|Here is an article printed from the German Fachblatt Musik Magazin, November 1988 issue, with an interview of Bill and his work at Gibson during the 80's. Several years ago, we hired an outside firm called inlingua to do the following English translation because we thought it more credible if an unbiased source handled the translation for us. I've also included the actual German article -- I love the shots at the Gibson factory!|
Explorer, Firebird, Flying V, Les Paul, Lucille,
Thunderbird, the ES, EB and SG models - all instruments from Gibson that fill
musicians with enthusiasm. The tradition-rich instrument maker was founded way
back in the 90s of the last century. Some acoustic "hermaphrodite instruments"
that seem very bizarre today, such as lyre-shaped mandolins and harp-guitars,
giant bass mandolins, etc., were being created then at the Gibson Mandolin Guitar
Manufacturing Company in Kalamazoo, Michigan, where the lion's share of the
production consisted of mandolins and - naturally - acoustic guitars.
By Horst and Sylvie Stachelhaus
In 1921, banjos and bass banjos were leaving mandolins
far behind in popularity, in the same year, a bridge that was adjustable
for height was introduced for the first time, and in 1922, Gibson was
the first company to develop a practical adjustable rod for the neck.
In the middle of the 1920s, the boom in acoustic guitars really took off.
Experiments were already being carried out with pickups, but it was in
1936 that Gibson began the electric age with the ES-150, a Spanish guitar
whose single-coil pickup was adjustable for height.
In 1957, Epiphone took over Gibson, and in the
same year the Gibson Humbucker pickups were created, which represent a
milestone in the pickup segment. Gibson began designing new solid-body
guitar shapes, and by and by the Melody Maker, the various Les Pauls,
and all of the other successful models mentioned above were produced.
In 1971, pickup expert Bill Lawrence joined the Gibson team. In 1972,
he contributed to the Super Humbucker pickup, and a number of other electronic
refinements, but later left the firm because, as he once told me many
years ago, the instruments no longer satisfied his demands.
|How do you explain Gibson's decline at the beginning of the 1980s?|
The problems started many years earlier, around 1973/74.
Gibson was looked at as a money-making project. The owners of that time were
in the beer business, the spirit that is so important in instrument making was
lacking. I often had the feeling that the company was being degraded into a
furniture factory. Instead of making the instruments by hand in a first-class
way, they looked for the fault in the models themselves. They experimented on
the market with new instruments that were not well thought out or fully worked
out. The owners understood absolutely nothing about the guitar business. They
hired top managers who had been educated at first-class universities, but who
had a flaw: For them, instrument making was a book with seven seals. They came
to me with things that I knew right from the very beginning would not work.
If I made my objections known, they said I just didn't know anything at all
about business. That fact that that really bothered me is the reason I left
Gibson, but in my subconscious I had the feeling that someone would come along
who would bring the business up again, and I already had a plan firmly in mind
about how that could be done! But before that came to pass, the company was
turned over to new people who were not even worth talking about. This involved
a consortium of banks or something, to this day we don't know anything more
about it. Then Gibson/Norlin was really golden by comparison, because then you
could still talk to real people, be a real person. Truly, all the bankers could
see was a killing to be made. Nothing was repaired, all of the machines fell
apart. It was a crying shame.
|How did the connection between Gibson and the current owners come into being?|
All three are Harvard graduates. One of them, Henry,
is a passionate guitar buff. That's where it all started. When he took over
the company with his partners, it was a heap of rubble - now it's doing better
than it was in the best condition that I personally have ever known it, and
that was still during the CMI time.
It was difficult getting the company back on its feet at first. Personnel were missing, and for the new owners, who were not familiar with the industry at that time, it was an almost impossible task to find the right people. So the first thing they did was to hire consultants who they were sure knew enough about guitars. That's how I came back to Gibson.
The most important thing at first was to get production
cranked up again. I view my main job as above all increasing the quality of
the products, and if possible, to equal the quality of the very early times.
