January 10, 2004
A Fender Custom Shop Master Built Experience
by Tom Watson
Everyone who grew up with "rock 'n' roll" during the 50s and 60s in the United States understood its message. Rebellion. The music served as an anthem for millions of teenagers, who, like billions of teenagers before them, thirsted for freedom from the rules of school and parents.
But while we listened to rock, bought guitars, and played in bands, most of our rebellion was in our hearts and minds, not in our deeds. We went to school, studied, worked a part-time job, gigged when we could, graduated and generally acted more disgruntled than rebellious.
The electric guitar allowed millions of closet rebels the chance to imagine a different world, a different life, a different "me". Playing the guitar made all things possible. The electric guitar and the music with which it's associated gave us one of the greatest gifts of all - the gift of dreams.
Even as we grow older and the dreams of adolescent rebellion fade, the electric guitar continues to work its magic on us. It remains a symbol of possibility and an evoker of dreams past and dreams yet to come.
And have we ever found the "perfect" guitar waiting for us on a dealer's wall? Who hasn't dreamed of his or her perfect Strat, Tele or bass?
It's with good reason Fender calls its Custom Shop the "Dream Factory".
The highly skilled men and women of the Custom Shop are ready, willing and able to build the Fender guitar of your dreams through Fender's "Master Built" program. If you can dream it, the Master Builders at the Fender Custom Shop will work closely with you to turn that dream into a reality.
Below is a step-by-step description of a recent real-life Master Built experience from the perspective of the customer (Kevin K) and the Master Builder (Fender Custom Shop Senior Master Builder Todd Krause), with comments from a Fender Custom Shop Master Dealer (Allan Clarke on behalf of the Fountain Valley, California, Guitar Center).
[Editor's Note: Guitar Center was not the Master Dealer involved in the sale of the instrument discussed below, and the opinions and information offered by Allan Clarke are general in nature. During the course of their interviews, both Todd Krause and Allan Clarke stressed that every customer's Master Built experience is unique.]
I started out playing bass guitar (thanks to my cousin, Mike, who gave me my first bass guitar and started me on the road to rock), which was the only formal instruction I had on guitar. I am self-taught and "play by ear" otherwise. I have also learned a lot from other guitarists I have played with and, of course, I learned a lot from just listening to guitar masters like Hendrix, Clapton, Beck, Page, Atkins and many of the great blues players.
I was in a "garage band" with three of my classmates in high school. I have played in a few bands since then. My most "serious" music period was when I lived in Southern California in the San Fernando Valley (Van Nuys to be precise). I was chasing an elusive career in the music biz but I became discouraged and kept my day job.
I primarily listen to and play the Blues. My favorite guitarists are SRV, Eric Clapton, BB King, Buddy Guy, Eric Johnson, Hendrix of course, and the up and coming "young gun blues guitarists" like Jonny Lang and Kenny Wayne Shepherd. After 37 years I am still learning how to play guitar and loving every minute of it!
I had always dreamed of having a custom-built Telecaster ever since Fender started a Custom Shop back in 1987. I have never been able to find a guitar that had everything that I was looking for. I wanted specific woods, pickups and features that are hard to find in off-the-rack guitars, so that ultimately led to my decision to take the plunge and have my dream Tele built by the Fender Custom Shop. This would be my first Custom Shop guitar.
In 1979, a year or so after high school, I had a "nothing special" job in La Mirada, a city in the Los Angeles/Orange County area. I was sitting in the lunchroom one day and came across an article about the Fender factory. There was an idea. I had been playing guitar for a few years, had always been fascinated by their construction, especially the woodworking craftsmanship, and Fender wasn't too far from where I lived.
I mentioned it to a friend who told me about the Jackson/Charvel company. Their facility was only five miles from my house. Turned out I had another friend who was working at Jackson/Charvel and he got my foot in the door. Grover Jackson hired me and I went to work with none other than Mike Shannon. I stayed with Jackson/Charvel for ten years until they downsized and moved to Ontario, California.
