The Dream Factory
For thirty years the Fender Custom Shop has turned imagination into reality for guitarists and its Master Builders alike.
By Richard Bienstock | Photos Courtesy of Fender
In today’s guitar universe, terms like “signature model,” “relic,” “custom shop” and “limited edition” are regular parts of the common lexicon. But these designations weren’t in frequent use when Fender opened the doors of their now legendary Custom Shop in the early months of 1987. Opening a custom shop was a surprising move for a major company that had established its reputation over the previous 37 years as a manufacturer of factory-built, mass-produced guitars. Almost overnight, one of the world’s biggest guitar companies was steering the industry toward highly specific, often individualized desires. The mere fact that it was Fender doing this is perhaps even more remarkable, especially given the company’s state of affairs at the time.
By the early Eighties, Fender was a good 15 years into its CBS era. Under the ownership of CBS, which purchased Fender and its affiliated companies from Leo Fender in 1965 for $13 million, the design and production quality of its instruments—including the groundbreaking Telecaster and Stratocaster models—were in stark decline due to cost cutting measures and poorly conceived modifications.
In March 1985, a team of investors led by Fender President Bill Schultz purchased the company from CBS with the intent of returning the Fender name and its instruments to icon status. One of the first people to assist in this endeavor was an acclaimed builder, repairman and Texas cowboy named Michael Stevens, who Fender approached to head up their newly created Custom Shop in late 1986. “We had all watched Fender from the outside,” Stevens says. “We hated what we saw CBS do. But when I talked to Dan [Smith, then Director of Marketing] and to Bill, they said they wanted to turn it around. That was enough for me.”
Stevens came on board at Fender’s newly built facility in Corona, California, and was joined almost immediately by John Page, a young and prodigiously skilled artisan who had worked at the company since 1978 (albeit with a brief leave of absence to try his hand at a music career). Together, the two men became the founding fathers of the Custom Shop. “When Michael and I first met, we were probably as diametrically opposed as you could be—you’ve got this tall, thin cowboy and this short, chunky surfer-hippie dude,” Page recalls today with a laugh. “But we got along marvelously.”
The early days of the Custom Shop were unusual, to say the least. Stevens and Page didn’t even have dedicated space in the Fender factory, and at one point they used Stevens’ garage as a home base. But their mission was clear: “At the time, Fender was like the Chevy of guitar builders,” Page says. “We felt we should be better than that—no offense to Chevrolet. What I’m saying is we were like this good mid-priced car. But we felt that we could be a Jaguar, Mercedes or Ferrari. We could be at that level if we approached this correctly.”
The Custom Shop’s earliest products were a hodgepodge of custom finish jobs and one-off designs, including unusual instruments like a Strat/Esquire doubleneck (generally regarded as the first Custom Shop order), a banjo equipped with a pedal-steel-like mechanism, and builds for artist friends like Eric Johnson, Elliot Easton and César Rosas (interestingly, the latter two are both left-handed). Soon enough, however, hundreds of orders were coming in, primarily from players desiring instruments that evidenced Stevens and Page’s distinct talent at crafting vintage-style pieces that captured the tone and feel of Fender’s glorious past to an extraordinary degree.
“What made the switch happen was when our distributor in Japan, Yamano Music, got it,” Page says. “The Japanese customer, from what we saw, was the first en masse customer group that understood vintage details better than most other markets. They started saying, ‘Can you correct the routing?’ ‘Can you move that screw a little bit this way?’ Those were the kinds of details they started to mandate. Once we began doing it to their satisfaction it started blowing up all over.”
In the remaining years of the Eighties the Custom Shop grew quickly in size and scope. A dedicated team of builders was assembled, and striking, legacy-celebrating models like the 40th Anniversary Telecaster and 35th Anniversary Stratocaster were produced in limited quantities, although these were comparatively large runs for the Custom Shop (for example, the 40th Anniversary Telecaster, designed by Stevens, Page and Smith, immediately sold out its run of 300 examples).
Around the same time, the Custom Shop collaborated with Eric Clapton to develop Fender’s first signature model, the Eric Clapton Signature Stratocaster. The Clapton guitar’s many customized features included a neck based on the artist’s legendary Blackie, which afforded Stevens intimate time with the famous hybrid Strat. “I had to eat, breathe and sleep with Blackie under my bed and a pistol under my pillow,” he recalls. “I’m a Texas guy—if somebody was gonna get it they were gonna have to fight for it. I didn’t want it on my gravestone: The Man Who Lost Blackie.” (Years later, the Custom Shop produced a limited run of 275 Master Built Blackie Tribute Replicas, which sold out completely on the day of release.)
Unveiled in 1988, the Eric Clapton Stratocaster sparked a long tradition of signature instruments produced within Fender and across the guitar industry. Throughout the next few years, the Custom Shop, often in conjunction with the main Fender factory, worked on and built models associated with Jeff Beck, Yngwie Malmsteen, Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan and others. Since then Fender has produced signature instruments dedicated to numerous artists, from John Mayer to John 5, Ritchie Blackmore to Kurt Cobain, David Gilmour to Rory Gallagher. But it all began with Clapton. Says Page, “I think we all knew that if you were gonna hit it, you start at the top.”
