We talk to the Fender luthier about the extraordinary instruments he built for a Private Reserve Guitars project
This interview documents a unique series of guitars that Dave Carpenter of Private Reserve Guitars commissioned from Master Builder Dale Wilson of the Fender Custom Shop.
Dave was very specific about what Musician's Friend was trying to achieve-namely, a vintage-style Fender that's lightweight, yet extremely resonant and soulful with pickups capable of capturing all that delicious tone. He found the perfect craftsman for the job.
Dale is a devoted luthier who's obsessive about every aspect of each guitar he builds. He's especially proud of how well these guitars turned out. Let's hear his side of the story as he walks us through the build process.
You can view the entire collection Dale built here.
THE HUB: How did you get started being a guitar builder?
DW: I actually started when I was pretty young. I would work on my own guitars in the garage and then, eventually, I started working for a local music store and kind of messed around there. There used to be a lot of small custom guitar stores around, and there was one in Fountain Valley where I had a custom guitar built.
He was taking a really long time, and asked if I wanted to come down and help work on it. I said "Yeah, I'd love to do that!" So I came down and that turned into a job. I went from there to Gibson, Dobro, to Rickenbacker and then worked here at Fender in the different departments, like Guild and Benedetto and so forth.
THE HUB: How long have you been a builder in the Custom Shop?
DW: I've been with Fender for going on ten years. I've been a builder for three years now. Before that, I apprenticed for a good five years.
THE HUB: What's your work-flow process like? Are you typically working on just one guitar at a time, or do you have various instruments in different stages of completion?
DW: We all batch our orders. That will vary from month to month according to the difficulty of the guitars we're doing. There's never a specific amount of guitars. It's more about what's going to serve the difficulty of the guitars, so that they get out in a timely fashion, but more importantly, in a quality manner.
THE HUB: So you try to stage the instruments according to the various challenges they present, working with a group at the same time that have a similar set of challenges for you as a luthier.
DW: Exactly. If there are guitars that are related, then we will batch those together so that we're doing the same processes for each model.
THE HUB: Let's talk about the process that got rolling between Musician's Friend, Dave Carpenter, and yourself. Maybe you could speak about your recollection of how this whole run of special guitars got started.
DW: Dave came out here with specific intentions and ideas of what he wanted in this run of guitars. His idea was to get the lightest body possible in a single piece of wood whether it was ash or alder, then couple it with what he deemed as the heaviest neck.
What he meant by that was the tightest-grained neck. Whether that was quarter-sawn or rift-sawn or plain grain, he just wanted the absolute tightest grain that we could get. He also wanted pickups that were under-wound from our regular sets specifically for these guitars. The tone he was going for was more out of the guitar's natural resonance, and then the pickup would pick up that resonance as much as possible.
THE HUB: So the underlying concept was to get wood that's going to transfer the greatest tone, and then let the electronics capture that, rather than optimizing electronics around less than optimal woods. What is your process when you go about picking woods, be it for a body or neck?
DW: We have people that provide wood for us. They'll send us high-quality wood that we receive on pallets. It's all sorted, but not presorted to the degree that we need it. We have, basically, the best quality made, whether it's rift-sawn or quarter-sawn. The Master Builders will go out there and actually pick specific woods that meet the criteria for that specific guitar.
With these guitars, Dave came out, himself. We went through a pallet and picked out five examples. Through the build process, I could go out there and use those as references to make sure they were as tight as he wanted, because he wanted them really tight. I think it's just a grain-upon-grain type of thing. That's what we shop for, the tightest maple available to us at the time of the build.
His understanding was that this would resonate more of the body, carrying the tone through the neck. I have to say, there are some fine-sounding guitars in there. They're all a little bit different, but I really, for one, enjoyed making them. And, two, I was constantly surprised at the outcome.
THE HUB: One of the goals of the project was to create bodies that were as light as possible; some are alder, some ash. Obviously those are both relatively lighter woods, but do you see any particular difference in tone or other characteristics between those two woods?
DW: They're all the lightest that I could find of the species, and they're also one piece, which really is a big deal. As far as I'm concerned, if a customer wanted something that they knew is going to sound pretty consistent, alder would be the route to go. And if they wanted something that varied, from one piece of ash to the other, the tone changes dramatically, from the lighter to the heavy to the dense to the more open pores. Personally I like ash. I like the way ash looks. I like the way it wears and I like the lighter weights you can get out of ash.