That is the reason large sums were invested, which means it was not just the
purchase price that hit the books, also new machines, and above all, hiring
new people cost a lot of money.
|Was it easy to find these people, or did it take a lot of searching? Certainly there can't be a lot of good guitar makers wandering the streets.|
For me, especially because I am a jazz guitarist, the Gibson company has always been the leading guitar maker. When Henry asked me at the Frankfurt Music Fair if I would have the time and interest in coming back to Gibson, it wasn't even a question for me. This hiring didn't just involve me. I still knew some of my colleagues - good people - from my old Gibson days, and was able to drum up some people again that way. To get the operation on its feet again was less of a problem. The point was to convince the owners that quality, and only quality, is what counts.
|And they accepted that?|
I would not have accepted a compromise in matters of quality. But to want quality and to do a good job of getting quality are two very different things. And ensuring quality is my job. The most important thing to me is that my colleagues love instruments and instrument making just as much as I do myself, and motivating the people in that direction is what I have accomplished.
The company is on solid footing today, and we are doing
everything in our power get it back into a position that will enable it to be
acknowledged as the guitar factory, the model for all others!
|You wanted to show the Japanese the right way to make guitars.|
As a matter of principle, we don't want to show anyone
how to make good guitars. We don't make guitars to show the Japanese or anyone
else that we're better. We make good guitars in order to be able to give the
musician an instrument that is a joy for him to play. What other manufacturers
do doesn't interest me at all. I don't orient myself towards the competition.
I try to teach my colleagues that they are acting in accordance with the following
maxim: It is too easy to say, "Well, the competition isn't any better either."
That is nothing but an expression of laziness. What is good is if you can say,
"Yes, we are better, but I don't think that's very important either. What is
critical in the final analysis is that, to the best of our ability, the instruments
are made in such a way that they could not be any better. But if something better
is possible, then it just has to be made better, very simple."
Clearly, the advocating of this theory is problematic. It is of course easier to implement it in a small operation because it is easier to get the people under control. To get a giant operation like Gibson to quality production requires a very fine touch. I act without compromise, but I am an advocate of positive motivation. If I go to an average worker and say, "What kind of junk are you turning out there," I will achieve less than if I say to him, "What you're doing now is fine, but if you change a little here and there, it will be even better." The important thing is not just to preach theory, but to have enough knowledge of what's going on to take a place at the workbench yourself once in a while and to show by example. And you have to stress that the person will succeed. That's positive thinking! I am certain that this is the way to achieve the best results. In the U.S. that's called a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you are convinced right from the very start that your actions will be crowned with success, you already have victory in your pocket. It sounds extremely simple, but it's been scientifically proven.
Another important point in my completely changing the Gibson production was the design. By design, I don't mean putting some fantastic shape down on paper, I mean, for example, to change the angle of the neck so the instrument can be played in the best possible way, or to use different frets, etc. So I am talking about technical design, not visual design. Changing details that look almost the same on the new plans as they did on the original drawing, but have a significant effect on the playability, that's what I mean by design. Many of today's guitars look fantastic, but neither feel right in your hands nor play well. They are made purely for the eye. To design a guitar that works only visually, I'm not the right man for that job. I'm not a fashion designer, I'm a guitar player, and I've been one for more than thirty years.
What I love to do is to design an instrument in such a way that you can get the best possible sound out of it by making full use of the laws of physics. And, God knows that has nothing to do with optics. All guitars sound good in small halls, the problem lies in building an instrument that also sounds good in a large hall. It is essential to plumb the depths of what is possible in order to be able to produce with the guitar a sound that sounds well-balanced down to the smallest detail and in the farthest corners, even in large halls in which the highs are deadened by clothing, etc. And, mind you, where the guitar is only one part of the whole - you also have speakers, cables, amplifiers, etc., all of which have an effect on the overall picture.
I stood on the stage for years myself, had acoustic
problems, learned how to set up speakers, that you can make do with less speaker
surface if you place the speakers correctly. That's the experience that I can
now bring to Gibson. Rick Turner, who developed the first Alembic electronics,
to which, among other things, the great success of Alembic can be attributed,
is also part of the Gibson team.
|What exactly is his job?|
|And what is the reaction of the musicians, and the entire music market, to innovations?|
To give an example, we once placed instruments in dealer showcases that were very different from the usual Gibson flair - in the electronics and in the shape.
