By Tom Beaujour | Photos by Matt York
“Jeff Beck, Bob Dylan, Keith Richards and Eric Clapton are all gearing up for tours and need guitars. Who’s your priority?”
If you can answer this question without breaking into a cold sweat, then you’re one step ahead of the man asking it: Fender Custom Shop master builder Todd Krause, who is the luthier of choice for all four of these living legends. A giant of a man, Krause seems genuinely troubled as he describes the all-too-familiar dilemma. In fact, for any of the nine master builders in Fender’s Custom shop—Krause, Jason Smith, Dennis Galuszka, Greg Fessler, Yuriy Shishkov, Dale Wilson, Stephen Stern, John Cruz, and Paul Waller—this kind of quandary could arise on any given day of the week. And while it might cause the master builders to lose sleep and log long hours in their cubicle-like workshops, they know that most of their peers would kill for a client list that includes Keith Urban, Lenny Kravitz, Bono, Johnny Lange, John Mayer, and just about any other noteworthy guitarist you can name.
“It’s one thing to build a guitar, but to watch it being played in the big top is a tremendous feeling,” Krause continues. “It’s not something that everybody gets to do. I’m sure that there is a mile-long list of people who wish they had my job.”
Few builders will ever have the luck and skill to get a gig like Krause’s in the Fender Custom Shop, but anyone who has the desire, patience, and bankroll can order an instrument built by the same master builders who create the stars’ guitars. “I build the exact same guitar for the customer who calls up and says he wants a Clapton guitar that I build for Clapton,” Krause says. “That’s what we do here.”
However, not every guitar that the Custom Shop produces wears the designation of Master-Built. In fact, the vast majority are Team-Built, created by the shop’s highly skilled assembly line. For many players, having a Team-Built guitar is a more affordable—and ultimately more sensible—alternative. Some examples of these instruments include the Dick Dale Stratocaster, the David Gilmour Stratocaster, and the recent limited run of Telecaster Thinlines (see Guitar Aficionado Jan/Feb 2011). “The quality on the Team-Built instruments is superlative,” says Mike Eldred, the Custom Shop’s director of sales and marketing, “because we only give the absolutely best people from the factory a shot at working in the Custom Shop.”
Players who want a Team-Built guitar with a few simple modifications can upgrade to a Team-Built Custom order. “But once a customer starts saying, ‘Can you give me a different neck shape, scallop the fingerboard, and do this or that custom wiring scheme,’ “ Eldred says, “now you’re in Master-Built level. It’s a higher level of personal attention to detail.”
Fender wasn’t always this responsive to its customers’ desires. During the CBS years, from 1965 until 1985, corners were cut, questionable design changes were implemented, and changing trends in music and musicians’ needs were almost entirely ignored. It wasn’t until 1987—two years after the company was purchased back from CBS by a group of employees, led by Bill Schultz—that the Custom Shop was founded in an attempt to retake much of the ground lost to user-friendly boutique builders in the last decades. The shop, then headed up by legendary builders John Page and Michaels Stevens, was an instant hit. To keep up with demand, it was expanded almost immediately.
Then, in the mid Nineties, the Custom Shop stumbled upon an idea that would change the face of the guitar market and guitar-buying culture. It had become clear that many players were attracted by the patina and vibe of vintage guitars, but it was equally obvious that many of them didn’t like the cost or uncertainty of purchasing an older instrument. In response, the Custom Shop introduced a line of pre-distressed Relic guitars—brand-new and reliable instruments that had a worn-in look and feel.
Initially, the Relic treatment was performed off premises by an outside vendor, but the accuracy of the colors and verisimilitude of the aging were not up to snuff. Sales were disappointing. “Then we brought it in-house, and it went into hyperdrive,” Eldred says. Today, heavily reliqued guitars are by far the Custom Shop’s most popular offering. “People sometimes ask me why we make so many relics,” Eldred says, “and I tell them, ‘Well, that’s what people order.’ And we are a made-to-order shop. People want a beat-up Strat because it’s just got a certain romantic image.”