The Custom Shop continued to trail blaze throughout this period, introducing “art” guitars—instruments that mined the outer reaches of each builder’s imagination and resulted in stunning creations like a Corian-covered Egyptian Telecaster and a metal-body Harley-Davidson anniversary Strat. Other Custom Shop projects, such as the set-neck Telecaster, put a unique twist on Fender’s long-established models. However, the Custom Shop’s next major development came along in 1995 with the introduction of the Relic Series guitars that were artificially aged through distressing, cracking and checking the finishes and simulating wear on various accessories. Fender was by no means the first maker to add pre-fabricated wear-and-tear to a new instrument.
“There were one-off guys doing it here and there, primarily for restorations,” Page says. “But we were the first company that took it on and did it as a real product. We knew it would be hip and cool. When [former Master Builder] J.W. Black first brought the concept to me, I said, ‘Don’t tell anybody.’ Then when we showed a few at the [1995 Winter] NAMM show we put them in glass cases. All the dealers were saying, ‘Man, these are gorgeous. Where did get them?’ And we were like, ‘These are brand new. How many do you want?’ ”
The relic guitars instantly became a massive success, and the line was soon expanded and renamed the Time Machine Series. The Custom Shop began offering guitars with an array of finishes that presented varying degrees of wear, from N.O.S. (New Old Stock) to Closet Classic and Heavy Relic, the latter replicating decades of hard playing to create a brand new, but visually battered, warhorse. “We were blown away at how popular it was and continued to be,” Page says of the series.
John Page left the Custom Shop toward the end of the Nineties, with Mike Eldred coming in to take over the command post (Stevens had departed several years earlier, in 1990). But throughout the 21st century the Shop has continued to produce some of the most magnificent six-string (not to mention four-, five- and seven-string) specimens, from eye-popping art guitars (as exemplified by many of the 10 featured on the following pages), to artist-commissioned one-offs (such as Master Builder Yuriy Shishkov’s “Shattered Mirror” Tele for Keith Urban), to numerous signature, tribute, Time Machine and other models. And, as is always the case, there are the unending orders for Master Built and Team Built custom guitars for players both professional and hobbyist. “The focus has always been the same,” says Dennis Galuszka, an 18-year Master Builder who has crafted instruments for Paul McCartney and John Mayer, among others. “It’s a made-to-order shop, whether it’s a build for an artist touring the world or a guy at home who just wants to see his dream become reality.”
That last point, in fact, is why the Custom Shop has long been nicknamed “The Dream Factory.” Says Page, “I think we have indeed answered a lot of dreams.” To underscore this point, Page points to the recent Founders Design series of guitars, for which Fender invited the eight original Custom Shop Master Builders—Page and Stevens among them—to create a unique instrument in celebration of the Custom Shop’s 30th anniversary. “About two weeks ago, I got an email from a guy who bought one of mine,” Page says, referring to his Founders model, a double f-hole Esquire also known as the Page-o-caster. “And he said, ‘This really is my dream guitar. And it will be in my family for life.’ It’s pretty cool when you can do that for someone. The Fender Custom Shop has been doing that for 30 years.”
On the following pages, Guitar Aficionado presents nine of the Fender Custom Shop’s recent one-of-a-kind Master Built creations.
Cuervo X Fender Agave Stratocaster
“When someone said, ‘We’re gonna make a guitar out of a plant,’ I knew that this would be a challenge,” says Master Builder Paul Waller about his Cuervo X Fender Agave Stratocaster. True to its name, the guitar, which Waller designed and constructed in partnership with Jose Cuervo, has had every traditional wood element replaced with the soft plant-based material. In addition to the two-piece pure agave body, neck and fingerboard, the Cuervo Agave Stratocaster features chrome Fender hardware, a custom-engraved neck plate with Jose Cuervo inscription and hand-wound Fat ’50s neck, RWRP middle and bridge pickups. The result, true to the legacy of the Custom Shop, is a remarkable—and, at just 6.5 pounds, excessively light—one-of-a-kind instrument.
Front Row Legend Esquire
The body of Master Builder Yuriy Shishkov’s Front Row Legend Esquire is crafted from 100-year-old Alaskan yellow cedar reclaimed from the original bench boards (ca. 1919) at the famed Hollywood Bowl outdoor amphitheater in Southern California. Features include a Sixties-style “Oval C”-shaped quartersawn maple neck, original-spec Broadcaster bridge pickup and oxidized brass hardware. Each Front Row Legend also sports a different original “seat number” on the top of the body, and an ultra-thin satin finish preserves the look of the wood—cracks, bolt holes and scratches included—in its original condition. “It doesn’t happen every day that you get your hands on a material that not only has historical value as a place, but also historical value as a place of music,” Shishkov says.
