Edwin Wilson & The Birth of the Gibson Custom Shop
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Edwin Wilson & The Birth of the Gibson Custom Shop

Sep 01, 2023

Edwin Wilson, who died earlier this month at the age of 59, was a leading light at Gibson's Custom Shop in Nashville, where he shaped much of the quest for ever more detailed reissues of classic models and meticulous re-creations of significant artist instruments.

In 2017, during the run-up to Gibson's bankruptcy, Edwin and Gibson parted company in a move that surprised and saddened those who recognized the impact he had on the Custom Shop's growth and development. Edwin left a legacy that still flows today through Gibson's current Historic Collection and Murphy Lab guitars. After Gibson and until his untimely death, he was head of guitar R&D at Vista Musical Instruments, owner of the Heritage and Harmony brands.

I interviewed Edwin many times for my books, and he was unfailingly helpful and supportive. What follows is a compilation from some of our conversations since we met in 2008. If you never had a chance to meet Edwin, I hope this gives a flavor of his dedication to the craft and his knowledge of all things guitar.

Edwin, can you tell me when you started to work at Gibson?

I joined Gibson in 1985. At that time, there wasn't a Historic department or anything like that. For a little over a year, I was contract labour as an inspector at the warehouse, before the instruments were shipped out to the dealers. After that, they had a lot of people leave the plant, just regular turnover, and around the end of '86 I became an official employee. Ended up transferring down to the main plant where I worked in final assembly. I built pickups down there, I did assembly and setup.

I was doing that for about two years, and then I moved into a junior management position, second in command over final assembly and final repair. And I was in charge of training employees when they came in: how to do things the Gibson way.

Then I moved up into management, and I was the supervisor over final assembly at the main plant. At one point I was supervisor over the final assembly department, the buffing department, the neck-prep department, and final assembly repair.

Then, in 1990, the banjo division had started up again. Greg Rich was running that, and he was talking about doing a dealer custom shop. Part of the problem with Gibson's custom shop in the past was there was only a handful of guys in there and they couldn't really service all the requests coming in from dealers.

At that time it was quite difficult for us. We were making, for example, black Les Paul Customs and let's say a dealer needed a blue one. It was almost impossible to get that to happen in regular production. So that would be a custom order, and it would go through what we called the Dealer Custom Department. That's what it was called when the Custom Shop in its current form started in 1991.

I was the first one in there, Tom Murphy was the second. There was Don Hunter, one of the guys who did painting for us, and a couple of the banjo guys worked with us, including Nick Kimmons, plus a couple other people—but that was about it to begin with. Our main builder who worked with us was Phil Jones.

We did a lot of the oddball guitars, some of the guitars from '91 and '92 you'll see that have all the artwork on them—the Christmas tree binding, some pretty crazy things [laughs]. Also, we'd get guitars out of production, including some custom color Firebirds and T-birds, the first silver sparkle and some gold sparkle Les Pauls, and there's a gold glitter Flying V somewhere that we did. We did a blue, silver, and gold Firebird, and I think G.E. Smith ended up buying that.

I think in the early '90s Gibson grouped the reissues into what it called the Historic programme.

Yes, and the first version was archtop guitars. We weren't making a lot of them at the time, and the idea was to present these as special, iconic guitars that Gibson did in its past, and now they're part of this special Historic programme—that it won't become a mass production thing, so the quality and all of the details of the instrument will be followed as close as we can.

There were L-5s, Wes Montgomerys, '39 Super 400s, and then we added the korina Explorers and the korina Flying Vs, along with the SG Custom. When they were added, Tom and I were working on getting the '59 Les Paul reissue to the point where it would join in there.

In '92 we made a couple of reissue guitars: a Goldtop and a '59, that were the predecessors to the reissue programme. They didn't have Historic numbers on them. The '59 went to Slash, and the Goldtop went to Keith Scott. At NAMM in '93 we did the official release of the '59 Historic reissue.

At the same time, we decided that as we had done all this work, and there are so many similarities, we'll do a '56 and '57 Goldtop, and also a Custom. The Custom was the one that was lagging behind the most in terms of historically correct things. We were doing some '58 reissues then, but it wasn't part of the programme until much later on.

That was quite a leap in the Custom Shop's presence, wasn't it?

Yeah, and the thing in '93 with the Les Paul reissues was that we were having to get production and manufacturing to understand that it was going to be a different top dish shape and different neck thinning than they were used to working with. It was really a huge deal, because there'd been the Norm's guitar, the Guitar Trader guitars, the Jimmy Wallace guitars, all of which had been some variation of an attempt at a reissue. But in '93 it was really the first time that pretty major structural changes happened. It was a one hundred percent improvement over previous guitars.

