Heritage Guitars and the old Gibson Guitar Factory survive and prosper in Kalamazoo

Still strumming

Aug 6, 2014 at 1:00 am

Along with Fender, Gibson is probably the most recognizable name in guitar manufacturing today. Everyone from Jimmy Page to Jack White has picked up a Les Paul, a Firebird, or one of the many other guitars that the company continues to make.

But did you know that the company started in Kalamazoo in 1902? It was 1984 before Gibson moved all of its production out to Nashville, but a few people didn't want to leave Kalamazoo, so they stayed and created a new guitar company in Gibson's old building: Heritage Guitars. In retrospect, that seems like a risky move — to leave a worldwide-respected brand like Gibson and start a new company, but that's exactly what Heritage founder and co-owner Marvin Lamb did. We spoke to Lamb about the factory, Heritage, and more.

Metro Times: You were one of the former Gibson employees who didn't want to move to Nashville, correct?

Marvin Lamb: That's correct, yes. They closed down in 1984.

MT: Why didn't you want to go?

Lamb: I grew up just 80 miles south of Nashville, but the reason I didn't want to go is I married a girl from Michigan, I'd just built a place on the lake, and I just didn't want to give it up.

MT: That seems like a risky move, going from an established brand name to a new company ...

Lamb: It was probably a stupid thing to do, but I guess we had our minds made up and we thought we'd give it a try. We have a little bit of a story to tell, with the guys who stayed behind. It really helped us, it worked out. It's been a struggle in these last seven years, this recession we've been in, but we're in our 30th year so we haven't done too bad.

MT: Did they take everything with them? Did you have to start again with equipment?

Lamb: No, they didn't take everything with them. They took what they wanted to take. That shop was built and up-and-running. I was a manufacturing manager and my partner was a plant manager. They took what they wanted and then had an auction, and sold off some of the equipment. We knew what we were going to do, so we went to the auction and bid on it. That's how we ended up with a lot of their equipment.

MT: It must have been nice not to have to move it though — it was already there, right?

Lamb: Well, we did have to move it because we set up in a different part of the location. We didn't have to move it a long distance. We were in a little building not far from here, and then once everyone got out of the building, we came in. We leased a part of it because we wanted to build guitars in the old Gibson building. We set up our equipment and just started manufacturing guitars.

MT: Once you were set up, was it business as usual — just under a new name?

Lamb: Yeah. The guitars we build are very similar to what Gibson built. Me and my partners are pretty good tool and die makers. I was more into production, and my partner had worked as an engineer for Gibson.

MT: What was the first Heritage design?

Lamb: The first guitar I made at home in my garage. It's hanging on my wall now. It was a 140, and truthfully, Gibson made a hollow-body 140 years ago, and if you look at the two of them they look very similar. I used that shape.

MT: How has the company changed and grown since then?

Lamb: It's pretty stable. We haven't grown a lot. We just want to make so many guitars. Since the recession, we went down a little bit but we hung on to our people, struggled, and didn't make a lot of money. We kept the people just to keep them. Right now, business is picking up, so maybe we're going back. We don't want to be big; we just want to be able to produce enough guitars to pay the bills, make a little money, and share some of it with our people.

MT: And you still don't want to leave Kalamazoo?

Lamb: No, I don't want to leave Kalamazoo. I'll probably remain here regardless.

MT: What is your best selling model?

Lamb: Probably recently, the Semi Hollow Body, which we call the Heritage H 535. It's a Mickey Mouse double cutaway version. It's comparable to the Gibson ES-335. We make a Solid Body called the Heritage H 150. Those two models have been the top sellers in recent years. We make 30 models, but some we don't make many of. Our forte is the big jazz guitar. We make a lot of the big golden eagles and sell them for $6,000 to $8,000 apiece. — mt

To find out more, see heritageguitar.com. Free tours of the old Gibson factory are at 1 p.m. on Wednesdays. Call ahead at 269-385-5721.