The Gibson USA guitar factory is located Nashville, TN. Inside the factory, skilled Luthiers craft some of the finest guitars in the world. The intricate process of binding, neck-fitting, painting, buffing, and tuning creates incredible musical instruments. Watch this great video from Gibson USA documenting these processes in high-definition for your viewing pleasure! While you’re at it, be sure to have a look through our stock of Gibson USA guitars on our site! Click here!
Every few years The Music Zoo likes to pay a visit to our friends at D’Addario, the world’s largest manufacturer of musical instrument strings and also purveyors of more musical instrument and guitar accessories than you can likely think of. Drumsticks? ProMark! Drum heads? Evans! Saxophone and clarinet reeds? Rico! Yes, D’Addario offers plenty of products for all kinds of musicians, but we wanted to see some guitar strings. Hence, we drove to the company’s headquarters and string-making operation based in Farmingdale, Long Island—a straight shot from the Zoo on the Long Island Expressway here in New York.
There’s always something new happening at D’Addario, but this visit revealed some massive changes at a company which has always tried to do its production in-house. This includes printing the cardboard used for packaging strings and also building the machines that make the strings. That’s right; D’Addario has a machine shop and a staff of engineers that design almost all of its manufacturing equipment, from string winders to the machine that stamps graphics on guitar picks and solders the jacks onto cable for its Planet Waves brand (soon to be phased into the D’Addario brand).
One big new thing for D’Addario is the creation of a wire mill right across the street from the string plant. Previously, the company used a mill in Massachusetts for the process of taking raw, high-carbon steel and “drawing” it into a raw string, whereupon it was coated with tin to prevent corrosion. That process is now performed by D’Addario in-house. The company will also be creating its nylon guitar and instrument strings from raw, unstretched nylon—something not previously done.
As we toured D’Addario, the company impressed upon us its efficiency as a manufacturer and how it keeps its available supply lean; it never manufactures more needed beyond a three-month window. This methodology is known as Toyota Lean, or the Toyota Production System. It’s a management approach that eliminates waste by manufacturing only what is needed and getting the right things to the right place at the right time. The benefit of Toyota Lean is lower overhead a lower retail price to consumers, and it’s allowed D’Addario to grow tremendously while remaining local and doing everything here in the US. Significantly, the company employs locally and its considered a huge contributor to the Long Island economy. The benefit of Toyota Lean manufacturing was evident evident during our tour of the string manufacturing facility. It occupies what seemed like a football field-size floor of D’Addario’s main building, using many people in different “work cells.”
The “other” big new thing at D’Addario is its NYXL line of guitar strings. The company describes it as “The strongest electric guitar string ever made,” and one supremely resistant to breakage and corrosion. They’re what D’Addario considers to be its next generation of guitar string manufacturing using various proprietary processes that are largely enabled by the company having its own wire mill across the street.
The name Gretsch is one of the most revered in the history of musical instruments. Starting as a family business in the late 1800s making banjos and drums, Fred Gretsch Sr. and “that great Gretsch sound” left quite an impression on the 20th century producing unique, often hollowbody guitar models which would appear on records by the Beatles and into hands of landmark players like Chet Atkins. The 1950s and ’60s would prove to be Gretsch’s heyday. Unfortunately, hard times fell on the brand when Gretsch was sold to Baldwin pianos in 1967. Quality suffered, sales wilted, and Gretsch was eventually laid to rest by 1981.
However, the Gretsch family wanted their piece of American history back. They fought to regain control, and in 1989, they succeeded in acquiring and relaunching Gretsch. By 2002, they had built the brand back up to the point where Fender Musical Instruments Corporation (FMIC) bought the company, whose ownership continues to this day with close partnership with the Gretsch family.
So it’s a happy, all-American success story: the modern Gretsch brand exists today as the finest version of itself. The Gretsch Custom Shop is a high end workshop inside the Fender facility located in Corona, California. Under the leadership of Masterbuilder Stephen Stern, the Gretsch guitars of today are truly the best that have ever been built. A lot of manufacturers would like to say that their “reissue” guitars are as good as their vintage counterparts, but in the case of Gretsch, these modern guitars are simply light years ahead of anything from the past. Come with us as we take a walk around this workshop, where history is preserved and the future of Gretsch is being written…
This is Masterbuilder Stephen Stern’s workstation. Essentially, this bench is the home base of modern era Gretsch. Stephen is the spiritual torchbearer of the proud Gretsch tradition that streches all the way back into the 1930s, and is the man behind practically every major Gretsch guitar since Fender’s ownership. He manages a small team of talented builders who assist him in the workshop. Let’s check out the shop!”/><br> This is Masterbuilder Stephen Stern’s workstation. Essentially, this bench is the home base of modern era Gretsch. Stephen is the spiritual torchbearer of the proud Gretsch tradition that streches all the way back into the 1930s, and is the man behind practically every major Gretsch guitar since Fender’s ownership. He manages a small team of talented builders who assist him in the workshop. Let’s check out the shop!
Every great guitar started out as a great tree somewhere. Here are some body blanks that will become Duo Jets and Penguins. These are one piece mahogany spreads that have been weighed and inspected.”/><br> Every great guitar started out as a great tree somewhere. Here are some body blanks that will become Duo Jets and Penguins. These are one piece mahogany spreads that have been weighed and inspected.
The Penguin and Duo Jet neck blanks are also one piece mahogany.