In 1991, the Fender Custom Shop was looking to hire and another friend who knew my work from Jackson/Charvel recommended me. The Fender Custom Shop was still pretty new back then and not so big. The "custom shop" world is kind of small and the people at Fender were aware of my work with Jackson/Charvel. I got the job and started out doing basic woodworking - filing, shaping and sanding - with a four-man crew in the Set Neck Department. I later became the Set Neck Department lead.
I spent a couple of years in Fender's R&D Department and later became an Artist Master Builder working closely with what was then called the Artist Relations Department, building guitars for various well-known artists.
These days, building guitars for artists is no longer the job of only one or two Master Builders, but is spread around our department, though artists, like all one-off Master Built customers, can request a particular Master Builder. I am now a Fender Custom Shop Senior Master Builder.
Hard to believe I've been with the Fender Custom Shop for over 12 years now! Along the way I've had the opportunity to build instruments for players such as Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, Jeff Beck, Roger Waters, Jonny Lang, Richie Sambora, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Buddy Guy, Robbie Robertson, Doyle Bramhall II, Stu Hamm and Roscoe Beck. As a Senior Master Builder, in addition to working on instruments for well-known players, I get to build Art Guitars, work on Limited Editions, and build one-offs for customers like Kevin K.
Allan Clarke: Special-order Fender Custom Shop Master Built instruments can only be placed through a Fender Master Dealer. Being a Master Dealer is a special agreement between the dealer and Fender that allows the Master Dealer to work closely with the Master Built Department of the Fender Custom Shop with respect to customer one-off Master Built orders.
What I saw as my "dream" guitar was essentially a standard-model Telecaster, personalized with my signature and a twelfth-fret inlay that would feature representations of the birthstones of my wife, my daughter and myself (using white mother of pearl and red pearloid instead of the actual gemstones), along with other custom features such as particular pickups and premium woods. It was a very simple, basic design - what I considered to be understated elegance. It would have vintage features (a tribute to Leo Fender's timeless design) combined with some modern updates.
I submitted my specs in March of this year  and received the quote on May 5. Once the price quote is received and the decision is made to place the order you pay a 50 percent deposit. Once the deposit is paid it gets the order in the production line. The guitar will not be immediately started on.
Allan Clarke: This is a very critical stage in the creation of the Master Built one-off custom order. The first step is defining exactly what it is the customer wants. When the Master Dealer has a firm idea of what the order entails, the dealer calls the order in to begin the process of generating a quote. Depending upon the complexity of the order, this could take one phone call or many as the details of the order are explored. For example, if the customer wants a very specific kind of artwork or inlay, it might require faxing a copy of the desired artwork to Fender in addition to covering the guitar's other specs. When the order is completely understood and the specs are in place, Fender will issue an order confirmation containing a price quote that the dealer will present to the customer for approval. If approved by the customer, a deposit is received from the customer and the confirmed order is submitted to the Custom Shop.
Sometimes it happens that while the guitar is being made the customer changes his or her mind about a spec. If it's minor in nature, or replaces an item with something different of essentially equivalent cost, it's normally not a problem. However, if something is requested that's really beyond the scope of the original order, then the project will have to be re-quoted to reflect that change.
I received Kevin's order sometime in August of last year . I looked over the order and gave Kevin a call to review it with him. The whole point of ordering a Master Built guitar is getting an instrument that is built to the customer's specs, whatever they are. The Master Built order form the customer completed with the salesperson is fairly detailed, but it's important for us to confirm the specs to make sure everything is covered and understood. It often happens that the customer was unaware of some options or a little uncertain about some of the choices. By talking to the customer we both get a better idea of what the finished product will be.
In Kevin's case things were fairly straightforward as he had a very clear idea in his mind about what he wanted. We went over the specs, and I made a couple of suggestions, like using pearl buttons on the tuners and what pickup route might work for what he was trying to create. But, for the most part, Kevin had done his homework.
