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Take an audio tour of the Gibson Guitar Factory in Bozeman

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Lia Mendez
/
MTPR
Gibson Acoustic's Quality Manager Patrick Hanson admires a guitar in the early stages of production

Lia Mendez: Hello, friends. It's Leah, and today I'd like to bring you along on a little field trip. Now, if you happened to forget your permission slip, that's okay, because this is one field trip you can attend from wherever you happen to be listening right now. So sit back, get comfortable, and prepare to be whisked away on an adventure through the magic of radio.

Last week, I was lucky enough to attend the grand opening of the newly expanded Gibson Acoustic Guitar Factory in Bozeman, Montana, where people use their hands to turn trees into music. The voice you hear singing belongs to Amanda Stewart, a musician based right here in Bozeman. She's warming up in order to welcome all of the people who are here tonight to celebrate the expansion of the Gibson Acoustic Guitar Factory, which has been making some of the finest acoustic guitars in the world since 1989. Some of the instruments produced by the people working here will go on to be played by world famous musicians.

But wherever these guitars end up, one thing is for certain. An incredible amount of care and skill go into making every single one. My tour guide today is Patrick Hanson, the quality manager at Gibson Acoustic. Patrick is going to take me behind the scenes and lead me through the different parts of the factory so that I can see the whole process that turns a sheet of wood into a glistening guitar.

Lia Mendez: "I'm loving these Star Trek doors."

Lia Mendez: We first set foot into the restored apartment where woods like mahogany, maple, walnut and rosewood arrive to be processed. As you may have guessed, this area is a little noisy.

Lia Mendez: "And golly, there is a lot of noise in here, and it smells like sawdust."

Patrick Hanson: "It does. It does. So every one of our guitars is made with very thin panels. These aren't electric guitars, they're acoustics. So what we do is essentially made a curved wooden box, out of very thin pieces of wood, and then we glue a neck on it, and then we're going to put strings on it and color lacquer and all that fancy stuff, make it real shiny and nice so people can play it."

Lia Mendez: I ask Patrick, how many guitars are produced each day at the Gibson Acoustic Craftery?

Patrick Hanson: "There's a lot of steps. Typically, it takes about two weeks for the guitar building process, so it's going to be around ten hours of direct labor to make one."

Lia Mendez: Patrick says that those ten hours of human labor don't include the dry time for glue or lacquer. So the whole process of building a guitar from start to finish takes about two weeks, which makes it all the more impressive that workers here produce about 100 guitars each day. And according to Patrick, they're still not making guitars fast enough to keep up with demand. Gibson's J45 model guitar is the number one selling acoustic guitar in the whole world. From the re-saw department, the wooden panels are glued together to form a guitar shaped box. It's here that the guitar really begins to take shape.

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Lia Mendez
/
MTPR
Craftspeople work to build Gibson acoustic guitars

Patrick Hanson: "This is what we call the back shot. So this is where we do the actual construction of the instrument."

Lia Mendez: Every step along the way there are dozens of people, men and women, focused on different tasks that help bring these guitars to life.

Lia Mendez: "Does every person have their own specialty or do people cross-train and do different jobs?"

Patrick Hanson: "We constantly cross-train, so we want people to be able to move around for a lot of diversity. The last thing we want to have is people at a bench doing the same thing over and over and over for a long period of time."

Lia Mendez: Patrick tells me there are about 114 different processes that go into making just one guitar. That's only a few steps less than what it takes to build a locomotive.

Patrick Hanson: It's pretty amazing. And they're made out of wood and they're handmade. Outside of a C&C carving the neck, everything's done by hand. They're hand sanded, they're hand shaped, they're hand glued. All the measurements are taken by hand. It's pretty amazing. These people really know what they're doing. They're really good at what they do.

Lia Mendez: Once the neck is glued to the guitar body, the finishing process begins.

Patrick Hanson: "So everything gets about nine to ten coats of lacquer and it's ready for sanding and polishing after that."

Lia Mendez: This is where the paint and color are applied. And where Gibson's signature hand sprayed bursts are applied by expert painters. Patrick says this is the style that Gibson is most famous for. Maybe you can picture it, the gradual transition from dark to light so that the body of the guitar looks like it's bursting with light.

Patrick Hanson: "We do have some solid colors, but we really specialize in those bursts and we're really proud of it because we do them all by hand."

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Lia Mendez
/
MTPR
A finished Gibson acoustic guitar painted with the company's signature sunburst colors

Lia Mendez: After finishing, binding is applied. Patrick says that likes the sprayers who paint the bursts, this is one of those highly skilled jobs that requires a very steady hand to apply a perfectly straight line with surgical precision on every top, every back and every rib of every guitar. It takes a lot of training and a lot of practice for someone to get to the point where they can perform this task exactly right every time.

