Meet the Director of Epiphone’s Supply Chain & Quality Control

Marty Burns: The Epiphone Interview

To celebrate our 140th Anniversary, is taking you behind the scenes to meet the people who make it possible for us to make one great instrument after another, each one backed up by our limited lifetime guarantee.

We've spoken with Gibson owner Dave Berryman, President Jim Rosenberg, and Research and Design Supervisor Richard Akers about the fun stuff--the epic history, the rebirth of Epiphone in the 80s and 90s, and Epi's critically acclaimed design process.

Now we turn to perhaps one of the more fascinating and unsung pieces of the puzzle--quality control. Marty Burns, Epiphone's Director of Supply Chain & Quality Control, oversees a world wide network of Epiphone factories, distribution centers, and proprietary manufacturing facilities as well as Epiphone's new state-of-the art headquarters where every Epiphone instrument that comes through the door is checked, polished, played, adjusted, and ok'd. And just how many instruments go through that door? A lot. "Being a player myself, I can 100%--without a doubt--tell you that no brand puts as much emphasis on value and quality as Epiphone," says Burns. And as a veteran player who has toured extensively and lived to tell the tale of the music business, you can bet that when Burns says 100%, it's not a boast, it's fact. As you'll gather from our interview, Marty Burns treats every new Epiphone instrument as if he made it with his own hands.

What is the job of the Director of Supply Chain & Quality Control?

I oversee and monitor the production and quality control of every instrument we produce. Along with our worldwide quality team, I observe every step of the way for our instruments while they are being produced and distributed. I have daily contact with the people who are working with every piece and part that goes into an Epiphone and as you know, we're making many different kinds of instruments at a variety of price points. That's what makes my job so challenging and exciting.

We're making instruments that retail for a little over $100 on up to $2,000 and all that comes into play with regards to our customer's expectations of a high level of quality no matter the price. I travel throughout the year to every facility that produces an Epiphone instrument as well as to the vendors that are making proprietary parts for us. Though we monitor what they're doing and have dedicated Epiphone staff in each facility that are reporting directly to me on a daily basis, I still like to see things with my own eyes. When it comes to monitoring production and quality control, there are so many things that an email or a phone call can't and will not tell you.

I follow the production phase and all the quality control points as the instrument filters through the manufacturing process, our worldwide distribution network, onto the consumer and even throughout the lifetime of the instrument. Also, when it comes to the suppliers that we use, I am part of the process of identifying and approving those sources to ensure they are a good fit for Epiphone production and meet our rigorous standards.

When Epiphone looks to manufacture a proprietary part outside of the Epiphone factory, how do you choose who can do the best job?

In that determination, there are a lot of factors that go into our decision. We consider the level of expertise they have, the machinery and technology they have at their disposal, the natural changes in climate of the region of the world where their facility is located, temperature and humidity controls throughout their facility, and even the transportation infrastructure available and what our products may be subjected to while in transit.

Fans and critics continually praise Epiphone for outstanding quality, especially over the last decade. What kind of challenges have you faced during the process of raising Epiphone's standards?

Epiphone quality, playability and player friendly features over the last 15 years have continually risen but our prices have remained very affordable. I think one of the most difficult things for an approved Epiphone manufacturing facility to grasp when they enter into a partnership with us is when I say to them: "I don't care what level of instruments you have made in the past; you are now an Epiphone supplier. With this title, there is now a great responsibility that you and all of your employees hold. You're going to be held to the highest standards that we have." There's no exception. There's no gray area. If you're making an Epiphone, you have firm specifications, and approved suppliers, that are all within our very extensive and exclusive network. There can be no negotiation in working outside this network, because even one part manufactured outside of the network could throw the quality of that part, and ultimately the performance of the instrument, completely off. We're very diligent in ensuring that each of our factories meets every Epiphone guideline, specification and requirement, even down to the working environment for the employee in the factory.