Here’s Stephen showing us the quartersawn mahogany neck blanks. What’s quartersawn mean? It’s a technique for sawing a log at the lumber mill that ensures the grain is oriented in the strongest possible way. It’s more expensive, but totally worth it in a guitar neck, where stability is paramount.
We spied some curly maple veneers up on a shelf, undoubtedly to be used on the top or back of something fancy.
Here’s a box of pre-bent plywood that will become the sides of 6120 and Falcon guitars. Gretsch Custom Shop usually uses these pre-bent sides, it’s actually the same way they were put together 50 years ago. You can also see some of the kerfing Gretsch buys in the box as well.
For instances in which the pre-bent plywood sides aren’t going to work – for example, when a custom wood material is specified – Gretsch can custom bend the sides in house using these side benders.
These custom bender forms can be switched out inside the side benders to create different contours for different models.
The solid bodies are routed and get their shape on a CNC machine downstairs in the Fender factory. Then they come back up to Gretsch for the rest of the build. Some of these bodies have had binding glued on and are taped up for drying.
You’ve got to have a pretty steady hand with this router to get the F holes just right. We are always so impressed with how easy this looks for these guys.
Meet Gonzalo, another highly skilled builder working under Stephen who can build any piece of the Gretsch Custom guitars. He’s laid his hands on a lot of the high end tribute guitars that have come from Fender in the last 15 years.
We saw Gonzalo trimming the binding on the edge of this Duo Jet using a blade.
This already looks cool, but eventually this body will wear a deep coat of candy red nitro over that beautiful pearl material for an amazing effect.
Because this will be painted, the pearl needs to be sanded as well.
Sanding the back of the guitar to prep it for paint.
These custom one-off guitars were in process for the NAMM show and that flashy blue binding definitely caught our eye. Anything is possible!
We are really into this new idea that Stephen showed us: it’s a Falcon Junior. Basically a smaller Falcon hollowbody. Super cool.
Another really interesting new body style from Stephen Stern.
The evolution of a blank to a (nearly) finished neck can be seen in this photo. We just love the Falcon headstock design, there’s nothing else like it.
That famous gold binding material starts life as a giant sheet. The binding is cut to size by hand on this special saw.
An interesting note about the Gretsch necks is that they get fretboards, bound, side dots, and fretted before the neck is even shaped. Here’s a batch that are taped up to adhere the binding properly.
Next, the binding must be cut away from the fretboard and around the fret ends by hand. This is just super hard to do. He’ll start with a power tool to remove most of the material.
Then, he’ll move on to a file and start fine tuning the edges.
Meticulous, old school handwork is how Gretsch gets that great feeling on their necks. Look how clean the bound frets are to the right of the photo after he hit it with the file. Lovely.
Finally, the neck is shaped. This is done completely by hand, and completely by the builder’s sense of feel. Sure, they have template necks they can use for reference, but these guys basically know what the neck needs to feel like and they just go ahead and shape it. Awesome.
Once the bodies and necks are assembled they get painted and buffed in Fender’s facility. Then, the guitars are back to Gretsch for strings and final setup.
On an NOS (New Old Stock) guitar, the nut gets installed before paint. But this guitar will be a Relic, so the nut gets installed after the paint process to give the impression that it has been “replaced”. Just a little authentic touch.
Here’s Stephen back at his workstation hand wiring the pots on a Duo Jet.
Stephen is the setup master, and is the last word on quality control at Gretsch. As magical as many of the legendary Gretsch guitars from the 1950s and ’60s are, “consistent” and “quality” are two words rarely used together to describe them. Particularly in the Baldwin Era after 1967, the quality was simply not there. Thanks to Fender’s resources, Stephen Stern, and his talented crew.The modern Gretsch guitars are light years ahead of their vintage ancestors in every possible way.
Stephen and famed fine art painter Sara Ray hanging out together in the shop going over the details for some planned WWII inspired guitars. Sara painted that leather jacket as part of the project. Really cool stuff.
Thanks to Stephen Stern and the rest of the guys and gals at Fender and Gretsch for giving us this terrific insight into the Gretsch workshop. We’re so thankful that the great Gretsch tradition is alive, well, and kicking into the future. And thank you for checking out our tour!
It would be hard to convince us at The Music Zoo that any of the other high-performance guitar builders that exploded onto the scene in the early 1980s has had as lasting an impact, or reached as breathtakingly as high a peak as Jackson guitars has. Who could argue with Randy Rhoads, with that pointy headstock and those sharkfin inlays? Add a neck-through body, don’t forget an optional outrageous paintjob, and all of a sudden those old farts playing guitars from the 1960s looked positively ancient. Fast forward over 30 years: Jackson guitars is still killing it, along with longtime stablemates Charvel and new family members EVH.
We’re tempted to say they have reached a new pinnacle, now that they’ve built themselves a brand new Masterbuilder mill area and centralized their Corona, California production line. Jackson and Charvel have shared their facility with the mammoth Fender operation since 2002, and until now they’ve had to make do with a relatively inefficient and spread out workflow that, frankly, must have been kind of a bummer. But with the addition of some very cool new Haas CNC machines and the centralization of every Jackson, Charvel, and EVH build process into one brand new area, these guys are hitting on all eight cylinders for 2014. They’re excited about it, and invited us to come check out their new digs. Come with us as we take a tour of the new and improved Jackson Custom Shop…
In 2013, this all new Masterbuilder mill section was developed to greatly enhance the efficiency by which the Jackson Custom Shop, Charvel Custom Shop and EVH guitars are made. It used to be that the Jackson and Charvel guys would have to run all over the huge Fender facility to build their guitars. Now everything is in one place, and they’ve got some very nice shiny new Haas CNC machines to boot. It’s a new era in here. Let’s check out the workflow.
