February 2017
more... GearBuilder ProfileOctober 2008Ren Ferguson

Big Sky Builder


Big Sky Builder
One of Ferguson’s Master Museum J-200s
Then comes the arduous process of trying to replicate that guitar. For example, when replicating LeRoy Parnell’s mid-thirties L-00 (the X-rayed guitar), they found that by making the braces tall and thin and just cutting them on a table saw, they could glue the braces with hide glue, leave the braces rough and get essentially the same tone as the original. According to the guitar’s owner, the reproduction guitar sounded every bit as good, if not better, than his original. In fact, the company has discovered that if a guitar top is braced a certain way, time after time, nearly all of the instruments braced in this manner will have a similar tone. Through numerous, well refined processes – scalloping and tapering the top braces, sanding them smooth, gluing them with hide glue and using cloth stays on the ends where the braces join the sides – all instruments will have a very similar tone. “We used to make top bracings that required 12 passes on the machinery for each brace; now we make four braces in three passes,” Ren says proudly.

The research has not simply revolved around finding ways to efficiently recreate Gibson’s past classics; the Bozeman crew is busy finding new ways to advance the acoustic. For instance, Gibson Montana has refined the tops on its new instruments with a counter tension to the strings – “pent up” tension, as Ren calls it – so when a note is struck, the top immediately comes alive. It’s not like bumping a table and having a book fall off the other end; it’s like bumping a table and having the book shoot off the other end. “I don’t have time to wait around for my guitars to sound good,” Ren states rather pragmatically.

When asked if he would prefer more or less automation in guitar building, Ren’s response was somewhat surprising – although not as much if you recall his epiphany from Henry. He would prefer to see more automation as long as the final product is unaffected. “If I can prevent my workers from getting a repetative injury from sanding wood all day long, then you bet I am for the automation,” he says. The plant has already automated some tasks that were considered hazardous or “life-threatening.”

The Future
You would think that Ren would be salivating over the opportunity to do some fancy inlay or carving at this point in his career – his skills have developed so impressively, and his work is commanding such a premium, that it would seem silly not to. Surprisingly enough, Ren says that while he enjoys inlay work – something he says he “has to do,” like an artistic compulsion – but he is more thrilled by the overall production of instruments. Although he does enjoy making fine, high-end instruments like the “Pirates of the Caribbean” guitar, he says his favorite guitar is the next one he is getting ready to build. He has no puffed up ego, no self-serving idea about his well earned reputation – he is, in fact, the ultimate team player. If you know any extraordinary plumbers, you know that at the end of the day they still have to clean their fingernails themselves; it is refreshing to know an extraordinary luthier with the similar attitude.

“We want each guitar to have that Gibson sound, that Gibson look and that Gibson feel. When the customer gets all of those at the initial purchase then we have done what we need to for Henry,” Ren says enthusiastically, using Henry’s name as shorthand for the corporation as a whole. So while he is without doubt a soldier marching to his own beat, he is keeping pace with the rest of the troops and very much moving to the same music, in the same direction, as the rest of his coworkers. He describes his co-workers like, “a bunch of star children in the olympics.”

How do you describe this symbiotic relationship between the Boseman plant and the whole of Gibson, between Ren and his crew? The best way is through history; had Louis Comfort Tiffany not had a large factory, we likely wouldn’t revere the name Tiffany as we do today. Had Stradivarius not lived to the ripe old age of 90 and had many sons and grandchildren building wonderful violins, chances are we wouldn’t have heard of him either. In short, an “arteest” will ultimately be dependent on a financially successful partnership to flourish and achieve the prominence in the marketplace they deserve. That’s not to say that Ren Ferguson would not be still making the fabulous guitars if he was working under his own name, but now they are museum-quality Gibsons.

Big Sky Builder
Ferguson has become famous for his Master Museum inlays, like this one from a J-200
So what’s in store for the future of the Boseman plant? While it is best known for over-the-top flattops, Ren believes that they can make fine acoustic archtops as well. “Not to take anything away from Hutch [Jim Hutchins], but he was schooled on archtops at a time when the bodies of archtops were thicker so that Volume and Tone controls and switches could be installed in the tops. That was the type of archtop that the public wanted and Jim was the right man at the right time for that job. I, however, was trained on prewar archtops with a thinner, more lively top that is more responsive to an acoustic sound.” They have already produced some astounding acoustic L-7s and a Master Museum L-5 koa. Others, like Mike Fuller in Houston, concur with Ren’s assessment. When asked if he would take on the production of archtops, Ren humbly responds, “If we were offered...”

We may deduce that, at 62 years old, Ren’s clock is running, that there are a finite amount of Ferguson Gibsons to yet be had. By tenure alone, the Ren period at Gibson has already exceeded the Loar period. Fortunately, he remains dedicated as ever to his craft. While a touch of arthritis in his left hand has made some of his work more difficult, he continues to do most of his pearl cutting with a jewler’s saw by hand and without the aid of glasses (although he admits to needing a jeweler’s loupe for the engraving of pearl).

He’s also staying abreast of developments in luthiery and in building materials. Although he likes real abalone and mother-of-pearl for his inlays, he admits to having a fondness for abalam, a relatively new product that is essentially slivers of abalone layered in an epoxy-like resin and made into large sheets of material. However he doesn’t use abalam on the guitars that are in the Master Museum line or on any custom guitars that are made at Bozeman. “I can’t engrave abalam with any consistency. There are machines that can engrave it, but the texture is too irregular for me to do it by hand.” Ren doesn’t use a Dremel tool for inlay, but instead uses a Pencil Dye Grinder that is air driven and spins so fast that is has virtually no vibration. Ren has passed the guitar lifestyle down to his sons as well. His older son, Matthew, works for Gibson artist relations in California; his middle son, Tim, has shown a gift for doing inlay like his father, and is currently doing inlay for Gibson under Ren’s guidance. And although making guitars is largely an indoor activity, Ren’s soul longs for the skies, seas and mountains. Ren always wanted to be outside as a kid; he even made his own surfboards as a young man. He still considers himself an “outdoors man.” As a hobby, Ren raises pigeons and begrudges having to tote them water at “dark-thirty” in the morning, as he calls it.

When asked if he would like to retire, he admits he would like to drink a glass of orange juice off his front porch on the ocean and go out on his surfboard at morning’s first whisper, but he feels it may never be in the cards. So hopefully there will yet be a few more Master Museum guitars in the near future, and perhaps a few hundred more Gibson labels to be signed.

John Southern
Southern is a musician, songwriter, photographer, and guitar builder from Tulsa, Oklahoma. He is beginning a new TV Show called “Talkin’ Guitars.” He can be reached at johnsguitarshop@aol.com.

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