Marty Burns: The Epiphone InterviewEpiphone established the idea of making a professional affordable instrument and raised its profile over a very short period of time. What was Epiphone like when you started?

When I started here, I had to first learn the brand from the ground up. I started doing instrument set ups and quality control in our distribution center. Then, I progressed into training our staff, processing returns and ultimately supervising our distribution center staff. In this capacity I was able to implement a lot of our quality and training policy and procedures that stand to this day. Then the scope of my responsibility transitioned into supervising our Asian team and overseeing our worldwide quality efforts. It is in this regard that I have been able to work closely with our Epiphone team and help further define the Epiphone brand as the best quality instruments at the best price. And what is so amazing to me is the passion that not only our customers and our players feel, but the passion that each Epiphone employee has for our brand and the instruments we produce. This passion resonates throughout our entire network of suppliers, partners and dealers as well. I personally take pride in every instrument that we produce. Sometimes it can be stressful because I like to be very involved in every step that goes into producing our instruments. I monitor the entire process along the way, and even throughout the life of the instrument. I'm heavily involved in the day-to day of our manufacturing facilities and any issues that may be found during the manufacturing process. Working closely with our Epiphone R&D experts, I'm the person that addresses these issues. We get them fixed immediately. We don't wait. This involves our quality team many times working around the clock to ensure we minimize any impact to production and/or quality.

I also work closely with our returns departments to ensure that we capture the data needed so that we may monitor how our instruments are holding up in the field and watch for quality trends. This process also involves listening to our customers and our dealer's feedback on a daily basis. Every morning I start my day with reading reports that give me actual product comments, ideas and suggestions from our customers. The bottom line each day is: How do we make a better instrument for our customers?

What do customers expect from an Epiphone instrument?

What stands out for me the most is that regardless of whatever markets we ship to, our customers expect that they're getting an instrument they can take out night after night and play the heck out of. They depend on the security that comes with buying an Epiphone and knowing it's going to last a lifetime. Of course, we have players who baby their Epiphones--don't get me wrong--but I feel all Epiphone players depend on a work horse instrument--great playability, rock solid reliability and an amazing looking finish that's really going to pop but at the same time is incredibly strong and durable. Those are the biggest things our customers seem to identify with Epiphone. We have many different levels of players who play our instruments every day or night. Whether they are a beginner or a pro, they know that they can take an Epiphone off the hook at the dealer and it's ready to go.

Gone are the days when you bought an Epiphone and replaced the pickups.

That's right. Today, you can buy an Epiphone anywhere in the world and say: 'Wow this is a great playing instrument. I don't need to take it anywhere to have work done. I don't need to switch out the pickups or the pots. It's ready to go and will stay that way.'

Was that consistency harder to come by before you started?

Epiphone has always had a dedicated team. But the combination of experience, dedication, and technological advances have enabled us to reach a level of consistency that is unprecedented in the industry. At Epiphone, we believe that if you are not growing as a brand, you are dying. Now, we have so many unbelievable technical features that take our instruments to the next level. Our instruments have evolved and become more comprehensive with spot-on specifications, detailed drawings, and proprietary suppliers. Our level of expertise, our expectations of our worldwide Epiphone team and our understanding of our customer's wants and needs, is--I feel--100 times greater than what it once was.

Marty Burns: The Epiphone InterviewCan you help dispel a long-standing myth that guitars today--and specifically Epiphones-- are made more by machine than by hand? From what I gather from you and from Richard Akers, our supervisor for R&D, much of the process of making an Epiphone instrument is still very hands-on.

That's right. Of course, we have fixtures and templates in place---just as Epiphone had in New York and in Kalamazoo, but I feel to get a good quality instrument you have to have that personal touch. One of the ways in which Epiphone distinguishes itself is that we ensure that every person who works on or with our instruments throughout the manufacturing process recognizes that they are using their hands to make an actual musical instrument that will one day make wonderful music in the hands of the musician who is playing it. It's a process to be proud of. It takes skill and care. And it's an important part of my job to help them recognize that what they do is so important to this instrument being made properly with attention to detail and quality, and--ultimately--changing the life of its future owner. That is what makes me passionate about building guitars.

