Written By George VanWagner, Musician's Friend Staff Writer
Lining the walls of an unassuming factory building in largely industrial Vernon, California, just east of downtown Los Angeles, is a quintessential part of the history of rock-and-roll and 20th century popular music. Those odd-shaped pieces of wood, fabric and cardboard hung in groups around the various work areas are the templates and forms that have been used to make the cases for guitars, basses, saxophones, trumpets and more for over two-thirds of a century. And upstairs, in what G & G Quality Cases refers to as "the boneyard," are hundreds of cases stacked high or leaned against the wall, each of which is a unique prototype for some iconic instrument, from the earliest Fender guitars to the original body blank for Eddie Van Halen's "Wolfgang," complete with Van Halen's handwritten pencil notes about adjustments for fit.
Consider the classic photos of musicians on the road — how many have featured the simple instrument case? Whether that case is being used as seat, dining table, writing surface or simply propped in the corner during a rehearsal or show, the odds are pretty good that case was made by G & G, or its immediate predecessor, Victoria Case.
G & G founders, Ben Germain and Efren Guzman both got their start with Victoria Case, a luggage manufacturer that had been tapped by numerous musical instrument firms, including Gibson and Fender, to make cases for their products. When Victoria fell into difficulties in the mid-1970s, Germain and Guzman formed the new company that bore their initials and stepped in to become Fender's go-to supplier of premium instrument cases, as well as taking over the manufacture of cases for many others.
G & G's business today is split between making premium cases for many of the world's top guitar manufacturers and high-end luthiers, including Fender, Jackson, Suhr, Schecter's U.S.A. Custom Shop, Ernie Ball Music Man, G&L, Taylor Guitars and Tom Anderson, while also offering custom-made cases for individuals like Johnny Farina from Santo & Johnny, who has had cases built for his vintage Fender lap steel.
The company maintains rigorous standards and has a deep sense of history. All their cases are still made almost entirely by hand using traditional tools and techniques. Some of the tools in the shop are museum pieces in their own right. On the busy factory floor, Gerry Germain, who grew up learning the family business, and stepped up to run the company when his father passed away in 2016, explains, "My newest stitching machine is 1907, and the oldest, I believe, 1897. They’re Puritan stitching machines." These seriously heavy-duty machines are designed to stitch right through the wood of the case, attaching the relic-ed leather caps without the need for glue or staples.
Stepping over to another looming machine, Germain smiles. "You're going to love this one," he says. "We used to do Gibson's cases and a lot of acoustic cases. This is the original bending machine from Victoria Case, built in 1948. The hydraulics on it are surplus landing gear from the B-1 bomber." Next to it is the press used to make the arched tops of cases like the original Les Paul case and many classic acoustic guitar cases. "This is one of the coolest things," says Germain, with undisguised pride. "We get three-quarters of an inch of stretch on that [press] from that die." The press runs dry, without the need to soak the wood, a Ponderosa pine sourced from the Carolinas.
As we step back to the wood shop, where the entire building process begins, the walls are lined with even more templates for different case styles that embody the company's history and Germain reflects, "Funny to get somebody in with a different [perspective] — I walk in here all day and those things are just there, but then you see that and I look at it."
In the wood shop is where each case begins. They're built on a rectangular frame that starts life as a simple box that's stapled and glued together, which is one of the few changes from the old ways. "They used to dovetail the tongue and groove," explains Germain. "They used to hammer them together and they’d break and it was a bad alignment. So now [we] glue and staple instead of dovetail." After the glue dries, the cases are shaped, which shaves the heads off the staples, leaving the metal pins for stability, then contoured on three different sanding machines.
The next stage has the rectangular boxes sliced into two separate pieces, bottom and lid. As each pair is uniquely matched, they're numbered on the inside and the pair kept together throughout the rest of the manufacturing process. Once the box is cut in two, it goes through a final shaping stage where any voids are patched and sanded before having the fabric or vinyl applied.
Putting the exterior wrap on each case is very much a hands-on operation, with experienced workers gluing and smoothing by hand. Once wrapped, the cases have the leather trim added and the various bits of hardware — gliders, handles, hinges, latches — are attached. Because of the difference in balance between guitars, there's an entire set of jigs to ensure correct handle placement for proper carrying balance. "This is something that’s kind of cool," Germain notes with pride. "So again, numbered, still together from the time in the wood shop where the lid is separated, this is where the lid gets re-attached to the bottom of the case. We call this 'closing.'" This is also the point where, from the outside at least, what had been a raw wood skeleton first looks like the instrument case it was intended to be.
The next stage is adding the lining and interior compartments — a big part of what gives each case its individual personality, and one where as much care is taken as with the rest of the process. To begin with, materials for case interior and exterior are carefully sourced. For example, the tweed fabric comes from a mill in the Carolinas — the same mill that's produced this particular tweed for decades, dating back to when Victoria Case was a luggage manufacturer, and the unique interior fabric is the result of a painstaking hand process. "Our velvet comes from the same manufacturer as my dad used in the ‘50s," says Germain. "It’s made in Europe, and the whole process is unbelievable. This texture, which we call "poodle" — this material is naturally this way. It lays down with the high pile on it and then they throw fishnet on it while it’s wet, and they shave it while moving the fishnet on it. It’s the most insane process you’ve ever seen. But again, it’s all by hand. I mean, they can only produce so much. And it’s one of these things that everybody has tried to replicate."
