In “official” terms, the Fender Custom Shop opened in 1987. But its story actually began February 1, 1985 – the day CBS announced the sale of Fender Musical Instruments to a group led by Bill Schultz, who’d served as President of the company for four years. Speaking to the Los Angeles Times the following day, Schultz said, “This is an opportunity to keep a very viable and legendary name alive in the industry.” He envisioned regaining the company’s status from the days when Leo Fender was at the helm – when it enjoyed a reputation of innovation, quality, and value among players of all levels.
In two decades of ownership, CBS Corporation had turned Fender’s reputation upside-down. Through the ’70s and ’80s, most players viewed Fender as lacking innovation, quality, and value. As Schultz planned new manufacturing facilities after the sale, he recognized that in addition to production models, they needed to offer discerning players the chance to build their “dream guitar” and watch as it was brought to life.
In 1986, Schultz (1926-2006) hired Michael Stevens to head a custom-build facility slated for construction in Corona, California. Stevens completed the first “Fender Custom Shop” guitar – serial number 0001, at his shop in Texas prior to arriving in Corona. This guitar was also the first ever doubleneck Fender, essentially a Strat on top and an Esquire.
The first item on Stevens’ agenda was to lure former Fender R&D whiz kid John Page back to assist him. With a staff of two, the Fender Custom shop was open for business.
“When word got out that we had a custom shop, at the end of three months we had [several hundred] orders,” Stevens recalled. A small team of top-shelf builders was hired, including J.W. Black, George Blanda, Mark Kendrick, Fred Stuart, Alan Hamel, and Gene Baker. In ’89, Page took the helm.
“The Custom Shop was the beginning of bringing the soul back to Fender,” he said. “It was a big component in healing the scars created from CBS ownership. We were about making the best-quality guitar we were capable of making, and pushing it artistically.”
That kind of work gets noticed, and guitars were soon being made for Eric Clapton, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Jimmy Page, joined quickly by a profusion of other top players in the queue.
Over the past three decades, the Fender Custom Shop has produced everything from dead-on historic replicas to guitars that are more like works of fine art.
While the Custom Shop is now home to many more luthiers building many more guitars, the ethos remains true to the vision of its founders: unshackled creativity married to absolute attention to detail. While the guitar world debates the horrors of the “race to the bottom,” with manufacturers continuously finding new ways to cut costs and flooding the market with cheap instruments, the Custom Shop stands as proof there remains a market for superior instruments.
This year, Fender reunited the builders who shaped the Custom Shop legacy and each was asked to build a Founder’s Design 30th Anniversary guitar that reflected their personal passions and design philosophies. Vintage Guitar spoke with Page, Black, and Kendrick, as well as current Master Builders Dale Wilson and Scott Buehl along with VP of Product Development Mike Lewis.
How did each of you get into the wonderful world of guitars?
Mark Kendrick: I come from a family of guitarists/singers, so guitars have been in my life as far back as I can recall. My uncle started with Fender after leaving both Bob Wills and Leon McAuliffe’s band. He was the original artist-relations rep. My dad was an early Fender endorsee.
John Page: My dad was a very conservative preacher, and I think my desire to get into music was my way of rebelling against that whole rigid structure. My first musical influence was Elvis Presley, then the Beatles, then SoCal surf culture. They were all guitar-powered, so getting into guitar was kind of a given. My family didn’t have money to spare, so no one was going to finance my musical-instrument needs. Because of that, I started working at 14 as a janitor in the oil fields. I spent all my earnings at the local pawn shop, buying guitars, tearing them apart, and trying to make better ones out of the parts. I started building my first guitar from scratch at 15. I started building so I could play in bands, but the building ultimately ended up taking priority over playing.
Scott Buehl: I began working with guitars at age 14, when I got an apprenticeship at Rex Bogue’s shop in San Gabriel. I went after school or whenever I had time. After I graduated high school, I worked full-time at Jackson/Charvel. That was the summer of ’84. I came to Fender in early ’87.
Dale Wilson: I started by working on my own guitars and progressed to working on some of my friends’ guitars, then eventually got a job at a small repair shop near my house.
