Go, Gibson guitar gals!
March 17, 2013 1:45 AM   Subscribe

As American men went off to war during World War II, women stepped in to fill the jobs they left behind, keeping the factories and shipyards running, and the economy humming. While most were praised for their patriotism, one unheralded group of women worked in the shadows building Gibson guitars. The maker of the famous instrument never confirmed that women crafted its guitars during the war, and in an official company history, even reported it stopped producing instruments for those years. But now the time has come to shed some new historical light on the Kalamazoo Gals.

Though I couldn't find any audio samples on the web from the CD by Lauren Sheehan that features her performing on twelve different Gibson "Banner" guitars (the album's official release date was just two days ago), there are various YT clips and audio samples at her website.
posted by flapjax at midnite (15 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Whoops, spoke too soon about there being no audio from Sheehan's new CD on the nets. There are samples at the Kalamazoo Gals website, here.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 1:47 AM on March 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

So I didn't see the part where Gibson apologized for lying about the wartime production of guitars or any other acknowledgement of the skilled work of these women. Which is too bad.
posted by Glinn at 4:46 AM on March 17, 2013 [3 favorites]

Found a couple of these for sale on the internet. If I had $5000 to $10,000 to spend, well... I have played one of these, and they are very responsive, deep toned guitars. I once worked at a music shop specializing in vintage stringed instruments. Every now and then some Wall Street type would waltz in after making some big deal, play three chords on some amazing old Gibson or National, buy it, and be back the next month for another one to celebrate another deal.

Pity that Gibson made far fewer mandolins during the WWII period, and discontinued the F-4 style in 1943. Which means I will never be able to justify buying one. I'll just stick to playing my 1934 Gibson A-50 mandolin, which was made by highly trained chimpanzees.
posted by zaelic at 4:46 AM on March 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

Banner Gibsons has a bit more information on the guitars themselves, as well as a registry. The site is associated with the Kalamazoo Gals book and research effort.

Michigan Live has an article on the book, and a video clip with two of the gals describing their work.

New Haven Register has another article on the book, with a video of the author, John Thomas, talking about how the first story he heard about the Banner guitars was that master luthiers went back to work when the younger men went off to fight in the war, and only after finding that staff photo did he start digging into the real story of the Banner guitars.

Guitarkardia has a bit more on the story, with songs and interviews with the author.
posted by filthy light thief at 5:44 AM on March 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

So I didn't see the part where Gibson apologized for lying about the wartime production of guitars or any other acknowledgement of the skilled work of these women. Which is too bad.

It really is. I grew up in a Gibson family, but have been put off lately. They were found to be illegally importing threatened wood after a ban was put in place, and on being caught (twice) the CEO aligned with a number of hard-right free-trade lobbying groups,adopting the language of personal freedom to oppose trade regulation. So I'm not surprised they haven't taken this opportunity for some new interest and positive press - transparency doesn't seem to be their best game.

It's a pity. They (used to) make monster guitars, and to me this story would only be a company-history plus if it weren't for the coverup, but that last guitar I spent big money on was a Martin and I expect that to continue now.

A great story. The more I discover the lost history of women's work, the more astounded I am, and the more incredible and anomalous the 1950s regression of social mores and opportunity appears.
posted by Miko at 6:24 AM on March 17, 2013 [6 favorites]

While I love my Gibson guitars and would prefer them above others, this really crosses the line into weird guitar fetishism. Not to disparage the contributions of these women, I have a hard time believing an entire factory of novices could replace the skills of lifetime guitar builders. And the assertion that these guitars are "more refined" since the wood components were thinner and smaller, is just a sign of material shortages.

Yes definitely this is a noteworthy accomplishment by women in the workforce, but I don't know if mythologizing it serves them well. There are other myths about women guitar builders, like how Leo Fender had women wind the pickup coils because they supposedly were better at this sort of task. Sounds to me like he thought they could do it because they were used to winding thread bobbins. Today, machines wind the coils.
posted by charlie don't surf at 7:44 AM on March 17, 2013

Any story works, if it puts one of those guitars in my hand, even for a little while. Next best is to sit across from a player and watch him/her let the genie out of the bottle. A video works, too. Then a sound bite. In that order of preference. Okay, fine, I'll buy a ticket and go to the show, if that's what it takes. The problem there is that I don't know if afterward I'll want to run home and bang out a few riffs, or lean my guitar against the wall and kick it to splinters. The sound is the thing, but the myth--well, I don't really care. It could be that it's one of those addictions that accumulate--toxic in a good way--and after a few hits you just can't get enough of that stuff, you are more or less ruined for life, because your heart swoons every time you hear those mid-tones ring, and anyone looking at you can see you for the glassy-eyed, drooling fool that you are...all that over some wires and a few pieces of wood.

Every time.
posted by mule98J at 8:56 AM on March 17, 2013

And the assertion that these guitars are "more refined" since the wood components were thinner and smaller, is just a sign of material shortages.

It does feel s a little hyperbolic, but this part is entirely conceivable. The story of 20th century guitar building is, in fact, one of finding ways to reduce damping, through reducing the thickness of the wood, experimenting with new (and newly available) tonewoods, and through ever-lighter designs for bracing - the idea being to use the lightest, most vibration-friendly wood for the soundboard without compromising the guitar's structural integrity. Even if materials shortage was a cause of this particular innovation, it probably did produce more sensitive guitars.

The author doesn't show his data but the claim seems to be built on comparitive data. I'll keep an eye out for the book-maybe it'll still be shared. I guess I don't have a really difficult time believing the "refinement" claim if the data is there. Women historically have had plenty of training in fine hand skills and during the war-labor period, you encounter a lot of other primary sources about the exceptional quality of the work of women war workers and their general enthusiasm, adaptability, teachability, and quick learning curve. It's consistent with what you read about all sorts of industries and so it's not an outrageous claim on its face.

