The years leading up to CBS Musical Instruments’ 1985 sale of the Fender brand were fluid times at the instrument maker’s headquarters in Fullerton. Faltering in a market death struggle with imports from Japan, in August of ’81, the company hired John McLaren and Bill Schultz – both poached from the guitar-making sector of Yamaha – and charged them with saving Fender from extinction.
With Schultz (1926-2006) came a new marketing team led by Yamaha cohort Dan Smith (1946-2016), who was keenly aware of why Japanese guitars were eating Fender’s lunch. Though Schultz and Smith are rightly credited for their roles turning the company’s fortunes, part of the story has gone untold, including how Freddie Tavares, John Page, and Paul Bugielski were taking steps to cure Fender’s ills prior to the arrival of the supplants.
When hired in May of ’78, 21-year-old Page was a neck buffer on the production floor. Having DIY’d guitars and amps for his band since his early teens, he envisioned himself doing bigger things, so he kept a close eye on internal job openings, and within a few months was a model maker on the research-and-development team.
One of Page’s early assignments was to design a new method of hanging guitar bodies for transport through the production facility; the result was a vertical conveyor to hold them as their finishes cured. Once it was in use, the sight of hundreds of bodies hanging in a straight line made it glaringly obvious there were inconsistencies with body contours. Page tried to address them.
“I went to the wood shop and found that even though they had templates and tooling, they weren’t being used,” he said. “That meant quality depended on which guy was carving, and their mood. So, contours were all over the map. I had to tell shapers, ‘You’ve got to use the templates and tooling.’ Some guys had the attitude, ‘Oh, that’s too difficult’ or ‘That would take too long.’”
Just one of many quality issues that had gone unaddressed during the CBS reign, it was resolved by adding new technology in the form of a mechanical shaper.
In late 1980, Page became a guitar-design engineer, working alongside Tavares.
“My first project was the Bullet guitar, which to me was the coolest thing in the world, and the assignment came from Paul Bugielski,” he said.
Prior to his stint at Fender, Bugielski was Director of Marketing at Shure Brothers’ Illinois headquarters, where his professional circle included Norlin Industries’ marketing director Roger Cox and Ed Llewellyn, director of CBS Musical Instruments’ corporate offices in Chicago. Cox was hired away by Fender in early 1980 and recruited Bugielski to join him in Fullerton to lead the marketing of Fender’s guitars, amplifiers, and sound-reinforcement gear. Part of that job included addressing quality control.
“Myself, John, Freddie, and Ed Jahns, who was Freddie’s counterpart for the amplifier line, regularly picked a dozen of whatever was coming off the line and we’d carefully look them over,” Bugielski recalled. “Being no stranger to monitoring product quality – in MI, Shure was widely known as top-notch – at Fender I was immediately made part of weekly quality evaluations. Some weeks, we met twice, and our goal was to have the vast majority of product be in a range of good to excellent – accepting only a small amount of ‘good.’”
For more than a decade before Bugielski arrived, CBS had viewed Fender as a mass-producer of product more than an instrument maker. Quantity mattered, quality did not. And because CBS failed to invest in technology that would have allowed for high quality along with high output, every aspect of guitar building – from shaping necks and bodies to drilling, routing, and mounting hardware – suffered greatly.
Beyond being pushed to increase output, the attitude among workers was impacted by chatter about the company’s future and how CBS was trying to dump Fender. Bugielski, though, was focused.
“I just kept trying to make things better,” he said. “I’d been a musician since high school and played in bands. So did John, and of course, Freddie was a star. We were all musicians, and we had a feel for quality. The last thing we wanted was to be part of tarnishing the Fender name. And to be clear, none of what we were making by then was terrible, even if we had a sense that things could be better.
“We were in a period of fundamental change in the guitar market, technologically and psychographically, for dealers, our competitors, and the buying public,” he added. “The synths were coming! That sort of change usually brings unrest, and that brings change to business; as the saying goes, evolve or die, and Fender’s product line needed to adapt. And without John, Freddie, and a few others explaining to me how to make our ideas work within Fender’s structure, my insights for the guitar line would not have been possible.”
