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INSIDE: GIBSON CUSTOM SHOP
We loaded up the van and headed down to Nashville this past June for Summer NAMM, and while we were there we dropped in on the Gibson Custom Shop to take a closer look at what goes into producing a Custom Shop guitar.
What we found is something incredible. Something we already knew, but still didn’t expect.
We found a philosophy abandoned by most manufacturers most long ago: the old way, the slow way, the hard way. That approach somehow still exists here in downtown Nashville, TN, hiding in plain sight just underneath a literal mist, resting at once on the forefront of what is possible and yet completely left behind by the indifferent march of automation and mass-production.
If you don’t know about the Gibson Custom Shop, the idea is simple: the best, the truest, every time. But simple never means easy. In fact, for Gibson it means quite the opposite. From Standard and True Historic models to Modern Era and
completely Custom-spec, made-to-measure builds, every Custom Shop guitar is carefully handmade from the finest materials and components and reflects over 100 years of tradition, innovation, and uncompromising craftsmanship. It’s nothing short of the premiere electric line from the World’s Finest Guitar maker, so when they say, “Only a Gibson is good enough,” this is exactly what they’re talking about. And from what we saw we couldn’t agree more.
Custom Shop guitars take about six weeks to complete, start to finish, and each step of the process is treated with the same level of care and importance as any other, because when it comes to a Gibson Custom Shop guitar, it is.
That’s right, the actual air. Like a Rainforest Café, inside the Gibson Custom Shop it rains. Because humidity is so important in both the production stages and in a guitar’s ultimate quality, special piping is installed in the ceiling to periodically mist the factory, maintaining the perfect 45% humidity at all times and preserving the massive wood stores in the Custom Shop’s rough mill.
When it comes time to pull from that mill and begin building, it’s straight to the top.
East or West: that’s the first question the Custom Shop has to answer. Eastern and Western wood, maple in particular, differ greatly as top woods, not only in figuring and grain but in density, complexion, and tonal qualities as well.
Eastern top wood is the most commonly used top wood for Historic models because it’s what was available. Before cross-country shipping became commonplace, Eastern maple was what you had if you didn’t want to wait weeks, nevermind the extra expense, for Western.
Compared to Western maple, Eastern maple has inconsistent figuring patterns, as well as mineral marks, or dark spots in the wood. To some they look like blemishes, but it’s all part of what makes Eastern maple so desired. Its dense composition makes for more pronounced highs and increased attack, and when paired with a mahogany body it produces an almost pre-equalized tone that microphones love.
Western maple has a very clean look with uniform figuring and no mineral marking. It’s less dense than Eastern maple, so its tonal qualities are darker, warmer, and less pronounced. Prized for its look, the much-loved quilted maple is traditionally produced in the West, and Birdseye in the East
Once the ideal top wood is selected and dried to uniform condition, it’s
paired with a body and neck. Each combination is given a hand-written order number that travels with it all the way through production, beginning first with the press where the top meets the body.
Most tops are affixed with hide glue, just as they were in the 1950s. Rather than resting on the surface and setting like traditional glues, hide glue sinks into the pores of the wood and then crystallizes, establishing a “rooted” connection between the top and the body. This allows the guitar to resonate more freely, improving the feel and–to some–the sound as well. Infinitely serviceable, hide glue can be reheated for repairs and adjustments, whereas tight bond and other bonding materials generally cannot.
Once the top and body are pressed and properly bonded, the top is ready to be cut to shape.
While some Custom Shop tops, like those for the Modern Era line, are digitally cut to spec on modern C&C routing machines called Komos, others are carefully hand-hewn on retrofitted machinery dating back to the 1930s. Originally steam-powered and configured to produce home furnishings, these machines–while now electric–are the exact same ones earlier builders have used to handcraft guitars for the likes of Wes Montgomery and other 20th century luminaries.
After the tops are hand-carved and shaped, they’re belt and hand-sanded until smooth, giving each a unique contour. For all semi-hollow and hollow body tops, bracing is hand-cut and glued into place for support.