The reaction was just what I expected: People still preferred our standard instruments. And for good reason, since they combine good fit with the body, balance, and the best possible electronic equipment. In my opinion, guitars today are at the same stage that violins were between the 15th and 16th centuries. At that time, the violin, just like the guitar today, did not have a final form. At some point, a form will crystallize, and specifically, that will be a mixture of the forms of the two original guitar makers.
|Fender and Gibson?|
Yes, just like with the Amati and Stradivari of their
time. Amati was building violins that had very low sidewalls with a large body
arch. Stradivaris have higher sidewalls and a lower arch, while the center of
the violins have the same height.
|Gibson is now offering several models that are patterned after Fender or are formulated a little differently, are they intended to satisfy musicians who basically like Fender?|
I know what you're getting at. We are now manufacturing
under license for Wayne Charvel, and they do go under the Gibson label, but
are basically not a part of the Gibson mainstream product lines. We're also
making the US1 and the US2, which are in principle designed completely differently
than Fender guitars, however. They play like a Gibson, they feel like a Gibson,
but the body is slightly adapted to the Fender body shape. And sooner or later,
all guitars will look like that.
|Gibson has recently signed several well-known American designers such as Ned Steinberger and Wayne Charval.|
Steinberger is a completely different story. The company
was taken over by Gibson and so is part of the Gibson organization.
|How does Ned Steinberger's philosophy tie in with Gibson's?|
Not at all, and it shouldn't.
|Then it's supposed to be an expansion?|
It is supposed to address a completely different breed of musician. You see, Gibson is synonymous with traditional instruments, mainstream musicians insist on them. Steinberger is an outsider who makes use of a different technology and has a different concept of instruments. I personally would never fit in well with Steinberger. Not that I'm against sculpture, but for me, the traditional has priority. In terms of sound, an expansion of the sound is being developed right now. We are going to be so variable and versatile with electric guitars in terms of sound, that - no matter what musical orientation is being sought - we will have the right pickup equipment in stock.
|Of course, that is your absolute area of specialization, you're the ace on things related to pickups. You are responsible for the entire Gibson product line, you have to make sure that the traditions shaped by Gibson will not be ignored, while at the same time you have to make sure that the sound that characterizes the Gibson guitar is put across even better and more clearly. Is that stated correctly?|
Responsible, no, I wouldn't say that, nor would that
be a good thing because then development would be considered from just one side,
from my perspective. Healthy progress within a program configuration is possible
only if the pros and cons can be weighed and you keep to the basic principles
of the market. My interest is in seeing that Gibson remains in the Gibson tradition
as much as possible, but the question is, "What is the Gibson tradition?"
In 1925, Lloyd Loar started at Gibson. He is one of
the very few I know who calculated guitars mathematically and then produced
them accordingly. At the time, that was by comparison more revolutionary in
terms of guitar design than Fender's later concept of the electric guitar. That
was the first time that acoustic guitars were built which could cut through
the large orchestras in terms of sound. Gibson had gigantic success, D'Angelico
and Stromberg were following in Gibson's wake, but they were not there first.
Lloyd Loar was and still is the number one in the making of acoustic guitars.
He developed an instrument from the ground up that was based on the laws of
physics; the appearance was insignificant.
|And that is the Gibson tradition?|
No, the Gibson tradition is to offer first-class
quality. The instruments have to embody the latest state of the art and the
science. That leaves no room for fashion foolishness.
|The best example is probably the Les Paul, which is still the best-selling of the Gibson children. They have been making this guitar for almost thirty-five years with almost no changes.|
Correct. Although no Les Pauls were made from 1960 to
Les Paul didn't renew the license.
|Today I saw a couple of Les Pauls that, in terms of workmanship, were better-made than those made in past years or even decades. The Les Pauls that are most wanted by collectors are from 1959/60. Why is that?|
The wood has aged since then, the instruments were built
solidly at that time, which they are today as well. What I want to emphasize
in that regard is that our fret work is better now than it was then. Before
I came to Gibson for the first time, I had a custom shop in New York with Dan
Armstrong. We polished frets for rock stars, and made the fingerboards more
playable because there was still no industry standard at that time. Back then,
the companies weren't thinking about the fact that kids wanted to pluck the
strings too. The frets weren't polished, not a single company came up with the
idea. I introduced that for the first time when I came to Gibson in the early
70s. I had worked out the techniques in New York by working with the musicians.
