By: Vince Lewis
Just close your eyes and imagine that you are stepping back in time. You then enter a small custom guitar shop. This is a place where master builders created many legendary instruments. They also produced some of the most valuable guitars ever made in the United States. The surroundings are functional, but spartan. The tools and forms still used to craft and shape the instruments have been in use for ages. You take a leisurely stroll among the craftsmen at work, watch them over their shoulders, ask any questions you may have and form a personal relationship quickly.
This fantasy comes to life each year at Heritage Guitar Inc. located at 225 Parsons Street, Kalamazoo Michigan. It is the former home of Gibson Guitars. When Gibson relocated to Nashville there remained a solid group of craftsmen that decided to stay in Kalamazoo. They purchased the former Gibson property and established the Heritage Guitar Company. The date of the 2010 event was August 6, and it is generally scheduled in late Summer.
Bill Paige, Jim Deurloo and Marv Lamb remain today from the original group of owners. They were joined in 2007 by guitar aficionado and local attorney Vince Margol. J. P. Moats retired from the business just last year.
There are currently 14 or so employees, including the owners, who are producing roughly 3 guitars per day. They are basically hand built from the ground up. The shop functions as a custom shop in every respect. Approximately 80% of the guitars have additional features requested by their customers. This results in the ability of a player to have a true “one of a kind” guitar made just for them.
Ren Wall has been with the company since its inception, and began working years ago for the Gibson Guitar Company alongside his father. He is personally responsible for the final set up and inspection of every single instrument that is completed. Nothing goes unnoticed on his bench, and Ren is often able to recall details of particular guitars years after they have been shipped to new homes.
Together, the current builders enjoy more than 500 years of experience. They have a total passion for their craft and it is evident by the outstanding quality of each and every instrument that leaves their doors. They are still making these guitars the same way that they always have. The main difference is that owning the business provides them the luxury of hand picking their own wood and other materials. Working for a larger business that dictates procedures and quality based upon cost often leads to less than desirable results. These folks definitely go for the best quality components available.
It was a dream of the founders of the Heritage Owners Club for the members to meet somewhere in person each year. This is an internet group of individuals who are as passionate about their guitars as the builders themselves. It is not a blog where griping and complaining is the rule. It is a place for sharing information, music, personal anecdotes and a fair amount of instrument trading as well. The club was started by John Hillman, of Midland MI.
After contacting Bill Paige and Vince Margol to get their reaction to the idea, the first Annual Pilgrimage took place in 2008. This has developed into much than just the opportunity to briefly meet the owners and tour the shop.
Following the tour, there is a picnic and informal jam session at the farm of Brent Henderson, one of the leaders of the forum. This year Vince Margol, Marv Lamb and Bill Paige were in attendance for the gala. They did not simply make a brief appearance, but were there for the duration. They made themselves available to each and every attendee without exception. Instruments were displayed and discussed, opinions shared, and stories told for hours. Ren Wall (bass) and his brother Ron (drums) actually provided the rhythm section for many of the performances. Several of the other employees of the shop also came out to join in the festivities as well
It is so unusual in this day and age for a major guitar company to personally connect with its customers. The obvious passion and respect that exists between these craftsmen and the players is amazing to see. This is a very special bond that is totally sincere and well deserved by both groups. It truly needs to be experienced to be believed.