The company still uses the traditional hide glue on the interior lining, and Germain displays several blocks of the raw substance. "This is it," he says, "animal glue. It’s the old-horse-out-to-the-pasture stuff. Got no salts, no chemical additives in it. All it’s got is a little glycerin in there to keep the humidity for the drying time up. You can actually eat it. We put vanilla in it to keep the smell. But it is one of the things that [players] that open our cases—doesn’t matter a ‘50s case or a new one —open it up and it has this scent."
Passing by a work table where a man is chalking measurements on a stack of fabric, Germain pauses. "This is my cutter, Juan. He’s my make-or-break guy. This is the guy that saves me money right here. This is the most – materials are the most expensive part of the case." It's obvious that he feels a strong connection to every worker in the factory and there's a strong family vibe everywhere. In turn he introduces Miguel, the lead trimmer who's been with the company for over 30 years, and Elsa, who has been with the company since G & G was founded in 1976 with just five employees. "It’s so funny how time goes by and you realize how long people have been with you," he muses. "I mean literally, I just said, 'my God, he’s been with us over 30 years.' [laughs] Yeah."
The family vibe carries over to the logo badge that goes on every case. "My entire life, my dad was one of the original cigar smokers," Germain says. "I mean, he would smoke cigars when it wasn’t cool. When we were little, it was not allowed to roll down the windows in the Volvo 264 while he’s on his Churchill. He obviously stopped smoking cigars when he got into this 80s, but one of the legacy things is that the cases in the early ‘90s started to get knocked off. There actually started to be a value for reselling cases, so we started putting our own logo in all the cases for all of our customers. One of the things that I had put on our logo is that, if you look on the very edge, it’s the little dimples, the same as on a cigar label. So this is a little homage to my dad, a little link to him in case lids on [everything]."
The other "G" of G & G, Efren Guzman, is still actively involved with the company as well. Guzman has a mechanical background, which Germain is quick to point out as we step out to the front of the building where there is a collection of vintage industrial equipment. "One of the greatest things in my dad’s partner, Efren Guzman, is that he’s a mechanic. The guy’s got the patience of Job. He tinkers and spends his day on the floor production. He still, to this day – he’s going to be 80 years old this Friday – and he still keeps all of our stuff going."
Though the entire hand-assembling process might seem labor-intensive, apparently it offers advantages. "The beauty of our factory," says Germain, "it’s truly a couture case. It’s a completely handmade case. Everybody’s hand [touches] something on it. It’s literally handed off from one person to the next. The volume that we do to keep up with Fender is pretty amazing [laughs]. At the end of the day, when you look at us, like, wow, that’s really an accomplishment. It’s the type of place, too, everybody’s cross-trained to do at least five or six different operations."
Germain's eyes glint. "Let me take you upstairs because I think you'll like the boneyard," he says, leading the way up the stairs to the loft-like area that circles the entire factory building. Hundreds of cases are stacked and leaned against the wall, many with faded labels, and several packing barrels are full of guitar bodies. "So these are some of our body blanks and dummies and things like that," he says, "templates for every guitar. When we do a run, we come and get the body and make sure it fits inside." He points to one stack in particular. "Jackson…seems like every guitar that comes out is different. So every one of those has been a guitar that Jackson Guitars has come out with." As we walk, he points out prototypes for a wide variety of cases the company has made over the years. "These are trumpets, saxophones, euphoniums, any marching band. These are all [shapes] that we’ve done."
Music history has passed through this building. "I’ve got the prototype Wolfgang here," says Germain. "It’s actually got Eddie’s penciling on the guitar body. That’s how involved he was —and I mean meticulous — about everything. He’s got everything penciled on there, measurements and everything. Pretty amazing."
Germain reflects, "I have held some of the most beautiful and expensive instruments in my hand. I had R.C. Allen – we made a bunch of stuff for him over the years and he had that original Bigsby guitar [ed. note: R.C. Allen's was actually the second Bigsby solid body, made in 1949. The first, built for Merle Travis lives in the Country Music Hall of Fame.] that he swears Leo stole the headstock from him and the whole thing. 'Here. Keep it. Keep it for me.' You know, THE one. And it was like, 'R.C., what’s that thing probably worth?' I think the last somebody had offered him $350,000 for it."
Back downstairs, Germain gives a tour of some of the limited-edition cases being produced for several Fender guitars that will be exclusive to Musician's Friend. "They [MF] wanted to create something that’s higher-end looking, yet retro, and yet modern, with some cool details that are not on what you can buy online from Fender or from any other thing," he explains. "So it’s specifically for models that are going to be only made for them. The foundation’s there, but it’s tweaked with some relic materials and throwback colors, such as the seafoam green that they use. We’ve got some relic-ed or worn leather that we’re putting on a couple of them." He points out a stack of the seafoam green cases. "It’s going to have, I believe, a gray poodle interior." Another stack is black, with plush blue lining.
The obvious pride that Germain takes in both the cases and the company is evident. "G&G has been making cases longer now than Victoria Case ever did," he says. "That’s where my dad started and where Efren Guzman started. It’s all involving the reissue stuff and creating things the way they were, and the modern case, too, which we still do." He looks over at the factory floor. "Getting the stuff out to the customer ultimately becomes the reality." He gestures to the computer and office. "All this stuff, you know, is pushed aside and it’s still that way. We’re very little red tape and paper. We handle everything when it comes in. That’s kind of the feel I love."
It's infectious, that enthusiasm for a job well done, a case going out the door that carries decades of history, a sense of the past and the loving touch of a crew of dedicated artisans who know that their work will be appreciated for years to come. As we turn to leave the factory, the breeze is just right, and we catch a last, lingering scent of vanilla.