Mike Lewis: It all started in the third grade, when I played a half-size string bass in the school orchestra. Later, I strummed a guitar from a neighbor and thought ‘I could play this.’ They let me borrow the guitar, and when the Beatles came out a few years later, that gave me complete focus. It just took off from there.
What does a Custom Shop Fender mean to you?
JP: It’s the perfect, tangible realization of Fender’s history and the customer’s vision, shaped of wood, metal and plastic by the most-talented hands and minds the company has to offer. Anything less is unacceptable.
MK: Creative liberty… When I say that, it also means more than just being relegated to the four horsemen of Strat, Tele, P-Bass, and J-Bass.
DW: To me, it epitomizes the best guitar Fender has to offer.
SB: I think about the quality. Specifically, the playability, fit, and finish, the wiring and the paint being a cut above. Some of the hardware is only available from the Custom Shop.
How do you describe the Custom Shop family?
JP: As exactly that – family. We worked for a common goal and had a great time doing it. Every member had strong points and weaknesses. We all knew them, so we worked with each other to weave a team without voids. One of the hardest, but most important things to me, running the shop, was not just to manage it, but orchestrate it – put the right people in the right place, train them, support them, laugh with them, move forward arm in arm. It sounds pretty “Kumbaya” – and it was! It was a very special group.
MK: Someone once asked me if there was competition among us. I didn’t see it that way. We were propping one another up. I could walk across the shop and talk to any of the guys to get their hit. Page’s door was always open and I could ask him what he thought and, from a creative standpoint, even if he didn’t agree with what I was doing, he’d say “Go ahead.” He was the administration. We’d get visits from Dan Smith, but more often than not he’d ask, “What do you guys have?” Or “We need a signature bass.” Then, low and behold, we’re doing a Stu Hamm Urge Bass. Occasionally, we’d get visited by the higher-ups but early on I’m not sure they knew what we were doing. They knew there was a buzz, and left us to it. That, and Page kept us really insulated. All we had to do was create and build.
DW: I’d describe us as a close-knit group with the goal of building musicians’ dream instruments.
SB: I like everyone I work with; some are as close as blood. I’m considering adopting one of the Master Builder apprentices, but his wife is fighting me on it (laughs).
ML: It’s a close-knit family of talented people who are keenly aware of exactly what Custom Shop means to the customer. We’re dedicated to building exactly the way the customer wants and every guitar is treated like a separate journey.
What distinguishes a Custom Shop guitar from a high-end production model?
JP: It starts with the wood, which is selected for tone, aesthetic, and weight. Next, detail shaping of the neck and body should be virtually flawless, as should fit and finish. Frets should be dressed and polished to the highest degree of quality, as should the setup and playability. Simply put, where production guitars can range in quality and performance from acceptable to excellent, a Custom Shop guitar must always be excellent at minimum.
MK: I’ve said it time and again – personalized attention to detail. That’s not to say that a high-end production model is less, but it isn’t “custom.” If it suits your needs, fine.
DW: It’s not one or two big things that set it apart, but a lot of smaller improvements – raw materials, pickups, or the time spent on each instrument. The bits add up.
SB: Our production guitars are nice, but a Fender Custom Shop guitar is really dialed-in.
ML: It’s not about specs, but the recipe, ingredients, and tools used to prepare the guitar. We have people who have worked here for 15, 20, and even 30 years. Some have been with Fender since the early ’60s. Just think about the experienced hands.
What distinguishes a Custom Shop builder?
ML: Their experienced hands. When you spend years and decades making one-off guitars, you get a different perspective of detail, care and dedication that shows in the result.
JP: No two builders are alike. Each has different experiences and I was fortunate to learn from historic guys. I had an amazingly cool job at a very young age. Being a model maker in R&D at 21 and a designer at 23 were the coolest things in the world. Combine that with working with world-class builders like Michael, J.W., John Suhr, Fred, and many others makes for a unique view and skill set.
