Fender Guitars Celebrates 30th Anniversary of Custom Shop

Michael Stevens
Henry Diltz for Fender

Michael Stevens

If the walls of the Fender Guitars Custom Shop could talk, it would tell stories about ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons stopping by to hang out with a case of Dad’s Root Beer, or Merle Haggard scurrying to put on a sports coat to impress the “Vice President of Fender Guitars,” only to be greeted by master builder John Page in a “denim shirt and shorts.” Oh, and there was that time master builder Michael Stevens was cursing Eric Clapton's name when the Guitar God rejected three of his neck designs for a new signature guitar model after his famed Stratocaster, “Blackie,” wore out.

“I went ballistic. I was so mad I ready to kill Clapton,” Stevens tells Billboard. “I stormed into Dan Smith’s office and said, ‘get that SOB over here. I have never been turned down three times for anything in my life. I’m not getting the right information.  What is going on?” I was mad.”

Stevens’ determination to get the job done right made it to the proper channels and Clapton’s guitar tech, Lee Dickson, hand delivered the prototype to get the job done: THE Blackie. The Texas luthier was instructed: “this is what we want.”

“I took it home with me, and when I brought it to Fender. It went in my office and I locked the door, and at night it was under my bed and I had my pistol under my pillow,” he says. “Nobody was getting Blackie from me without a fight. That was just too cool a guitar. One of the guitars that all of us guys in the world heard about, thought about, dreamed about, and here I’ve got it. “

Finally, Stevens came up with the right prototypes, which were eventually auctioned at Christie’s. This attention to detail and work ethos is exemplified in a new documentary, Fender Custom Shop: Founders Design 30th Anniversary Documentary, premiering today (March 1) on Fenders' YouTube channel. The film--set inside the "dream factory," a "nirvana for guitar geeks"-- reunites eight original master builders dedicated to creating legendary instruments, including Stevens, Page, George Blanda, Fred Stuart, J.W. Black, Mark Kendrick, Alan Hamel and Gene Baker. Located in Corona, California, the builders crafted custom guitars for everyone from Clapton, Bob Dylan, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Jimmie Vaughn to Richie Sambora, Sting, Merle Haggard, Keith Richards, Courtney Love, Dwight Yoakam, Marty Stuart, Yngwie Malmsteen, Jeff Beck and Buck Owens.

Eight of the original master builders returned to the shop to design and create eight new Founders Design guitars, with only 30 units of each to be produced and released on a monthly basis throughout the remainder of 2017. Each designer was told they could create a unique design for the Custom Shop to build, each in their own style-and “the sky is the limit,” Mike Lewis, Vice President of Product Development, tells Billboard.

On March 14, Fender will roll out a special edition Michael Stevens' Founders Design— a single necked Esquire, an homage to the double necked white/blonde colored telecaster/stratocaster he originally created in the shop. The body is made out of one-piece sassafras instead of ash, he says.

The other guitars built include: a Double F-Hole Thinline Esquire built by Page, which he dubs the “Page-O-Caster,”a Jazzmaster --which Blanda always felt was a misunderstood instrument, and a Sparkle Telecaster created by Hamel. Stuart  went with a Herringbone Telecaster, while Black and Kendrick designed individual Stratocasters that show of their individual artistry. Each guitar will be released monthly through October.

“Each of these founding master builders came up with these amazing designs that are unmistakable in their own style. If you are a guitar fan and up on the Custom Shop history, you can look at these designs and know who designed it, just like a Monet or a Picasso… you would recognize the style,” Lewis says. “That is the level of these designers and the mark that they made on guitar history and guitar design over the last thirty years, specifically in the early days of the custom shop. That is the most exciting part-inviting them back. It was a real reunion for everybody. These are the guys that started it all for the custom Shop and cemented our image of what we do. There is no job too big or too small for us.”

The documentary tells the story of the origins of the Custom Shop, when Michael Stevens was hired by Fender CEO Bill Schultz in an effort to rescue Fender’s image from the stench of prior owner, CBS. Stevens handpicked Page, a Fender employee, to be his right hand man to carry out the vision. The story--told through archival footage--tells the story as told through photos and present day interviews with each builder.

“I started on the floor, buffing necks in the factory. That was in the late '70s. I went into research and development within a few months of that and became the guitar designer in my early twenties, 23, I think,” Page says. “So I had been at Fender for nine years before we actually started the custom shop. We had talked about it for many, many years, because we used to build artists' guitars in research and development, as well.”

While Page worked with Elliot Easton of The Cars, The Go-Go’s, and Frank Zappa, the guitar maker didn’t have a shop, “per se,” he says. Page was mentored by Freddie Tavares, who showed him how to sand a guitar, tack a piece of paper against the wood with “two lines traced on it,” and create a Stratocaster. He even took Page and other employees out to lunch with Leo Fender. It was this knowledge that earned Page his place next to Stevens in the shop — but the orders were coming in fast and furious. They needed more manpower.

“Once the popularity really hit, and not just the popularity, just the reality of business, and the numbers started to be demanded. That was tough,” Page says. “So Mike concentrated on a couple of one-offs that he was building them, and I was trying to run the semi-custom production. And that's when I started to meet guys on the line that helped me get through it. Guys like Fred Stuart, who became one of our next master builders. Where I would do everything I could do at the wood side, get it through paint, and then take them to Freddie and let him set it up, because I had too many other things to do.”

“So, that's how we started to find these other great talents in the Fender factory was by that demand. And it is a challenge, you know, when you're trying to create art pieces and do production as well,” Page adds. “But that's where the commitment of the people came in. And as the years went by, and we're freaking out, trying to be a good business, and so we'd spend the night there. And we'd do everything we could to make sure that we made the month, financially, like we had to. That was all the commitment of the people. That's where, you know, like when you say, 'What makes the perfect Fender guitar?' I circle back to that, because without that commitment of all the people that I was working with, it wouldn't have happened. We had a crew like none other. And that kept the trueness to the art as well. So we could do the numbers and keep the art. And it was only through that team and commitment to it. So, I don't know how to say it more than that, you know? Just the best group of guys I ever had. Wonderful people.”

Stevens — who is interviewed from his ranch in the documentary -- says he hopes the short film gives viewers an idea of the camaraderie of the builders in the shop. Photographer Henry Diltz — who shot iconic album covers for The Eagles, The Doors and more — was also brought in by Fender to take pictures of the builders and their Founders Designs.

“It was quite rewarding, with lots of good memories, funny stories. I was there a short time-four years,” he says. “It surpassed everything we were trying to do back then. We were there early, we had a good time.  I liked George’s comment in the film — it was like Animal House. It was goofy. But we were all good friends. There were pranks, but a lot of hard work, long hours and camaraderie. And the guys in the factory looked down on us and called us leisure world (laughs). That was us! ”

He added that he is impressed with the work the new builders in the shop are working on today. “It’s like watching your kid grow up,” he says. “Some of the guys they have now, I can’t do that stuff. “

“We pulled it off,” says Page. “Here it is 30 years later, and the shop's still alive and booming, and more successful than ever. So all those early efforts paid off.”

Fans can view and order the guitars at FenderCustomShop.com.

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