Tour report of the Gibson Memphis Factory

landguitar

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I was in Memphis week before last and took the opportunity to take a late afternoon tour of the Memphis Factory. My wonderful wife went with me and was a great sport. Given the comments I read here on Gibson QC and quality, and the bankruptcy, I thought some might be interested in what I saw on the tour. I have not been to Nashville or Bozeman so I can't comment on what they do there, but I imagine the processes are the same. I was not sure exactly which forum to post this in...

We went on the 4 PM tour, so most of the workers had already left for the day. It's a big building, across from the Fed Ex Forum and the Rock and Soul Museum, and the hotel where we stayed. Pretty prime real estate, which is why it's for sale (or maybe sold?), I'm sure. No big signs other than "Available" on a side door. We couldn't take any pictures inside.

The middle-aged (local) lady that gave us the tour said she works in the finishing area, normally does binding work, but she was "off" for some kind of medical reason and so was doing things like tours, etc. instead. I think she said around 40 or so folks work there, so it's not a big workforce.

We went by/around all of the work stations. At the end of day, after work, the areas were all clean and tidy, not a messy workspace. Looked like they had all the OSHA-required equipment for personal and environmental protection. A combination of old-school work and modern processes, which the tour guide specifically mentioned - all hand done. Very interesting. Even my wife was very impressed with the overall process and results. We both have worked in the energy industry and at least once in a very process-driven work location, so the metrics tracking and department flow processes were very familiar. The flow and metrics are tracked by station and area, which the tour guide essentially described as "everyone needs to get 30", in other words their goal is to get 30 guitars out a month and how long each day/week you have to work in your area depends on how quickly you do that, and obviously how long other departments - body, neck, binding, paint, electronics, etc. - take to get their 30 to the next department/section.

Everyone inspects the guitars that come to them to be sure that the prior section did their jobs right, so they are not working on "wasted" guitars, so folks are incentivized to NOT have guitars returned to them to re-do whatever their work was. In other words, everyone is responsible for QC, but they also have overall "inspectors" that do that along the way. The paint/finish section takes about the longest as it involves multiple applications and inspections, and the binding "scraping" seems to be the most meticulous and painstaking work.

I suggest you take 15 minutes to watch this Sweetwater video, as it describes part of the overall process the same as on the tour, especially that the electronics are worked through the f-holes!!!


https://www.sweetwater.com/insync/inside-gibsons-2018-es-guitars/

and the very short Gibson Memphis tour video to see the facility.

So it takes them 4-6 weeks to turn out these guitars, all of which are the ES'. All hand work. So when folks here talk about how the guitars - necks especially - are not all the same per run, well they are all hand done. As is the paint/finishing. They do work from forms and follow specs per the guitar they are working on. So my guitar, which might be the exact same specs, is not likely to be exactly like yours! I know everyone here knows all this, but we still seem to get really hung up on this sometimes. To me, that's the fun part - although it can make finding the right one for you more frustrating, which I get!
And the tour guide constantly talked about quality and QC and how they are evaluated on that, as well as the production numbers. And that they all need to have some expertise in other areas to be able to help out when one section might be having issues, or to fix an issue they spot while the guitar is making it's way through the process.

Overall, I - and as I said, my wife - was very impressed with the process and I know I like the results! They had quite a few guitars to play in the "shop" at the end, so that part was fun too - not just Memphis guitars but LP's, acoustics, even an L-5 mando that was very nice! A good assortment of Gibson models. All were for sale, but it would be hard to know if the prices were worth it without other comparisons. There was NO "discount", that's for sure! :doh:

The tour guide mentioned that sometimes on "non-custom" (my term) guitars they spot one that is "spectacular" - her word - and they tag it and watch it all the way through and mark it as "special". She showed us a 335 that was aquamarine and had a gorgeous flame top as an example. It WAS spectacular! The guide was proud of her work and mentioned their close knit workforce a number of times.She also mentioned that they have very low turnover. In the hall where the tour starts there are a number of notes from artists like Joan Jett (I glanced quickly as we were being walked out and did not see who the others were - I think I saw one from Dave Grohl; I know he toured Graceland the week before...) who had been through the factory as well.

The tour had about 20 people from all over the world, literally; mostly "older" folks - 50 - 60's, maybe older.

Only thing a little "weird" - I asked the tour guide when the guitars get Plek'd - she looked at me funny and said they are not allowed to talk about that, but they do have a Plek machine. I was looking for the machine and did not see it along the main part of the process line that the tour went through. I thought I spotted it behind some other things but could not be sure. Interesting...:hmm:

Being a longtime Gibson player and fan, although I currently only own one 335, I was very impressed. It will be interesting to see if they move this location to Nashville or keep it someplace else in Memphis. It appeared to me that they do a nice side business in the tours and some merchandise so I would think they would want to keep that wherever they go. The tour was $11 - I bought ours on TripAdvisor/Viator.

Nobody directly asked about the bankruptcy or Henry, and the tour guide did not mention it either, but it was clear that most of the folks on the tour knew about it. None of that seemed to have a noticeable impact on the work here, although as we all know business issues like this always impact workforce morale just due to the uncertainty.

If you are in the Memphis area, I highly recommend the tour! A little less than an hour, depending on how many guitars you play at the end in the shop! I did bring home a nice black strap that is discontinued...:jam: No discount... :facepalm:
 

Rds

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Yeah very in-depth. I've been twice to it. It's a cool thing to do for sure. Went several years ago and could take pics back then, second time a few years ago and could not take pics. Sadly the ones I took first trip were blurry and crappy. Fujitsu 3.2 megapixel. It's been awhile. That thing was awful in low light. Lots of eye candy in the store.
 

space

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Did the same tour
Stayed in the same hotel
I agree with your assessment 100%
Very clean and orderly
T
 

Hanover Fist

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I've taken the tour many years ago when the employees were there. Everyone seemed to be in a hurry.