Because of that background, I combined engineering with hand-building, mass-production techniques with one-offs, business with art. I’m lucky to have a bunch of tools in my tool box that most guys don’t have. It doesn’t mean I’m a better builder than the next guy, it just means I’m going to look at it differently.
What was the most complex or time-consuming build you’ve completed?
JP: The first really time-intensive guitar that comes to mind was the Alex Gregory seven-string Strat that Michael and I did in 1987. On one, he wanted it to back-loaded without pickup-adjustment screws on the top, but it also had a vibrato. I spent hours designing different layers of routs and mechanical means to make it happen. From there, it was all old-school fabrication – taking the drawings, turning them into routing templates, then making the body. There were also interior aluminum plates, as I recall, to mount the pickups and segregate them from the vibrato workings. It was pretty complex.
DW: Probably the stained-glass Esquire for the 2016 NAMM show. There was a lot going on, from the stained-glass panel to the LED lights to the electronics.
MK: Hands down, the Roscoe Beck project. [It was] back and forth for nearly three years. He knew what he wanted, never deviated, and we chased it for that long.
SB: The Splatocaster with Jimmy Stout. The neck was straightforward, but the body was not. I had to hammer it out of aluminum sheet metal in pieces, weld it together, and polish it to a mirror finish. I made liquid-filled plastic windows that covered the face according to Jimmy’s design and lost about a pound of hair trying to figure out how to make that piece. But it was special when it was done.
How have your philosophy and outlook been shaped by your time in the Custom Shop?
JP: I started at Fender when I’d just turned 21, and my early years in Research and Development with Freddie Tavares taught me the ins and outs of Fender design. The experience and interfacing with the manufacturing end of the Fullerton factory taught me a lot of old-school building techniques. My latter years, in the Custom Shop, taught me to take designs way outside the lines of Fender’s history, push for better quality, and search for new manufacturing methods.
It all taught me is that sometimes the most innovative thing you can do is to go backward. I don’t just build for a customer, I build for me. The old-school ways are my ways. A pencil and paper on the drawing table, hand-making templates, using hand tools instead of computers. I have a better connection with the instrument and put more of myself into it.
MK: I’m not sure I picked guitar building, but it certainly picked me. My time in the Custom Shop, particularly the earlier years, set into motion various creative pursuits. Being a player, there’s a sound in my head that I chase. It isn’t static. It just is. I walk toward that daily.
When Michael Stevens was hired to start the Shop, Bill Schultz told him, “I don’t care if we just break even, I want the coolest custom shop and the best product available.” Still the case?
ML: For us, it’s not about how much [money] or how many guitars we produce. It’s about the art and craftsmanship – creating tools for artists, fulfilling guitar dreams that deserve to come true. The smallest detail is as important as the biggest considerations.
What’s the vision moving forward, say five or 10 years from now?
ML: We’re constantly improving our capabilities, looking for new ideas and designs, listening to customers. We hope to continue to enhance the personalized experience.
Special thanks to Fender and Henry Diltz for photography and archival material.
Creating The Marilyn Strat
Caught in the Act
by James R. Petersen
In 1973, Playboy hired me to give sex advice, and for 20 years I wrote and edited “The Playboy Advisor.” If you had a question regarding fashion, food, sports cars, dating dilemmas, or etiquette, I’d find an answer.
When hired, I was a 25-year-old Boy Scout. How was I qualified to give sex advice? I’m not sure, but the Scout Motto is “Be Prepared,” and from the time I was 12 I read everything I could about sex in case it ever happened to me. To increase the odds, I learned to play guitar.
I wrote Playboy’s first profile of Bruce Springsteen and bailed members of the E Street Band out of jail in New Orleans – bond for a traffic offense, but still. On the side, I played acoustic, wrote songs, and freelanced for other magazines. While writing a celebration of “The Guitar That Rocked The World” for American Way magazine, I discovered an odd coincidence – Leo Fender created his “electrified Spanish guitar” at the same time Hugh Hefner first pieced together a men’s magazine he called Stag Party. December, 1953. They emerged with the Stratocaster and Playboy – two things that changed America and bothered parents everywhere.