In a world of robots, the guitar is still such a personal thing. I'm a player, and when I hold this guitar in my hand, I can feel all the love that went into making this instrument and giving it musical life.

It seems like Epiphone fans are finally able to see Gibson and Epiphone as unique entities.

There are quite a few unique Epiphone models and shapes like the Genesis, the Wildkat and the Wilshire to name a few. But I think one of the best things our team has brought to the table over the last decade is a better way of building guitars and finding a great balance between tradition and innovation. Some other companies make the same guitar over and over again. As a result, they can be more cookie cutter and assembly line- oriented. That's not the case with us. We have the Les Paul, the SG, Flying-V's, the Sheraton, the Texan, the Dot, the Casinos, Thunderbirds, Casady basses, banjos, mandolins and more --- and they are all such different and diverse instruments. The innovations we’re building into our instruments today--like the PRO series and the Ultra III--gives our players the ultimate amount of flexibility. I don't feel there is another brand that has really taken it to the next level the way Epiphone has. We have made the experience for the player more enjoyable while giving them better tools to do their job. As far as a brand goes, we don't do anything halfway and our fans know that. I want the customer's experience with Epiphone to be completely out of sight, over-the-top, and extremely satisfying. Having been on the road, playing music, I've had experiences with other brands that were just heartbreaking.

You were a touring artist prior to coming to Epiphone?

Ages ago, I had a record deal which brought me to Nashville. And needing to be closer to the industry I so loved, that's why I moved here initially. That opportunity grew into me joining the Epiphone team and I have never looked back since. I grew up in a musical family and came from a long line of players, so from the beginning, I understood what a high quality, good playing instrument encompassed. Back in those days, if I had an issue with another guitar brand, I would contact them for service and they'd say "we'll have your guitar back to you in about 6 months." Those 6 months sometimes turned into 9 or 12 causing nothing but confusion and frustration on my part. When I got the opportunity to help shape and develop Epiphone policies and procedures, that was one of the first areas we focused on. How to get the instrument in our facility and then back out to our customers in tiptop shape. Doing it in a matter of DAYS, not months.

But really, we make a great quality instrument and not that many ever come back. But if and when a customer does have an issue, it becomes our top priority. We make it our #1 goal to get it solved and get the instrument back in their hands. I want them playing their Epiphones. Many customers have called me and said 'we've had such a great experience with Epiphone, this the only brand we’re gonna buy moving forward,' and that's what you want to hear.

Tell us about the new Epiphone headquarters in Nashville.

I'm really excited about our new facility in Nashville. This facility is going to help take our brand and our business to the next level. We have a state-of-the-art warehouse facility that gives us the ability better serve our customers, deliver our guitars more quickly to those customers, and to conduct superior set-ups. Overall, we have created a better environment for our instruments and our employees. I'm already getting feedback from our dealers and customers that their new Epiphones have never played better. Even the ability to take a few more minutes with each instrument during the set up process can make a huge, noticeable difference.

What is the inspection process at Epiphone?

We use a 15-point checklist but that, of course, is what follows a rigorous inspection and set-up process at the manufacturing level. Around the world, our Epiphone technicians check the specifications and make minor adjustments to the set-up of our instruments as needed. This includes playing every note on the guitar as well to ensure great playability. They look for anything that might affect our goal of providing our customers with an awesome, ready-to-gig instrument.

What we hear from Epiphone fans is that they, on average, own 7 guitars including Les Pauls, archtops, and acoustics.

That's right. So if you have any issue with an Epiphone in your collection, I want to know about it, so that we can continually make improvements in our instruments while providing you with a positive Epiphone experience!