This is Masterbuilder Red Dave. He’s the man. He’s been with FMIC since the ’80s and is a true wizard with custom inlay work. He’s showing us around the new mill area today.
Here’s where life begins for a Jackson. These stacks of alder are what will become the body center blocks and necks for the neck-through design guitars. We are also going to see bolt-on style guitars in process, which is more of the Charvel and EVH vibe, but first we will see how Jackson puts the famous neck-through guitars together.
In addition to alder, mahogany has always been a standard wood for the Jackson Soloists. Enrique is selecting and matching up some body sections and neck blanks for those.
The neck blank and center body section are about to be run through this joiner, which will aid in the glue being firmly pressed in.
These custom made clamps use firehoses to apply lots of pressure to the newly joined neck and body woods to ensure a super strong bond.
And there you have it. Just tie some strings on there and play, right? Later, different “wings” will be added to this core unit to create the unique Jackson body styles.
But first, those core sections need to be trimmed and perfectly straightened out. This machine will help cut the excess material from that unit.
Here are the clean and fresh core units after some milling. These are a blank canvas. Now the real fun can begin.
Time to glue on that famous pointy headstock, or at least the rough version of it. A dab of super strong adhesive spread thinly across the whole surface will create a bond stronger than the wood itself.
Various clamp templates are used to get the position of this rough headstock.
This is called a scarf joint. The neck and headstock materials are tapered to elongate the surfaces that are glued together. In addition to the added adhesive strength, this also creates a nearly invisible glue line once finished.
This is one of the newest Haas CNC machines in the building. It’s pretty bad ass, and these guys use it for a lot of stuff. It can cut the fretboard radius, fret slots, face dots, inlays, etc. on the necks, it can cut the body shapes, you name it.
Here’s a great example of what the builders use the CNC machine for. On the right, a core section that has been through the machine to cut the truss rod route. Then on the left we see a neck after they’ve glued on the fingerboard; it has gone back into the Haas and the machine has cut out the headstock shape the fret slots, and even routed the holes for inlays.
Can’t forget about drilling the holes for the tuning machines, either.
These parts have been layed out to illustrate how this neck-through Jackson guitar will “get its wings”. These very roughly shaped mahogany sides will be glued on to complete this Rhoads V shaped body.
The team uses these acrylic templates to guarantee that the wood chosen will work for the desired body shape.
Look familiar? We spotted the templates for Jackson King V, Rhoads V, Warrior, Soloist, and Kelly models.
Some of the bolt-on style guitar bodies get a decorative veneer glued on the top, and others don’t. Either way, they all end up here. This is a thickness sander that will sand the bodies down to their specified uniform thickness.
Smooth. The major wood shaping and milling is now complete on this body, time to start sanding.
Here’s a Soloist style with the flame top glued on, already thickness sanded, and getting some finish sanding.
This builder has various power sanding stations to help get into every nook and cranny of the body.
More hand sanding of the body. Thinking about building your own guitar someday? Buy sandpaper. Lots of it.
Did we mention sanding?! The wood has to be perfect before paint can be applied.
There they are, the famous Jackson sharkfin inlays. The CNC machine routes the fingerboards, then the inlays are applied by hand.
The fingerboard must be planed by hand after the inlays are installed. At this point the builder will drill for the side dots also.
Here’s the fret press. Because each of the frets needs to be a slightly different size, the builders have 24 different lengths available to press in. This saves time trimming and wasting fret wire.
Just as important, the frets must be perfectly level from top to bottom.
This builder uses a straight edge to check for any imperfections.
Proper fret leveling will guarantee the neck plays evenly and allows for super low, buzz free action.
Here’s a close up of one of the bolt on necks being fit into the neck pocket. The millwork is so precise that the necks and bodies fit extremely tightly even before they get bolted together.
Meanwhile, we came across a familar face: Senior Masterbuilder Mike Shannon sanding and hand shaping the carve on a neck-through Custom Shop Jackson. Dig those red inlays!
Mike is truly a legend at Jackson. He’s a 30 year veteran who has been building them since the very beginning. Here we can see him using a micrometer to make sure the neck shape thickness is nice and slim.
The guitar Mike was just working on is now shaped and sanded and is ready for the small details. It will get drilled for strap buttons, the input jack, etc. Then, we are ready for paint.
So many different custom orders are in production at once that its hard to tell what’s what. Are these in primer and are going to get sent to one of Jackson’s famous in house graphic painters? Or did someone simply order a batch of “primer” guitars? That could be cool!
Think once the guitars get painted you just get to call it a day? No way! More meticulous sanding is required, right on the paint.
This color sanding process ensures an ultra smooth finish, and this worker is very careful to hit every possible surface.
Wet sanding the fresh paint. Jackson has always been well known for its killer paint jobs. It’s all about the attention to detail and taking enough time.
Here’s the buffing stage. This guy has a number of different buffing wheels at his disposal which are all loaded with different compounds. The orange compound wheels are for the initial rough cut, the yellow is final compund, and the white is the super smooth polish.
This part of the job is very tough to do. It requires a surprising amount of strength; if the buffer doesn’t hold just the right amount of pressure against the wheel for each level of compound, he could easily burn the paint and then it is game over for that body.
Now we are moving into final assembly. Here a worker is building sub assemblies for the electronics and pickups.