Jump to 1993. I asked sources at Fender if they were planning a 40th Anniversary Strat that we could feature in the magazine’s Gift Guide. John Page had a better idea.
“How about a 40th Anniversary Playboy Stratocaster?”
The Custom Shop had just created a limited-edition Harley-Davidson Strat for that company’s 90th anniversary.
John and I had conversations about working for legends, the limits imposed by rivalries (Fender vs. Gibson, Playboy vs. Penthouse), and how to make the familiar new. We were peers.
Then the fun began. The Harley Strat had been simple – it had to have enough chrome to blind the sun, it had to say “Harley-Davidson,” and it had to be loud. For Playboy, John suggested a guitar with a vintage feel, cream colors, and some kind of pinup in the style of World War II bomber art. Playboy published a Vargas girl every month, but the artist’s best-known work was associated with Esquire. We talked about using something by Keith Haring, a painter whose graffiti-like cartoon characters defined the decade, or Pat Nagel, whose stylish images accompanied the “Advisor” column. While likely neat, they would have become “the Keith Haring Strat” or “the Patrick Nagel Strat.”
I played with parking the famed Rabbit Head logo on the body, set it aside, then asked around the office, “Should the image be clothed or unclothed? Recent Playmate or the original? Could we embed the actual Marilyn Monroe centerfold from the first issue?”
Really, there was only one choice; Hef viewed the Marilyn calendar shot as the soul of the empire. The year before (1992), he had purchased the mausoleum next to Marilyn’s in the Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery. As a prelude to the 40th anniversary, he autographed a limited-edition Monroe photo.
So, I sat and my computer and clicked the image within the curves of the Strat. She fell into place as though Leo had designed the guitar with Marilyn in mind. I played with colors, including Marilyn reclining on a red guitar. John wanted something original, one of a kind. He turned to his community of artists and came back with a Pamelina Hovnatanian (a.k.a. Pamelina H.) painting on a black backdrop. Page wanted a Femlin (who adorned Playboy’s “Party Jokes” page), so Pamelina sketched a Femlin for the headstock. I played with the Playboy typeface, trying it between the tuning pegs, putting it on the 12th fret. John and Playboy art director Tom Staebler looked at the prototype and said, “Redundant!” My five-year-old daughter saw me playing with paper and scissors and suggested putting the Rabbit Head where the dots would be. Three elements – the Marilyn, the Femlin, and the Rabbit Head – said “Playboy.”
This all happened pre-Photoshop, so I was photocopying images from Fender press releases, then sized various Playboy images to move around. A folder of my attempts contains an alternate Femlin and the final 40th-anniversary logo, which we considered putting on the third fret before placing it on the headstock.
The Custom Shop finished the prototype in August of ’93. When it arrived, we were blown away. Pamelina had created a living, breathing Marilyn. The 175 production units used the 40th anniversary logo approved by Hef (numbers over a Rabbit Head) and the 12th-fret logo with a double rabbit-head inlay, removed a tiny Rabbit Head from Pamelina’s original painting, found an original LeRoy Neiman that fit the headstock rather suggestively, and added gold-etched cavity covers to the back. The guitar sold with an embossed Playboy strap, a red silk chemise “modesty panel” so stores could display the guitar, a red-leather gig bag, and a flight case. Readers caught their first glimpse in that year’s Christmas Gift Guide. Playboy got 25 of them, four of which were framed and hung in offices.
I kept number 40 in my office, the neatest artifact from a long career, still trying to impress women and visiting writers. I also kept a black and white photo of Playmate of The Year Jenny McCarthy presenting one of the guitars to Buddy Guy at his Legends club in Chicago.
John gave me the prototype and I kept it in a closet, where it survived curious kids and repeated decluttering frenzies. I resisted the urge to play it – I have a Clapton Strat for that – and have read that the Marilyn is the second-most-sought-after Custom Shop limited edition, and counterfeiters have turned their attention to it. Dream on. The prototype is magic, caught in the act of creation.
Michael Stevens and the Custom Shop’s New Path
by Matte Henderson
In 1986, Michael Stevens had a noteworthy profile in the Japanese music press and stellar reputation amongst the stateside vintage-guitar cognoscenti.