Even for all that, super gearheads seem to still really like guitars made between the wars the most. It may have to do with booming projection, which has been a preference for a while now.
posted by Miko at 9:37 AM on March 17, 2013

Even for all that, super gearheads seem to still really like guitars made between the wars the most. It may have to do with booming projection, which has been a preference for a while now.

Hmm.. I looked at the gallery and one of the Banner guitars is the LG-2. Here's a page with details about the LG-2, scroll down to the very end. Looks like the LG models were introduced in 1942, and it is claimed to be the most common Banner Gibson. I suspect this model was designed deliberately to conserve materials during the wartime shortages.

I own a ~1960 LG-2 3/4 size, and the one distinctive feature of it is the same as the full size model: it has an extremely narrow body. In fact the whole LG-2 is very small, the 3/4 size seems like the bottom is enlarged, otherwise the interior of the body would be so small, it wouldn't project at all. And that actually is the reason I like this guitar, it has no projection. I can wail on it and it doesn't disturb the neighbors (much). It plays more like an electric guitar, the top isn't springy and doesn't feel hollow.

But that lack of projection is probably not the intention of the design. I figure the LG-2 was designed to make the most guitar for the least amount of wood. The LG-2 has ladder bracing (look at the top of that page) which uses less wood than an x-braced model. This is NOT a sign of a more refined design, it's definitely cruder. Ladder bracing is probably fine for the 3/4 size, I just measured mine and it's only 12.5 inches at the widest part. But this style of bracing is barely adequate for the full scale model.
posted by charlie don't surf at 10:09 AM on March 17, 2013

That's exactly what I was suggesting, Charlie Don't Surf - it uses less wood, and projects less. And though the reason probably is that is uses fewer materials, the upshot is definitely going to be a sound that is less booming, less projecting, brighter and sharper, and therefore more "refined," like the parlor instrument the guitars were designed to be. They don't claim in this research that the intention was to create a more refined guitar - that's just the result. I think the problem you are having resolving these ideas is in your definition of "refined" (technically advanced construction) vs. the article's (subtle, nuanced, sensitive).

Also, your link specifies that the LG-2 was X braced. The 3/4-size which uses ladder bracing was not introduced until 1949, when the presumably more skilled and experienced male crafstmen were back on the job.
posted by Miko at 1:41 PM on March 17, 2013

OK, I get it Miko, you were saying the pre-WWII guitars were larger and projected more. I see the LG-1 had ladder bracing. I found a web page that describes the details of bracing in these models, probably the same reference you found. I once took my little L-2 3/4 to a restorer and he laughed it out of the shop when he looked inside it with a mirror and saw it had ladder bracing. He said, just be glad it plays at all.

I figure the craftswomen were probably about as experienced and skilled as the previous craftsmen, by the time they had 5 years of wartime production experience.
posted by charlie don't surf at 4:57 PM on March 17, 2013

Wow, between covering up the fact that women worked for them during the war, and that scandal where they were found to be building guitars out of illegal endangered rosewood, I am definitely never going to buy a Gibson guitar.
posted by Scientist at 7:08 PM on March 17, 2013

Charlie don't surf, the LG-2 bracing detail is actually on the very page you linked first:
LG-1: August 1942 to 1974 (no production 1943-1945), X-braced and brown finish/mahogany top in 1942, ladder braced spruce top/sunburst finish after WW2.
LG-2: August 1942 to late 1962. X-braced spruce top, sunburst (replaced by B-25 in late 1962)
LG-3: August 1942 to late 1963 (no production 1943-1945). X-braced spruce top, natural top (replaced by B-25N in late 1962)
...In 1949 a 3/4 scale (23") LG-2 was introduced, with ladder bracing.
The prewar guitars didn't project more only because of their size, but also because of the planing.

I'm not speaking to this model in particular, but I run with a lot of old-time/trad country players and they are mostly much more exercised about 20s and 30s models, which seem to draw the best prices.
posted by Miko at 7:26 PM on March 17, 2013

Right, that's where I got the details on my 3/4 size L-2. I have never looked inside, but then I realize I have a little dental mirror I could use. But I am afraid to look. I figure the braces are all unglued and warped, and I don't want to know. I figure it could explode into splinters at any moment. The restorer said a minimum of $1500 and several months to restore. I can buy a reissue for $1500, but it just wouldn't be the same.
posted by charlie don't surf at 5:23 AM on March 18, 2013

If it plays nicely, don't worry about it. Sometimes they are just more costly to repair than they are worth, and the money's better spent on another instrument. I had a 60s Gibson B-45 12-string for a while, which was a great fingerstyle blues guitar, but which came to me with a serious crack in the neck which only got worse (and some other issues too). The estimate to repair was about equal to its value - couldn't bring myself to do it. Finally sold it for a nominal amount to a hobbyist luthier who I hope got some more life out of it.

Anyway, my point was that the guitars the "gals" built were X braced. You seemed to be implying that they must have been ladder braced to use less wood and so were "crude" rather than "refined," but they were X braced despite shortages. It seems to be the tops, backs and sides that became thinner. Maybe you were talking about just your own model and I misunderstood. But yeah, given that this was never custom luthiery and was always mass production with shop specs, I don't think it would take anyone reasonably motivated very long to learn how to build good quality instruments, and especially the motivation of wartime and overtime bonuses and money in your pocket and indepedent living and opportunities like you never dreamed of would give you good reasons to master what you were doing.
posted by Miko at 6:10 AM on March 18, 2013

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