Heritage Guitar has international appeal

Company is expected to produce 1,000 guitars this year

By Kathleen Lavey
Lansing State Journal

KALAMAZOO, Mich. (AP) — Back in the days when industry of all kinds began to flourish in Michigan, Gibson built a guitar factory in Kalamazoo.

The year was 1917. The factory at 225 Parsons St. was a “daylight” building, with large, high windows and a smokestack with the company’s name set in white bricks.

Over the years, skilled crafters built thousands of instruments there: mandolins, banjos and guitars, including the venerated Les Paul solid-body electric guitar. They kept producing fine instruments even as the firm was sold to one out-of-state interest, then another.

But in 1974, Gibson built another plant in Nashville, Tenn. And in the fall of 1984, Gibson closed the Kalamazoo plant.

That might have been the end of the story about guitar production in Kalamazoo, except for a handful of dedicated craftsmen who simply didn’t want to move south.

“I married here and built a place,” said Marvin Lamb, a Gibson craftsman and plant supervisor. “I’d lived in Michigan and it became home.”

James Deurloo, Gibson’s plant manager, remembers sitting with former Gibson colleague Bruce Bolen on a boat in Lake Michigan off of South Haven and talking about the possibilities of opening a new guitar shop. He recalls taking notes on a restaurant placemat. Deurloo, Lamb, and a third partner, J.P. Moats, opened Heritage Guitar Inc. in April 1985.

“We didn’t pick the easy thing to do, I’ll tell you that,” Deurloo said.

But at 73, he’s proud of what they’ve accomplished.

“We’ve built a good company with a good name. We’ve built an instrument that people seek out,” he said.

This year, Heritage Guitar’s 20 full- and part-time employees are expected to produce about 1,000 electric guitars.

The firm sells 25 different guitars through a network of dealers in the United States, Europe, Asia, Australia and New Zealand. Dealers include Lansing’s Elderly Instruments.

Suggested retail prices of Heritage guitars range from $2,570 for the H-137 Second Edition to $8,960 for the Super Kenny Burrell, named for the Detroit-born jazz artist. Buyers can customize instruments as well.

Deurloo said about 70 percent of Heritage business is export; the company’s guitars sell particularly well in Japan as well as Europe. Heritage has a booth at twice-yearly meetings of the National Association of Music Merchants where it introduces each year’s product line.

S.J. “Frog” Forgey, leader of the longtime local band Frog and the Beeftones, also works at Elderly Instruments. He has a Heritage of his own, an H-535 with a sunburst pattern. He said many Heritage guitars are comparable to Gibson models, but sell for less; jazz models are most popular at Elderly.

“They’re dandy guitars,” he said. “For us, we do much better with their jazz boxes than anything else.”

At the Heritage plant, a rack of prototype guitars occupies a corner of the conference room. There’s no production line; the work of crafting a guitar is too slow and painstaking for that.
It takes about three months to make a single instrument: “Two if we’re really in a hurry,” Deurloo said. A number of guitars are in various steps of the process on any given day.

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