Many wannabes armed with chisels, bike chains, and a belt sander are producing distressed guitars to cash in on the Relic rage, but there’s a reason why the Custom Shop’s reliqued guitars look like the genuine vintage article. “There are a million ways to age a guitar wrong,” says master builder Dennis Galuszka, looking up from a favorite 1958 Telecaster that Lenny Kravitz has just sent him to duplicate. “When you relic a guitar, you need to tell a story for the aging to seem accurate. So if I’m doing a body, I’ll make up story about how maybe this guitar sat in a shop window in Arizona and the paint went haywire in the sun, and then a guy who played it wore a lot of bracelets or a huge belt buckle. Or maybe the guy was in a band where the drummer was an asshole who would always knock his cymbal into the guitar. You have to think this way to maintain the continuity, because if not, you’re just mindlessly bashing these things, which doesn’t work. These guys out there buying these guitars are too smart for that, and they do send them back if they don’t look right.”
Sometimes, the story is anything but fictional. Such was the case when master builder John Cruz was given the task of making an exact reproduction of Yngwie Malmsteen’s battered 1971 Stratocaster, “The Duck,” for a limited Tribute Series run. “I had that guitar and studied it for about four months,” Cruz says. “The fretboard scalloping is really minimal and crappy, and I copied it exactly, same as every crack, dowel, and repair. I brought the guitar to Germany to have Yngwie sign off on it, and when he saw it he started laughing. He could hardly tell the original and copy apart. He said, ‘You even got the cracks the same. But I bet you didn’t get the bite marks!’ And I said, ‘Flip it over.’ And there they were.”
The market dictates that a large portion of the Custom Shop’s output will be reliqued vintage reproductions, but great care and thought is also put into guitars that are anything but throwbacks, such as the Pro collection of instruments. “Pro doesn’t mean Professional; it means Prototype,’ “ Eldred explains. “We have total freedom to do what we want with these and to experiment with new bridges, pickups, and whatever else we want. When we plan this series every year, we just sit back and say, ‘Okay, what can we do that’s cool?’ For 2011, for example, we decided to make the bodies out of 100-year-old pine, because that was something that we had not done before on a Team-Built guitar. Every design is only manufactured for a year, and then it’s gone, which makes these collectible.”
The ultimate collectibles, however, are the stunning presentation-piece one-offs that are the pride of the master builders. For example, Yuriy Shishkov produces impressive inlayed guitars using only simple tools, like a jewelry saw, and materials such as silver and copper wire, mother-of-pearl, and other precious and semi-precious materials. “These days,” Shishkov says, “pretty much all of the inlay work that you see on the market is done by machine, because it’s much much cheaper and faster. The technique that I use has been employed by firearms makers for centuries. They would embellish their rifle stocks in the same way: you puncture a line of the design and then lay in the wire. No glue is used, and it’s very, very time consuming.”
As one wanders between the different master builder workstations, it becomes clear that Shishkov’s patience, focus, and desire to be the ultimate practitioner of his craft is shared by his colleagues. This is not a workplace that suffers fools or slackers. “You don’t get a master builder decal just for being a good guy,” Eldred says. “You really need to know what you are doing. You have to prove yourself to the company, and you also have to prove yourself to those other eight guys. It’s highly competitive out there, and you’ve really got to bring it when you build something.”
The dedication can be seen in the team builders as well. Most likely some of them hope one day to be promoted to the rank of master builder; others seem perfectly happy right where they are. None, however, have the glazed look and listless slump that are the telltale signs of a clock-watcher. “Our philosophy here is simple,” Eldred concludes. “When you produce something, whether it’s a guitar, a pair of glasses, or whatever, the vibe of the people who made it is absorbed into that product. Our builders love what they do, and it shows in the guitars they create.”