A pilgrimage to Kalamazoo

Lloyd LoarSerious students of the mandolin have long revered the name of Lloyd Loar, the Gibson luthier from the 1920s whose design innovations during his brief 5 year tenure are widely credited with revolutionizing their fretted instruments. Gibson’s most prized mandolins are still built to his specs, and vintage F-5s signed by Lloyd Loar command astronomical prices in the secondary market.

Bill Graham has written a lengthy piece for Mandolin Cafe detailing his visit to the site of Gibson’s old shop in Kalamazoo, MI, where Loar once roamed the halls. The facility is now the home of the Heritage Guitar Company and Graham interviewed Ren Wall, who had worked there for Gibson for more than 20 years. Like a number of other Gibson employees, when the company moved to Nashville in 1984, Wall remained in Kalamazoo to ply his trade with Heritage.

The article is full of details that will of interest to any fan of the vintage Gibson instruments, and the “old school” methods of manufacture still is use at Heritage. Graham also has a number of photos from his visit.

Here’s a taste of the article, describing his first arriving at the shop…

Site of the Heritage Guitar factory in Kalamazoo, MILoar had formal ties to Gibson starting in 1911 as a music composer, arranger and performer, Siminoff said. He may have visited Kalamazoo when the Gibson Co. made instruments at previous factory sites on East Exchange Place and East Harrison Court.

But by 1919 when Loar began his longest stint as a designer for Gibson, 225 Parsons Street was a modern, state-of-the-art factory building. By the early 1920s he was working at the plant fulltime in various roles, according to Siminoff. The F5 mandolin and other refined carved-top instruments that he helped design and build until his departure late in 1924 would change the musical world forever.

I came looking for what is and shadows of what was.

A worker was having a smoke break outside an arched entryway with a wooden door that says Heritage Guitar Inc. with a cutout of an F5 mandolin underneath. I told him I was looking for Ren Wall. Former Gibson employees started Heritage in 1985 in what Siminoff says “they always kindly referred to as the old building,” a place where Gibson built mandolins and banjos right up until they left in 1984.

“Ren’s here,” the gentleman said. “Go on in. Go down through this door, down the stairs and through the next door and look for him on the left.”

I did, and stepped into a large room with offices on my left, a guy gluing binding on a guitar on my right, sawdust and wood and instrument part shapes and equipment in front of me for a long ways.

Read the full piece at Mandolin Cafe.

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About the Author

John Lawless

John had served as primary author and editor for The Bluegrass Blog from its launch in 2006 until being folded into Bluegrass Today in September of 2011. He continues in that capacity here, managing a strong team of columnists and correspondents.