When Fender asked us if we were interested in their new Mod Shop, we said, “Absolutely”!! Then we said, “What is it?” We discovered that the Fender Mod Shop was a new digital design studio that allowed musicians to build their own custom Fender guitar or bass, selecting from a variety of options, including color, pickups, pickguard material, fingerboard, hardware color and style, bridge and orientation. Being that we love iconic design and the original sound of American Rock ‘n’ Roll, we were excited to check it out.
We were excited to have the experience of trying out the Mod Shop for ourselves, building our own custom guitar. To start building your own guitar, the Mod Shop lets users choose a Telecaster or Stratocaster body style. Bass players get the option of choosing from the Precision or Jazz bass. We opted for the Stratocaster.
Next up, the color choice. Fender offers 9 different colors to choose from. We liked the surf-inspired Daphne Blue color because it made us think of a well worn bluesman traveling up and down the coast and stopping to sit on the hood of his car watching the last couple minutes of the day fade away, all the while bending out long slow riffs as his fingers danced on the maple fretboard. By the way, we got a choice of wood for the fretboard, maple or rosewood. We like the pale color and vintage style of the maple over the rosewood.
We also stuck with the 3 Ply Parchment for the pickguard in keeping with our traditional classic design. There were five other choices, including Gold Anodized, Tortoise Shell, Black, Mint Green and Aged White Pearl. Fender also offered three colors of plastics, Aged White, White and Black. Again, we thought that the Aged White would give our axe the well worn road look consistent with a modern classic. We chose a standard SSS pickup design but opted for the Texas Special’s big sound. There were other setups available including a traditional SSS set up and SSH setups. However, if Hendrix could play with an SSS setup and we could get a little more juice out of the Texas Special, we thought we would be in good company. Fender gives two choices for tuners, the American Standard and Modern Locking. We got the Modern Locking because they allow for enhanced tuning stability. We had a choice of the American standard Strat Tremolo or the American Elite Strat Tremolo and picked the Elite series because of the more machined look. While we wanted to keep a vintage feel, we thought the modern clean lines of the Elite Strat Tremolo brought a touch of modern that married today’s design aesthetic while staying true to the past. We were not trying to make a vintage guitar, only capture the feel of one. Although gold hardware was an option, we opted for the traditional chrome. We did have fun playing with the different color combinations and the gold looked pretty cool. In the end, we stayed traditional.
As if getting to build a guitar wasn’t enough, Fender invited us out to the Corona California facility for a tour. It was amazing. Fender blends the modern and traditional together, not only in their instruments, but also in the technology they use to build their guitars.
For example, the pickguards were pressed out on the same machines that were around since the 50s. At the same time, the bodies were being precisely sculpted on CNC machines.
To stay true to their original designs, hanging all around the factory was evidence of their iconic status as the instrument favored by the best guitarists around. Eric Clapton’s famous “Blackie” neck hung on the wall so that it could be reproduced on demand. Other famous players, too many to mention, also had their specific model references conspicuously displayed.
Most impressive was to see how each and every guitar was still primarily handmade. From the people winding each individual pickup to the way each fret is hand placed and pressed into the neck.
The factory was one of the most beautiful we’d ever visited with photographic moments at every turn. We also appreciated how much attention was paid to safety of both the visitors and workers!
We were especially impressed with their custom shop, where all of the special order and personalized guitars are created. We couldn’t really get too close to anything going on in there because we were told some were being created for famous rock stars! Some of Fender’s specialty services include engraving, relic-ing (the process of making a new guitar look well-worn for a vintage feel), or even custom graphics!
We also had a chance to talk to Richard McDonald, the EVP of Fender and Ethan Kaplan, the Chief Product Officer for Fender:
What modern design tools does Fender use in creating new guitars? What has remained handcrafted?
Richard: We use the industry standards… Solid Works 3D parametric modeling, Key Shot for rendering, Illustrator, photoshop etc. in the design division and on the amplifier engineering side its PADS, and the typical open source environments Eclipse, Keil and GIP Lab. Of course we prototype by hand, we utilize 3D printing to build models. On the production side we utilize CNC to rough mill the necks and bodies. Its safer than pin routing by hand and gives a more consistent product. We made the move to robotics in paint over the past few years and are pleased with the consistency and quality we have seen all while in a much safer work environment. The rest is all pretty muchcompleted by hand. There are approximately 140 hand operations in the construction of an American Stratocaster.
What exciting modern innovations does Fender employ in its technology?
Richard: Relevance is key for a 70 year old brand like Fender. We are always looking to new trends and cultural movements within various industries, including social media, design, technology and more. We incorporate Bluetooth components in our new product launches, we of course use WiFi and 3D printing for rapid prototypes, and our digital amplification is driven by ARM processors which is the standard today. All of these elements and more have opened the door to the ecosystem we discussed earlier which we are embracing with open arms. We want to continue to be an industry leader. We recognize the industry is changing and are ready to change with it.
With such iconic body designs for Fender guitars, do you ever consider introducing new shapes?
Richard: Yes, and we do. The Dimension bass is one of the several new silhouettes we launched over the years. Living in the shadow of the Stratocaster®, Telecaster®, Jazzmaster®, Jaguar®, Mustang®, Precision Bass ® and Jazz Bass®…isn’t easy. The biggest trends are around the off-set designs i.e. Mustang, Duosonic, Jazzmaster and Jaguar which are launching this October 2016. (We just debuted them at Summer NAMM actually…) These early 1960s models had a low profile for many years but have surfaced as the guitar of choice for many of todays cutting edge bands. Its a pattern of rediscovery that is incredible to witness.
What is the differences between Mod Shop vs. custom shop guitars and Fender’s standard design?
Ethan: At the core, all these products are leveraging the fact that Leo made a highly modular, hightly customizable product. In fact, Mod Shop and our standard products come off the same production line in Corona, CA. Fender Custom Shop creations are more one-off bespoke and on a separate line, so able to extend far beyond the standard configuration into truly unique builds. Mod Shop is a testament to the 70 years of history Fender brings: a modern take on a classic approach.
What are the most popular custom options?
Ethan: There is 0% overlap between Mod Shop and our standard skus, so we are seeing a lot of radical experimentation in the guitars people are creating. One of the most popular is also one of the most unique: white on white with gold hardware.
Our Mod Shop Fender Stratocaster arrived securely packed in an ABS molded Fender case. It came with a strap, cable, owner’s manual, guitar cleaning cloth and other accessories. We opened it with excitement and marveled at flawless finish and the deep luster of the Daphne Blue. We have been playing with it non-stop since it arrived. We truly have a new appreciation not only for the sound, but the craftsmanship that goes into every Fender guitar. We couldn’t be happier to play the blues.