Finally, we have strings on and are almost there. A setup technician is fine tuning the fingerboard on this guitar by hammering out any tiny high spots on the frets.
All that’s left on this EVH Wolfgang is to adjust the action, tune it up, and put it in the case. We’d like to thank all the folks at Jackson/Charvel for their help and time with this tour, and also for building such kick ass guitars year after year. We continue to be huge fans at The Music Zoo! And thank you, dear reader, for coming along with us through the newly reconfigured Jackson Charvel Custom Shop.
Since the very beginning of time – we think it’s fair to say around the same time the solid body guitar was invented – there has always been Fender. Fender’s reputation in the industry is so deep, so meaningful, and so steeped in history that we won’t even attempt to characterize it here. Instead, we can show you what it’s all about by diving straight into the creative beating heart of the brand. There’s Fender, and then there’s Fender Custom Shop. There’s Fender Custom Shop, and then there’s Fender Masterbuilt. This is the magical world of wood and steel where the best builders chase the dreams of the finest guitarists to produce some of the most amazing instruments the world has ever seen. If you’ve ever had the chance to play or own a Masterbuilt guitar, you know it came from somewhere special. Join us as we go inside, and meet the men and woman who dwell in the realm of the Masterbuilders.
Want to see some Masterbuilt masterpieces you can own right now? Check out our selection of in-stock Fender Masterbuilt guitars here.
A birds-eye view of the talent-packed Masterbuilder’s area at Fender Custom Shop. The first thing you notices is that it’s much more quiet in here than the rest of Fender’s bustling Corona, California factory. These guys are truly the best of the best; having a private workbench in this room is pretty much the ultimate gig for any luthier.
Masterbuilder Yurij Shishkov is one of the last of his breed, an authentically old world craftsman who learned woodworking growing up in Soviet Russia. His woodworking skills are legendary and he often builds his own tools to get just what he wants. Not all his guitars are traditional, however. He’s personally responsible for some of the most stunning, over the top guitars we’ve ever seen, like the Diamond Legend Cabronita (shown at NAMM 2013) which featured over 370 individual diamonds as decoration. We loved visiting the builders in their own workspaces. The way their spaces are decorated and their benches are organized gives a lot of insight to their personalities and way they approach their work.
One of the most important facts you should know about Masterbuilder Dennis Galuszka is that he flies his own frickin’ helicopter. That is awesome. But it’s no less impressive that he’s a true veteran Masterbuilder – since 1999 – who has combined his cabinet-making background with creative guitar ideas to produce stunning instruments for players like Robben Ford and Buck Owens.
Masterbuilder John Cruz is a towering presence around the Fender Custom workshop, not just because he is way over six feet tall and has a booming low voice, but because he is one of the most sought-after and talented builders around. He helped pioneer and perfect “relic” style aging, starting with the SRV #1 Tribute Stratocaster. We started collaborating with John a couple years ago that resulted in dozens of Music Zoo Exclusive Fender Custom Shop “Ultimate Relic” guitars. John’s workspace is jammed with parts, because he is damn busy!
Masterbuilder Jason Smith joined the fold in 2006, making him one of the young guns in the shop. But he’s been around Fender guitars and rock and roll his entire life: his father is Fender R&D legend Dan Smith. Jason is a bassist, so naturally the basses he builds are stellar, but his guitars are incredible too and we have played a lot of them: he built many of the Ultimate Relic guitars for The Music Zoo designed in conjuction with John Cruz.
Meet Masterbuilder Greg Fessler. He’s got a sterling reputation for his attention to detail and super-clean execution. He spent time as Robben Ford’s personal guitar builder and was invovled with the creation of his signature model. Always friendly and smiling, he’s a veteran of the Fender Custom Shop as well, having started in 1990.
Masterbuilder Dale Wilson is the newest builder on the block at Fender Custom, earning his stripes in 2011. But don’t think he’s wet behind the ears. Dale’s got a ton of experience, previously at Dobro and Rickenbacker, then once at Fender he built Guild, Gretsch and Benedetto guitars. Dale is a native California boy who comes from a woodworking family, making him a perfect fit at Fender Custom Shop.
We missed getting Masterbuilder Todd Krause’s mug on camera during our visit, because the 30+ years industry veteran was at lunch. But here’s a look at his bench, the exact place where the guitars are built that grace stages the world over. Todd’s guitars are stellar and he is simply “the man”. You could ask the people who play his stuff for a living: Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, Stu Hamm, Roscoe Beck, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Bob Dylan, Roger Waters and Gene Simmons, just to name a few. Need we say more?
The other Masterbuilder we didn’t get to photograph is Paul Waller, and while Paul is undoubtedly very handsome, it’s just as well he’s not in the shot since he has one of the best looking workshops at Fender Custom. Check out those custom display cases, and the leather amp handles on the cabinets. We love it. Paul is one of the most highly trained builders on the scene, building guitars right out of high school and into the highly regarded Roberto-Venn School of Luthiery, where he graduated in 2000. He has got all kinds of skills, and has soaked up many of the styles of the Masterbuilders around him at Fender, and loves to work on archtops. Check out the wild semi-hollow Fender on the wall: it’s the “White Chicken”, a carved-top Telecaster which Paul carved totally by hand. Awesome.
This is the room in which pickup winding legend Abigail Ybarra worked until her retirement in 2013, capping an amazing Fender career that goes back to 1956. Abby’s handwound pickups have always been synonomous with the very best Custom Shop guitars, and we were very happy to meet her replacement, whom Abby personally trained, Josefina Campos.