Allan Clarke: Although the Master Builders tend to work closely with the customer to ensure they receive the guitar they want, the dealer is not taken out of the loop. The Master Dealer normally continues to serve as the interface between customer and Custom Shop, answering customer questions and contacting the Custom Shop if questions about the order arise. In fact, the Master Dealer is normally the first person the Master Builder will contact to go over the specs before the work begins. You can imagine the possible confusion if the dealer were to be taken out of the loop and the specs changed without the dealer's knowledge. The Master Dealer remains very involved with the order from submission through delivery of the instrument.
I got to see my dream guitar taking shape and becoming a reality! Todd was fantastic to work with and extremely helpful with all of my questions, and believe me, as a "rookie" Custom Shop client I had a ton of them! He is real easy going and great to work with. He answered every single one of my emails, and he'll tell you I sent him a ton of them! In my case it became a true collaboration between Todd and me with respect to the Tele's design and construction.
For example, Kevin wanted some special inlay work done at the twelfth fret. As the piece progressed I realized that Ron Thorn would be the perfect guy to do the custom-inlay work. Through email, Kevin and I were able to pinpoint exactly how the inlay should look which allowed me to explain to Ron exactly what we wanted. Good communication makes everybody's life much easier and goes a long way toward helping us accomplish exactly what the customer envisioned.
Kevin did a great job in responding to emails quickly and clearly. His questions to me were also clear and to the point. The build period for Kevin's Tele was about three and a half months - we have to juggle our time among several guitars and projects. You get to know someone pretty well over that period of time, and I have to say that Kevin's energy and enthusiasm went a long way toward that. The process really is a collaboration between builder and customer.
I like to send the customer a photo or two when the choice of wood for the top is a critical element of the guitar being built, as it was in Kevin's case. I was very pleased with the wood used on Kevin's Tele, and wanted him to have some idea of the clarity and depth of the quilt, so I sent him pics of the raw body and another one down the road that showed the finish. I don't like to send photos of the completed instrument before delivery. Seems like that would take away some of the excitement and anticipation of seeing the guitar in person for the first time.
Friday, December 5, 2003. The moment I had so anxiously awaited for nine months had arrived. When I opened the case lid (slowly, to let the warm air in gradually) I was speechless (and a little weak in the knees!).
There aren't enough adjectives and superlatives in the English language to describe this guitar. I have never in my life held such a beautifully built instrument in my hands. And the sound and tone are incredible. The only way I can describe it is being deaf and then all of a sudden being able to hear again. I have never heard a solid body electric sound so good unplugged! Plugged in, it is as close to heaven as a guitarist can get! Todd took the specs and created a work of art, his guitar-building talents are simply amazing!
This has been a journey I will never forget and would not hesitate for a moment to take again! It's been a special event in my life and I'd like to thank Todd Krause, Ron Thorn, Alex Nicholas, John T. English, Mark Kendrick, Art Esparza, Jason Davis, Stephen Stern, Greg Fessler, John Cruz, Chris Fleming, Dennis Galuszka, Yuriy Shishkov, Scott Beuhl, Red Dave, Mike Eldred, Abigail Ybarra, and Pamelina Hovnatanian for the wonderful memories!
And I owe a very heartfelt and special thanks to my Uncle Bud and Aunt Genny, without whom none of this would have been possible.
Allan Clarke: The Fender Custom Shop Master Dealer makes the delivery of the guitar to the customer. Although rarely the case, should there be any problem with the instrument it will the Master Dealer who will resolve it with the Custom Shop for the customer. The whole experience is designed to result in the ultimate in customer satisfaction, truly the guitar of the customer's dreams. Both the Master Dealer and Fender will take every reasonable step to make sure that dream is realized.
A dream come true. Kevin K and his Master Built Telecaster.
[Editor's Note: To find a Fender Custom Shop Master Dealer, try the Fender Dealer Finder or call 1 (800) 447-8940]
Published January 10, 2004 01:30 AM.