It’s been a while since the King of Rock and Roll was spotted at a Kalamazoo Burger King in August 1988, on the 11th anniversary of his death. Although your chances of an Elvis sighting are slimmer than the plot of one of his movies, you can visit a site that supposedly explains the King’s attachment to the city.
Kalamazoo was home to the stringed instrument company founded by Orville Gibson, who in 1894 made his first mandolin; in 1902 he established the Gibson Mandolin-Guitar Mfg. Co. Ltd.
A half-century later Gibson became known for its solid-body electric guitar, the 1952 “Les Paul” model. That popular instrument was followed by other innovative designs.
Elvis favored his acoustic Gibson J-200 (which Paul McCartney recently tuned and played on a private tour of Graceland), but he also performed with other Gibsons including a Dove.
In 1984 the Gibson Guitar Corp. closed its Kalamazoo plant and moved to Nashville, offering jobs to some employees willing to relocate. That wasn’t a popular option and the next year former employees Jim Deurloo, Marvin Lamb and J.P. Moats launched Heritage Guitar to carry on the instrument-making tradition in a 1917 Gibson factory building with a smokestack that still bears the original company’s name.
Heritage continues to handcraft a line of vintage-looking hollow body, semi hollow body and solid body electric guitars as well as custom instruments, using some of the machinery from the Gibson days.
The crew of about 20 guitar makers includes long-term employees who manufacture around 1,000 instruments a year. Some worked at the legendary Parsons Street address when it was still the Gibson factory.
The Heritage website lists dozens of musicians who endorse the instruments including country artist Roy Clark; the company produces a hollow body guitar bearing his name.
Free, 30-minute tours give a low-key and up-close and surprisingly quiet look, considering the product being made, at the steps involved in crafting the guitars, each of which takes months to make. I guess I was expecting musical accompaniment.
You might, however, be greeted as I was by guitar great Rendal Wall, who performed for decades on television’s Green Valley Jamboree while working for Gibson. He continues to lend his expertise to Heritage Guitar.
The shaping, carving, fitting, drying, decorating, sanding and lacquering are precise and not necessarily exciting steps to watch, but racks of the gleaming finished products show the beautiful results of the painstaking process.
Tours are offered at 1 p.m. Wednesdays for ages 12 and up; it’s necessary to call a day or two ahead to confirm your participation.
Keep an eye out for Elvis, who visited the Gibson Guitar Corp. factory in the 1960s and ‘70s.
That, some say, is why he has been seen prowling Kalamazoo even after his reported demise.
For ideas on where to eat, stay, shop and play in Kalamazoo check out the free Great Lakes Gazette Touraide!
Heritage Guitar, Inc.
225 Parsons St., Kalamazoo, Michigan
Located in Area A on map
All stories and photos copyright Kath Usitalo unless otherwise noted