Earlier this year, Heritage Guitars celebrated 100 years of guitar-making in Kalamazoo, Michigan with factory tours, live music, a VIP dinner, and an update on the plans for the $12 million renovation of the building that houses Heritage Guitar Inc. at 225 Parsons Street.
Cover Photo Credit: Fran Dwight
Learn more about Heritage Guitars’ plans for the factory in their
Press Releases in Michigan Live:
We had a chance to Skype with one of Heritage’s employee, Shaway-bene Ellison, a Guitar Finisher in their Production Department. Shaway grew up in the area near the Heritage factory and was familiar with the Gibson Guitars/Heritage history.
She always enjoyed singing and began playing the guitar in her mid-teens. While she didn’t have a specific background on working with guitars, she had the artistic background and the desire. So she took a chance and applied for a job opening at Heritage, ultimately landing the job she so badly wanted.
Learn more about Shaway’s background working with Heritage, her background in music, and her advice to young women on pursuing your dreams.
“I have these vague memories being here at the factory.”
Tell us a little about yourself, your background in music, and how you became interested in guitars.
I was born in Carrolton, Michigan, so I grew up knowing about Gibson having their start here. I even toured the factory when I was very young. I have these vague memories being here at the factory. Myself and a bunch of my co-workers here that are in the younger generation, we’ve talked about it and how our parents would bring us by the factory and point it out. I actually grew up on this side of town, just a few blocks from here. So, Heritage has really been a part of my personal ‘heritage’ so to speak.
Originally, my business background was in natural medicine and advocacy. My parents were both counselors and my father ran his own disability business for many years. He was a non-attorney representative and my first job was working for him doing admin work. I developed from there and I’ve done a lot of different things.
I’ve always been an artist. I remember singing from a very, very young age. My father is a musician, and my mother was very musical. I grew up in a very musically inclined family, and now it’s just a huge part of my life. I have been playing guitar for – I counted it recently – about 20 years. I started learning when I was 15 or 16, and I’m 36 now. So, music and guitar are definitely my passion, they’re in my heart…it is ‘Me.’ If I don’t play music, I am not okay. I don’t feel right in the world or like there is something off if I am not picking up my instrument or singing in one place, shape or form. So, working in this environment has been a godsend. I’m very blessed to be here.
Yes, you really are. It’s always great when you have a passion for something and you end up working in that field. It’s the old saying, “If you do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life,” right?
Exactly, because it doesn’t feel like work. It’s not that difficult to get up, me being a night owl, it’s not that difficult for me to get up at 5, 5:30 in the morning, everyday to come here. I’ve never been a morning person. I still have trouble getting to sleep at night. Before you know it’s 11:30, then midnight, but here I am! I get up, I come into work every day, and I love it. It’s awesome.
Do you still perform gigs?
I do, but very rarely do I perform out in public right now. I’m actually just getting back into music. About five years ago, my mother had been sick for a couple years and passed away of stomach cancer. So, it’s taken a few years for me to kind of get my groundwork back. It definitely alters your perspective of yourself. I had a lot of life-changers after that, as well. Music has been very prominent in my life, but I wasn’t playing this actively. And so many people I was playing with, I no longer play with them anymore. That kind of changes everything. I plan on going to a Blues jam tonight downtown and I’m playing with my neighbor. She’s a guitar and a jazz player, so I’m looking forward to that.
“Oh my God, Heritage Guitars is hiring. I’m gonna apply!”
What were you doing before you came to Heritage?
When I started at Heritage I was very new to the guitar building industry itself. I had done a couple of things prior- I was the Director of Client Services for an animal care agency which was very challenging in many different ways dealing with life and death even though it was technically a non-medical position. I eventually left that position and did a couple of odd jobs while looking for a new career. One day I came across an ad for a painter/finisher in the Finishing Department at Heritage Guitars. At the time, I said “Oh my God, Heritage Guitars is hiring. I’m gonna apply!” I knew it was a long shot because I didn’t have any skills and I didn’t feel like I had any industry knowledge and I know what it takes to work in this industry. You normally start out young and have a parent or sibling, or someone that knows how to build guitars, teach you. School is so expensive, and so I knew it was far-fetched, but thought I would at least try. I’ve always done stuff with my hands- made jewelry, done photography, done music and art; my father built houses, so I know mechanics and how to measure and paint. I can definitely learn – and I’m a fast learner. So, I applied and was called in for an interview, but was told they had someone with more experience.
While working at a local grocer, I would occasionally run into the gentleman I interviewed with, now my supervisor, and he asked if I was still interested in working with Heritage and, of course, I was. One day he called looking for me and I answered the phone and he said, “We want to offer you the job,” and I said “Yes. Yes, I accept the job.” It was pretty amazing. I started out with no experience and here I am today.
That’s a great story! How long have you been at Heritage, what was the training process, and what does a typical day consist of?
I started in early February and they hired me as a full-time binding scraper. All of the material you see along the rim on the edge of the guitar is a plastic material called the binding that is put on over the wood and it helps to clean everything up. We still use the old Gibson standard method of spraying when we shade the guitars. We’re taking the paint and we shade over the binding and it gets covered up in the paint. It’s the job of the binding scraper to use these little small metal tools that look a little bit like metal shoes and go over the binding very lightly and scrape that line of binding. Basically, we take the paint off the binding, so we liberate the binding. We have to do it very precisely, right? Where this binding meets the wood.
Editor’s Note: Since we were on Skype, I was shown a side-by-side comparison of the process and I must say, it’s a very meticulous, important job, staying right on the line. After just several days of working on practice guitars, due to Shaway’s superb performance on the job, she was given her first production guitar. The average time most employees go through this process is anywhere from one to two weeks. Impressive!
