Published in Manufacturing
Production Manager Jamel Taylor puts a sterling silver inlay into a drum shell at Black Swamp Percussion in Zeeland. Production Manager Jamel Taylor puts a sterling silver inlay into a drum shell at Black Swamp Percussion in Zeeland. Photo by Mitch Galloway

West Michigan musical instrument makers find a niche

BY Sunday, April 01, 2018 10:49pm

Black Swamp Percussion LLC started out like many musical instrument manufacturers tend to, by “rolling out of hobby mode into a little bit of a business.”

Founder and President Eric Sooy started the Zeeland-based maker of concert and orchestral percussion instruments in 1995 before moving to West Michigan in 1997. Fast-forward roughly 20 years later, the company now sells 3,000 tambourines and hundreds of drums per year.

As a niche manufacturer — creating products from carbon fiber and using unique techniques such as steam-bending wood shells for drums— Black Swamp has been able to separate itself from other, larger instrument makers. 

For Black Swamp, its path to West Michigan is similar to other musical instrument manufacturers, who view the region as an ideal spot for distribution and attracting talent. In part, the attraction stems from the Gibson Guitar Corp.’s founding in 1902 in Kalamazoo. 

Although the company later closed its local operations and moved to Tennessee, it helped create a pool of local craftsmen and brought outside attention to the region for its musical instrument manufacturing, according to industry executives. 

“All of that stuff started at least a century ago when Gibson first started, and then everybody just followed suit,” said Jon Moody, manager of digital brand development and product development at GHS Strings Corp.

The Springfield, Mich.-based manufacturer, located just west of Battle Creek, produces strings for electric and acoustic guitars, basses, mandolins, banjos and classical instruments, among others. 

“We are also near I-94, which is a pretty major thoroughfare between Detroit and Chicago,” Moody said. “(Those) are two great big cities, so it makes it easier for distribution and things of that nature.”

Moody told MiBiz that GHS Strings produces 15,000 to 20,000 guitar strings per day, up more than 150 percent compared to two years ago.

The strings, which are priced around $5 for a full set, are made with stainless- and nickel-plated steel, nickel-iron and a number of phosphor bronze metals. 

“We have a commitment to our heritage of being founded here (in West Michigan),” Moody said. “Many of our workers have been born and raised here, too. Our average worker has worked here at least 30 years, so we have a pretty great retention rate on that. Staying in the same place and being consistent is one of the big keys.” 

STANDING OUT

Kalamazoo-based Heritage Guitar Inc. makes its line of hollow, semi-hollow, and solid body electric guitars in a building that comes with a musical pedigree. The Parson Street factory it occupies housed Gibson Guitar’s production for 82 years.

In its prime, Gibson pumped out 300 guitars a day at the factory. However, Heritage has no aspirations of reaching that level of production. 

With a recent reconfiguration of the production area to cut down on costly inefficiencies, the boutique guitar manufacturer has been able to ramp up production from three to four guitars per day a year ago to seven instruments now, said Ron Howard, marketing manager at Heritage Guitar.

The company, which Jeffrey Nicholson and Archie Leach purchased in 2016, doesn’t want to change the artisan process of making guitars, but will “do little things to make it efficient, to put things in close proximity,” Howard told MiBiz.

“Exactly a year ago, we’ve moved all of the equipment and everything up from our old space on the first floor of the 100-year-old building,” he said. “When the company did that, everything was transitioned into a work cell, so everything you need for the neck of the guitar is in one area, everything you need to do for the fretboard is all in one area. 

“In the old space, there were machines all over the place, and you might have spent half your day walking around in circles, which is lost time.” 

When the company purchased a new self-contained spray booth and added a curing room, Heritage shaved even more inefficiencies, Howard said.

“Before the new ownership came in, (Heritage) didn’t really have the money to buy the things they need or (have) inventory — they couldn’t keep a nice stack of guitar pickups,” he said. “The infusion of a little extra money really went a long to help make it a more efficient workplace.”

Moving the production space also cleared the way for a new music venue, store and recording studio, which the owners announced along with a partnership with Rolling Stone and music retailer BandLab Technologies last September. 

Over the past year and a half, Heritage went from 15 employees to 34, although local reports noted that the company, citing an emphasis on quality and production improvements, trimmed its staff by about a dozen people in February. 

Howard said the current headcount stood at 19 when contacted last week. 

The niche manufacturer will always remain small, with no plans to ever rival the size of Gibson when it last operated in Kalamazoo.

“I don’t think we will ever be a place that’s pumping out 300 guitars a day like they used to be able to do when there were 1,000 employees,” he said of Gibson. “It’s just not where the brand (Heritage) is looking to go. … We’d rather put out the high quality than the high quantity.” 

As such, Heritage Guitar needs to focus on maintaining a balanced workforce, ranging from classically trained luthiers to people who “have never built a guitar in their life.” 

“Some of them don’t even have carpentry experience,” Howard said. “We can bring them in and train them on how things need to be done here. 

“We do things differently than a lot of modern companies.” 

INVOLVING TECH

While artisan luthiers who make customized instruments also dot the West Michigan region,  instrument-related manufacturing remains but a tiny niche in the overall industrial sector. 

Even so, companies like GHS, which has 75 employees, have blended traditional craftsmanship with automation to improve quality and efficiency. 

GHS, for example, can produce a set of strings in only seconds, and combines new-school and old-school methods to create thousands of products for musicians, Moody said. 

“We still have a technician behind the machine, but they are able to run two machines at once because it’s automated a little bit,” he said, adding that the market demand for GHS guitar strings is growing steadily following “a steep decline for the past 10 or 15 years as music and mainstream radio changed.”

“Despite how the guitar market is, people always need strings for their guitars,” he said. “You are trying to find better avenues where people can find your product. Some of that is looking to have your presence on Amazon (or) looking online at these other music retailers that don’t have a brick-and-mortar store.”

At Black Swamp Percussion, the company had flat sales in 2017 but saw an increase in exports, Sooy said. More than 30 percent of Black Swamp’s business now comes from international sales, with China and Japan comprising its largest international markets, he said.

With only six full-time employees and two part-timers, the company remains limited in capacity, Sooy added.

“The challenge is to make a high-quality, hand-crafted instrument (while) ramping up your numbers,” he said. “You have to figure what parts can be replicated without losing quality. That’s always been the challenge through the years.” 

Currently, Sooy said the company is using iPads for production instructions, which allows employees to make updates on product orders and helps increase the speed of production.

“We have them all connected,” Sooy said of the workers. “It’s a lot of on-the-job training, (and) it’s not easy stuff. A lot of products have to function, they have to look good, but they don’t have to sound good. … Our instruments have to sound good, too, and the way you manufacture something will have an effect on how something sounds at the end.” 

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