By: Kayla Kiley
Digital & Communications Manager, Discover Kalamazoo
Kalamazoo, Mich. — You might not know (because some locals aren’t even aware), but the original Gibson Guitar Corporation was founded right here in Kalamazoo in 1902.
After Gibson moved all of its production to Nashville in September of 1985, a few Gibson workers decided to stay behind in Kalamazoo and open a guitar company of their own — right in Gibson’s former building.
Today, the old Gibson factory at 225 Parsons Street has housed Heritage Guitar Inc. since it opened on April 1, 1985.
What’s more? You can tour the factory!
If you’re interested in taking a free tour of the factory, call ahead to reserve your spot at 269-385-3519; tours are 1 p.m. Wednesdays.
Tour guide, Rendal Wall, 71 of Kalamazoo, was among the skilled employees who decided he loved Kalamazoo too much to leave.
“When Gibson left, I was asked to go down to Nashville, but why leave Kalamazoo?” Wall said. “I love this area. Every time I traveled and got off the airplane, the air (in Kalamazoo) just smells better.
“Even coming from Taiwan or Hawaii, this is the place to live,” he added.
Walking through the saw-dusty, enchanting factory, Wall brings to life the vintage guitar-making equipment as he recounts how the process works while intermixing stories from life lived in the factories.
Wall is no newbie to the guitar world. His father worked for Gibson Guitar Corp. for 37 years, and Wall himself worked for Gibson for 22 years, then stayed to work at Heritage Guitar Inc. for another 20-some years.
Wall was the last inspector before guitars left the Gibson factory to be shipped to the customer. He told of delivering guitars to big-name musicians including B.B King, Ted Nugent, Kenny Rogers and Wayne Newton, to name a few. He’s even jammed with stars on their tour buses.
And as an engineer, Wall also invented many products for Gibson, including a tailpiece for fine tuning, among others. Wall performed similar tasks for Heritage Guitar Inc.
These days, Wall is retired and enjoys playing jam sessions with other local musicians, performing at area nursing homes and giving tours of Heritage Guitar Inc. He looks forward to the yearly August reunion of his former coworkers, the “Gibsonites,” when they get together for a cookout and to play music.
Heritage Guitar Inc. has achieved the status of one of the premier guitar companies in the world. It is, in many instances, the new guitar line handled by countless vintage shops throughout the world. This indicates it is thought of as the collectible guitar of tomorrow.
Heritage started operations in the oldest of five buildings formerly owned and operated by Gibson Guitar Corp. That building was completed in 1917 and has been a center for guitar manufacturing ever since. Much of the machinery that Heritage uses today, was purchased from Gibson Guitar Corporation. The building shows tribute to Gibson, as it still touts the brand name on its chimney.