Working under the supervision of Cox, one day in the summer of ’81, Bugielski told him about a marketing strategy that he and the group conceived for guitars across a range – low-cost, middle, and high-end.
“We wanted to offer decent quality at every point,” said Bugielski. “The line would start with the Bullet guitar, the Standard line was middle ground, and the ’52 Telecaster would be an instrument for pro and semi-pro players that would be the ultimate in quality, priced accordingly.
“After we got a cautious go-ahead from CBS Corporate, Freddie was put in charge of quality for the midrange line, where things like the three-bolt neck with Micro Tilt adjuster were unpopular.”
Page recalls he and Bugielski discussing the Telecaster reissue with Tavares, including details about the finish, with Tavares lobbying for a white-blond instead of the familiar buttersctoch, and a few others.
“Some of the first prototypes were rock-heavy ash bodies with a polyester white-blond finish – they were just s**t,” he laughed.
With a plan officially in place, wheels began to turn. Within a few months, though, fate intervened when Llewellyn was replaced by McLaren, Cox by Schultz and Smith; the new group fired the existing marketing team and every brand manager, including Bugielski. In early ’82, Fender entered agreements to have guitars made in Japan, after which it dramatically scaled down production at the Fullerton plant. For a time, most Fender guitars were made – ironically but strategically – in the factories of its Japanese competitors, the intent being to have Fender-branded instruments beat those competitors’ copy guitars on their own turf, in turn forcing them to raise the retail prices of guitars sold in the U.S.
Domestically, the focus turned to a line of Vintage reissues, including the ’52 Telecaster being developed by Tavares, along with the ’57 and ’62 Strat as well as Precision and Jazz basses, with Page as lead designer. The groundwork included a lot of legwork.
“Dan and I flew to dealers around the country to buy old guitars and basses, mostly from Larry Hendrickson at Axe In Hand, in Illinois,” he said. “We disassembled them, noted points we thought were important, then passed the parts along to design draftspeople for detailed documentation.”
While they had all the real-deal bits and pieces, and could have accurately reproduced vintage models, dealers were adamant that players wouldn’t respond.
“There ended up being a lot of things that were not very accurate, by design, because players at the time didn’t care about deep-V necks and dot spacing – at least that was the feedback our marketing department was getting,” Page said. “Dan had to decide on things like neck shapes based on that, which is why we came up with the medium-C shape.
“Another issue was finishes,” he added. “We started with 100-percent nitrocellulose, but when the first Vintage models came out, dealers complained about grain shrinkage and irregularities showing through. We told them, ‘Well, it’s lacquer, like vintage…’ But they said, ‘Yeah, but we don’t wanna see that.’ So, we started doing urethane undercoats with nitro top coats.”
Adding more pressure was continued competition from Japanese instruments.
“Hanging on the walls in guitar stores, too often we were told, ‘You guys lose,’ and we needed to change that,” Page said.
Those concessions for the sake of marketability helped make the Vintage line successful.
“Dan’s attitude was that sales of those guitars afforded us the ability to develop the Standard line and the Elites, which pushed the envelope with modernism and ultimately led to creation of the Custom Shop,” said Page.
Launched in 1987 under the guidance of Michael Stevens, who’d been hand-picked by Schultz, the Custom Shop was a stand-alone entity, in theory unbound by rules or the bottom line. Stevens’ first hire was Page, who fondly recalls its early heyday.
“We were all surrounded by incredibly creative people working insanely long hours,” he said. “You didn’t clock out at a certain time. I loved that atmosphere, that craziness.”
Relatively unrestricted, management considered the Custom Shop the company’s wild frontier, and Page said Schultz was consistently pleased with the results.
“We made really good margins, and I battled a bit with Bill because they always wanted more,” he laughed.
Some of those low-key battles involved Page’s decisions regarding personnel and other factors, but they didn’t impact the shop environment.
