American Culture

Kalamazoo Gals: Gibson Guitars, what are you thinking…?

What the hell, Gibson? Perhaps a short course in, oh, “How the Internet works” would not be a bad idea, perhaps…?

I have had a long love affair with Gibson guitars.

Gibson EB3 bass with slotted tuners (image courtesy Low End Bass Shop)

My first “good” guitar was a Gibson Melody Maker that I adored and sold, breaking my musician’s heart,  to a music store in Greensboro, NC. I needed the money for grad school. Real life sucks sometimes.

Years later I had to sell both my first “good” amp, a Gibson Lancer, and my best loved bass guitar, a Gibson EB3 with slot neck tuners (like the one pictured at right) to the musician and guitar dealer Sam Moss, in Winston-Salem, NC. Again, money woes forced my decision.

Sam (bless his heart and RIP) and I both cried.  Revisiting old woes is never a good idea, btw. To Sam’s credit, he later sold me a wonderful USA made Fender JP bass that I still own and a Fender bass amp (which I gave my son Josh) for much less than market value. Stars in his crown, if I get a vote. Support local music, ya’ll.

None of this is to the point, perhaps. I should get to the point, shouldn’t I? Ah, patience, children….

Rickenbacker 330 in Mapleglo finish (image courtesy The Music Zoo)

I would like another Gibson EB3 with slot neck tuners. The Jack Bruce Cream era bass. But that would mean selling my beloved Rickenbacker 330 (pictured at right). That’s a no go. Yeah, Yeah, Yeah….. I could pick up an Epi(phone), but it’s not the same. And those slot tuners – sigh ….

None of this addresses the topic.

Here’s what’s happening

A professor and music journalist named John Thomas (save the Brit dirty jokes) has recently written a book about women who worked in the Gibson guitar plant in Kalamazoo, Michigan, during WWII. According to Thomas, Gibson, in a proper fit of patriotic fervor, promised not to make any new guitars for the duration.

But they did. Twenty-five thousand of them to be exact. With women taking over the jobs of luthiers and other artisans. These guitars bore the name “Gibson Banners” and carried the Gibson legend. “Only a Gibson is good enough.”   They were, it seems, excellent examples of Gibson craftsmanship, highly regarded in any era.

Kalamazoo Gals

What seems to have happened is that Professor Thomas and his book, Kalamazoo Gals,  were at first embraced, then denied by the Gibson Company. Why Gibson shifted its position on the role of these female guitar makers – and the guitars they made – is unclear.

Was it because Gibson stated publicly that it would not make instruments during WWII and then did? In violation of war time restrictions? Was it because Gibson did not treat its women instrument makers as it did its male guitar makers before and after WWII? Was it because Gibson pretended that it was creating these instruments “for the boys” and then sold them to – whoever had the money? Was this a specialized, circumspect form of war profiteering?

None of this seems to be clear. Gibson’s decision, which seems to be to try to repress any information about its manufacturing of guitars during WWII and worse, its refusal to acknowledge (and perhaps discredit) Thomas’s  apparently well researched book (he was given access to Gibson’s records for the period while preparing his work) on the role of female workers in its Kalamazoo plant during that time certainly raises questions about the company’s behavior towards war time restrictions on manufacturing and perhaps on employment of female workers.

Gibson’s current woes don’t seem to help matters either. And now here is another PR disaster waiting to explode in the company’s face. Hard to feel the love for a company who  may be displaying that it has long had contempt for its workers, its customers, its country.

5 replies »

  1. Thanks for caring about and commenting on my book, Kalamazoo Gals.

    I would like to clarify one assertion. You asked, “Was it because Gibson stated publicly that it would not make instruments during WWII and then did? In violation of war time restrictions?” Gibson production was well within the limitations promulgated by the War Production Board. I obtained from the National Archives every wartime document mentioning Gibson, some 1,200 pages of documents. My careful analysis, which I document in the book, revealed that Gibson complied with all restrictions, including production and material use limitations. Gibson’s president, Guy Hart, also served on the War Production Board’s Stringed Instrument committee and would have had easy and early access to all relevant production limitation orders.

    I’m confident that the only explanation for Gibson’s wartime secrecy was its apparent belief that the buying public would not embrace women-made guitars. Hence, Gibson asserted in advertisements of the day that it would not build guitars until “the boys come home.”

    I’ve no explanation for Gibson’s continued refusal to recognize the contributions of the Kalamazoo Gals. As Michigan NPR recently observed, this story “keeps getting stranger”:

    Thanks, again.

    John Thomas

    • Thanks, John, for this clarification. I hoped against hope that it wasn’t just garden variety sexism, but maybe that’s what’s behind this. Though I would think showing such willingness to allow women to demonstrate their instrument making talents would be a PR bonanza for Gibson.

      I haven’t started the book yet (on my reading list now), but I wonder, too, if the postwar treatment of these wonderful craftswomen is a not so pleasant chapter of the story that Gibson would rather not have emerge. Hope the book covers that….

    • Thanks, John. Probably be a couple of weeks, but I’ll get a review of “Kalamazoo Gals” up no later than 1st of May. Looking forward to reading…. Thanks for your kind comments and guidance.