What I mean to say by that, is that I had already done all of that for myself
personally, on my own guitars, twenty years earlier.
Why was it easier for me to play than it was for others? Because my instrument was better! Why was it better? Because I worked on it myself. I was always tinkering around, I experimented with polishing the frets, on the angle of inclination of the neck, etc. The reason for that was a disappointment. When I was seventeen, I saw a Gibson guitar in a show window. I didn't have any money at the time, it was a pawn shop, and all I could do was dream about it. The more time that went by after I saw it, the more the idea crystallized in my imagination that the frets must have been polished as finely as possible. I had a guitar with frets that the best guitarist in the world couldn't play on. The idea was implanted in my brain that the frets of the Gibson were polished by hand, piece by piece. That was the reason I started polishing out the frets on my guitar the way I thought that I had seen them on the Gibson. Because it simply wasn't true that the frets were polished. It was only decades later that the Gibson instruments were actually sold with frets that were as perfectly polished as I had imagined at that time.
|The idea you had then is now a reality at Gibson. What is especially interesting about it is that it was a Gibson back then; perhaps you saw the future of Gibson guitars in your dreams.|
Well, I have to say I have
never been lacking in imagination and the ability to get things done. For example,
I was listening to records at that time, and I wanted to achieve the same sound
at all costs, which means that I wanted my guitar to sound just as brilliant
on stage as those did on the records. That's the reason I started winding my
own pickups, and right from the very beginning, my pickups sounded more brilliant
than the others because I insisted so strongly that guitars should sound the
same live as they did on records.
|Is it true that your pickups sound just a shade clearer with Gibson?Aren't you afraid that the Gibson tradition of the warm Humbucker sound will suffer?|
I haven't changed the typical Humbucker sound at all,
I've only eliminated sources of errors, for example, by leaving out metal plates
that disturbed the electromagnetic field.
|Your presentation of the new Humbucker pickup, which works with absolutely no side tones even when it's in close proximity to the speakers or some other source of interference, and thus sounds extremely clear and comes through well, was truly very impressive. Also impressive was the fact that it is so variable in terms of sound. How did you manage to do that?|
The old Humbucker from 1957/58, which was created by Seth Lover, contained properly sized magnets. The technical data - such as the number of windings relative to the magnetic field - were correct. Later on, the magnets were changed, and the ratio was no longer correct. The new Humbuckers are again being made exactly according to the old principle, but they are less microphonic inside the suspension because; first, we use high-quality plastic that can stand up to the high temperatures of a wax bath, second, the base plates are not made of metal and thus are no longer as susceptible to feedback. Of course, the pickups have a printed circuit, which makes the instrument easier to service. The pickups can be easily replaced, you no longer have to take all of the wiring out if you want to replace the pickup. The new "Sidewinder" is a coaxial Humbucker in which the two coils lie on a single axis. That creates the fewest side tones and it is the quietest pickup that has ever been made, but is still sounds like a single-coil pickup. To get the best possible highs, you only have to set the treble control on the amp to 5 on the scale instead of 10 like you used to. Now, even if you turn the volume all the way up, the pickup remains free of side tones. Now you can adjust everything you want to with the tone and volume controls on the guitar. You can imitate almost every pickup there is, even the characteristics of the biggest Humbucker pickups.
|To put it in a nutshell, exactly the right pickup for the CD age, because nobody wants to put up with unnecessary noise anymore. Can you put the new pickups in old Gibsons?|
Of course, no problem whatsoever. For example, take the
old ES 335 - you need two hours to cope with the wiring. The new pickup can
be integrated in less than five minutes.
|Your new pickups are sold under the name "Impulse"; do they still have anything to do with Gibson?|
I am presently building up a separate new line of high-quality pickups. "Impulse" pickups will be found in new Gibsons, but they will also be available as replacement pickups.
|Despite their major use at Gibson, there is no way you're ignoring the separate pickup line.|
For me, you can't separate one from the other. First-rate
pickups - and you can understand why I want to have my own hand in that - are
part of my goal: Some day, to make an absolutely perfect
218ff. FACHBLATT MUSIK MAGAZIN [ SPECIALIST JOURNAL MUSIC MAGAZINE ]