Lights Out For Gibson Memphis

It seems like yesterday, but it was long ago. Seven and a half years ago, to be precise. The precise who and why of it we can leave to the privacy of the woman involved, but here’s the what and where: I found myself behind the wheel of a nearly-new, livery-spec Lincoln Town Car, pulling up to the arrivals lane at the Memphis airport. I’d driven it down from Columbus for what was supposed to be a week-long trip across the American Southwest. For a variety of reasons, mostly alcohol-related and drama-related, we never left the city. By the time I took my date back to the airport, we were no longer strangers to each other — and that was, perhaps, the problem, because we liked each other best as strangers.

It was the kind of “lost weekend” that every man should experience a few times in his life, because it teaches you the raw mechanics of human desire and disgust in a way that you’ll never learn from frantic collegiate couplings or dissipated domestic boredom. In that short span of days, she and I shimmered and sank through a fast-forward series of scenes alternating between exhilarating and exhausting, the fragile high of each evening collapsing into the vomiter’s cockroach crawl at four in the morning. True to form, I managed to make a few bucks out of the thing, with a review of the car and a fiction-ish story. That modest financial return was far outweighed by long bar tabs and rack-rate extensions on a hotel room that we couldn’t summon the moral strength to leave.

Oh, and somewhere in there I spent $3,400 on a new guitar.

From the Gibson Memphis showroom, immediately following a spur-of-the-moment factory tour. I’d made fast friends with the shop foreman and asked him to find me something that had turned out just a bit better than the rest of the day’s haul. He returned with a cherry-red ES-339 Figured. It was absolutely flawless and rang out strong even before I’d plugged it in. In the years after, I used it twice a week for my sandwich-shop gigs, always enjoying the complex tone and perfect playability of the thing. Which was good, because financially speaking I lost my shirt on it.

Turns out the nice people at Gibson were losing their shirt on it, too.

The “Memphis Custom Shop” was a hugely ambitious turn-of-the-millenium build-out that included a massive performance space and enough extra room to double or triple production in the future. It built the semi-hollowbody Gibsons exclusively and it also handled gloss-white Les Paul Customs because the paint booth had some special equipment in it that the Nashville Custom Shop did not. Because Memphis real estate was cheap, the numbers kinda-sorta balanced for a long time.

Then Gibson made some big bets on non-guitar-industry acquisitions that didn’t quite pan out. It’s ironic that the Gibson management team would blow their wad on expanding the company, given that they’d rescued the brand from a non-music-industry firm — the infamous Norlin — that had weakened itself by taking on Gibson. Not everybody learns from history. Now Gibson’s debt is firmly in junk-bond territory. There must be more money, and soon.

This was the impetus behind the re-branding of the Memphis Custom Shop as simply “Gibson Memphis”. Doing that freed them to ramp up production and cut costs to the bone. All of a sudden, the entry-level product from Memphis wasn’t a $2,900 ES-339 Plaintop but a $1,200 Studio. Did I say $1,200? We can do better than that: How about $850? Used guitars from the Memphis shop are now changing hands for $700 or thereabouts. My Custom-labeled ES-339 Figured would be a tough used-market sale at $1,499 now.

Pressured to turn out product at an ever-increasing rate, the Memphis factory has let quality control slip through the cracks. They were always hit-and-miss — I had a tangerine CS-336 with a twisted neck, replaced by Gibson after a vicious back-and-forth discussion with customer service — but the new ones are apparently horrible. Which makes sense. Their production process isn’t automated — I know, because I’ve seen it. There’s no real way to do this stuff faster unless you just stop paying attention to little things like neck alignment and fret width. You can make a solid-body guitar with a CNC machine but laminated hollow and semi-hollow instruments require a manual process. The list of steps is long and very few of them can be cut out.

Last month, Gibson announced that they would be closing the Memphis facility as soon as a buyer could be found: The price: $18 million, which is a drop in the bucket compared to Gibson’s billion-dollar liability. It’s like somebody being $100,000 in credit card debt and “addressing the problem” by selling his XBox on Craigslist. Better to think of it as the Gibson management team making a public sacrifice to the gods of Wall Street, who like their ancient pagan counterparts never become tired of seeing mortal men humiliate themselves on their collective behalf. Gibson claims that they will replace their Memphis with a smaller, more “agile” shop down the street. You’d be foolish to expect that. Production can and will fall back to Nashville. It will be the end of a lovely adventure, an attempt to build the guitars most closely connected to the electric blues right there in the current spiritual home of that music. But the numbers don’t match up. You won’t find thirty Gibson semi-hollows on stage in a whole evening of Beale Street bar-hopping. The Memphis factory could turn out three hundred of them a day.

I need to get down there again before they close it, to really take a look around, to commit it to my permanent recollection. In the years between 2010 and now, I visited the shop twice: Once in a 1976 Cadillac Fleetwood Talisman, and once in a Chevrolet Spark. Neither time did I spend more than three minutes in the building. It felt haunted somehow, by memories of times that had passed and would not return. For the people of the Gibson Memphis plant, those times were the good ones; for me, they were something I am happy to have left behind. I think of a video game I played as a kid. In it, you would run towards a lake with three dot-matrix alligators angrily chomping their dot-matrix jaws. There was a vine swinging towards you. At the perfect moment, you’d push the button, which would make your character grab the vine and swing safely to the far side, accompanied by an 8-bit jingle.

The trick was pressing the button at the right time once you’d swung across, or you would fall back into the alligators. So even as a child I understood something that I have to learn again and again as an adult, namely: Don’t wait too long to let go.