“We were allowed to do our work. I was trying to gather the best builders in the world, and Dan was doing his job as a marketing guy. We were dealing with the best artists in the world, and my approach was we had to listen to them, not our own opinions of what was the best pickup or neck shape. But in the eyes of management, that didn’t always apply.
“For Dan and I, the difference was between thinking big numbers and little numbers. Nobody was wrong, we were just dealing with a different customer base and the fact I always wanted art to win. Art and business always reach an impasse; Dan was a very artistic guy, and he understood that. But I didn’t want to give in to the business side. Still, I credit Bill and Dan for allowing us to do what we did.”
Another discussion that stands in his memory involved Schultz and the company’s broader use of the Custom Shop logo.
“Bill allowed Fender Japan to use our original oval-shaped Custom Shop art for their decals,” he said. “I felt it furthered confusion when rumors on the street were already erroneously saying that Japan was making our Custom Shop guitars. So, I started using a new V-shaped logo that I’d developed with Pamelina Hovnatanian. Bill wasn’t too happy with me on that one.”
On the flip side, some of Page’s fondest memories include working with Bugielksi and Tavares.
“In my opinion, Paul has never been given proper credit for what he did at Fender, especially the concept of the Vintage reissues,” he said. “And, it was always great when Freddie would come by the Custom Shop. One day, he and I were standing on the mezzanine, looking down on the floor, when he said, ‘This is exactly like when I started with Leo. It feels like that.’ That was the biggest compliment in the world.”
Though his time at Fender was brief and ended mid-stride, Bugielski also enjoyed his time there.
“John, Freddie, and I were best friends in those two years,” he said. “Schultz, Smith, and all of the people they brought in had to address a lot of factors quickly; they did what they had to do, and it worked out. I knew all about corporate reorganizations, so there was no skin off my back. I wound up at Mattel Electronics, where I helped develop the first generation of video games, the Intellivision game console, a line of handheld video games, and handheld musical games. My brand group, Synsonics, was charged with bringing electronic musical instruments and music-learning/gaming software to the home-video-game market. Those games were precursors to Guitar Hero and Rock Band.”
Page stayed at the Custom Shop until November of ’98, having built instruments for Eric Clapton, David Gilmour, Pete Townshend, Elliot Easton, Cesar Rosas, and others, along with developing high-profile custom models for Harley Davidson, Jaguar, and Playboy magazine. He then spent four years helping establish the Fender Museum of Music and the Arts before moving to Oregon, where he designed and built custom art furniture. One day in 2006, on a whim, he sketched a guitar design that proved to be the first step toward John Page Guitars, a one-man shop where he creates guitar and bass designs, along with functional art. In 2014, he and business partner Howard Swimmer began marketing small batches of select Page designs under the name John Page Classic.
Bugielski worked for Mattel Electronics until 1984, when he founded PSC Management Consultants, where today he serves as Managing Principal Partner.
Special thanks to Richard Smith and Dave Hunter. Watch for a review of the John Page Classic T-Style guitar in a future issue.
Fender’s Siegel, Norvell on Creating American Vintage II
By Ward Meeker
More than most, guitar builders know you can’t please everyone, especially when offering “reissue” instruments to customers whose tastes revolve around details like the space between dots at the 12th fret of a Strat and know the number of screws on every “golden era” pickguard or the width of an old neck with just one touch.
At Fender, the concept of making guitars that looked and played more like beloved ’50s and ’60s models was born in 1980/’81, as CBS teetered toward dumping Fender from its corporate portfolio. The idea gained steam after new president Bill Schultz and V.P. of marketing and sales Roger Balmer wearied of hearing about the “pre-CBS” glory days and how its current instruments paled in comparison – worse yet, how they were inferior to instruments being made in Japan.
Seeking wisdom, they gathered a small group of employees who’d been at Fender since the ’50s and ’60s, including designer Freddie Tavares (co-designer of the Stratocaster), pickup winder Gail Paz, and final-assembly inspector Gloria Fuentes. They also hired Dan Smith, who’d been key in guiding the guitar division at Yamaha.