There were some things about them that maybe weren't right, but '93 was the year of the learning curve on those guitars. Maybe the heels were a little bit too square on a lot of them, but guys in production were just getting used to doing things different to how they had in the past.

I remember at the start of the reissue programme we went down to George Gruhn's store and we got some '59s from him, and there's a local collector, Crawford White, who we borrowed two '60s from, and that was the beginning of us getting our hands on original guitars and going through them.

You'll know how many times you take off the rear plate and you'll see a different rout in the control pocket, or some little different nuance about the guitar. So we would see several original guitars, with lots of differences, and what we came up with was sort of the sum of all the guitars that we saw.

How does the Custom Shop differ from the main factory? Is it the degree of work, the machines, or what?

We have similar machines in the Custom Shop as the main factory does [speaking in 2008], but there's a lot of things we do that are very much hands-on. For example, our main factory just bought a new five-axis CNC machine, and they're going to transfer their neck production over to that. We do a rough shape on the CNC, but the thing that actually gets the profile in the neck is a guy standing at a sanding belt all day with different tools and stuff that he uses, doing it all by hand. And it's always been that way.

Plastics are a real good example. The plastics on original guitars are heavily petroleum based. Several years ago I was having a conversation with Jim Hutchins, who's just retired [2008] from Gibson after 45 years. Hutch was one of the few out of manufacturing who came down to Nashville when Kalamazoo moved [in 1975]. He was in engineering for a long time, and in Kalamazoo he'd been in maintenance for a long time.

Anyway, I told him I'd just found the original vendor that made the plastics for the pickguards and all, and he says: "Yeah, that stuff was always a problem." I said well, I think I can get in touch with them and get something going with them so we can get the original plastic. And he goes: "No, we're not gonna do that."

I asked him why, and he said: "Because we had fires constantly with that stuff. They'd get it, put it up in the stock room, it would sit around, and it gets so hot up there you'd see the stuff smoking." OK, I said [laughs], so there's some things that there's knowledge of here at Gibson, but that I would have a very difficult time getting approved—they'd just go, "Nah, too much of a fire hazard!"

Did Hutch help you with any other historical matters?

Oh yeah. We were working on the cutaways of the SG, exactly how to get the angle and how they did it, because there's a sort of conical shape on there. It's not a straight scarf. Hutch walks into the room, says: "Oh, you're trying to do the SG." Yep. He goes: "Well, they just had a machine that they mounted the body in, and then they had this cutter that was mounted at an angle, and they just shoved the body down there." What!

He said: "Yeah, we had to make the machine for them. It had a cutter like on a shaper that was almost 12 inches tall, and they made a fixture that you mounted the SG body in. You just shoved the body down into the spinning cutter, and you did the bass side, you picked the body up, moved over, did the treble side, flipped it over and you did the same thing on the back if you wanted to."

Sounds like quite a lethal machine.

Oh yeah, without a doubt, and I think they had a lot of machines like that [laughs]. Hutch had this arbor sitting in his office—a sort of spacer that went on the shaft of a shaper or something, had this 14-inch blade that pressed on top of it. It was sitting there forever, and I asked him what it was for.

He said it was what they used to cut 335s down with. I said what? He said to make sure the rims were all the same height, they put this on a shaper table and you just held the rim and ran the rim around there. I said, "Well, how do you keep it from sucking it in?" He said you just were careful and held on!

When was the SG considered for Custom Shop reissue?

In '97 we were talking about new guitars for NAMM, and I said we need to do an SG, we need to do a Firebird, and we need to do Les Paul Juniors and Les Paul Specials. So we worked on guitars that year, didn't make a lot of headway, and eventually we took an SG Standard to NAMM in January '98. Toward the end of '99, we really started changing it, to make it more accurate.

So even though we took the SG to NAMM in '98—and there were things on the guitar we took that were absolutely dead on—it was difficult in production at that time trying to get the guitar right. We did the wrong angle on the scarfs for a while, there were neck-fit problems, there were tenon problems. Introducing a different product into that environment brought problems. All that stuff started to clean up in '99, and toward the end of '99 we pretty much had everything how it should be.

When we did the Firebirds, we went through every detail, and at that time we figured out that the dimensions of the centre section were not right—the tailpieces hung over all of 'em. We were gonna do custom colors on the Firebirds, and my dad used to have an automotive parts business, but he sold tons of paint to places around Nashville. I told him we were going to do custom colors, and I said the problem I'm having is that this stuff's illegal and I can't get [paint supplier] Sherwin-Williams to talk to me to sell me the enamel that I want.

