This month one of Gibson’s most accomplished and dedicated luthiers, James “Hutch” Hutchins, celebrates 45 years at Gibson with a fond look back at a career that’s spanned two states, three changes of ownership, and thousands of lovely guitars. Hutch began his career in the original Kalamazoo, Michigan plant, making a name for himself there before transferring to Nashville in 1983. He’s worked every job from maintenance to pattern making with an unflinching attention to detail and an abiding pride in the Gibson name.

Hutch, now 69, has a clear recollection of March 25, 1963—the day he was hired at Gibson. While working as a cab driver in Kalamazoo, Hutch stopped by Checker Cab to pick up his paycheck one afternoon, and spotted the Gibson smokestack billowing across the way. “I said to my wife, ‘I wonder what they do’,” Hutch says with a laugh. “So I pulled up front, went in, and I saw the guitars and banjos, and figured it must have something to do with that.”

Though he didn’t play guitar—and never has—Hutch was already a well-trained machinist, and figured he’d make a good fit in the Gibson machine shop. He filled out an application on the spot. “They asked me if I could do an interview, and I did—with Julius Bellson and Ted McCarty,” he laughs, invoking the names of two of Gibson’s most legendary executives, known for heading the company during the years that Gibson produced the Les Paul, ES-335, Flying V, Explorer, and the humbucker, ushering in one of Gibson’s finest golden ages.



“Those guys were cool,” Hutch remembers. “They would walk through the plant and say, ‘Hey, how’s your boy doing?’ Or, ‘How’s your kid doing in college?’”

On his first day at Gibson in 1963, Hutch was assigned a work station nine benches down from “the senior guy at the front of the line, who had been there over 39 years.” He couldn’t have imagined then that his own longevity at the company would eventually surpass his boss’. Of those first few years at Gibson, Hutch recalls a close-knit Gibson team that connected inside of work and out—on bowling teams, canoeing trips, and get-togethers. Musical members of the staff even formed a couple bands, among them the venerable Green Valley Boys, fronted by Ron Allers, who worked for Gibson for 26 years.

During those years, Gibson was owned by the Chicago Musical Instrument Company, which acquired Gibson in early 1944. At the time, Hutch estimates, there were nearly 1,000 employees stationed in several large plants in Kalamazoo. The work was non-stop. Hutch put in six-day work weeks, often logging two shifts in a row. “That was just normal,” he says. “A lot of people did, but it was dedication. Everything had to be done by hand.”

Blessed with the esteem of McCarty and Bellson, Hutch became the plant’s liaison for legendary artists who wanted custom guitars. He was integral to designing the Chet Atkins Country Gentleman, becoming friends with Atkins in the process. “I said, ‘Chet, I’ll build you whatever you want. You tell me what you want, and we’ll go from there’,” says Hutch. “I think that was the part that really hooked Chet on coming to Gibson—that we were willing to do whatever he wanted.” Disenchanted after a partnership with Gretsch, Atkins met with Hutch over many a lingering lunch to determine the specs for the great Gibson signature model. During his tenure at Kalamazoo, Hutch saw the Atkins guitars through from design into their production in 1982. Over the years, Hutch also worked closely with archtop jazz giants like Howard Roberts, Johnny Smith, Wes Montgomery, and Herb Ellis.

In the meantime, CMI merged with Ecuadorian brewery ECI to form Norlin in 1969. Gibson’s new ownership signaled the beginning of a dark period in company history. “Norlin didn’t put anything in, just took everything out,” says Hutch. “All they were after was money.” As the staff was drastically reduced from a thousand down to a few dozen, production naturally slowed, but Hutch’s commitment to the company went unrattled.

In January 1986, Gibson CEO and Chairman Henry Juszkiewicz, Gibson President Dave Berryman, and Gary Zebrowski purchased a Gibson that had been hammered by mismanagement. Juszkiewicz rolled up his sleeves, and through hard work and determination, was able to restore the company to a position of unrivaled prominence in the industry.

“Henry put every penny right back into it,” says Hutch. “This company didn’t grow by not putting a lot back in. Fortunately, when Henry bought Gibson he believed in the company and what it was going to take, which was the best people and the best wood. He said to me, ‘What do you need?,’ and I said, ‘Well, we need help,’ and Henry said, ‘Get ’em, and hire the best you can.’”

Hutch recalls Gibson as it was 20 years ago, before the high-tech updates it has received over the years. “We didn’t have the humidity control that we have today,” he says. “Everything was manual. We had potato bin air conditioners. And what we’d do, if it got real dry, we’d pour water on the floor.”

Under Juszkiewicz’s leadership, Gibson rebuilt its highly skilled team and ramped up its production numbers. He also added several CNCs (computerized cutting machines) to guarantee the consistency of every guitar, while still maintaining Gibson’s commitment to hand-crafted quality. “You won’t believe this, but some of these carving instruments that we use are dated way back to the turn of the century,” says Hutch. “Mostly the processes were learned the old way, and we’re still doing them the old way. It’s pride, pride in the product, and the best word I ever come up with is ‘family.’ That word was a lot truer after Henry got involved.”

Hutch still feels the same sense of family in the Gibson Custom Shop as he did when he first walked into the Kalamazoo plant 45 years ago. “The day we get away from being a family is the day we get away from that Gibson on the peghead,” he says. “And that’ll never go away. That’s what’s kept us here.”

Today, Hutch likes to hunt and fish and spend time with his three grown sons, all of whom live in the Nashville area. “I can go home and sit down with my grandkids and watch TV and have B.B. King walk out on stage, and I can say, ‘I helped build that guitar!’ Where else can you do that?”

Hutch is also building a house—no doubt with the same care he’s shown to so many of the beautiful guitars he’s dedicated his life to creating.

“You’ve got to have pride. If you don’t have pride in what you’re doing, it’s not going to come out at the end of the line. Ain’t nobody ever gonna knock this name off,” Hutch says, tapping the headstock of a nearby Custom Shop Les Paul. “I don’t know how much longer I’ll be around, but I know Gibson, and I know that’s a name that can’t be beat.”