Gibson instruments have been in production since Orville Gibson started making mandolins and guitars in Kalamazoo, Mich., in 1894. The company changed hands a few times over the years, and there were periods when the quality fell below Gibson's traditional standards.
The Bozeman factory was opened in 1989, three years after the company was purchased by Henry Juszkiewicz and several partners. All of Gibson's electric and acoustic guitars were then being produced in Nashville, and the new owners wanted to free up as much production space as possible for the firm's biggest seller, the Gibson Les Paul solid-body electric guitar.
Bozeman was chosen partly for its dry climate; humid Nashville proved to be a tough place to make acoustic guitars.
Master Guitar Builder Ren Ferguson had previously worked for the Flatiron mandolin company in Belgrade, which was bought out by Gibson. He helped persuade Juszkiewicz to make the move to Bozeman, and Ferguson helped develop the Bozeman plant from the ground up. It is located on the west end of town off North 19th Avenue, on a little street fittingly named Orville Way.
Although some parts are made elsewhere and computer-controlled machines do some of the work, the plant more closely resembles a medieval workshop than a modern factory, and it produces only about 60 guitars a day.
Each guitar is worked on by many individuals, with the necks moving down one side of the factory and the bodies on the other. At the far end of the factory floor, the necks are joined to the bodies before going in for painting, lacquering and finishing. The plant used to start with actual trees, cutting and planing its own wood.
Don Ruffatto, a product specialist at the Bozeman factory, said the plant now ships in rough-cut wood from all over the world. That saves time and trouble, he said, because you never knew until you cut into a tree how much good wood it contained.
The vast majority of all fine guitars are made with rosewood, maple and mahogany backs and sides, but the Bozeman factory is always shipping in other, rarer woods for special models and custom-made guitars. Those woods include quilted maple, whose grain, after it's been lacquered and polished, looks like billowing smoke. Other woods used by Gibson include macassar ebony, ziricote, koa and zebrawood.
The woods are selected for their looks but also for the sounds they produce. Like all stringed instruments, guitars work by amplifying the sound of vibrating strings inside a soundboard or resonating chamber, in this case the hollow body of the acoustic guitar.
There’s a core group of people who work for Gibson in Bozeman now who are remarkable craftsman, remarkable luthiers, and they are very dedicated to the company,” Gonder confirms. “It’s not just a day job to them — they take a lot of pride in keeping the company going, and in making the best guitars they can make.” The road from Kalamazoo to Nashville to Bozeman covered many hard, dusty miles, without a doubt, but ask any Gibson acoustic player today and they’ll tell you the journey was definitely worth it.