25 Replies to “Lights Out For Gibson Memphis”

    • Harry

      I find it impossible to hear any version of that song in my head other than the one from the end of The Post Modern-Prometheus

  1. Jeff

    I remember reading that “fictional” story when it first came out. It was excellent then and is excellent now. But after my last two love interests my perspective on it is very different. Seattle is rife with so cal girls running from their problems. Reading that now really hit me where i live.

  2. Ronnie Schreiber

    While Gibson has been letting quality slip, the Chinese have been getting better at building guitars. Look at the user reviews on YouTube.

    Monoprice was selling a set-neck copy of a Les Paul with a quilted top (thin veneer, not photo) for $183 plus shipping. Thomann will sell you a semi-hollowbody Harley Benton for $212 including shipping. Is that Gibson ES really worth 4 times as much?

    It’s a great time to be a young musician because you can get a decent, playable instrument for about what dreck used to cost. It’s a terrible time to try to be making and selling moderately priced American made guitars.

    I was told by the guy who runs Reverend gutiars that at a $700 price point, they had no choice but to move production to Korea.

    Its a fool’s errand for Fender and Gibson to chase the low end of the market, and I’m not even sure it helps them to use Squire and Epiphone. I suppose, like car makers, they think that if you start someone out on a Squire Bullet Strat they’ll eventually end up with an American Standard, but does it really work that way with actual guitarists who stick with it long enough to learn how to play?

    For the parents buying a kid their first guitar, and they walk into guitar center, and the first three guitars on the used rack are seemingly identical “Strats”, all black and white, ranging in price from $79 to $400, how are they supposed to decide what instrument to buy?

    Maybe Fender and Gibson and PRS should just abandon the low end of the market and concentrate on selling high quality instruments. Juszkiewicz has badly mismanaged his company.

  3. Paul M.

    Memphis is a sad place. I love the town. By the Mississippi. It seems lost in time. But it also seems so poor. A river-walk full of homeless people. Even in day light you see and smell alcohol. City doesn’t keep up with trash. Great BBQ. Great food. Even Elvis’s place seems too much. They build many new shops around it. But one has to wonder how they keep that place operating after the people that grew up watching Elvis die. As for that Gibson factory, it seemed huge. I went on a tour and I enjoyed it, but it seemed like they could do better. Many mixed feeling about Memphis, but if you want to experience an older slower south, I recommend a visit, just remember it is not the new south.

    • Steve Taylor

      What do you think is the “new” South?? Atlanta? A trash dump at the highway intersection? Charlottesville ? Home of an incompetent police depth? Miami ? An extended version of Puerto Rico? There really isn’t much wrong with Memphis for me except Steve Cohen, the Ford Family of political hacks and an ex -girlfriend of mine that lives there.

      • Rick T.

        The Census Bureau says Williamson County TN (Franklin, Brentwood) has the 16th highest average household income in the country, only a couple hundred dollars behind Marin County California. Nissan moved here. There are cranes everywhere building office complexes. Davison County (Nashville) struggles with kids speaking 140 different languages in the school system. This is the new South.

        • Steve Taylor

          The new south is Humboldt county Tennessee where Tyson food plans a chicken processing plant to ensure the fat assess out there will grow even larger.No doubt the idiot liberals in Williamson County will import enough Somali labor to provide the plant with a cheap labor force .In turn the rather rural character of the county will be gone forever. Williamson /Davidson county is pigeon shit on gods windshield.

          • Rick T.

            Liberals of Williamson County? Trump won every precinct in the county with a 63-29 margin. You really have no idea what you’re talking about, bless your heart.

          • Steve Taylor

            Address the colonialism happening in the NEW south-. They voted for Triumph because Hillary represented the same old crap from the Dems.

          • rnc

            The state, county and municipalities want these plants, they compete for them, white, black and brown Americans don’t want to work in them*, so the choice is to import the labor or be ok with your meat products coming from China (or even scarier, pay a rate that would make people want to work in them, but it would sure as fck go to China before that happened)?

            *When we blew up the Marshall islands, they sent them to Springdale, AR because they could work in the plants and it didn’t require English (so in the 1950’s they couldn’t get enough American’s to work in the Chicken plants either)

  4. Dying Ngyuen

    At this point Guitar Center should just buy Gibson… They’re the only store in my town that has them thanks to their ridiculous minimum order amounts anyways.

    Speaking of guitars, I’m not sure what’s worse, haggling at a car dealership or having to deal with “Map” pricing (minimum advertised priced) aka price fixing.

  5. John C.

    As an over 40 but married forever who doesn’t do this type thing. I still very much identified with making sure you did it in soon to disappear classic Towncar and came out with a connoisseur’s trophy. That of course and being really bothered by paying rack rate at the hotel and the high bar tab.

  6. Steve Taylor

    As for the naïve that believe that the sate and local want the nasty pollutter meat processing plants .Tyson is here for low labor costs, low land prices and a state environmental agency that does nothing. It seem Kansas did not want this plant and protested against it.Its here because we have a royal butt kissing governor that has his eyes on a senate or presidential campaign ..We should quit importing slave labor. Americans did these jobs when the jobs paid a decent wage. Just for a side note :the US just signed an agreement to import Chinese chickens, I suppose to go with Chinese ham (Smithfield). Enjoy your dinner but stay near the bathroom for a while.THIS is the NEW SOUTH in all of its colonialist best. For the people that spout the “jobs that Americans don’t want”, look at what those jobs pay till then keep eating that nasty chicken.


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