Past Glory: Ted McCarty and Gibson’s Golden Age

In February, it was reported that Gibson Brands, parent company of the iconic guitar maker, is facing bankruptcy despite an estimated $1 billion in yearly revenues, with $375 million in senior secured notes maturing and $145 million in loans due by this July. CFO Bill Lawrence has left the company, which has also abandoned the Nashville warehouse it’s held for the past 30 years.

The news didn’t surprise me, I don’t play, but I’ve done some research on the topic of basses and guitars. Spending time on player chat boards and blogs gave me some insight into the industry, and it’s clear that Gibson’s morale and perception by its audience have been in the proverbial crapper for some time. But reading up on the history of Gibson’s fabled lineup gave me immense interest in and respect for the man who presided over the company’s “golden age,” when it gave the world the Les Paul, the Flying V, the Firebird, the Explorer and more: Ted McCarty. The news of Gibson’s current misfortune seems a good time to look back at the man—also a non-player–who made the company and in the process made history.

 

McCarty was born in Somerset, KY in 1909 and moved to Cincinnati at age three with his father and brother to live with a great aunt and uncle upon his mother’s death. He got an engineering degree from the University of Cincinnati, but it was his experience managing the campus bookstore that got him a job with Wurlitzer in 1936 as a retail manager. In 1948 the Brach candy company was recruiting him for a treasurer position, but while waiting for Mr. Brach to return from vacation and make a decision on the hire, McCarty was contacted by his friend Maurice Berlin at Gibson, who’d been tipped in turn by his friend Bill Gretsch, that McCarty was between jobs.

Berlin asked McCarty to go to Kalamazoo and find out why the company was hemorrhaging money. McCarty’s report—that the company was overstaffed at upper management—impressed Berlin so much that he offered McCarty the CEO position, something that didn’t initially tempt McCarty. After learning that McCarty had an engineering degree, Berlin told McCarty that if he could turn a profit as CEO he’d make him president of the company. McCarty did.

McCarty combined a head for business with an engineer’s perspective: The “McCarty pickup” combined the pickup, volume and tone controls into one unit that could convert any archtop acoustic into an electric model, and beginning with the ES-5 in 1949 the company established itself in the dedicated electric market.

There’s actually some debate regarding the role McCarty actually played in the development of the Les Paul. Paul had been working on the concept of a solid body electric for some time, and approached Maurice Berlin first with the idea of producing one. Berlin is the one Paul credited, but McCarty understood the threat from Fender’s solid body electrics and knew that a celebrity endorsement would divert attention from Fender’s Telecaster. He personally brought Paul the prototype and signed the deal. On the strength of the sales of the Les Paul, and later models that he had a hand in designing, Gibson grew from under 200 employees to more than 1,000 and increased production from 5,000 guitars per year to more than 100,000.

McCarty’s knew the company couldn’t rest on its laurels, and kept Gibson competitive with new models. His name appears on patents for the humbucking pickup, the Tune-o-Matic bridge, the Explorer, the Flying V, the SG and more. He didn’t make every technical breakthrough himself, but he had personal input and created the team and the environment that made them possible. He modified the Bigsby vibrato and made Gibson the first company to incorporate it on its guitars. He acquired competitor Epiphone, giving Gibson an in-house budget line to compete with overseas copies. Like any good leader, he recognized talent in others, recruiting automotive designer Ray Dietrich to design the Firebird. He later mentored Paul Reed Smith, who honored him in 1994 with the creation of the PRS McCarty model.

In 1965, CBS bought Fender. McCarty saw the future of the industry and accepted Paul Bigsby’s personal request to privately buy Bigsby Accessories, becoming its president and retiring from Gibson shortly afterward. He died in 2001.

McCarty’s name is known to many players and certainly to guitar historians, but it’s safe to say he’s never really gotten his due for his contributions. I’m an advocate for the non-performer’s place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and while Leo Fender doubtless deserves his place there, McCarty deserves one too. (There’s an argument to be made for Adolph Rickenbacker too).

With reports that guitar sales are down overall, people have been quick to blame EDM, hip hop and Millennials in general for both rock music’s perceived doldrums and Gibson’s crisis. Gibson CEO Henry Jusckiewicz blames retailers for not providing a welcoming environment for new players. Maybe that’s why creditors are pinning hopes of a restructuring deal on his departure, which Jusckiewicz is refusing. It’s clear Gibson needs another McCarty. But sadly, it’s not clear that there is one.

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