Get an eyeful of the people and processes behind Fender’s finest instruments.
Come along on a recent and memorable visit I made to Corona, California and the Fender Custom Shop! Corona’s south-of-the-border ambience, a very nice little place to stay at the foot of the mountains and some great Mexican food and tequila amped up the fun factor! Having just been at Taylor Guitars in El Cajon, California, I extended my road trip with a friend to include Fender while taking in this beautiful part of the country.
Aside from getting an inside look at the Fender Custom Shop, I was invited to sit in on a meeting in which Musician’s Friend began developing an exclusive line of Fender Custom Shop guitars for Private Reserve. I was there to offer a player’s perspectives to Fender’s team. As with the other custom shops I’ve visited, I found Fender to be eager to hear my feedback on their instruments. They get excited around players, thrusting guitars at you: “Try this one.” “What do you think of this?” They get it: We, the players, are the ones that buy their products!
Forget Sharknado. Let’s go with the Fendernado.
Fender has a very strong brand identity and is somehow able to keep moving their instruments forward without losing that essential Fender mojo. Even the staff has the Fender vibe. Tattoos, bowling shirts, horn rimmed glasses etc... Do they build hot rods or guitars here?
Just breathing the Fender atmosphere helped me to shape a concept for some Private Reserve exclusives: Keep the classic Fender vibe but load the instrument with modern attributes that give the player expanded possibilities and playability far beyond the traditional model. Examples would include a compound radius fretboard, two-point trem, bridge humbucker, locking tuners and so on.
After brainstorming some dream guitars, it was time to check out the Fender Custom Shop floor—a favorite pursuit of mine! In addition to seeing all the hands-on guitar building, there are always unique, one-of-a-kind instruments to be seen in various stages of completion.
Check out this awesome neck-thru Tough Dog Tele! This one might just be for Merle himself.
The Fender Custom Shop is a fairly small and simple operation. The pickups are wound by hand in a small office. By handwinding each pickup, Fender not only has more control over the tone, but also faithfully recreates the legendary Fender sounds of the ‘50s and ‘60s and beyond.
Doing my best impression of legendary coil winder Abigail Ybarra. Now that she’s retired, “Abby-wound” pickups are a hot commodity.
The rest of the operation is made up of Team Builders and Master Builders. Masterbuilt guitars are crafted from the ground up by a single luthier. This includes wood selection and often reflects the Master Builder’s options and features of choice. Musician’s Friend has a large selection of Masterbuilt Fenders by John Cruz and Dale Wilson, two of Fender’s finest builders. These are the guys who build guitars for Fender’s impressive artist roster. Many of their creations are well-worn relics from the past, but since it is a custom shop, the sky’s the limit—nearly anything is possible.
John Cruz is well known for building classic Fenders, but his Custom Shop Zombie guitar, offered by Musician’s Friend Private Reserve, goes way beyond tradition.
Checking out the team-built construction process, I get a good look at how these guitars are made and what makes them special. Similarly to the Masterbuilt concept, I see craftspeople working on one piece at time whether it be a body or a neck—it’s one person working one piece until it’s just right. Quite the opposite of an assembly-line process. Because these instruments are largely sculpted by hand, there are reference models at most work stations so the builder can get the curves, contours, neck pocket, neck shape and so on just right.
This model allows builders to hand-fit necks into the the body pocket for a perfect fit.
Craftspeople work body contours by hand, again with a reference model, to get it just right.
My favorite part of the Custom Shop was the neck wall. From the player’s perspective, the neck on a guitar is possibly its most important part. The profile, finish, fretwork and wood choice are all important elements, but in the end, it’s that indefinable feel that makes the difference. It was really cool to hold each one of these necks and feel the differences among them. We chose a neck shape for some Private Reserve Fender Custom Shop guitars using these models.
A wall of varied neck profiles serves as a reference for luthiers during the carving process. They’re also used to choose necks for custom instruments.
A Fender Custom Shop builder carefully shapes a maple neck.
Within walking distance is the Fender USA factory, so I decided to head over there and take a look. There is a great gallery of guitars on the way in with some legendary replicas and unique instruments.
Check out this loaded Strat that greets visitors at the Fender USA factory. Good thing they’re Noiseless pickups!
I had some extra time so I joined a tour of the Fender USA facility. Unlike the boutique vibe of the custom shop, the Fender USA factory is an impressively large operation. Like many other domestic guitar companies, Fender is proof that U.S. manufacturing is still possible and even profitable. The patriotic impulse is just another reason to spring for a little bit extra for that American Strat! I find it inspiring to see companies like Fender employing large numbers of people and manufacturing a quality product in the USA. That said, there is a big difference between a USA Fender and a Custom Shop Fender. Given the Custom Shop approach and processes, they are genuinely custom-crafted instruments.
Special thanks to Joe Reynoso, Brian Page and Dale Wilson at Fender for their hospitality and intimate look inside Fender Custom Shop. Until next time...keep playing!
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Visit www.privatereserveguitars.com or contact Derek White directly at 866-926-1923. He can get you the absolute lowest price on your dream guitar. Connect with Private Reserve Guitars on Facebook and Instagram.
Brian Baggett is Video Presenter for Musician’s Friend Private Reserve Guitars. He curates the Private Reserve guitar collection on video, visits guitar factories and works closely with luthiers and signature artists to gain insight into the greatest guitars being built today. He is also a professional guitarist playing every Wednesday and Saturday night at The Green Lady Lounge in Kansas City. A former jazz guitar professor, Brian continues to teach guitar lessons and has a book and DVD titled Keys To Unlocking the Fretboard. Find Brian on Facebook and twitter.