In 1980, Tavares started work on what would become the Vintage ’52 Telecaster, built with specs taken from a ’52 owned by jazz guitarist/educator Ted Greene (“Fretprints,” January ’22). Under Schultz, Balmer, and Smith, production started on the Vintage ’52 Telecaster as well as the ’57 Stratocaster, ’62 Stratocaster, ’57 Precision Bass, ’62 Precision Bass, and ’62 Jazz Bass, which were offered in a late-’82 catalog that described them with enticing phrases like “a faithful replica” and “a remarkably detailed tribute.” The basses were called “painstaking replicas” (see sidebar on the creation of the original Vintage line). Today, they stand as a desirable subgroup in the collectible market.
Last October, Fender announced the American Vintage II series, listing qualities such as original build specs (“all of them”), nitro-lacquer finishes (where applicable), vintage-style neck profiles, year-specific pickups, ash and alder bodies, and vintage-style hardware. Where reissues have traditionally keyed on cut-and-dried classics, this time Fender is venturing into its debated (and derided) ’70s guitars, intent on righting a few wrongs.
Guiding the effort are Rich Siegle and Justin Norvell, whose combined time at Fender adds up to more than a half-century.
As a kid, Siegle’s love of guitars started when he’d sit with his brother, John, and gaze at instruments in the Sears catalog. Seeing The Beatles on Ed Sullivan cemented a fascination and he learned to play on John’s Gibson SG.
“I’d open the case and just gaze at it,” he said. “Whenever he wasn’t home, I’d pick it up and strum. It was crazy how good it felt (laughs).”
That infatuation led to a life immersed in music and instruments; in 1996, he was hired as Advertising Manager at Fender. Today, his job title is Director of Branding/Fender Academy, but Norvell points out that Siegle is also, “… our resident historian and archivist.” He still loves to play, write, and perform.
Norvell, Fender’s Senior V.P. of Product Development, was raised by devout music fans.
“My dad had a thousand records,” he said. “From age four or five, I’d sit with the coil-cord headphones in front of the console stereo and listen to Cream, Zeppelin, Allman Brothers, Steely Dan – all that stuff; Hendrix, the Doors. I really soaked it in.”
Though his first instrument was drums, bandmates would leave gear at his place, and (with permission) he’d pick around on a solidbody or his dad’s Yamaha acoustic.
In 1996, he was hired to work in Fender’s parts division.
“I had to know what everything was, from all years,” he said. “It was my crash course on product and the history of Fender. Like Rich, I’ve remained very steeped in not only what we’re doing now, but everything that came before it.” Also like Siegle, making music remains an important pastime for him.
We talked with both to learn what went into the American Vintage II line.
Reissues have traditionally focused on “peak” examples, like the ’52 Tele or stack-knob Jazz Bass. How did you decide on models for AVII?
Justin Norvell: After the American Original line (launched in 2018) highlighted features of a certain decade, a lot of people wanted us to go back to year-specific reissues. We had to consider whether to try the same models again or take on something different, and there were things we wanted to do.
Many people look at a ’54, ’57, or ’59 Stratocaster and go, “Yeah… sunburst Strat.” But of course there are those who know how it went from ash to alder, two-tone to three-tone, U to V necks, Alnico IIIs to Vs – all that stuff. The first Vintage Tele was arbitrarily chosen because Dan Smith had Ted Greene’s guitar handy to use as the prototype.
It was a simple matter of accessibility.
JN: Yes, and that’s part of why we wanted to celebrate the ’51 this time, because that’s really the first-year Telecaster. Plus, on the original reissues, we weren’t able to do round-lam rosewood fretboards on the production line – that was only available in the Custom Shop. But we now have capabilities to do more. We wanted to play with other ideas and reappraise the CBS era. People have come to look more fondly upon a lot of those models and designs. One could argue the execution wasn’t always perfect back then, but the designs were pretty good. And there’s so many flavors of Telecaster from ’51 to the double-bound ’63 Tele Custom with the mahogany body and round-lam, and on to the ’72 Thinline, ’75 Deluxe, ’77 Custom.
