To a rock star, buying a ready-made guitar hanging on a store wall is like grabbing a cheap suit off the rack. The pros require instruments designed to their personal specs, and for the ultimate craftsmanship and artistry, many commission Masterbuilt guitars from the Fender Custom Shop.
“Leo Fender loved artists, and as long as people have been playing guitars, there have been customizations,” says Mike Lewis, vice president, product development, at the 76-year-old California-based company. “In the early days, people would come to the shop and ask for new colors or a different neck shape. This spirit goes all the way back to our founding.”
Getting a Masterbuilt guitar takes patience and money. “We have 13 master builders, all at the pinnacle of their craft,” says Lewis. “And they are responsible for every aspect of every guitar they make.” Prices start around $8,000 and average $10,000, with some hitting $500,000, based on the materials selected and the time involved—a guitar with intricate artwork may take a year to complete.
But first, expect a two-to-nine-year queue, depending on which artisan you enlist—so a newer master builder may be your best bet if you’re intent on playing your instrument this decade. For some musicians, though, only the craftsperson who makes guitars for their hero will do. That level of fandom creates demand for veteran master builders such as Todd Krause, who over the past 40 years has fashioned axes for Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, David Gilmour and Bob Dylan. “They figure if I’m making Clapton’s guitars,” Krause says, “I’m good enough to make one for them.”
1. Knock on Wood
After a machine cuts the basic shape, the builder rounds the edges with a router and then clocks hours of sanding by hand. Wood choices affect the guitar’s tone and run from the typical ash or alder to exotics such as koa and okoume—or even a recent request of a 50,000-year-old piece of timber from New Zealand.
2. She’s a Rainbow
Along with being technical experts, the builders are exceptional artists, and the guitar body is the canvas where they get to show off their creative side. They can re-create the colors of a prized vintage instrument, paint a modern-art masterpiece or even embed a Fabergé egg–inspired body with 550 diamonds. The first step is usually a color base coat.
3. Shine On
This particular commission receives a gold base coat, and then the builder applies gold leaf by hand. Next comes a urethane finish, followed by sanding and buffing. Another popular request: making a new guitar look like it has already been knocked around a thousand concert stages. Using proprietary “relicing” methods, the builder chips away at the dried paint and adds strategically placed dents and scratches. “It’s not random. It’s decades of forensic investigation into how guitars get beat up,” says master builder Paul Waller. “Every mark tells a story.”
4. Electric Avenue
Pickups are the heart of an electric guitar. They take string vibrations and convert them into electric signals so that an amp can knock out your eardrums. Various sets can provide vintage or modern tones, sound brighter or warmer or be better suited for playing clean or distorted. On a traditional Stratocaster, all the pickups, volume and tone controls and wiring are assembled on the pickguard before being attached to the guitar.
5. Under the Bridge
Once the artwork and general assembly are finished, the bridge is fastened to the guitar. It can be either stationary or a moving tremolo system attached to springs on the back of the body, enabling a player to quickly bend or raise the strings for subtle vibrato or hair-raising dive-bombs that bring out their inner Hendrix.
6. Twist and Shout
Shaping the guitar neck takes at least one week, allowing the wood time to rest after each step to release natural twists. The master builder can slightly curve the fretboard by hand to match the customer’s playing style. A rounder radius is often more comfortable for playing chords. A flatter surface typically makes it easier to bend strings and play epic solos. The back of the neck is also shaped for customized comfort, whether thick, thin, rounded or flat.
7. Heavy Metal
Fretwork is one of the most critical aspects in the process and where an artisan’s experience provides both precision and ease of playing. Frets must be perfectly level with each other, then “crowned” or rounded. A Masterbuilt guitar will have that broken-in feeling the first moment it’s played.
8. Come Together
At last the two halves meet. The pocket on the body is sanded down to make a perfect “slip fit” for the neck. After attaching the strings, the builder does the final tweaking: If necessary, a truss rod in the neck is adjusted to counteract the over 100 pounds of tension the strings now add to the instrument. The strings’ height and length are modified for both tuning precision and playability. And finally, the distance between the pickups and the strings is perfected for optimum sound.
9. Jukebox Hero
“My favorite part of the process is the finished product, seeing colors and combinations you’ve never done before,” says Krause. “The guys I’ve built for are icons, and it’s a high honor.” And what’s the best way to know you’ve done a good job? “If you make someone a new guitar and that retires their favorite guitar. That’s a good form of flattery.”