because he knows how precious that is. We could build tons more guitars with newer technology but we make really hard-to-build guitars. That’s what we do.

Who are some of the artists that play your guitars?

The first few guitars I sent out were for George Harrison. He played them on the sessions he was doing with Eric Clapton. We got calls from the beginning because the artists were starving for the guitars. Jackson Browne called just to thank us for building g these instruments again. We work with Emmylou Harris, Sheryl Crow, Pete Townshend—he wrote so many famous tunes on his J-200—Bob Dylan, Graham Nash, U2, Coldplay—our artist list goes on forever.

Gibson acoustics are now in their third century.

It makes me feel good to see that people still value the old-school craftsmanship. I remember when everyone was touting digital technology and they said everything that wasn’t digital was going to be a dinosaur. Well, that wasn’t the case for us. Gibson is a brand that emotionally goes back in time for so many folks. We’re very lucky.