Josefina wound pickups for Fender for years before becoming apprentice to Abigail Ybarra. All the Masterbuilders depend on her to complete their sound, and connoisseurs of tone around the world are already seeking out “Campos-wound” pickups, cementing Josefina’s place in Fender’s history. We hope you’ve enjoyed this inside look at the world of Fender’s Masterbuilders. Thanks for reading!
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The story of Ernie Ball Music Man is a complex and interesting one that is steeped in authentic guitar builder’s history. The company has had some of the true geniuses in the guitar building world playing key roles, starting in the 1970s with Leo Fender, Tom Walker, and Sterling Ball. This innovative and original company has produced some legendary instruments since then, including the famous Stingray bass, the Axis guitars, and continues to push the envelope with their current focus on new models and innovative electronic technology like the Game Changer pickup switching system. After Ernie Ball took over Music Man in the 1980s, a factory was built in beautiful San Luis Obispo, California, where the all the guitars and basses are built today to a very high standard that is rooted in the original guitar building tradition born decades before.
Join us as we take a look inside this factory and go start to finish with the Music Men (and Music Women) who create these amazing instruments. Thanks so much to everyone at Ernie Ball Music Man who were such great hosts and helped to make this tour happen.
The late ’70s and early ’80s were an exciting time to be a guitar builder. The new breed of guitar heroes didn’t want tradition anymore, they wanted innovation, looks, and performance. A handful of electric guitar builders like Charvel, Valley Arts, and Schecter were heeding that call with new, wild guitars and pickups. A lot of those guitars were built one at a time – true custom orders – helping to create the handmade mystique of the southern California hot rod guitar.
Unfortunately, many “custom shops” in the guitar industry today are just as much glorified production lines as they are a home for innovation and one-offs. But we recently got to visit a shop that took us right back to those glory days. The opening of the brand new Schecter USA Custom Shop in Sun Valley, CA in 2013 marks the return to the passion and handmade mystique of those early days of southern California rock and roll, and with it brings some very modern guitars and production techniques only dreamed of in the ’70s. Join us as we get an exclusive inside look at Schecters exciting new 14,000 square foot USA Custom Shop.
John, master woodworker – gives advice for joining, sets up jigs for CNC, started with Jackson, San Dimas, Grover Jackson.
Shigeki – he is assembly, built Prince’s superbowl guitars, militant fretwork, has a schedule to know what kind of guitars he has coming, cut pickguards, put it together, sheilding paint, drill bridge holes
Christina came from across the street, the setup area, to apprentice for custom shop, shadowing John”/><br> Christina came from across the street, the setup area, to apprentice for custom shop, shadowing John
Stacks of wood from a local vendor which also supplies for Fender and Tom Andersen. Woods like 2-piece mahogany, alder swamp ash, and more all come in pre-weighed.
John sets up the CNC machines, a secondary machine to do parts. Lemmy’s fretboard came off of this machine
An arm contour gets kerfed with a CNC.
Here are some rough-cut bodies after the tops were attached. You can see the arm contour early here.
Whil a lot of the processes are the same between production models and custom shop guitars, Tetsu hates CNC machines, and prefers to shape all of the parts by hand. Some of Tetsu’s ideas become Custom Shop production.
Custom Shop Masterpainter Rafael Barrajas sanding down a body.
Rafael spraying on a clear-coat.
Bodies drying for a few days before they can be sanded.
Jose sanding down a painted body. Jose and Rafael do everything after CNC, and before assembly: sanding, prepping, sealer, buffering, painting, logos.
7 string classic in trans black awaits a neck.
Schecter was one of the first companies to design two dedicated seven string guitars, was serious about 7 strings before anyone else.
Two models designed for Robin Finke of Nine Inch Nails. These signature models are produced overseas and finished in the custom shop.
Operations, purchasing, production manager, William Dunavant holds a Koa Burst body that may be on it’s way to The Zoo shortly after completion.
Kevin Hair is a 10-year veteran at Schecter.He’s the woodworking tech and production manager, ane we found him winding pickups this day.
Mike Cirovolo, President of Schecter Guitars since 1997, used to work at Sunset Custom, one of Schecter’s earliest retailers.
Schecter stopped making pickups for some time, but have begun production again. The current Schecter pickups are handwound, reverse engineered versions of the originals. They purchased early Schecter pickups off of eBay and tore them down to replicate them.
Colin used to be setup manager and now works in design. Learning under the wings of Shigeki. The laboratory is where they test new ideas and concepts to go to production.
Schecter has stayed in a single factory in South Korea for a long time. They unbox the import guitars, and set them up. A model of inefficiency. This dedication to quality is a big part of Schecter’s name.
Frets get rounded and leveled.
Everybody in the room has the same skillset. The owner of Shecter owns MI/Craft Academy, and most guys have had a lot of experience before coming to Schecter.
The setup guys take a lot of pride in the playability of each guitar, regardless of the price point. They don’t take their sticker lightly. Ready to go on tour.
We have taken a lot of factory tours at The Music Zoo, and honestly we were pleasantly surprised by the good honest guitars that are being made by Schecter at their new USA Custom Shop. Even their Diamond Series setup facility next door speaks to the same level of craftmanship, an ethos that puts good playing instruments before anything else. That’s the part of Schecter that ties it firmly to the mythical So-Cal hot-rod guitars of the past, and we’re excited to watch them puch it to the future.
In parts one and two of our factory tour of the Fender Acoustic Custom shop in New Hartford, CT, we saw how they pick tonewoods and construct all the parts required to build the guitar. Now it’s time to get down to business and we start with body construction.
