Fender Custom Shop “Cunetto Relics”

October 31, 2003

Fender Custom Shop “Cunetto Relics”

by Tom Watson

New vintage guitars? That’s the goal of the Fender “Time Machine” series. Can’t afford an actual 1956 vintage Stratocaster? No problem. You can buy a “new” ’56 Strat from any Custom Shop Fender dealer in your choice of color and aging, including one aging variation that no vintage collector will ever have — mint.

From the 2003, Fender Frontline Catalog:

The Art of Aging

The Time Machine series of instruments (pages 38-45) pay homage to specific years of some of our classic designs. All are built to exacting specs of their respective vintages including body contours and radii, neck shape, fingerboard and radius, pickups, and electronics. Original materials, tooling, and production techniques are employed whenever possible to maintain the integrity of these instruments.

All Time Machine guitars and basses are finished with 100% nitrocellulose lacquer (with the exception of the ’69 Strat with its period-correct catalized [sic] undercoat and lacquer topcoat) and come with a Brown or Black Tweed or textured vinyl case, strap, and cables (unless otherwise noted).

Each model is available in three distinct finish packages: N.O.S. (New Old Stock): As if the guitar was discovered in a warehouse after many years, never played and showing no signs of wear of age or wear.

Closet Classic: A guitar collector’s dream! Imagine discovering a vintage guitar at a yard sale that’s been stashed in a closet…it’s worn a bit, yellowed with age, the finish is slightly checked with hairline cracks that are typical of an instrument that’s been exposed to years of humidity and and temperature changes.

Relic: Super worn in like your favorite pair of jeans! Shows natural wear and tear of years of heavy use–nicks, scratches, worn finish, rusty hardware and aged plastic parts. Looks, feels and plays like it’s taken the punishment of many long nightclub hours.

[page 14, 2003, Fender Frontline Catalog, © 2003, Fender Musical Instruments Corporation]

Where does a gentleman named Vince Cunetto fit into this story? At the beginning.

The Relic (and what would later become the Fender Time Machine series) story begins in 1994. John Page is the manager of the Fender Custom Shop. Jay Black is a Custom Shop Master Builder and has a good friend named Vince Cunetto. Black is aware of Cunetto’s skill in making repro Telecaster bodies, pickguards, “aged” Tele blackguards, and a few “aged” Fender replicas Cunetto had built for himself. Black shows one of Cunetto’s personal “aged” Fender replicas to Page who gives Black and Cunetto the green light to produce some “aged” replica samples. Page likes what he sees and lets Black and Cunetto (who was not then and never becomes a Fender Custom Shop employee) show two “aged” prototypes at the 1995 Winter NAMM show. They are a hit (meaning dealers are willing to place orders). These “aged” replica prototypes give birth to the Fender Relic.

The 1995 Custom Shop, however, is not prepared to produce the new Relics. Page decides to outsource the instrument components that need to be “aged” to the originator, Vince Cunetto, and in April of 1995, Cunetto sets up shop under the name, “Cunetto Creative Resources, Inc.,” in Bolivar, Missouri (his wife’s hometown) to produce the components.

Cunetto’s new shop receives its first shipment of raw bodies, necks and parts from the Custom Shop at the end of May, 1995. On June 27, 1995, Cunetto ships the first reliced components back to the Custom Shop — enough parts to produce twenty reliced Nocasters.

Cunetto describes the role he and his shop played in the production of the Relics from 1995 through May of 1999:

Our work involved complete prep, finishing and cosmetic distressing of necks and bodies. We also aged and distressed all hardware, pickguards and metal parts. We got it down to a 20 piece per week schedule, and every Friday we’d lay out the week’s guitars on a large, 24-foot padded table. Every single part on the guitar was then matched for visual consistency and appearance. We’d match necks to bodies, wear on guards to wear patterns on necks, hardware to body wear and on and on. Each part of each guitar was then labeled so that they’d be sure to be assembled as a unit after being packed and sent to Corona for final assembly.

Relic order numbers continued to grow, as did the number of custom and one-off orders. In May of ’96, we moved the company to a larger, better-equipped facility and continued production. As efficiency and employee training improved, so did our shipping numbers. We also upped the number of customs and one-offs produced.

Production continued in the new facility. Over the course of ’97, as orders for the regular Relics began to stabilize and taper, we began work on a new idea for the Relics, which we dubbed “The Relic Classic”. The concept was simple: a nicely “aged” guitar in good shape. We’d had requests for pieces like this in custom orders and had done a few prototypes for [the] Custom Shop, which were well received. In late ’97, the “Relic Classic” became the “Closet Classic”, but Fender decided that it was a little late to get it ready for January ’98 NAMM. Plans had already been made to re-tool and change the specs of the “Time Machine” Custom Shop guitars over the course of ’98, and the new Relic model would be put off until later.

By the latter part of ’98, [the] Custom Shop had seen a lot of changes. John Page had left to run the Fender Museum. Because of new Custom Shop management and corporate policies, it was decided that the Closet Classics would be done in-house at Custom Shop. We continued to do the majority of the “standard” Relics during ’98, although there were a few done “in-house” as Custom Shop honed their “relicing” chops.

By early ’99, things at Custom Shop had changed quite a bit, and I had a pretty strong feeling that they’d changed enough that using an outside vendor didn’t make sense for Custom Shop. In March of this year [1999], I got a call from Mike Eldred, the new Custom Shop manager, informing me that they intended to do all Relics in-house after we finished the then-current back order. That was it, and we shipped the last “Cunetto Relics” in May of 1999. [Source]

The Stratocaster Relics in which Cunetto and his shop played a role in producing (in addition to various Telecaster and bass models), have come to be known on the street as “Cunetto Relics” and are receiving ever growing attention from buyers, players and collectors. While instruments from the Time Machine series produced today may be more historically accurate, it is believed by many that the care and attention given to the parts “aged” by Cunetto and his shop distinguish those earlier instruments from their current descendants.

Vince Cunetto, however, would like for Strat enthusiasts to know and remember the role he and his staff played in the production of the “Cunetto Relics”:

Again, let me clarify our involvement. My company did not “make” or “build” the Relics. We did not cut bodies or necks. We did not make the parts and we did not assemble them, set them up, etc. We sent all the parts back to [the] Custom Shop, where they were assembled, wired and shipped. Somewhere along the line, the word got out that we’d been doing them, and my name became associated with the guitars from the inception to early-mid ’99. The point is, I don’t really care who gets the credit for the guitars or whose name is associated with them. All I really care about is the fact that me and my team put every bit of heart and soul we had every day into those guitars… to try to make each and every one have a “connection” on some level to anybody that picked it up. [Source]

The growing interest in “Cunetto Relics” indicates that the connection was made.

Today, Vince Cunetto produces guitars with which he also hopes players can connect — a new line of custom instruments, Vinetto Guitars.