Rock On: Inside Memphis Guitar Factories
There are two options in town, each with its own vibe and possibilities for side trips. (Translation: If you’ve seen one, you haven’t seen them all, so time permitting, see them both – and their surrounding neighborhoods.) Let’s go!
Background: St. Blues embodies handicraft and Memphis music history like no other instrument-maker. On tour, you’ll get the story behind this boutique manufacturer (which produces about 500 guitars annually by the hands of just six people). It’s a saga of highs and lows rooted in Memphis’ legendary music shops (Mike Ladd’s Guitar City and Strings & Things), with ties to some of the city’s legendary music personalities (Tom Keckler), and associations with some of music’s legendary performers (Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page). Since the late 1960s – when Keckler started making a name for himself as the guy who made guitars sound better – the music shops have closed; the brand name and ownership have changed. But St. Blues’ expertise and reputation remain – guaranteed by Keckler’s continued involvement and the commitment of new ownership to create electric guitars of the highest quality. Part of that ownership, Jeff Cox, relays the story on your tour.
Signature strings: In addition to its Workshop Series of electric guitars, St. Blues creates electric cigar box guitars and amplifiers that draw on the Delta Blues tradition of transforming found objects into instruments. Keith Urban has one, and at a few hundred bucks, you could too. It looks intriguing enough to be identified as visual art, but Jeff assured me it’s a “practical blues instrument” begging to be played.
Plan it: “Monday through Friday (10 a.m.-6 p.m.), we are rocking and rolling,” Jeff says, meaning that you can grab a seat at St. Blues’ “Whammy Bar” to watch luthier Greg Mitchell hand-craft the cigar box guitars (and maybe catch Keckler at work on quality control). The $4 tour also takes you into St. Blues’ downstairs workshop, a wide-open space where every St. Blues guitar is designed and built. Tours are advertised to begin at 2 p.m., but call ahead (901-578-3588) and Jeff can usually accommodate you. To me, that’s the allure of St. Blues – the outfit is inherently intimate; its products inherently beautiful; and the direct line you get to Jeff on tour brings it all right to you.
In the neighborhood: On the edge of downtown Memphis, St. Blues, Sun Studio and Trolley Stop Market form a tight triangle. The businesses are located so close to each other, in fact, it’s barely a hop, skip and a jump from one point to the next. Fuel your tours of St. Blues and Sun Studio with breakfast, lunch or dinner at Trolley Stop, a farmer-owned diner with killer tuna melts and pizza (plus a permanent farm/craft market that seems to me what it might feel like to literally walk through the pages of Etsy).
Background: Everybody knows the name of this manufacturer that dates to 1902 and produces acoustic and electric guitars, mandolins and banjos in facilities across the world – but only the Memphis factory welcomes tours.
Signature strings: While Nashville (site of Gibson’s worldwide headquarters) makes the fabled Les Pauls, Memphis makes the label’s ES line of hollowbody and semi-hollowbody guitars.
Plan it: Tours run on the hour Monday through Saturday 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Sunday noon to 4 p.m. A few things to know before you go: Make a reservation. Even with the large groups they accommodate, the tours fill up fast. While you’re on the phone (call 901-544-7998), be sure to ask whether luthiers will be working during your tour (particularly on weekends and around holidays, they may not be present). Tours are $10 and participants must be at least five years of age. On the 45-minute tour, you’ll move from station to station to see and hear about each step of the production process, a mix of machine and hand-work that culminates in some fascinating final steps: painting, scraping and testing, which require the most training and experience on the factory floor (the testing area is commonly staffed by Gibson veterans who must audition musically for the job). I have to admit, it was pretty neat seeing three guitars hanging to dry with Dave Grohl’s name attached to them.
In the neighborhood: Before or after your tour, spend time in the onsite Gibson Retail Center. The array of instruments on hand is dizzying, and for players, demo instruments abound. I loved seeing people from my tour group perched on the available stools, strumming their own tunes. Step outside of Gibson and march directly across the street to Memphis’ Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum, my favorite way to digest the whole Memphis music story under one roof; then mosey one block north to get lost in the possibilities of Beale Street.
Have you toured either of Memphis’ guitar factories? What was your favorite aspect of your tour?