One look inside the Gibson USA Factory in Nashville, Tennessee, and it instantly becomes clear why Gibson guitars are the finest in the world. At their workstations, dedicated luthiers attend to the manufacturing process with a concentration akin to a mother hovering over a newborn. Every Gibson solidbody electric—with the exception of Custom Shop instruments—is made here, assembled with love and care by a team of 400-plus employees. From start to finish, the length of time spent making a single guitar averages 21 days, with quality control being paramount.

Carved Bodies

Like everyone who works at Gibson USA, Eric Marlow is fierce in his belief that Gibson is the world’s best guitar-maker. A Gibson employee for 16 years, Marlow often conducts tours for visitors to the facility. Invariably the guests are dazzled by the craftsmanship that goes into the making of Gibson electrics.

Color Prep

“Nothing against other guitar manufacturers, but their operations are based on assembly-line principles where each person just puts in the next screw,” says Marlow. “In our case, everyone is a luthier. Gibson has more luthiers per square inch than any other facility I can think of. We’ve got 22 people in supervisory positions, and if you gave them a slab of wood and a couple of chisels every one of them could build a guitar. We strive to employ a number of people that’s equal to the number of guitars we manufacture each day. That number is approaching 500.”

Drying Tree

Much has changed at Gibson USA—all for the better—since Gibson Chairman and CEO Henry Juszkiewicz assumed the reigns of the company in 1986. Whereas the USA Factory once built all the Gibson models, today’s solidbody electric guitar operations are separated into three divisions: the Epiphone division, the Gibson Custom Shop, and Gibson USA. The Custom Shop focuses exclusively on Artist Signature electrics and vintage replicas, and the Gibson USA factory manufactures the core Gibson models. Interestingly, the “meat and potatoes” role of Gibson USA doesn’t limit it in terms of exciting innovations.

“Our role here at the USA Factory is to do what we’re famous for,” says Marlow, “which is making hand-built instruments that exceed everyone’s expectations. That applies to Les Pauls and SGs and Explorers and everything else. But another great thing is that we can do cutting edge stuff. We can break new ground.”

Marlow cites the female-targeted Gibson Les Pauls, the Goddess and the Vixen, as examples of such “outside the box” thinking. In the tradition of Gibson’s ’50s space-age guitars—the Flying Vs, the Explorers, and the like—such designs evidence a willingness to take risks with regard to public acceptance.

Fingerboard

“The Goddess and the Vixen are great guitars, and I know lots of artist who play them,” says Marlow. “But we couldn’t know in advance how people would respond to them. It’s all about continuing a tradition. People laughed when we manufactured the Flying V and other guitars with cutting-edge designs in the ’50s. Back then people thought the company was crazy, but now those guitars are recognized for having cool shapes.”

Such innovative ideas are also applicable to operations on the shop floor at Gibson USA. Thanks to a brilliant engineering department, machines formerly designed for other uses are often reconfigured to assist in the manufacture of Gibson electrics. For instance, the Northwood machine, located in Gibson’s rough-mill department, was originally designed to make doors and molding before Gibson engineers repurposed it for use on guitars.

Time and again Gibson artisans emphasize the notion of “pride in ownership.” Each newly hired employee serves an apprenticeship with a veteran worker, and new hires tend to already be fans of Gibson guitars before coming on-board. Regular company social events and an annual Summer Jam—which gathers fans, aficionados, and employees alike for a music-filled celebration of newly issued models—add to the team spirit that permeates the facility.

Scraping

“Our employees say there’s no better feeling than seeing someone on TV playing a guitar they know they’ve built,” says Marlow. “That’s what makes the work here different from other jobs. Some people think there’s a giant machine where we press a button and a guitar comes out the other side. Others have the misconception that there’s a guy sitting at a desk with a chisel and a hammer, and at the end of the day he’s produced a guitar. But it’s not like that at all. The number of people here who actually put their hands on a single guitar is huge, and each of those people feels strongly about the brand and the instrument. All of us here know that Gibson is an American icon.”