One day in early June, 1963, I was sitting in the outer office of a deserted (maybe deserted isn’t the right word; it was an almost-empty building waiting to be filled) assembly plant in Fullerton, California, after being tipped off about the development of an acoustic division of Fender Guitars. I took it as a sign, so I filled out an employment application at the “plant” and sat down, awaiting a job interview with Roger Rossmeisl.
In the silence of the building, I began to ponder my life and how I’d arrived in that position.
When I was young – perhaps 12 or 13 years old – I found an old, handmade acoustic guitar in my grandfather’s closet. It seemed funny no one in my family except me had any interest in it. I felt an amazing fascination and mysterious connection with it. Even at that early age, I felt my life pivot around that instrument. My grandfather gave it to me, and I still have that old guitar.
Through childhood, I had a fortunate but average life. I enjoyed insects, art, building models, drawing, and swimming. My father’s adept abilities at mechanics were among his many gifts to me. When I was eight, we moved from Michigan to California, for my father’s health. He knew his time was limited and made the most of the lessons he taught me.
He revealed the benefits of a logical approach and patience. He taught perseverance and patience. I discovered that, much like my dad, I enjoyed long-term, complex projects. My father died when he was 46. I was 18.
Early in high school, I discovered Andres Segovia and started collecting all his albums. I thought rock and roll was great, but Segovia and classical guitar was very important to me. The parents of a friend knew about my interests, and introduced me to Ernie Drumheller, who had a production workshop. His hobby was making classical guitars, and he became a new focus of my life.
Ernie took me under his wing and I started making my first guitar. It was a classical and he had me make it in the Antonio Torres tradition. Ernie encouraged me and I could feel his enjoyment teaching me his skills. I could only spend Saturdays and summers working on guitars, so progress was slow. But slow as it was, by 1961 I was proud of my accomplishments and had made six guitars in three years. I made them one at a time and each was better than the last. I even traded one for a 1931 Chevy I owned for over 20 years.
After graduating from high school, I enrolled at Fullerton Junior College and studied engineering for two years. F.J.C. was located, with the all determination of fate, a convenient two miles from Fender Guitar company’s assembly plant on Raymond Ave.
One day in 1963, I went to the plant and asked for a tour, and to my surprise got one. The facility was made up of nine buildings, side by side, all the same size.
The tour set my blood on fire. Strats and Teles were being manufactured production-style. I saw the neck and body production areas, final assembly. The air was filled with the sounds of electric guitars being tested.
I mentioned to the guide, Babe Simoni, that I made acoustic guitars and he told me of Fender’s plans for an acoustic division. It was in its development stages and located nearby on Missile Way. He suggested I apply for a job.
Not long after, I was sitting in the front lobby of the soon-to-be-acoustic division waiting for a reply to my employment application. I brought my most recent classical guitars to show my skills and interest in guitarmaking. I did not wait long before Roger Rossmeisl emerged, with my application in hand.
Roger was a husky, confident individual with a heavy German accent. We talked for a minute and retired to his office to look at my guitar. While Roger looked over my handiwork, I noticed a diploma on the wall naming Roger as “Gitarrenbaumeister.” It was a “master guitarmaker” degree with accompanying teaching credentials he earned in eight years at a school in Mittenwald, Germany. Down the road, I would benefit greatly from those credentials.
Roger was very gracious as he examined my guitar, then gave me another tour. The beautiful aroma of Brazilian rosewood swept through me and I knew I would be working there. There was no one in the building of approximately 12,000 square feet, just stacks of Brazilian rosewood, mahogany and spruce. Some of the machinery was in place.
Roger was designing and tooling up to make the King and the Concert Fender Acoustic guitar models. He also said he would not be hiring for six months. He then showed me some rosewood backs and sides. Pulling out a set, he handed them to me, and said, “Go now, and make a guitar.” I was astonished and gratefully accepted the rosewood before we said goodbye.
For the next six months, my top priority was making the best classical guitar I could, to impress Roger. I felt myself enter a new level of awareness toward craftsmanship, and by December, 1963, I’d finished the guitar and was on my way to see Roger.
We had a strong reunion. He got a kick out of the guitar and complimented me on my effort. He again invited me for a look at the factory, which had been transformed into a full-production facility. A huge bandsaw for re-sawing lumber into tops and backs, a ferris wheel-like gluing machine for tops and backs, a widebelt sander, upright routers, finish department, all an amazing sight.
Finally, Roger spoke the exact words I wanted to hear. “Do you want to work here?”
My response was as you’d expect.
“We will start in January,” he said, and on January 27, 1964, he called for my first day of work.
I worked for and around Roger for the next nine years and I was with him on his last day at Fender. Stories about Germany and his youth, his nine years at Rickenbacker, while making acoustic, jazz, and special projects for the likes of Jimi Hendrix and George Harrison. I had no idea what great things lay ahead.
But for the time being, the great thing was simply making the first Fender acoustic guitars.
Phil Kubick in in 1966, with one of his handmade classical guitars. Photo courtesy of Phil Kubicki.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s Nov. ’97 issue.