THE HUB: When you say tight-grain, is there a difference between quarter-sawn and flat-sawn wood on the body and the neck?
DW: When Dave Carpenter came out, he specified plain grain, flat-sawn tight. Usually, with our guitars, we at least go rift. I personally like to do a rift-sawn if it's not figured. If it is figured, I like to do quarter-sawn for more stability.
He didn't think it would necessarily sound any different, as long as that grain was as tight as possible. He didn't mind if it was rift or if it was quartered. Just tight. That's what he wanted.
In picking out these necks I knew they would sound good because to me it's not necessarily a weight issue as much as a density issue. The tighter the grain is, the denser the wood. You could feel the strings vibrate through the neck.
THE HUB: Can you share any surprises with us as far as outcomes that you didn't really expect when you blended certain ingredients together?
DW: I was making sure I got the lightest ash, lightest alder I possibly could in one-piece bodies. When they come together, in your mind's eye you picture what this guitar is going to sound like according to the weight of the wood or the weight of the guitar, or how the pickups are wound, or whatever. Time and time again, I would plug them in and just go, "Wow. Great guitar. This thing sounds just incredible."
THE HUB: So really it was a collective effort of dreaming up some really incredible instruments.
DW: It's almost like a merging, Musician's Friend and Fender, from Dave Carpenter to whoever else thought up these guitars. I just thought that was cool.
You're not talking about just a run of Stratocasters that are painted different colors. If you look at the collections, it's really a very wide-ranging collection of guitars, models, and colors. The neck shapes were all the same, but the differences are just as apparent as the similarities. I really liked the bigger neck shape.
With all the same body wood, neck wood, and under-wound pickups, how would that affect a broad range of different styles, whether it be a Jazzmaster, Jaguar, or P-bass? It's the same thought going through different styles. I liked that aspect of it.
I just wanted to just say one thing about the bridges on all the Telecasters. They have what is kind of a '59-ish bridge. It was a time when they were going from a top mount to a rear load design. These bridges in '59 had both holes for a top load or a rear load, so you can route the strings either way..
Another specific was the frets that are in these guitars. They're a steel number 155. They're vintage frets that are a little bit taller. Not quite as tall as a 6105, but pretty close. It'd get almost a real vintage feel with those frets with a little bit of extra height to bend with, or whatever. They really worked out well. I like them a little bit more than I do the 6105s.
THE HUB: Superior craftsmanship is a given, but can you talk about the superior materials? To what sort of lengths does the Custom Shop go to get great materials, and how about the hardware?
DW: We have our own builder here. His name is Scott Buell, and he's always refining and trying to upgrade our hardware. Just this last year he came out with a Jazzmaster bridge. It sounds awesome. It's a really huge upgrade from what we've had previously, as far as I'm concerned.
THE HUB: So does he have his own little foundry where he actually can forge?
DW: He has a mill in the metal shop that he uses to basically make up the parts and guitars. He sends them out for plating and what not, but everything is manufactured by him.
THE HUB: Turning to electronics. Can you describe the Custom Shop mojo that goes into pickups?
DW: The vast majority of those guitars were wound by Abby Ybarra. To me, with hand-wound pickups, from guitar to guitar with the same pickups, each one has its own character, almost like the heart of a guitar type of thing. Much, much more so than a machine-wound.
THE HUB: I wanted to ask you about Abby. I saw something to the effect that she had retired.
DW: She did retire. The cool thing about these instruments, in that sense, is these are some of her last pickups. They are in the runs-ome of the last pickups she did.
THE HUB: What's your process for paints and finishes? Do you blend your own, or how does that work in the Custom Shop?
DW: No. We have a third party that we'll order specific paints from and they'll match paints for us. If we're trying to match some kind of a picture or something, we'll then vary the paint accordingly-lighten it up, darken it up.
THE HUB: A lot of these were essentially one-offs, some of which you also gave Relic treatments to. I wonder if you could tell us a little bit about what that process is like, creating essentially an older, well-cared-for instrument?
