The best Gibson guitars were made by the 'Kalamazoo Gals'

Aug 21, 2013

The “Banner” Gibson guitar is considered one of the finest acoustic guitars ever made.

Over 9,000 of these Banners were carefully built during World War II.

But Gibson company records show the company had shifted to producing goods for the war effort and not instruments, and most of the men who made those Gibsons at the headquarters in Kalamazoo were off fighting the war.

So who made these guitars that are still prized 70 years later?

That question and his love of guitars drove Connecticut law professor Dr. John Thomas to discover the remarkable answer, which he turned into a book called “Kalamazoo Gals: A Story of Extraordinary Women and Gibson’s Banner Guitars of World War Two.”

Thomas’s quest started with a photograph he found of a group of women standing in front of the Kalamazoo Gibson guitar factory in the 1940s.

“To say that picture haunted me probably is not much of an overstatement,” said Thomas. “I pinned it to the bulletin board in my office and just kept finding my attention going back to it, wondering what were all these women doing in front of that factory during World War II.”

Gibson records stated that no guitars were built during the war. Thomas eventually made it to the Gibson corporate headquarters in Nashville, where he went through thousands of pages of shipping ledgers to discover that 24,000 instruments were in fact shipped during the war.

While wondering why Gibson would deny making these guitars, Thomas found himself thinking back to that photograph. So, he took out advertising in local Kalamazoo papers asking to meet anyone who worked at Gibson during World War II.

Twelve women responded. One of them was Irene Stearns.

“I put my name in every place I could think of, because jobs were hard to find when I got out of school,” said Stearns. “One day they called and a neighbor came running over because we didn’t have a phone and said, ‘Well, you better go down to Gibson, they have a job for you.’”

For her job, Stearns made single strings. She knew nothing about making guitars when they hired her.

Thomas found that none of the women he interviewed who worked on guitars had any training, but they did all have experience in sewing, crocheting, or needlepoint, which Thomas believes was helpful.

In order to test the quality, Thomas started a project x-raying different Gibson guitars from before, after, and during the war.

“The women’s guitars . . . were more refined. Every little plate, every little brace, every little piece of material in the guitar is sanded just a tiny bit thinner, just a tiny bit smoother, and that’s the difference. And I contend that people can hear this. That’s why they sound so great.”

Stearns said that this is the first time that anyone ever cared about the work she did at Gibson.

“It was just a crummy job at the time. Any job, you know, so I could make my 20 or 25 cents an hour, and you’d go any place to do that. And I didn’t think it would ever be thought about again. Who would ever think that?”

So why did Gibson pretend that this never happened?

Thomas feels that part of it was that Gibson did not want people to know that they were diverting workers to nonessential production during the war. The other part was uncertainty over whether consumers would buy guitars made by women. So, these guitars were sold as “new old stock,” guitars that were made before the war and stockpiled until after the war.

Since Thomas’s research, Gibson has acknowledged and embraced this history.

For more information on Thomas’s book, go to kalamazoogals.com.

-Michelle Nelson, Michigan Radio Newsroom

Listen to the full interview above.