My dad says OK, let me make a couple calls and I'll see what I can do. Later he calls me up, says hey, go to this address at Sherwin-Williams, talk to this guy, and he'll sell you the stuff.

So I show up back at Gibson with acrylic enamel, and they look at me like I'm from Mars. I was like: This is what the custom colors are gonna be, figure out how to spray it. That whole year sort of went that way, with SGs in there also. The only thing that went smoothly were the Les Paul Juniors [laughs], and we introduced the Custom Shop Firebirds in 2000.

I noticed in Gibson's luscious '94 Historic catalogue that the 335 didn't figure at all—conspicuous by its absence, really. There's a lot of interesting and important models in there, but no 335.

Yeah, the whole point of the Historic programme in the very, very beginning, such as 1994, was to put guitars in there that we could not fulfill the orders on as easily, which basically meant it was all the archtops. We were really just getting going with anything: we were making archtops, but we were just getting going with some steam on it.

You seem to have got some real steam going at the Custom Shop by about '98.

Yes, 1998 was a good year for the Custom Shop, because … I'm trying to think how to say this. A lot of times what would dictate how many models that we could make would be corporate. Maybe Henry [Juszkiewicz, Gibson boss 1986–2018] would say you can only have x number of models in the catalogue this year, or you can have x number of models on the pricelist. So '98 was a good year because nobody said anything [laughs].

So we did Historic Juniors, we did Historic Specials, that was the introduction of the Historic Firebird, I, III, V, VII, and then we did the 335. With the 335, I called a friend of mine in town, Derek Hawkins, a vintage guy, said I want to get one of your 335s and I want to be able to copy as much of it as I can. He brought in one of his 335s, and we copied the neck, tweaked our perimeter shape a little.

We weren't really in a position to do anything about the top pressing on it or the back pressing, because that form was already in existence, and we didn't make a new form at that time—this was at the time of the beginning of an actual ES division at Gibson [in Memphis]. We wanted to offer something that was a Custom Shop product, that was more historically accurate.

I know you've been the wood buyer for the Custom Shop for some time, Edwin, so tell me how that works.

Yes, I buy all the wood for the Custom Shop, have done since 1996—it's something I deal with on a daily basis. All the mahogany we use is genuine mahogany, the same as Gibson used in the '50s, '40s, whenever. Gibson gets mahogany [speaking in 2012] from Honduras, Guatemala, Peru, and the Yucatán peninsula. As long as it's Swietenia macrophylla, that's what they use.

At the time Gibson first made Les Paul Standards, using the flamiest maple wasn't their main focus, whereas now a lot of times that is the focus. We use East Coast maple, West Coast maple, we use hard maple and we use soft maple. A lot of the pieces that I buy for the '59 reissue, I try to get what would be representative of that time.

Presumably, nobody back in the late '50s was selling flamey maple as premium guitar-making wood.

Oh, no, they weren't. And even now [2012] when I call a lot of places, on the East Coast of the US up in the Appalachian mountains, they're people who sell to furniture companies, and when I ask about figured woods and curly maple, they go, "You know, we burn that stuff, it's just garbage." They're still of that mindset, for furniture. If it's a real good log, they'll sell it to a company that'll make veneers out of it, and they'll get a lot more money for it anyway.

A lot of the logs that my wood vendors end up buying are veneer-grade logs, and usually what happens is as soon as I tell someone my name is Edwin Wilson, I'm calling from Gibson Guitars, have you got any curly maple, well—I can see on the other end of the line [laughs] the dollar signs in their eyes. "Well, usually I sell this stuff for $1.50 a board foot, but for you I'm gonna make you a special price, $30 a board foot."

Putting that aside, how much more expensive can it be than a plain piece of maple?

It varies constantly, and these guys play wood like it's the stock market now. Especially mahogany. With a figured piece of maple, if I just go to a lumber yard [speaking in 2008] to buy something, then usually it's about $5 a board foot. Plain maple is anything from $1.50 to $2 a board foot.

A board foot is if you have a piece of wood one inch thick by 12 inches wide by 12 inches long, and divide by 144, that's one board foot. When everything's said and done it's just a little over a board foot that's in a Les Paul top.

Our main plant will buy well over a million board feet of mahogany a year—a lot! We buy pieces of stuff, so I have my vendors cut my backs in a square size so that they can get the stuff on a pallet to send it to me. I have my vendors dry the stuff the way I need it dried, so that when it comes in we can start using it. I would say the total wood in a year, maple and mahogany, maybe a little over a million board feet in a year for all of our wood together, for the entire factory.