DW: A lot of the guys here envision somebody playing it and try to tell a story behind the guitar. I like to do that, but I also like to base my Relics off actual guitars. So I have a catalog of vintage guitars and pictures that I've collected and I'll use those as a basis, and then from there try to create the same look as an actual, old guitar. So that it's based in reality, but at the same time it's kind of artistic.
I like to base the Relics off an actual old guitar. I really like trying to hit the way an old guitar looked, just because that guitar does have a story. That guitar was played, and was used in such a way to give it that wear. It's just a technique that I've always liked doing.
THE HUB: From your standpoint, as a person working on the guitar, here you've just laid on this beautiful 3-color sunburst, and you now proceed to chip it away. How does that feel? Do you have mixed feelings about that?
DW: It's daunting, actually. You want to make everything look as random as possible, because I'm copying the palette, but at the same time you don't want to make it look silly. It weighs heavy on me every time because I don't want to make something look unnatural. I prefer to go on the lighter side of a Relic. The heavier you go, the more unnatural territory you can get into. If you notice, these are all Reliced, but they're on the lighter side of beat.
Now, the '59 Telecaster would be almost an exception. And I think with something like that, I'll take a start and it's going well, and it's all how its paint reacts to how I'm pulling the paint off. Then I'll go with it. That was probably one that was nice and I thought, "Oh, yes, this is going to be cool."
THE HUB: So it's a very much a feel process, then?
DW: It very much is. Some finishes are kinder than others. And wood makes a difference, too, in the way the finish grabs onto the wood. It seems to me with ash guitars, for the most part, the finishes come up a little bit more naturally.
THE HUB: What do you do to give a guitar that broken-in feel?
DW: I think the guitar should feel like an old guitar, as well as look like an old guitar. With that, I mean, the way the roll is on the fretboard. I don't know how much more you can soften the edge of a Stratocaster, but whatever we can do to make it feel like it's just been played for years, as far as taking it down to the wood and blending the wood into the paint. It seems like it's just chipping and stuff, but actually, there's quite a bit of labor that goes into aging a guitar, Relicing a guitar.
You probably have held an old Telecaster, and noticed how the edge of the fretboard isn't sharp at all. I mean, you can just hug it with your hand. I don't know how else to say it. You can pretty much just grab it and it just feels so soft. It feels broken in.
THE HUB: You said that of all the instruments that Fender builds, the Strat is probably your favorite instrument. I was curious to hear what sort of an amp or signal chain you like to hear a Strat played through.
DW: I'm a direct-into-the-amp kind of guy. Get as much out of the amp as possible, maybe with a distortion pedal in front of it. I do love a Twin for clean. I have one of those Eric Clapton Tremolux amps. I like that a lot, love that, actually. And again, the less there is between the guitar and the amp, the better.
THE HUB: What about neck feel? Obviously the Strat over the years has gone through a lot of different neck profiles. What's a particular favorite of yours and what do you think works for the average player, If there is such a thing out there?
DW: A '60s C is definitely one of the neck shapes I do most. I really like a nice roll on the fretboard so it's just really comfortable.
As far as V's and stuff, I know people are really into them, but it's not a favorite of mine. It might be just the way that I hold the neck when I play, but it doesn't seem as comfortable to me for some reason.
THE HUB: Is there a particular year or style of Strat that's a favorite of yours?
DW: I like rosewood boards, and I like flat-sawn, so early '60s. I like the way those sound. To me they add a darker sound to a Stratocaster. I like that.
The HUB: If you could build an axe for any artist past or present, who would it be?
DW: That'd have to be Jimi Hendrix.
THE HUB: Just to dream for a bit, what elements would you incorporate into a guitar if you built one for Jimi? Would you make any mods that you think he'd dig?"
DW: I would try to make it as close to the original with underwounds in the front and maybe a little over in the back. Because even though it seems to me he got most of everything from his amplifiers, you could hear the wood in that guitar, and I just loved that.
I'm one of those guys that's never satisfied. So it's always that struggle to do better next time. Even though maybe the last one was great, there's never a time when I'm going, "This is it." I don't want to ever hit that, because I don't want to ever stop growing.
THE HUB: Dale, I don't know how to thank you for being so gracious in taking your time to go back over these instruments.
DW: No problem at all. Thank you.
Browse the entire collection of Dale Wilson-built guitars here.