One person who took notice of his work was Dan Smith, a VP at Fender Musical Instruments, who approached Stevens to consult on multi-string basses after seeing Roscoe Beck play a custom six-string while backing Robben Ford; Smith was also aware of two other instruments made by the Austin-based builder – a doubleneck built for Christopher Cross and the peculiar Guit-Steel played by Junior Brown. Both resembled something that could have rolled out of the Fender factory in its glory days with Leo at the helm.
Smith took the discussion further by gauging Stevens’ interest in helping start what would become the Fender Custom Shop. After a one-on-one with new owner Bill Shultz, Stevens took the gig.
“I don’t care if we just break even,” Stevens recalled Schultz saying. “I just want the coolest shop and the best product.”
Early on, the Custom Shop focused on artists relations, including Stevens’ work converting the necks on a handful of American Standard Strats to Eric Johnson’s preferred specs and teaming with R&D master George Blanda to develop an Eric Clapton signature Strat. Another element was the Designer series conceived by Smith.
“Dan told me, ‘We’d like to get into the Gibson market and we’re interested in licensing the LJ,’ which was a guitar I was working on at the time,” said Stevens. “I said, ‘I like that idea a lot.’”
The LJ was a set-neck double-cut design Stevens developed earlier in honor of the late Larry Jameson, his longtime friend and partner in the renowned Guitar Resurrection shop, which opened in California in 1967 before relocating to Austin in ’78.
The LJ went into formal development in late 1988 as Fender’s first American-made set-neck guitar and the Custom Shop’s first all-original concept. Machinist Steve Bollinger built the tooling and the team included John English and Scott Buehl.
“The first couple came from a plank of mahogany that was perfect,” Stevens said. “Then, we ended up with a few 10-pounders. So, I honeycombed some of the bodies and chambered others. We ended up with two different animals; the chambered guitar was much better all-around but wouldn’t quite run with Pearly Gates. The honeycomb lightened the guitar and, tone-wise I couldn’t tell the difference between it and a solidbody.”
Marketing was not alerted of the change.
“We just did it and shipped them,” Stevens said. “We stamped them ‘H’ for honeycomb and ‘C’ for chambered. For a while, some said ‘S’ for solid until we realized that was redundant.
“For awhile, I was trying to stay away from using only Gibson-style parts, but that turned out to be impossible,” he added. “We put saddles in roller bridges from the [Japan-made] Esprits, and they sounded good. We tried a non-screw tailpiece, but it all pushed up labor and machine costs, so we ended up doing tune-o-matic bridges and bar tailpieces, and nobody blinked.”
Other evidence of the Gibson influence included its figured-maple top, 1.75″-thick Honduras mahogany body, mahogany neck, Brazilian rosewood fingerboard, and bass-bout toggle.
Stevens carved the tops on the panagraph in his own garage, as Fender did not yet have one, then tops and backs were glued in the Custom Shop. Ivoroid binding was sourced from Japan, and Stevens opted for a 14-degree headstock angle and black-plastic pickup surrounds because he couldn’t source cream rings that matched. Stevens painted all of them.
Things got more interesting where the model diverted from the Gibson formula.
“The treble side of the neck pickup is approximately where it would be on a Les Paul,” said Stevens. “But the bass side was moved toward the bridge to brighten bass notes and even-out string response. The bass strings on the bridge pickup are in the same place as a Les Paul while the unwound strings are closer to the fretboard, which fattens up their sound.”
The neck pickup is mated with Fender’s Treble Bass Expander (TBX) control, and each pickup can be split via push/pull pots on the master Volume and bridge Tone controls. In split-coil mode, Fender quack is abundant from the custom DiMarzios designed by Steve Blucher.
The earliest adopter of the Stevens LJ was jazz guitarist and GIT founder Don Mock. Danny Gatton was also a proponent. Only 30 or so Custom Shop LJs were built and shipped – two variants were made in Japan – and today they stand in testament to Stevens’ genius and Fender’s resurgence as an iconic guitar company.
This article originally appeared in VG December 2017 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.