Having said that, my ES Les Paul is flawless--except for non-symmetrical f-holes. Thank goodness the pick guard covers it up.
 

Cjsinla

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Hey, nice, but that was a 2 minute video, not 15.
 

Paul46

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That was a good read, thanks for posting.

Fwiw, I have four Memphis ES's and they are all stellar.
 

landguitar

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That was a good read, thanks for posting.

Fwiw, I have four Memphis ES's and they are all stellar.
I am gassing for a 335 or 355 with Bigsby and maybe gold on a black finish. Haven’t seen one around but am not in a hurry. I actually like the “new” finish colors too!
 

landguitar

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Did you find the Mahogany Center Block that was missing in my ES Les Paul 2016? :applause:
Ha! Assuming you are joking, I am not a weight-relief fan on LP’s but might try one of the new ES ones like that.
Maybe it’s like a donut hole and you have to buy the wood that’s taken out separately...:rofl:
 

Dave_W

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Ha! Assuming you are joking, I am not a weight-relief fan on LP’s but might try one of the new ES ones like that.
Maybe it’s like a donut hole and you have to buy the wood that’s taken out separately...:rofl:
Unfortunately, he's not joking. He posted a link to a video he took of the interior. No center block.
 

Fred

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I have a 1958 ES 335 that I'm in the process of restoring. Anyway I wanted a brown case with pink lining for the guitar but all the dealers I contacted said the only way I could get one was to buy a 58' or 59' re-issue. I contacted someone from Gibson and they gave me the name of one of their supervisors in Memphis. He said if you will come down and take the factory tour I'll get you a case if you have a real 58' 335. My wife and I went down the day after thanksgiving last year and took the tour. At the end of the tour they had a case waiting for me at a very reasonable price. I was impressed. I want to thank Kyle at the Memphis factory for making this possible.
 

endial

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Thanks. A nicely done, and positive report. Glad that they're proud of the work they do, and the process (QC) sounds, well, very sound.
 

Midnight Blues

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Read like a cool time, thanks for sharing!

I have to type this though, I had some QC issues with my Alex Lifeson “Inspired By” ES-355; the vibrato arm for the Maestro didn’t fit, the “Gibson” etching on the tail-piece was missing the “G” and “i” and of course, there was the infamous Volute issue. In fairness, that was back in ‘08 and Gibson did take care of it at their expense, sans the Volute issue.


:cheers2:
 

mdubya

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I am gassing for a 335 or 355 with Bigsby and maybe gold on a black finish. Haven’t seen one around but am not in a hurry. I actually like the “new” finish colors too!

Find someone that is flipping one of the recent CME blowout guitars. Or troll the CME site daily and enter the key words "Gibson Floor Model". The are a few on there now like such:

https://www.chicagomusicexchange.com/listing/gibson-memphis-es-335-anchor-stud-bigsby-antique-vintage-sunburst-limited-edition-floor-model/10989687

https://www.chicagomusicexchange.com/listing/gibson-memphis-es-355-black-beauty-ebony-limited-edition-whardshell-case-floor-model/8000332


Ha! Assuming you are joking, I am not a weight-relief fan on LP’s but might try one of the new ES ones like that.
Maybe it’s like a donut hole and you have to buy the wood that’s taken out separately...:rofl:

My ES LP is 6.2 lbs (same as my 330!) and it has the Mahogany block. It is a very abbreviated block though, not of the substance of a 335 style. If you want a lightweight LP, they are really cool guitars. I think they are capable of that big meaty LP tone, and also capable of light, airy ES and almost hollowbody tones, too. Being nearly hollow makes them very lively. I have been very surprised by the versatility of mine.


I have a 1958 ES 335 that I'm in the process of restoring. Anyway I wanted a brown case with pink lining for the guitar but all the dealers I contacted said the only way I could get one was to buy a 58' or 59' re-issue. I contacted someone from Gibson and they gave me the name of one of their supervisors in Memphis. He said if you will come down and take the factory tour I'll get you a case if you have a real 58' 335. My wife and I went down the day after thanksgiving last year and took the tour. At the end of the tour they had a case waiting for me at a very reasonable price. I was impressed. I want to thank Kyle at the Memphis factory for making this possible.

^^^^ That is a great story and really nice to hear they are still capable of going the extra mile when they aren't necessarily obligated to.
 

SingeMonkey

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Binding scraping is the most involved process eh? Wonder why the binding on my 2008 AY sig SG looks like it was done by an orangutan on meth then?

All the weird secrecy. I'm sure the people who work there are really great people. But the bottom line is that Henry really dropped the ball sometime in the 2000s and consistency of quality in Gibson guitars did not match the status or price of the guitars.

Hopefully new leadership will bring Gibson back up to the consistency that we fans expect. If PRS can do it, there's nothing stopping Gibson.
 

wmachine

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Binding scraping is the most involved process eh? Wonder why the binding on my 2008 AY sig SG looks like it was done by an orangutan on meth then?
To me, that underscores the point, rather than refuting it. One bad example is never any kind of measure especially with hand finishing.
Futhermore 2008 was over 10 years ago now, and can hardy represent recent quality. Just trying to be truly objective.
 


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