Sunday, September 25, 2016

The Ladies Who Make Guitars

Author - Dr. John Thomas

Dr. John Thomas, a Connecticut law professor and music journalist, wrote a book called “Kalamazoo Gals: A Story of Extraordinary Women and Gibson’s Banner Guitars of World War Two”. This book was published in 2013.. This publication got less than a cherry reception from the Gibson Guitar Corporation before and after it was released.

The Kalamazoo Gals

It may be difficult for some younger folks to fathom the huge effort undertaken by United States citizens during the 1940’s war years. Able bodied men enlisted in the military.

Those that did not were drafted. The fact that we were fighting against fellow human beings was not met with the empathy that the media presents to us these days. The enemy was evil and the United States and Allies were out to defeat them from usurping our freedom.

Manufacturing Industry During WWII Years

All United States manufacturers converted their machinery to build equipment for the military, which was considered essential production. And this included Gibson Guitars.

Rosie the Riviter

Due to the shortage of men, Gibson management recruited women. This was not an uncommon practice for factories during these war years. Rosie the Riveter was a public relations painting that encouraged women to leave their lives as house keepers and enter the job market.

Women Workers at Gibson 1942--1945
For years after the war, Gibson denied they ever employed women. In Dr. Thomas’ opinion perhaps Gibson did not want people to know that they were diverting workers to nonessential production during the war.

WWII Manufacturing

The other part was uncertainty over whether consumers would buy guitars made by women. So between 1942 to 1945 although Gibson was building guitars, they denied this fact.

Instead they established the rumor that these guitars produced during this three year period were made by “seasoned craftsmen” who were too old for war and were stockpiled until after the war was over to be sold as "new old stock".

Understand during the war years manufacturers and the general public were under strict government restriction on the use of metal, wood and other products, such as fuel, oil and rubber. These items were to be used only for military needs.

The Kalamazoo Gals
Dr. Thomas became interested in the Kalamazoo Gals in 2007, after taking his own 1943 Gibson guitar to be re-inspected by its original inspector. It was at this time he saw a photo of around 75 ladies that was taken in 1944 in front of the Gibson Guitar facility. He was able to locate a few of these women through a classified ad placed in a local paper. Thomas then invited them to tea and even visited some at their homes to hear their stories.

Gibson Banner

The guitars these ladies produced were Gibson “Banner” guitars; the ones with the scrolled decal that said “Only a Gibson is Good Enough”. Thomas was also able to search at least one-thousand pages of wartime documents that mentioned Gibson Guitars. He also talked his way into getting access to shipping records and discovered that 24,000 Gibson guitars were shipped during WWII and at least 9,000 Gibson guitars were made during the war years of 1942 to 1945.

However the Gibson company public records show the company had shifted to producing goods for the war effort and not musical instruments, and that  most of the men who made those Gibson guitars at the Kalamazoo headquarters were off fighting the war during the years 1942 to 1945.

It is a fact that the “Banner” Gibson guitar is considered one of the finest acoustic guitars ever made. The Banner decal went on the guitars headstock in 1942 and was removed in 1945.

Gibson during WWII years

To test the quality of these Gibson guitars made during the war years and after, Dr. Thomas enlisted the help of friends and was able to x-ray different Gibson guitars made before, during and after the war.

He discovered that the guitars made by the women were more refined and sanded thinner, smoother, and were better braced than those done after the war. This is no doubt the reason that they sound better.

Kalamazoo Gals Irene & Valura
In an interview one lady described her experience working at Gibson. She said, that a neighbor knew she had just gotten out of school and was looking for work.

The neighbor told her that Gibson was hiring and they would train her. This lady went on to say that it (working for Gibson) was a crummy job. She was making strings. But continued that Gibson was paying 20 to 25 cents an hour, which was fairly good wages in 1942. She states that she had a goofy job, sitting there making (guitar) strings.

Dr. John Thomas
When Dr. Thomas’ book came out in 2013 he contacted Gibson’s acoustic division in Bozeman, Montana to get their take.  Gibson gave him airfare and furnished him with credentials to attend the NAMM show in Los Angeles.

There he asked Gibson representatives to comment on his book. Gibson management demanded to know who gave him access to shipping records, Dr. Thomas declined to comment. Gibson threatened to sue him. (Perhaps they were not aware that he is a law professor.)

Packaging strings at Gibosn
From then on he was given the cold-shoulder by Gibson representatives. Though Gibson had planned a corporate event to announce the publication of the Kalamazoo Gal’s book, they apparently changed their mind with no notification. He was eventually told privately by a company representative, that Gibson had nixed the project and wanted no part of it. If anyone at Gibson talked with him, they could lose their job.

Gibson Emblem
Later on Dr. Thomas found out that the BBC was going to do a television show about the Kalamazoo Gals and his book. Representatives of the BBC contacted Gibson Guitars for comments and were told "We've never heard of John Thomas or his guitar."