Lia Mendez: "I'm starting to understand why it's called a craftery and not a factory, there's a lot of human hands and handiwork that goes into this."

Patrick Hanson: "A ton. We pride ourselves on the amount of handwork that we do in Bozeman. It's really amazing. A lot of companies may make their guitars using machines, we don't do that. We like to stick with our tradition."

Lia Mendez: Patrick says that with the exception of a few modernizations, they have maintained the classic process of crafting a Gibson acoustic guitar that originated almost 130 years ago.

Next up, the lacquer room. It's huge. Beautiful painted guitars hang from conveyor belts that twist and turn like roller coaster tracks all around us. And after lacquer, comes buffing.

Patrick Hanson: "We're going to scuff sand it so it's smooth like glass."

Lia Mendez: The buffing wheel kind of looks like something I've seen at the automatic car wash. Touching the cloth, it feels more like a blanket than sandpaper. This is what will be used to polish the guitar to its final shine.

Finally, come the tuners, the strings and in some cases, electronics. And then the final step. Someone must play every single note that guitar can make to ensure it sounds correct and up to Gibson's standards. Each guitar then gets a final polish before being placed inside its case and being shipped to musicians and dealers all over the world.

Patrick Hanson: "To China, Japan, Europe, South America, Australia, you name it, we're sending it there."

Lia Mendez: "And it starts here in Montana."

Patrick Hanson: "Starts here in Bozeman."

Lia Mendez: "And right here in Bozeman. How cool.

Patrick Hanson: "Yeah, it's amazing. We have great pride in being a local Bozeman business."

Lia Mendez: "What are really amazing products to be a part of, and it's not just a product, right? You're helping make music."

Patrick Hanson: "Yeah, exactly. We're helping enhance people's lives.".

Lia Mendez: "Do your kids think that what you do for a living is pretty cool?".

Patrick Hanson: "They love it. They love it. They love it. I've been here for about 20 years. There's nothing I'd rather be doing."

Lia Mendez: "Are you a musical family?"

Patrick Hanson: "We are. We are. So, my oldest plays the piano. They tinker around on guitars all the time. We've got drum sets. We're always making noise."

Lia Mendez: "Awesome. Very cool."

Lia Mendez: After thanking Patrick for the tour, I met with the big boss, James Curleigh, or JC, the CEO of the entire Gibson company, which is headquartered in Nashville.

James Curleigh: "You know, I just get so excited when I when I come here and I see our craftsmen and craftswomen making the guitars. But then tonight, I'll be watching the Country Music Awards from Nashville, and most of them will choose to play a Gibson acoustic guitar. And I get to say, well, I was here watching them being made and all of a sudden being played. It's amazing."

Lia Mendez:  J.C. also told me about a program he's helped develop at Gibson, which mentors young musicians and helps supply them with the resources they need to pursue their dreams.

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Lia Mendez
/
MTPR
Employees of the Gibson Acoustic Craftory pose with CEO James Curleigh for the ribbon cutting celebrating their newly expanded facility in Bozeman.

James Curleigh: "A few years ago, we started what we call the Gibson Generation Group, the G3, we call them. And it's, you know, it's kids anywhere from eight to probably about 14 years old who truly aspire to make music a part of their lives. In the old statement of "it takes a village," we want to be part of the village that can take that kid's dream and and try to put them on a path to make it come true."

Lia Mendez: To learn more about Gibson Generation Group, or G3, you can visit the website at G3.Gibson.com. There you'll find photos and bios of current G3 artists in the program and information on how you can apply to become one yourself.

J.C. credits his parents and a musical upbringing with teaching him the value of music at a young age and showing him the power it has to bring people together.

James Curleigh: "For starters, my dad was a Navy helicopter pilot. My mom was a free spirit from Nova Scotia, Canada. But their common bond, you'd say, 'well, how did that come together?' and it was music. And they loved festivals. My dad was a banjo player, my mom guitar player. Inevitably, when there's instruments around and as the evening would come, you know, come around after dinner and if friends were over, someone would pick something up and someone knew something we'd start playing. And so just growing up in that environment was amazing. And we have this family playlist that we all now know from my mother, who's now 85 years old, still plays her guitar right down to the youngest of the grandkids. And we we still play together."

Lia Mendez: And while running a guitar company can present a lot of challenges and opportunities, J.C. says he never forgets with the job is really all about.

James Curleigh: "As I said, when you when you watch someone actually pick up one of our guitars and play, whether they're famous or not famous, the smile and the sound and the tone, you say, yeah, it's all worth it."

Lia Mendez: This has been Lia for MTPR kids. Thank you for coming along with me on this field trip today to the Gibson Acoustic Craftery in Bozeman. I can't wait to see where we travel to next. If you've got ideas for places or people around Montana that you would like to see featured on our program, write to us at peagreenboat@mtpr.org. Until next time, friends, be well and take care.