FROM ITS INCEPTION IN 1987, its inception in 1987, the Custom Shop has played a central role in keeping Fender’s past alive. Beginning as a two-man operation, the Custom Shop now employs more than 50 people who produce one-of-a-kind guitars under the “Build Your Own” program, as well as the many standard instruments offered in the Classic Series, Time Machine Series, and Custom Artist Series. While close to half of the Custom Shop’s production is now devoted to making replicas of Broadcasters, Esquires, Teles, and Strats that are “aged” to look as though they’ve been in use since the ’50s and ’60s, a much smaller number of guitars are painstakingly handcrafted by a select group of builders for the limited-edition Tribute Series—which are instruments that closely resemble the ones played by some of the world’s most iconic guitar players.
The latest addition to the Tribute Series—which includes Muddy Waters’ Telecaster, Stevie Ray Vaughan’s “Number One,” Jeff Beck’s Esquire, and the late-’60s white Strat played by Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock—is Eric Clapton’s famous Stratocaster known as “Blackie.” His main recording and touring guitar from 1973 to 1985, Blackie was first featured on the live album, Eric Clapton’s Rainbow Concert, and can also be heard on 461 Ocean Boulevard, There’s One in Every Crowd, E.C. Was Here, No Reason to Cry, Slowhand, Backless, Another Ticket, Money and Cigarettes, and Behind the Sun.
Clapton retired Blackie following his Live Aid performance at John F. Kennedy Stadium in 1985, though it did manage to sneak onstage for one song during Clapton’s Royal Albert Hall shows in 1991. Blackie was sold at auction in 2004 to Guitar Center for $959,500, and the proceeds went to Clapton’s charity, the Crossroads Centre Antigua. In 2006, Guitar Center commissioned Fender to build 275 exact replicas of Blackie, and these guitars went on sale at select GC stores on November 24, 2006, at a price of $24,000 each.
Last August, Fender invited Guitar Player to visit its factory in Corona to witness the Blackie project. At the time, only two guitars had been fully completed—one of which had remained with Clapton after he approved it backstage at London’s Royal Albert Hall on May 17, 2006. As a testament to how “right” Fender got it, Clapton played the new Blackie on three songs that night.
In the Beginning
The Blackie saga began with Clapton’s purchase of six vintage Strats in 1970, from a guitar shop called Sho-Bud in Nashville, Tennessee. He paid $100 apiece for the guitars, and, upon retuning to England, he gave one each to George Harrison, Pete Townshend, and Steve Winwood. Clapton played the remaining three instruments for a while before deciding to do something he’d never done before—take the best parts from those guitars and combine them to build one über Strat. Clapton began by selecting a ’56 alder body that was finished in black lacquer and a one-piece maple neck from a ’57 that featured a hard “V” shape. The pickups and hardware were installed (along with a small block of wood that he slipped behind the vibrato’s inertia block to lock the unit in place), and the result was one of the most famous “mutt” hardtail Strats ever made.
Devil in the Details
The Custom Shop’s director of sales and marketing, Mike Eldred, explained to us some of Blackie’s unique details—such as how the neck had been re-sprayed with lacquer at some point prior to Clapton’s ownership, and how this refinishing was apparently done with only a light sanding that had failed to remove all the grime that had accumulated in the wood grain. This allowed the already dark wear pattern to be preserved under the new finish. Also, the original, nickel-plated Kluson tuner on the high-E string had been replaced with a gold-plated unit, the pickups had been rewound at some point (though not during the Clapton era), and a non-stock ’50s-era tone-control cap had been installed. These and myriad other details—some very obvious, such as the cigarette burns on the headstock, and the large area of bare wood on the back of the body—all had to be recreated to make an exacting replica. As a final capper, the Anvil Case Company crafted 275 special flight cases for the entire run of instruments—all of which feature a chipped logo plate (complete with Anvil’s ’70s-era address) and “Duck Brothers” stenciled on the sides, as per Clapton’s original case.
From what we saw at the Custom Shop, it’s obvious that no effort was spared to replicate Blackie in all its tattered glory. Fender’s storied place in rock history creates a huge demand for these replicas—which are becoming very hot investment items in their own right—and the building of these guitars can place particularly heavy demands on the workers who have to meet the tight deadlines for their release into the market. The Custom Shop has once again risen to the challenge, and Blackie is indeed a spectacular tribute to Eric Clapton.