These CNC side benders were designed and built in house. The 2 axis design allows for the waist bender (shown) to push the shoe into the waist, while mechanical arms wraps a sealed shim on the upper and lower bouts. The process including shutting down the heat is automated, allowing a worker to focus on other things during the process.
Here are some bent sides cooling in a rack.
Workers will use this fixture to join the two completed guitar sides by adding the head block and tail block. The white plastic parts are clamp calls, that assist with locating the parts.
Here’s the rim assembly process after getting removed from the fixture. The head and tail blocks are clamped onto the calls.
Here are some completely assembled rims with kerfing installed. These bodies are an OM style with wood sides stays (the brown lines inside the rim). The sides stays add strength. The collars used to shape these rims can be seen in the background.
Fender uses basswood kerfing in the guitars. It’s lightweight, easy to work with, and bonds well.
Here’s an individual maple side stay getting sanded. These have to fit between the kerf on the top and bottom of the rim.
Colin is bonding in the side stays using clamps.
This shot shows the clamps in action, and also gives us a look at the truss rod access in the neck block.
If you look closely at the near edge of the rim, there is a bit of wood that protrudes past the kerfing. This “stand off” is lasered in when the side is cut. In the next step, the stand off is used to locate the specific position of the assembly once it is placed inside inside the collar.
The position of the rim inside this collar is important, as you’ll see when the part gets sanded.
Fender has three of these disc sanders, they are used to sand a specific radius onto the rim’s edge. This is what helps the top and back of the guitar have a very subtle shape. This one has a 30 foot dish radius and is used to sand the edge for the top of the guitar. For backs, they use one with a 16 foot radius, and there is a flat one too for guitars like carved top jazz guitars, where the top or back is naturally arched.
Remember the stand offs we saw on the rim’s edge that help locate it in the collar? Here’s where they get sanded off, as the collar is placed on the aluminum blocks to rest at the exact right height.
Here’s the interior of the guitar during fitting, complete with the laser Fender logo.
Here’s Marty applying some glue to radiused braces for the interior of the guitar.
This white locator is used to show where to attach the braces to the top. It has holes in it that the braces fit in precisely. Not all the braces are bonded at once, about half of them in one pass then the other half.
This vacuum membrane bonder will lower over the braces and suck the parts down tightly together.
Not only does the membrane apply very even pressure to the braces during bonding, it helps with the time required as well. In a conventional clamp these would need an hour of clamp time. In the membrane the vacuum action shortens that to 15 minutes.
Here’s an Englemann spruce top, complete with bracing. Note the tabs on the ends, these will be used for more locating and then removed.
Next, the top and back are joined. This phenolic plate has the arch of the top carved into it, and uses vacuum pressure to hold the top in shape while the rim is joined.
Darren is showing us that suble arch to the back of this guitar body, thanks to the 30 foot radius sanding disc. Fender makes a lot of effort to build the final shape of the guitar into every part, so there is as little stress as possible within the wood.
Here’s a nice look at a beautiful FSR built with claro walnut and a carpathian spruce top. Very elaborate purfling and rosette.
Dave the fitter is working on the neck fit. The tolerances are carved so tightly that he’ll end up using a clamp to drive the neck all the way home once it is in position.
Fender uses traditional hand fit dovetail joints for the neck fit. Dave is using a unique chamfered sanding block to get the shape just right.
Now we’re in final assembly. Here’s Andy McDonald touching up the shape of a saddle. The saddle is what sits inside the bridge and supports the strings.
This is Mike Shear, the body department supervisor. He’s worked with Fender/Guild for years and has done bindings on thousands of guitars.
The binding process is hard, precise work. This is a Doyle Dykes Guild model with an intricate multi-laminate binding.
Due to the porous nature of a wood like mahogany, vinyl sealer is shot onto the neck then paste-wood filler is applied. A builder will apply the filler by wiping it on with the grain, then wiping it off against the grain. That way, he won’t strip out the filler he just applied.
Here’s Drew spraying color onto the walnut FSR run of guitars we’ve been seeing a lot of today.
Some of these FSRs are getting a sunburst finish, while some (like the one in the back there) are staying natural.
The sapwood part of the walnut is the lightly colored area next to the darker hardwood. It’s bookmatched to great effect here.
After the guitars have been painted, the paint that has covered the logo, binding, and other decorative elements need to be scraped off. It takes a lot of concentration and a steady hand to do this job, and Leon has both.
Scraping the Fender logo on this sunburst painted headstock.
This FSR has been scraped, and will now go to get clearcoat.
The painted guitars are left to cure for at least 2 weeks before they can be worked on. Jason here has been with the group for years also and is seen here sanding the clear. He’ll use gradually finer sandpapers to prepare the body for buffing.
This guitar is being buffed by Todd, a long-time Guild guy who has been building guitars since the Westerly era.
Lead buffer Chris is working the wheel on this headstock.
Some of these areas have been reconfigured since our visit; this area is now used for neck fitting. As we mentioned in part one, this antique building is huge and complex and it is easy as pie to get lost.
Final setup time. Chris Jarvis is shown here working on a Fender koa auditorium limited run.
This builder is filing the nut slots. All the nuts used on Fender Custom Shop guitars are made of bone.
Bob is using a gauge to check the height of the string at the nut. This action at the nut is important for the playability of the guitar.
Dialing in the action.
Here’s Phil putting a Guild archtop through its paces. All three of the guys in here can full setup and finish any of the guitars.