What's the difference between hard and soft maple for your use?

Typically, with hard maple, nowadays you don't get real wide flame on it—you don't get a lot of the pattern that you get with soft maple. Gibson pretty much used hard maple all the way up to when Paul Reed Smith came on the scene. A lot of the late'-70s Les Pauls you see will have real tight flame on them, maybe the Kalamazoo models, pretty good looking stuff, but it wasn't real wide and it wasn't real holographic, where the Paul Reed Smith tops were very holographic.

Western soft maple, if it's quarter sawn, looks like a hologram: it's really intense. If you tilt the board to and from you, and look at it, it's just like a 3D effect. Whereas if it's flat sawn and it's soft maple, or if it's rift sawn, then you'll get real thick wide flame on it, and as you turn it, not only does it have a hologram effect, but the figure moves from left to right also.

So the perfect piece of wood, in my opinion, is a rift-sawn piece of wood, when the grain is going at average 30 degrees to the end of the board. With that cut, then you get the benefit of flat sawn, which typically gives you side-looking flame, and the benefit in machining the quarter-sawn, which means that pattern is going to stay there when the thing is machined out into a top.

On the hard maple, it's a whole lot more dense, because it's a different type of tree, it's sugar maple—we use sugar maple and black maple wood, those are the primary Eastern maples we use—and the flame is typically not real wide, so the top looks more like Billy Gibbons's Les Paul, something like that.

Tell me about the Shop's work on the Jimmy Page #1 Les Paul, which you introduced in 2004.

Usually Pat Foley [at the time head of Gibson's entertainment relations] and I put those projects together. He has the relationship with the artist and in turn I get the relationship with the guitar. The guitar itself is really an amazing guitar, for several reasons, one of which is Jimmy's viewpoint about it. I've looked at a lot of guitars owned by a lot of people. He was without a doubt the nicest person in the world to work with.

I've had people who have '60s guitars who've told me no, you have to wear gloves when you touch my guitar. I obliged them. With Jimmy, when his guitar was in the case and I was looking at the top, I said OK, I need to get started. I said do you want me to wear gloves or anything? "No, that's OK, it's fine." Is it OK if I pull the pickups out so I can take measurements and stuff? "Oh yeah, take it apart, do whatever you want to do."

When he said that, I realized that one of the things that makes this guitar the coolest was that he knows what the guitar is very well. That it's a tool for him. It's not something he hangs up on the wall. So it made it very easy to go through the guitar and do my thing.

The guitar itself, the wear and stuff on it, was interesting. I would have expected it to be very, very, very beat. But it wasn't real beat—had a lot of checking on it and a lot of aging, had some wear, but it was still in relatively good shape. The interesting thing, of course, was the neck. He asked me, "What do you think this is, is it a '59, or a '60, or what?" That put me on the spot.

When I saw that guitar, I noticed there's no serial number—which would have helped a lot [laughs].

No, exactly. And it's been refinished. I said you know what, there's people out there know more than I do, that do this all the time. But looking at the guitar from the standpoint of somebody that on some level works with tooling for making these things, and has dealt with tooling and production on many different levels, what it looks like to me is that if it were a '59 or an early '60, then that would make sense to me.

Whoever sanded the neck, whether it was [previous owner] Joe Walsh or some repairman or whatever, whoever did the work on the neck, as the sanding blends out towards the heel and it starts to get a little chunkier there, it doesn't appear to me chunky enough to ever have been a '58. Because it would have swollen up more around the heel and stuff.

If it were a '60, I don't think the heel would have been shaped as it was, either. If it were a late '60, where the neck was real thin—there wasn't enough wood there. So I said to him that to me it looks like a late '59 or maybe an early '60 with a fatter neck or something. Based on some of the other measurements that I have of that area, it sort of coincides with that.

The thing that's real interesting about his guitar, honestly, is that the neck, as thin as it is, is as stable as it is. Because in that middle section there it's sanded really strangely. It's right on the truss rod, you know? I think you could probably take a pocket knife and shove through that thin section there and you'd hit the truss rod. There's that much that's gone out of there.

It's amazing to me that the neck is as good and playable. And the top was real cool on it—to me it was the perfect '50s Les Paul. Because they took the wood and glued it together and made a guitar, you know? Their focus wasn't on how pretty the top was, their focus was on making a great guitar. It was just a cool guitar. I'm the luckiest guy in the world to work here.

Tell me about the Eric Clapton 335, a Custom Shop production in 2005.