The ’62 Jazzmaster – the first version – is cool, but to my mind, the quintessential. Jazzmaster is the mid-’60s, with the blocks and painted headstock cap. That is what people really gravitate toward.
Did you have an original ’66 Jazzmaster to use as a reference?
JN: We have some archives, but we spent a lot of time at the Songbirds Museum, in Chattanooga, going through their collection and looking at models we felt were interesting.
Given that manufacturing can now make things closer to original-spec, do you think AVII could be viewed as more collector-centric than previous reissue lines?
JN: In some ways, yes, but it’s more about how the original Vintage series was trying to benchmark that late-’50s/early-’60s grouping of the “golden era,” and this time we wanted to widen the aperture to offer interesting transitional examples; a lot of people have a ’60s-reissue P Bass, so a ’54 should be interesting to them. Same thing with the ’70s Teles – they’re just flat-out fascinating instruments – a bit left of center, but in the collector’s market, esoteric or transitional stuff is highly desirable because it was made for a shorter period of time and wasn’t the most popular or longest-running spec.
Rich Siegle: I think AVII instruments bring an obvious appeal for collectors, players, and anyone who appreciates a great-playing, great-sounding guitar. They’re made in our U.S. factory and garner a pretty good price, so people who are serious about playing and serious about Fenders will love them, hopefully.
JN: If you went to buy a ’66 Jazzmaster with a painted headstock, you’d be over 10 grand, easily. And a ’51 Tele or ’57 Strat isn’t attainable for a lot of people. So, putting all that design into these and making those accessible was really important to us. The other side is, especially with the mid ’60s to early ’70s instruments, a lot of people like the aesthetics or concepts of those instruments, but in the vintage market it’s a real gamble in regard to the quality of materials, construction, weight, and tone, plus condition after 50 years.
Over the years, I had many conversations with Dan Smith and George Blanda about how the three-bolt neck design was a great idea but was executed poorly; the fixturing was off, so the bolts and two screws didn’t always line up perfectly. But when done right, those guitars are amazing.
So, AVIIs are not copies of ’70s guitars, they’re a refinement of the designs. With CNC and the handwork combination, we have a level of quality like the best possible vintage examples.
In the vintage market 30 years ago, most CBS-era guitars were $400 pieces.
RS: Right, nobody wanted them. And now, people are paying top dollar for those. Maybe the market evolved, or maybe, like Justin said, they really were great designs that weren’t built properly. But bringing those back is one of the coolest things about this new line.
Another factor is that in the last 10 years, ’70s guitars have made it onto big stages – it’s now cool to play a humbucker Tele, and a ’73 Deluxe is a $4,000 guitar.
JN: The collector’s market changes and turns; it’s now driven by Gen X and bands that were picking up pawn-shop guitars in the grunge and punk scenes. In the early ’90s, Jazzmasters and Jaguars found their way into a lot of hands because they were affordable, which brought them to a world stage. Now, people can get a guitar like those and know it’s going to be well-made.
RS: Those ’70s guitars are very underrated. Yeah, there were some bad ones, but the designs were solid.
JN: Early-’70s Fender was Roger Rossmeisl and Seth Lover. There were great names in the stew. It wasn’t just about the Coronado (laughs).
It’s also a reality that many ’70s Fenders were very heavy.
JN: Because they switched to Northern ash or Big Leaf maple; I have a ’79 Strat that’s 9.3 pounds. On ash-body AVII models, we made some judgment calls because we didn’t want to reissue 10-pound guitars. They’re where you want them to be.
What are some other refinements?
JN: With the AVII ’73 Strat, the main one was whether we should cast the block saddles again then spend money re-tooling a bridge that most people think was inferior and was often switched out. But we didn’t do that. So, there are areas where we made decisions in favor of playability, quality, or tone over authenticity. It’s not always a strict reissue, but it made sense to do it.
Did you find or do you make the Cunife for the new Wide Range Humbucker in the ’70s Teles?