We liked this neatly organized, decidedly not digital ledger book. This book has literally every detail about every guitar built written into it, and as Darren Wallace said, it’s like “seeing your life pass before your eyes” flipping through it. The Music Zoo has been to a lot of guitar factories and we are genuinely impressed with the craftsmanship and attention to detail that the Fender Custom Shop is putting into this current breed of acoustic instruments. These are truly great sounding and authentically constructed guitars that we’re proud to carry at the shop. Thank you to Darren Wallace, Tim Shaw, Ren Ferguson, Gary Waugh, Sean Morrissey and all the other good Fender folks who hosted us for the tour. Want to see some Fender Custom Shop acoustic guitars that you could own now? Check out our current inventory.
We saw in part one of our tour of the Fender Custom Shop Acoustic factory how religious the New Hartford, Connecticut builders are about acquiring and selecting the best tonewoods. Next we’ll see them put the wood to work.
Although the facility lives inside a 160-year-old maze of industrial brick, the factory floor is logically laid out in a loop of stations.
Here we see Deb matching booksets that will become the tops and backs of the guitars.
These are bonded together with glue and put into this fixture until they’re dry.
The wood is strongly bonded together now, but it’s far too thick. They’ll run the wood through this thickness sander and take it down to about .140 for now. The wood will be thinned further down the line. Then the part goes to the “supermarket” where all the tops and backs are kept.
Next, the tops are put through a milling machine that has instantly transformed it into something that looks like a guitar. Aside from the specific shape profile for that model, locating pin holes and precise routing for either a rosette (if it’s a top) or a back strip have been performed.
A worker is creating the rosette she’ll inlay purfling into the route on this top. It’s precise, and beautiful work.
One of the cool things Fender does is use very subtle variations in their purfling. It’s hard to even notice in this photograph, but that’s the difference between grained ivoroid cross-cut versus non-cross-cut. The devil is in the details.
A finished rosette. The area with the gap will be hidden by the end fretboard later.
Here are some different types of rosettes, made from some really interesting purfling. You’ll find the one of the right on Guild Orpheum models, and that slick blue one on the left on the new Fender Custom Shop Ren Ferguson guitars.
Here’s the same purfling, but as back strips.
The same type of thing happens with the wood used for the fingerboards. These boards are routed and profiled, and then sanded…
…in this “time saver”. We can only imagine how sore everyone’s arms must of been back before they invented stuff like this.
But that machine is grade school math compared to this one. Darren’s holding a billet of spruce that has been rough cut to fit the length of one of the pods inside this custom machine that will create the inside bracing of the guitar.
These pods already have the curved radius of both the eventual top and the back built into their shape. Then the automated cutting arm descends and cuts each billet down into many braces, to be separated later. The customized tooling used here is made in-house.
The customized form cutters give the bracing a “V” shape. It’s perfect for both strength and lightness.
The braces are trimmed, and flap sanded.
Finally the finished braces are notched so they fit together perfectly. Boom.
These braces are organized into a “bucket system” that is shared in the body assembly area. The builders there have all these same buckets, and when they run out of parts they simply come over here and pick up a new one. Likewise, workers can see when they should run some more parts if their buckets are getting low.
This press is the oldest machine in the joint. It’s a heated 30 ton press that came from the old ’60s era Guild factory in Rhode Island. It’s still here pressing the backs for certain Guild guitars, but we included it because one, it’s cool…
…and two, we noticed this shim under one corner of this beastly press looked an awful lot like a guitar neck. Apparently all over this little town of New Hartford, you can randomly find these doorstops that were made here over the years from scrap Ovation necks. Darren has even noticed them holding open the doors at his daughter’s elementary school.
Speaking of necks, this one looks a little hard to play. This is a very rough cut neck blank (for a Guild, the Fender headstock isn’t so wide that it would need the extra “ears” glued on like this).
More neck blanks awaiting the next step. They don’t look scared, but we would definitely be having nightmares if we had to come face to face with this monster…
This is the terrifying view from the neck’s perspective inside the large multi-axis cutting machine that will take this next blank to the next level. It can rotate and create complex, precise shapes that previously only could be done by hand.
The neck will get a final hand-shaping later but it quickly gets its machine-assisted bold new shape. The heel is cut at this time also.
The same cutter can take care of the route for the truss rod as well.
Fender necks have Fender headstocks of course, and the holes for the tuning pegs are drilled first to ensure that the pegs are perfectly positioned relative to where the fingerboard will exist.
Then, it’s time to carve the headstock shape. Every model has its own master template.
The Fender Kingman is a big part of this new Custom Shop revival; the Stratocaster headstock is unmistakeable. The first and sixth hole they just drilled will act as locating holes for the pins on this template. Then an operator can just follow the guide with a router and then, like magic, it’s officially a Fender.
Earlier we saw some fingerboards that had been profiled and routed for inlays. Here’s the ebony used to make them. Very dark ebony is no longer a viable option for production guitars. It’s just not available anymore due to global overharvesting. Fender is doing the right thing by using the more plentiful types of ebony on their high end models. It sounds just as good, it’s better for the planet, and we think it has a cool look of its own.
This machine is knocking out the fret channels on four fingerboards at once. These days, all the channels are cut by the same blade and can be a uniform size.
But that’s not how it used to be. Back in the day, each successive fret required a slightly wider fret, and therefore a different blade. That’s what this was made to do, and it cut one fingerboard at a time. It’s still hanging around for when they need to do a reproduction piece, or just scare people.
