WRITER | LISA BECKER CAMPBELL
PHOTO | HERITAGEGUITAR.COM
For over 100 years, a small factory in north Kalamazoo has been manufacturing state-of-the-art guitars recognized the world over for their artistry and musicality.
Gibson Guitars Corp. was established in 1917 at 225 Parsons Street and quickly grew to become a premier manufacturer of American-made instruments. Today, Heritage Guitars is unpretentiously and inconspicuously continuing to create some of the world’s finest guitars at the same address, still using some of the vintage equipment.
“The Heritage Guitar factory is run in an ‘old school’ way,” according to Ron Howard, 225 Parsons Marketing Specialist. “At a larger scale, we are doing what those independent luthiers do, who lovingly and painstakingly produce only a couple of guitars each year in their basement or garage.”
Heritage produces roughly six handcrafted guitars each day using a hands-on manufacturing process that Howard describes as mid-level production that is artistic and skilled.
For example, the staff apply finishes by hand and complete the process with a clear-coat lacquer that is also applied by hand. This process is more organic than a computerized, streamlined production and allows the finisher more artistic control to create specific, unique patterns. Compared to larger manufacturers, Heritage can give closer attention to the detail and quality of each and every instrument.
Musicians can make an appointment to try out different guitars in the Playing Parlor, and the public is invited to tour the working factory. Tours are quite in-depth and filled with remarkable, true stories. They take roughly an hour, depending on what is happening in the factory space at the time – perhaps cutting wood, shaping it, or finishing it, according to Howard. (Call 269-225-0222 or visit heritageguitar.com to make tour reservations.)
Another notable offering from Heritage is their custom-made guitars.
Musicians or music aficionados can make their dreams come alive by working with a master luthier to build a one-of-a-kind instrument. The factory has decades of expertise in crafting guitars for some of the world’s finest musicians. Custom instruments have also been made to honor a special vintage of wine, including one featuring a logo made with mother of pearl. One custom-made guitar drew a $40,000 bid for a Napa Valley wine fundraising auction, and Kalamazoo’s own Hopcat Brewery displays a number of special replicas commemorating its special occasions.
Preserving the “old school” processes that make Heritage Guitars successful continues, but the company and its iconic property are currently being revamped into a premium lifestyle destination celebrating the years since Orville Gibson arrived in Kalamazoo and began designing mandolins. His start-up grew to employ 1,600 people during peak years in the 1960s, but sales declined by half from 1972 to 1982, and the entire operation was moved to a plant Gibson built in Nashville in an effort to diversify. Several former Gibson employees opened Heritage Guitar in 1985.
Today, new partnerships are in place to grow Heritage Guitar sales and to transform the Kalamazoo factory into a hub that draws music lovers from far and wide. Developer PlazaCorp is planning a transformation that incorporates a wealth of music and pop culture into a multimillion-dollar renovation of 225 Parsons Street.
Embracing this important past, and capitalizing on this rich history, the transformation will make the Kalamazoo factory a destination venue for music lovers. Plans include a live entertainment stage, a music instrument store, a recording studio, a space for musicians to try instruments or rehearse, and a café, according to information provided by the company.
Heritage Guitar has also announced a sales and marketing partnership with Singapore-based BandLab Technologies. The music retailing and distribution company is a collective of global music brands that includes its flagship digital product. BandLab is a social music platform with over 5 million users that enables creators to make music and share the creative process, according to the company’s website.
Southwest Michiganders and visitors from far-away places are expected to enjoy learning what the next century will bring to 225 Parsons.
225 Parsons Street, Kalamazoo MI 49007