None-the-less, the Kalamazoo Gals played in integral part in Gibson history.

Fortunately there are other guitar companies that depended upon and appreciated their women workers. One of these was Fender.

Leo Fender 1959 -  check out that guitar 
Leo Fender got his start in 1938 when he opened a small radio repair shop in Fullerton California. He repaired radios, phonographs, home audio amplifiers, public address systems and musical instrument amplifiers. He also rented public address systems.

Sensing that he could improve upon the industry standard, Western Electric amplifier schematics, he partnered with Doc “Clayton Orr” Kauffman to build electric musical instruments (lap steel guitars) and amplifiers under the K & F manufacturing name.

Woman worker at Fender - 1959
By 1946 Leo Fender decided to leave the repair business behind and go full time into manufacturing at which time he renamed the manufacturing portion of the business The Fender Electric Instrument Company. He parted ways with Doc Kauffman.

Woman at Fender sanding a lapsteel
Leo opened his shop in a hot warehouse in Fullerton California where he employed local people to build guitars and amplifiers. Many of these worker were Hispanic and many were women.

Abigail Ybarra winding pickups 1959
One employee that has become famous through the years because of her skill as a pickup winder was Abigail Ybarra.

Ybarra began working for The Fender Electric Instrument Company in 1956 and stayed on through the CBS years.

Ybarra remained with the Fender Musical Instrument Company when William Schultz and his partners purchased the organization. Ybarra retired in 2013, but even after being with this company for 57 years, her legend lives on.

There are guitarists that swear by her hand-wound pickups. Some players that have enjoyed her pickups include Buddy Holly, Jeff Beck, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton.

During her years with the Fender Musical Instruments Corporation Abigail’s value was recognized and she became a part of Fender’s Custom Shop.

Abigail Ybarra 2013 
She states that, “Doing it (winding pickups) with an automatic coil winder, it winds really uniformly,” Winding it by hand it winds it different. It’s not as uniform as a machine.” Unlike machine winding, hand winding produces “scatter winds” that are irregular.

The wires are not placed as closely to one another as they would be with standard machine winding. This results in more air space in the coil and the lowered capacitance allows more high frequencies.

Josefina Campos and Abigail Ybarra
Fender Custom Shop Pickup Specialist Josefina Campos has been apprenticing under Ybarra since 2010, mastering Abigails technique. Campos, has been with Fender since 1991. Campos has since taken Abigail's place with The Custom Shop at Fender.

Although Martin Guitars, in an effort to protect privacy, does not acknowledge last names, it is quite apparent that the C.F Martin company is very dependent on its female staff in its luthery department and places great value upon them.

Martin Factory - fitting the neck
I read in their in their company blog that one lady identified as Diane has worked as a neck fitter for Martin guitar for the past 10 years. They go on to state that the fit of the neck can be one of the most crucial and challenging parts of a guitar build, particularly if the guitar sports a dovetail neck joint.

Martin Factory - trimming binding

It involves a long process of carefully carving off excess wood, fitting, refitting, and sheer strength to ensure that the fit is absolutely flawless. Otherwise, a guitar can wind up with tuning issues and problems with the action.

"It requires physical strength, but also mental agility" says Diane, "because each and every neck is different." This means no two sets of problems to solve are alike, just as no two Martins are alike. Diane has been doing this job with Martin for the past ten years.

Martin Factory - installing end pieces
Another Martin employee, Phyllis has been with Martin Guitars since 1985, when she started in what was then the string division. Now she cuts and installs end-pieces and routes blocks. Her daughter also works here, as did her granddaughter, her son in law, and her grandson in law. Earlier in her career here at Martin, Phylllis worked building bodies by hand, as the only woman in a department full of men.

Martin Factory - sanding the body
C.F. Martin guitar spokesman states that one of the most skilled brace-shapers is Diana who has been with Martin for over 10 years. The art and science of shaping braces strong enough to support over 150 lbs. of string tension while remaining supple and elegant enough to provide beautiful, resonant tone.

This task requires the utmost precision. So why not use something like a laser-guided to cutting machine for these parts? "I worked with a machine once," says Diane, "but I could cut them by hand faster than the machine could, so they got rid of it!"

Martin Factory - slots for tuning pegs
The blog identifies another employee, Mary, has been working in Martin's stringing division for 10 years. When she started, she was the only female in a department that now, a decade later, has many women working alongside her.

Martin Factory - stringing and tuning
She puts the absolute most care into making sure each Martin that crosses her bench leaves with pitch perfect intonation and play-ability. She states, "Someone could have been saving up their whole lives for this guitar and I want to make sure the instrument they get lives up to that. This could become a family heirloom."

The Unique Guitar Blog salutes all these ladies!

Here is a link to the Dr John Thomas book, Kalamazoo Gals. Get a copy. It is a great read.

As a reminder, links below the pictures lead to sources. Links in the text take you to other interesting facts.


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