It was exciting for a lot of reasons. It was exciting because we were just trying to get to a point where we could really copy a neck or a body or whatever. We were still trying to figure out exactly how to capture the profiles, the shape of the back of the neck and everything, and this was before we had a scanner.

So on a lot of the guitars, we made profiles of the back of the neck—I would take thin pieces of plastic—actually it was truss-rod cover material, and then I would take razor blades and files and stuff and I would make profile gauges to the back of the neck. And that sorta kinda worked OK. My analogue system, yes [laughs]!

Then I was going to go high tech. About two weeks before Clapton's 335 was due to come into the Shop, I was at the dentist, and he tells me I'm going to need a crown. So he puts this stuff in my mouth, tells me to bite down on it and hold it there, and it makes the mould.

He pulls it out, and I think to myself, you know what—that's what I need to make a profile of a neck. I ask if him if this stuff ever sticks to something, and he said they couldn't really get it to stick to anything. So, I got a tube of the stuff from him and the little gun to use it with.

Back at the Shop, I tried it on some of our guitars in progress, and it didn't affect the finish at all. So I ordered 50 tubes of it—because the tubes are small [laughs]—and I had our cabinet guy make me a box that a neck would fit in.

Then when Clapton's 335 was here, I squirted all the tubes into the box, troweled it off, and then I got the guitar and pushed the whole of the back of the neck down into it. I held it there for five minutes, then I pulled it out, and the precise indenture of the neck was there.

And, hopefully, the finish was still on the neck.

The finish was still on the neck [laughs]. The only thing was it smelled a little bit like raspberries, but other than that everything was fine. That was our first attempt at doing something like this, before we got our laser scanner working the way we wanted.

So when did you get the scanner? That must make a big difference when you have to get the information you need from a famous instrument.

Yes it does, and what I always try to do first for those projects is get the scan done. We have a point-to-point scanner, a device that mounts on a table, and it has a stylus on it. We had it when we did the second Jimmy Page guitar [introduced '10], and the first guitar where we took it out on the road to work with was the Angus Young SG [also '10].

Even now, because of how long this process takes, we try to get guitars into the Shop where possible, so that one of our engineers can scan it and I can get ready with the calipers and all the photos we need for reproduction of the guitar.

The scanner hooks up to your computer, and there's a program you run it through. We have options to set up the distance between points, but basically it creates a point every 300,000th of an inch. I start acting like I'm coloring in a coloring book on the areas that I want to copy the profile of, primarily the neck and the top.

It puts all these points on there and creates a profile, which you see as an image on the screen. Then you convert that to make a "mesh", and from the mesh you can create a solid surface, which we can use to generate machine code in order to reproduce a neck shape or whatever as accurately as possible.

Usually when I do scans I do the wrist on the neck and the heel on the neck. If the neck has some anomaly in the middle, then I'll also scan as much of that as I need to. The shape of the neck starts at one end, the wrist, and ends at the heel, because when the neck gets shaped, those are the areas they start working on. The middle section just follows whatever is set in at those two points. Next I'll do the top, and there I'll often do a really tight grid instead of creating all those points, which would take a very long time.

In the broader picture of your work, is there such a thing as "vintage correct"? Everyone seems to disagree on the details.

Yes [sighs], everyone disagrees. Walter Carter [ex-Gibson and Carter Vintage] and I were having a conversation several years ago, and he said something I'd never thought of. He said if ever he got in a situation where somebody asked if Gibson did this or that and wanted a definitive answer, then almost all the time he'd tell them yes, they did it. I said well why's that?

And he said: "I'm sure you've looked at enough old guitars to realize that Gibson could have done anything during that time." I said yes [laughs], on a daily basis. I could go, say, find a Firebird neck that feels like a Les Paul because the guy didn't sand it right. Anything could happen!

And on a daily basis I guess you have customers talking about, oh, the position of the dot on the "i" in "Gibson." I can imagine some of that might get frustrating.

At times it does. But really it's not frustrating to hear them say that, because I know that it's not in the right position. I'm one of them! The frustration can be to get some of those changes to happen here in our building. That's my challenge every day, 24 hours a day [laughs].

I'm a guitar junkie just like all our customers. My wife gets sick of hearing me talk about guitars all day long and all night long [more laughter]. If you go in my house, the only stuff there is guitar stuff—books, everything. And I wouldn't want it any other way.

About the Author: Tony Bacon writes about musical instruments, musicians, and music. His books include The Gibson 335 Guitar Book, The SG Guitar Book, and Sunburst. Tony lives in Bristol, England. More info at tonybacon.co.uk.