It took me two days before I got my very first production guitar and I’ve never looked back. So, it was quite vast for me which I was stunned. My boss, he asks me “How did you get so good?” and I was like “I don’t know.” I think it’s because I have a very artistic eye. I see that line, like I see positive and negative space equally. I’ve since moved up and transitioned into shading guitars now. I paint them all day, and that’s awesome.
What’s your favorite part of your job?
I definitely think my favorite part about my job is it’s not only artistically gratifying for me and I love to be able to use my artistic skills every day, all day long, and just be there and be able to do a job that’s true to who I really am as an artist, but I also have the ability to work with people that come in and watch me work on their guitars. It’s so gratifying to hear their reaction when I’m just doing my thing. To hear the reaction of these people that are purchasing these guitars and they are going to play them. To be able to do that right there with them, I think that’s my favorite part.
Every guitar is specifically ordered, like a certain model and then a certain shade. Basically, everyone picks out what they want on their guitars. Some orders come from individuals, some from other companies, and some from dealers, but they are all handmade custom guitars. And we do have our Heritage artists who will come in to design their guitars typically once a year. We try to make are guitars as consistent as can be as far as the colors are concerned, but each guitar is absolutely its own thing. You can’t predict the wood when you’re shading as the wood will absorb the color a little bit differently each time depending on how the wood was cut, what type of wood it is, how wet the wood is, and so on. So, there is a lot that goes into that and it’s very unpredictable. You just kind of have to go with the flow when you’re shading it.
It sounds like quite a process and a great work environment and team. Do you see the guitar from the beginning to the end?
Our production room is really nice right now with everyone in the same space. I get to work throughout the space all the time. We’re all like a big family in there, so I can, if I decide to, stop and take a look, but I don’t always know what orders are coming through, so we’re kind of at the back of the room. Once they get back to us, I’ll know, and I can go and talk to one of my co-workers and say, “Did you put the rim on?” We each have our own jobs, but I do have the ability to do that, but I don’t always stop. I wish I had that kind of time.
How long does it take – for example the guitar you showed us earlier – how long did it take you to scrape the binding on that?
That one is one of the more challenging body styles to scrape. This is a 575 and it’s not the widest or biggest guitar we make, but it is one of the wider hollow body guitars we make. This one to scrape is going to take upwards of two hours to scrape the whole thing, if you were working on it consistently. And, honestly, it changes from day to day. If I’m scraping guitars and doing nothing but scraping all day long, my speed will increase, all just because you’re into the muscle memory muscle habit. So, it depends.
Now that you’re into spraying, how is that process and how long does that take?
Shading goes a little bit faster just to give a little bit of a comparison. If I scrape, I can consistently scrape about three guitars a day in an 8-hour work day — three to four depending on what the guitar body styles are as some of them have less binding and go a lot faster. With shading, I can shade…I’ve shaded eight guitars a day. My goal is to get fast enough to shade 10 guitars a day. I’m not there yet because this is only my third month of shading guitars right now, so I’m still working up the speed and learning what goes into shading. It’s a very difficult job. Learning the air gun and air brushes, the different adjustments, and how they all affect how the liquid is laid onto the wood. I keep practicing. Practice makes perfect.
Heritage Guitar has a six guitar a day output rate which compared to others is much lower, but in terms of every piece being hand put together, every piece of wood being individually selected, that’s a really great, great output.
I would love to come take a tour someday. Is there anything else you would like to share with us about your experience at Heritage?
My first day, I was surrounded by mostly men and I didn’t really know what to expect. My second day, it just put to rest any fears that I had about it being a “Man’s World.” Honestly, every person here has been very open to me, very willing to teach me, help me learn, bring me under their wings, you know? I love this environment because I get to learn so much. I literally can just go to any one of my co-workers and say, “Hey. So, what’s going on with this? Why does this happen?” And they would literally talk to me for 20 or 30 minutes about every little intricate aspect that affects what I asked about. So, they give me the real in-depth information that is just so superficial. I feel like it’s a really strong team. We’re all family here. We joke, and we banter; we’ve got a lot of strong community here. It’s a pretty amazing place to work.
“So, I’m just encouraging young women to shoot for the moon…I know it’s possible.”
That is so great and encouraging to hear. How about any advice that you would like to offer to women out there wanting to pursue a career in the music industry? Maybe it wouldn’t be in actual music, but it could be in guitar making, it could be technical, producing, anything.
Yes, absolutely. Well, I love to encourage any young woman who’s out there thinking about doing this job. Pursue your dream. Just go for it. I’m 36 and I just started doing this and I feel like I have a lifetime of stuff to learn, but I’ve been so encouraged by what I’ve found here because all the people have said no matter what, you always feel what way. So, I believe it’s a place where anyone can start at any age. If you want to go for it, if you’re young and you want to go for it, then you should. Just follow your dreams. I have a sign at home that says, “Don’t quit your daydream” because I needed the encouragement to kind of keep going. Honestly, if you want to make a lot of money, this is not the field to go into. I’m hoping down the line, in another few years, I’m hoping that that will change in my world. But while I’m making a little bit of a financial sacrifice now, it’s a healthy balance. For the most part, as long as I can pay my bills, I’m okay. But the other things I’m gaining in the sense of gratitude, in the sense of meaning, the knowledge that I’m getting here in this environment, in this industry, is amazing. So, I’m just encouraging young women to shoot for the moon…I know it’s possible.