Changes at Heritage Guitar roil staff luthiers

The bickering between the new ownership of Heritage Guitars and many of the workers at the company seems to consist of more than just the usual labor squabble. A group of 10 skilled workers who were let go last week, and 4 others who resigned in protest, charge the company’s new owner of turning his back on their founding principles, while the company insists it is making changes that are necessary to move forward as modern instrument builders.

The dispute has played out in the local media of Kalamazoo, MI where Heritage is located, with dueling statements from the fired workers and the ownership. Things had been looking very bright for the company since an announcement last year that a $12 billion renovation of the former Gibson factory there in town, with its iconic Gibson smokestack that has been a feature of the Kalamzoo skyline for close to 100 years.

Developers plan to build a large, multi-use facility that will house restaurants and retail businesses on the site, while preserving and restoring the old Gibson plant, parts of which have fallen into disrepair. Space was to be reserved for Heritage, which was formed in 1984 when Gibson abandoned the building and moved their operations to Nashville. One group of experienced luthiers turned down job offerings in the new factory, and elected to stay behind and continue making instruments in Kalamazoo. They were able to secure the right to work in the old Gibson building, focusing on high end, carved top instruments of the very highest quality, under the direction of Marvin Lamb.

This building was where the trendsetting Gibson banjos and mandolins were designed in the 1920s and ’30s, setting standards that are still in use today by builders all over the world. Precious little has changed in the construction of F-style mandolins from what Lloyd Loar deigned in the early ’20s, or from their Mastertone banjo counterparts from the ’30s. With rumors being circulated now in Nashville that Gibson is set to file for bankruptcy protection in the near future, the protection of this historic building in Kalamazoo seems of real import.

The former workers shared this statement with WWMT in Michigan about the firings, reflecting their concerns that they were moving away from the hand built traditions of both Gibson and Heritage.

We’re the former Heritage Guitar craftsmen who were disrespectfully escorted out of the building on Friday with no notice. 10 were fired and an additional 4 left in support of our coworkers and friends. We could no longer work for the incompetent management that is this disrespectful to the craftspeople who were continuing the tradition of hand-craftsmanship that is and was Heritage guitar.

When ownership changed we were told that they understood what this building means to our community and what this company means to this building. Most of us were trained under the impeccable eye of quality by Marv Lamb which is what made Heritage Guitar what it has been for the last 30 years, an extension of this building and what it means to the local and guitar community. This building is a testament to true, hand-built craftsmanship. Some of the most valuable guitars in the world have come from this building. Heritage and the men that started it believed in continuing that hand-craftsmanship tradition.

Were those guitars flawless, no, because they were made by human hearts and hands. Are any of us perfect, no. Changes in production were implemented by management that resulted in less than Heritage quality. Their unwillingness to listen or understand the high quality standards resulted in the destruction of over 300 guitars.

Our years of experience have fallen on deaf ears and now the employees are being escape goated as to the reason for the drop in quality. None of us here are wealthy, or do it for the money. We did it for the love of the guitars. In fact, most of us worked for slightly over minimum wage with no medical benefits.

During the 100th Anniversary Celebration they expressed that they embraced those traditions, meanwhile they are bringing in CNC and Pleck machines which do not represent what the building and company stand for. All the while, accusing us of being resistant to change.

We understand that corporations have to meet their bottom-line and that their eye for quality may need to be 100%, which is not attainable through hand-craftsmanship.

None of us are perfect, but none of us feel like that justifies this type of treatment while they continue to perpetuate the story of hand-craftsmanship on the back of the true craftsman that made it what it was before the new owner took possession.

And the company released this statement about the firings.

To ensure the short and long term sustainability of the business, staffing changes had to be made at the Heritage Guitar factory last week.

The decision to make these changes was not one that we took lightly and it was a sad day for everyone involved.

Our focus on building a foundation for 2018 and beyond requires an emphasis on quality over quantity. The heritage guitars team are committed to building a healthy and sustainable business that consistently produces amazing, high quality instruments for many years to come in Kalamazoo.

It seems unlikely that the pleas of the former Heritage luthiers will have any impact on the company’s plans. Heritage was purchased in 2016 by Archie Leach and Jeff Nicholson of PlazaCorp Realty Advisors Inc.

WWMT had also reported on the fact that Rolling Stone was planning to partner with Heritage to help turn the restored plant into a tourist attraction, as the building was also the home of the Les Paul guitar which helped revolutionize the electric guitar world starting in the 1950s. Gibson still produces these instruments in many varieties in their Memphis factory. The Kalamazoo plant also saw the design and building of other Gibson classics like the thin line, semi-acoustic ES-335 family of guitars, and the legendary arch top jazz guitars like the L5 and the ES-175, plus special models for top guitarists of the ’50s and ’60s.

Fans of these fine instruments are hopeful that Heritage does continue to build their line of top, professional grade instruments once the redevelopment plans are complete. Drawings of the proposed facility are below.

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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.