Fender Custom Shop: Continuing a Legacy of Innovation

Fender Custom Shop: Continuing a Legacy of Innovation

Continuing a Legacy of Innovation

Leo Fender first began building amps out of frustration with the quality of technology he was tasked to fix. He’d had success with the PA systems he’d constructed for local dance halls, and although his sign read “Radio Repair Shop”, more and more musicians were bringing their tube amps, “electrified” acoustics, and lap steels to him for service. In the mid 40s, he started “K & F Manufacturing Corporation” with a former employee of Rickenbacker, “Doc” Kauffman. Together they began producing Hawaiian lap steel & amp kits.

Leo wasn’t content just riding the Hawaiian steel craze, however. He wanted to design an instrument that would combine the lap steel’s volume and metallic intensity with the versatility of a traditional “Spanish” style guitar. Doc wasn’t comfortable venturing into such uncharted waters, so Leo embarked alone, and Fender Electrical Musical Instrument Company was born.

During the 1950s, Fender unveiled the Telecaster (first released as the single-pickup Esquire, then briefly known as the Broadcaster), the Stratocaster, the Precision Bass, and a whole slew of tube amplifiers. Leo endlessly refined these designs, listening closely to input from working musicians, until he was satisfied. By the end of the decade, the Fender brand was well known and synonymous with Rock & Roll (the 1959 “Jazzmaster” ironically proved most popular with surf musicians).

In 1965, however, Leo Fender sold his company to CBS, and the quality of the instruments declined. Most of the changes made during this period were implemented to save money, and the few new models they introduced were commercial failures. In 1984, the company began its triumphant return to grace when its employees rallied together under their CEO, Bill Schulz, and purchased Fender from CBS, renaming it Fender Musical Instrument Corporation.

Although they needed to continue large-scale production in order to stay viable, the new Fender wanted a division dedicated to honoring the precise attention to detail that initially distinguished their guitars. In 1987, the Fender Custom Shop was founded. Some of their first builds were for sponsored artists. Former Fender Master builder, John Suhr, made a tweed twin for Eric Clapton. They built a telecaster for Danny Gatton. Before long, many of these signature models were made available to the general public along with other unique interpretations and configurations of their classic designs. The Custom Shop came to function as Fender’s R&D department, constantly experimenting and innovating. For luthiers, it also came to represent the pinnacle of solid-body guitar luthery. What started as a duo of master builders has expanded into a team of 11, each with thousands of instruments already under their belts. The Custom Shop is like the NASA of Rock & Roll. They employ the brightest minds, keenest eyes, sharpest ears, and most dexterous fingers they can find.

The creativity doesn’t begin and end at the builders bench, however. Fender invites their tightly controlled custom shop dealer network to join in the fun by allowing them an unprecedented amount of control over the kinds of instruments that they receive. Openly acknowledging that Fender’s historical influence is far too complex for any one mind to fully comprehend, the Custom Shop is constantly mining dealers and players for insights and inspiration. Most guitarists have played a Tele or Strat that for whatever reason was simply “perfect”. The Custom Shop exists to capture and understand that magic so it may be enjoyed again and again. 

Jan 14th 2019 Robinson Earle

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