“Rabbet” channels are cut and the binding is run through a hide glue box and laid in by hand. Considered one of the most painstaking and physically demanding parts of the process, binding a single body can take two days, one for the top and one for the bottom, resting it overnight to allow the hide glue to cure.
While all of this is going on in the wood shop, elsewhere teams are hard at work on the various stages of neck making.
Historic necks are meticulously cut to shape using specially designed calipers, and then hand-sanded and smoothed. All Gibson Custom Shop necks are quarter-sawn and most are cut with historically correct neck tenons and bear holly headstock veneers, just as their 1950s counterparts did.
Fretboards are shaped and secured with hide glue, and channels are cut where truss rods are installed and then covered. If necessary, binding is also installed. Each neck is carefully and repeatedly cleaned, trimmed, and slowly perfected throughout the process.
After fretwire is installed, the neck is set in an assembled but unfinished body, or “white wood.” The “white wood” is routed for pickups and drilled for hardware, and then the entire guitar is placed in the Plek machine for one of the only machine-regulated processes in the entire Custom Shop.
The machine bows the neck a touch to simulate 10-gauge, A440-tuned string tension. A technician sets the truss rod and the machine scans the entire neck with a laser to read the fret height, automatically correcting improper heights to the ideal “crown.”
All Custom Shop fretboards are Plek’ed just like this. While fret dressing each guitar manually is the historical way, it takes a great deal of time, and it’s very difficult and fatiguing. Even the best fret dressers are typically able to complete only a few necks each day before burning out. The Plek machine is incredibly consistent and never gets tired, so every Custom Shop guitar sees the Plek machine before continuing on to the next stage of production: hand-sanding and finishing.
Guitars are given a QC-grade sanding and complete once-over to ensure no details have been overlooked.
In some cases, aniline dye is hand-applied to stain the sides and back. For as long as the guitar remains in existence, the aniline dye will do everything it can to get out of the wood, meaning over time it can fade and bleed onto nearby binding, changing the intensity of its color to slowly create a distinctive hue and a surrounding patina that is unique to each individual instrument.
The fretboards are taped and various finishes are sprayed over the entire guitar in a multi-day process. This covers the recently installed binding with layers of finish to the point that only a “scrape” specialist with a great deal of experience can begin, sometimes working only on instinct, to slowly re-expose it with a small hand tool.
With the binding re-exposed and the finish applied, guitars are ready for clear coats, finish coats, and antiquing if necessary, as well as a complete buffing.
The last part of the process is final assembly, where the wiring harness, pickups, and additional electronics and hardware are installed and each guitar is given a professional set-up and test check.
Additionally, this is where Les Pauls receive their golden headstock silk-screening. Each is mixed and applied by hand so that the gold paint sits on top of the headstock lacquer, an authentic detail of the original Les Paul models.
All ready to go, they’re packed up and shipped to us, where we’re able to put them right in your hands. Many of our Custom Shop models feature specially selected, under-wound Custom S-Buckers with Alcino 3 magnets for the perfect ‘50s-style, not-too-hot, not-too-cold tone with open cleans and a taste for overdrive that we at CME prefer. Many are also built to our specific specs with components and other detailing that you can only find here. Because we do the legwork to make sure of it.
Truly custom and truly CME, our relationship with Gibson and the Gibson Custom Shop reflects a shared philosophy: designed by man, built by hand. Every month our CEO Andrew Yonke and our guitar gurus meet personally with Gibson to select new top woods, finishes, fingerboard materials, neck profiles, pickups, hardware, you name it—all that goes into each CME exclusive Custom Shop model. That means no automated decision-making. No passing the buck. It’s the old way. The slow way. The hard way. It’s the Gibson Custom Shop way, and when it comes to Gibson Custom Shop guitars it’s the Chicago Music Exchange way.
Stop in and pick up any CME-spec Custom Shop model. Hold it in your hands. You’ll feel exactly what we mean.
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