JN: We made it. After car tachometers became mostly digitized, Cunife went away because factories stopped making it. Tim Shaw, our Chief Engineer who’s been in the pickup business for a very long time and is very knowledgeable, was talking to magnet suppliers and found a place willing to make it to our spec. We had to go in for a certain amount to make it worthwhile, but we figured it’s got enough vibe and a cult following that it would be cool to move beyond what we lovingly call “Cunifakes” that approximate the look or tone but really aren’t it.
The new humbucker occupies interesting sonic territory, with its wider bobbins and weak magnet; underwound pickup tones are de rigueur these days, so it fits nicely. And we’re exploring new pickup styles with Cunife magnets. It’s been fun.
Have you made Strat pickups with it?
JN: Yeah, Tim and his team have been playing with it for the better part of five years.
Does history tell us why Seth Lover used it in the first place?
RS: Because it’s machinable, where Alnico is not because it’s brittle. Cunife could be machined into screw pole pieces, and he probably liked the idea that you could directly adjust the height of the magnet. I assume that was the idea – and it sounded good, so away he went.
Do you have personal favorites among the AVII line?
RS: I like Telecasters, so I really dig the ’77 Tele Custom. I have an old Tele with a Cunife humbucker in the neck, and love it.
JN: I was going to say the same, having been imprinted by the Rolling Stones while growing up. But I also really like the ’66 Jazzmaster because it’s just so quintessentially mid-century – the angles and the blocks. Fenders aren’t fancy, so the Jazzmaster with painted headstock, block inlays, and bound fretboard is about as adorned as a Fender gets. It looks like an old Cadillac with fins.
If you talked to someone who was trying to decide between an AVII instrument and one from the Custom Shop, what would you tell them?
JN: AVIIs are made on the [production] line, so while it goes through 150 hand processes, it goes through different hands in the mill, in sanding, in paint, in subassembly, and final. In the Custom Shop, it’s shepherded by much fewer people.
At a very base level, AVIIs are like a brand new ’77 Tele Custom or ’57 Strat in terms of what it would look and sound like, while the Custom Shop is more for people who go for the NOS and Closet Classic finishes, where it’s more as it would be today if you found a really good well-used one; maybe the pickups have lost a little top-end and things feel a bit more aged – there’s the “then versus now” vibe. From an overall quality standpoint, both are stunning. AVIIs are made on the line – but still by hand – and we’re still stamping out saddles and stamping out jack ferrules. We have the old tooling and old machines. We’re not assembling from purchased parts. It’s the real stuff, with all the mojo.
RS: An AVII is going to sound and feel great, but there’s something magical about what comes out of the Custom Shop. You can feel it, and you can hear it. And the other thing is you can customize; if you want hand-wound pickups or something special, you get that in the Custom Shop.
After launching a new line, what do you most look forward to in terms of feedback?
RS: I love seeing them played live. With the American Pro and American Elite, anytime I saw video, a player onstage, or someone on “The Tonight Show” playing one, I’d get a real buzz.
JN: I agree, and with AVII it’ll be great to show that we are reverent toward the original recipes and want to retain the magic that is Fender. Nobody is immune to that feeling; even to someone who likes a very-modern guitar, a ’57 Strat is iconic. And just because you have a ’57 Strat doesn’t mean you have to play 1957 music on it. You can come up with the next cool thing.
RS: There’s a ton of credibility, too, to say that we’re making these just like we did in the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s. That’s a bold statement, especially to collectors or vintage aficionados.
Ever since we started doing this in the ’80s and into the ’90s, when Mike Lewis first coined the name “American Vintage,” it’s been a point of credibility to our legacy.
JN: And it’s important that we make them in the old way. We’re cutting the cold-rolled steel bridge blocks and using old tooling and putting bridge assemblies together. It’s not super common in the business where someone does it all from tip to tail. There’s something beautiful and magical about that.
See our review of the American Vintage II ’57 Strat in the February issue, and watch for reviews of the ’54 Precision Bass and ’75 Tele Deluxe.
This article originally appeared in VG’s March 2023 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.