“Ha Penny Bridge” Master Built Guitars
Opened in 1816, the Ha’penny Bridge is perhaps the most famous pedestrian bridge in Dublin—among the many Irishmen who have crossed it (the toll was initially a single ha’penny, or half penny) are a young U2, who were photographed there in the very early Eighties, and Thin Lizzy singer Phil Lynott, who filmed a video on the bridge a few years later. When the Ha’penny Bridge was refurbished in 2001, its timbers were replaced with a steel deck. Master Builder John Cruz subsequently employed some of that replaced wood in the creation of these tribute guitars. In addition to the beautifully weathered bodies, the pair of instruments—the Irish Roots Tele Relic and Irish Roots Strat Relic—each boast a ha’penny (dating from 1915–1917 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the bridge in 2016) inlaid into the guitar’s top.
Yuriy Shishkov’s striking Studioliner uses the Kodak Bantam Special Art Deco photo camera as its inspiration. “The camera was ahead of its time in complexity and features,” he says. “It was considered a masterpiece.” The Studioliner guitar is similarly a masterpiece, its art-deco design studded with an eye-popping 1,000 diamonds that outline the body contours and then travel up the neck. Silver work and red guilloché enamel inlays round out the guitar, which also features custom hardware and electronics. The Studioliner, which Shishkov describes as a “functional art piece,” is valued at $450,000 and sold with a Kodak Bantam Special Art Deco from 1936. “When I saw the camera, I had the idea that it would be really cool to make it a set,” he says.
This Prestige model is inspired by an instrument Master Builder Stephen Stern designed with Dan Smith for NAMM in 1999 and that was later named the Classic Rocker in the Custom Shop. Stern’s new version features a 17-inch electric hollow body, Trans Red finish and curly maple body and neck. Additional touches include diamond-pattern fingerboard inlays (inspired by a photo of an old lap steel guitar sporting similar fretboard markers), a pickguard featuring the 30th Anniversary logo, an inner label from the Shop’s product development guru Ralph Esposito that can be viewed through the f-hole and a guitar strap made by designer Dru Whitefeather.
Gold Leaf Telecaster
Yuriy Shishkov conceived the Gold Leaf Telecaster as a celebration of the 30th anniversary of the Custom Shop. “I wanted to create something that referenced the Custom Shop’s beginnings, and at the very beginning it was focused on offering different types of unique finishes,” he says. “One of the first completely different types of finishes was the gold leaf.” Shishkov’s creation boasts double-bound binding with a gold leaf finish and a gold leaf neck, a first for a Telecaster. Other features include a Texas Special bridge pickup, TV Jones Power’tron neck pickup and custom single-ply tortoiseshell pickguard. “I like to use tortoiseshell. It’s just really striking to see the gold leaf outlined with a different type of material,” Shishkov says, adding that the guitar “is very lavish looking and one of my favorites.”
Limited Edition Robbie Robertson Last Waltz Stratocaster
Robbie Robertson’s bronze Stratocaster, played by the Band guitarist in Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz, is, in the words of Master Builder Todd Krause, “what I believe to be one of the most iconic and unusual Strat guitars to date.” Krause replicated the instrument down to every last unique detail, from the NOS tone capacitors and knobs with the same tension as the original, to the airbrushed headplug and “wear beneath the wear” on the neck, to the three single-coil pickups arranged, per Robertson’s original, with the middle pickup moved down toward the bridge. The finish, meanwhile, expertly emulates Robertson’s guitar, which he famously had dipped in bronze, “Old World style.” The stunning replica is limited to just 40 examples.
Pacific Battle Tele/Pacific Battle Strat
Inspired by the B-25 Mitchell bomber, the Pacific Battle Strat and Tele feature lacquer-finished transparent green stains, tarnished brass knobs and hardware, and a pickguard crafted from the aluminum skin of a B-25 to evoke a military-style, battle-worn appearance. Other features include a two-piece select ash body, lacquer-finished C-shaped mahogany neck and a 9.5”-radius ebony fingerboard with 6105 frets. Pickups are a pair of hand-wound Custom Shop Texas Specials for the Tele, while the Strat is loaded with Custom Shop Fat ’50s, including a reverse-wound/reverse-polarity middle pickup for superior hum-cancellation when combined with the bridge or neck pickup. A custom army-green deluxe hardshell case and a B-25 model plane round out the package.
30th Anniversary Esquire C.C. MBJS
Master Builder Jason Smith’s 30th Anniversary Esquire pays tribute to three founding Master Builders before him. “The inspiration for the guitar came from my love of old western California ghost towns, as well as some of the early Master Built, western-themed guitars from Mike Stevens, Fred Stuart and Alan Hamel,” he says. The three-piece reclaimed/roasted pine body wood recalls a run of black-painted pine body Esquires by Stuart, while the western theme includes shotgun-shell knobs, a .30 caliber switch tip and a rustic “30” placed below the bridge to acknowledge the Custom Shop’s three decades of guitar building. “The idea behind this guitar was to honor the builders of the past and to show how they had influenced my guitar-building career,” Smith says.