When it comes to musical instruments, it doesn’t get much better than Fender.
The Southern California guitar company has been producing the tools of bands everywhere for more than 50 years. While they’re known for quality standards like the Telecaster and Esquire, another side of the company produces some of the most sought-after and specialized instruments around.
The Fender Custom Shop has produced one-of-a-kind pieces for everyone from Eric Clapton to Bob Dylan. Over its 30-year existence, it has cemented itself as the standard bearer of specialized guitars for a who’s who of collectors and master musicians.
“These guitars embody everything the Custom Shop is and represents,” Custom Shop VP Mike Lewis says, speaking about the company’s 2017 Founders Design Collection.
The eight-piece series is a celebration of the original group of designers that built the Custom Shop’s reputation. Each guitar is a Fender model where the only limits were the imagination of the individual designer. One guitar will be released each month starting in March with the Michael Stevens Esquire. Each guitar will be limited to 30 examples.
“When you set these designers free, these guitars end up in the history books and people look at them for years,” Lewis says.
As for the purchasing process, Lewis imagines collectors and musicians alike will be lining up to get their hands on one of these works of musical art. They’ll only be available at high-level Fender dealers and should there be more demand than supply, Fender may implement a lottery system for buyers.
However, Lewis did hint that in this competitive collector’s market, some are already pre-sold.
“It’s a safe assumption,” he says.
Raising the bar further, Fender was able to reassemble most of a founding cast that’s now working in their own shops or on other endeavors. Only George Blanda remains at the company. His Jazzmaster (slated for May) is a unique reflection on 1960s design with a tortoise shell pickguard and rosewood fretboard.
Beyond being musical eye candy, these guitars showcase a number of custom finishes and hardware that set the tone for future Fender releases. Lewis noted the Gene Baker “Stelecaster,” (a past concept, merging the famous Stratocaster and Telecaster styles), but with body contours and cutaways that’re a stark contrast from its early predecessors (not to mention the gorgeous fade finish).
If the $5,000-$8,000 price tags are out of reach, you can still admire the Custom Shop’s work through a retrospective coffee table book recently released as a supplement. Fender Custom Shop at 30 Years by Steve Pitkin includes 72 pictures spanning the Shop’s work with commentary those who created – and played – much of what the Shop created. It’s a welcome complement – especially when you peruse stunning pieces like Buddy Guy’s 2005 Custom Telecaster. It’s a vibrant blue with his signature polka dot style. Each guitar is akin to a new footnote in the history of these important instruments.
For the true music collector, these guitars are a worthy investment. It’s an assembly of work reflecting instruments that shaped the development of modern music. Lewis speaks about these quintessentially Fender guitars in the same tenor as museum-quality pieces.
“When you look at everyone’s work (on these guitars), it’s like a Beatles song,” Lewis says. “They’re all different, but you know the song is a Beatles song.”