We’ve mentioned Ren Ferguson. Here he is (far left) overseeing the construction of some fingerboards for the model he’s designed for Fender. Ren is the lead builder for the entire Fender Acoustic Custom Shop, and brings decades of experience to the table. We’re looking forward to working with him in 2013 to create some very special pieces for The Music Zoo.
This builder is going to install the inlays and binding on the fretboard.
Yeah, you’re gonna want to keep your hands outta there. This monster cutter planes down the completed fingerboard to achieve the 10″ radius that Fender uses. You can see the subtle curve on the blade that will give the fingerboard a gentle roundness from side to side.
This fingerboard has been planed and glued to a neck. Now, it’s time for final sanding on the surface. It’s got to be perfectly flat from end to end. Builders use a straight edge and backlighting to look for any low spots and hand sand it with progressive grits until a flat, perfect playing surface exists.
Next stop, frets. The frets are pressed into the channels by hand with this lever press. It takes feel to do this right. After this is done the worker will use powerful pneumatic snips to bite off those protruding fret ends.
Tools of the trade. These builders each need to know how to do many of the steps in this area. It’s not so much an assembly line process as it is a workflow that is managed by many skilled builders.
Off topic: speed picking Swedish shred-Yoda Yngwie Malmsteen still has an Ovation signature model acoustic guitar made here. On the right, normal size frets. On the left, Yngwie size frets. Holy crap.
One more key component is required, the nut. All Fender Custom Shop Acoustics feature a bone nut for maximum tone. You ever smell bone being cut? Think burning hair. Old school.
They’ll route the slot for the nut after the fingerboard has been radiused.
These necks are done and now waiting to meet the body of their dreams. In the 3rd and final installment of the Fender Custom Shop Acoustic factory tour, we’ll check out body assembly and finish. Part Three
Just days after the 2013 Snowpocalypse called Nemo dumped literally feet of snow on the east coast, we found ourselves fleeing our relatively slushy New York City home and heading straight into the arctic wilderness of Connecticut. Why? We had an invitation from Fender Custom Shop to be the first dealer to ever tour their new Fender Custom Shop Acoustic factory in New Hartford. We learned a couple of important things. First, folks in Connecticut know how to plow the hell out of a road. Second, the guitars we will be seeing and strumming coming out of this gorgeous 1849 brick factory building will be, without a doubt, the very best acoustic guitars ever to wear the word “Fender” on the headstock.
For many years Fender’s acoustic guitar line was composed mainly of affordable units imported from overseas and designed to hit a price point. Under the direction of master luthier Ren Ferguson, these new guitars are a whole different ballgame. The Music Zoo is thrilled to be a part of this rebirth of Fender acoustic instruments, and it all starts with a tour. So let’s get started shall we?
Let’s start with the building itself. It’s an enormous, labyrinthian place that is older than the city of Los Angeles. See those hardwood floorboards? Ancient maple six inches thick. We joked that we would love to make some necks out of it; apparently we weren’t the first visitors to say that. The place is just chock full of vibe and history. We could tell that those who work here they enjoy their place and what they do here.
This is Darren Wallace. He’s the engineering manager of the factory who gave us the tour. Notice that he is wearing a Guild shirt – that’s because parent company Fender has nestled their new Custom Shop Acoustic guitars into the KMC Music plant where Guild guitars and Ovation guitars are also built. Having the resources of all these brands is a huge bonus. We started in the wood storage area where literally tons of different tone woods are organized and stacked on pallets. We love seeing this. Darren is pointing towards the kiln, where the fresh wood that is shipped in will be heated and dried to achieve the optimal moisture content.
Rosewood, for example, always needs to be kiln dried. They’ll set a tightly strapped pallet in there, and a week later the wood has shrunk so much that the straps have fallen off.
This is a mix of both red spruce and sitka spruce wood that will be used to make the braces for inside the guitar. In almost all aspects of building musical instruments, good hard wood is what you want. Red spruce (also known as Adirondack spruce) is usually very stiff, regardless of the width of the grain. Sitka tends to be less consistent, but still a good wood. Fender always uses red spruce for the all-important top bracing of a guitar, and on some more high end models full red spruce bracing is an option. Red spruce was the standard material before World War II for guitar building, but during the war the supply of it was depleted massively; it was used to build airplanes. 65 years later, Fender’s suppliers are so determined to find the best red spruce that they’ll drive around and offer to buy someone’s tree right out of their yard.
Really nice quilted maple is hard to come by, but here’s some gorgeous stuff. Fender’s got these choice pieces slated to become the sides of some upcoming Custom Shop guitars.
Here are some beautiful figured maple boards.
And this black walnut is typically used to make necks.
Here’s a big hunk of spalted maple. Darren explained that what they call “ink”, the black lines that make spalted look so cool, when sanded will really kick up your allergies if you’re allergic to mold.
Check out the coloration difference between eastern red maple on the left and big leaf maple on the right. The eastern red is harder, brighter, and gives a cleaner, whiter look. The softer big leaf maple often has more figuring to it.
Here’s some cocobolo, which is available for custom guitars. It’s apparently “itchy” to work with, but damn it looks good! We immediately noticed this wood on the shelf because we thought it looked just like brazilian rosewood. Some of this figured cocobolo could really fool someone.
Matching woods is a big part of the job when figuring out just which pieces go together to make a good guitar. Darren told us that the woman who works in this area would be a real weapon at a casino because her memory is unbelievable. She organizes hundreds of pieces of wood for tops, backs, sides, fingerboards, and can photographically match pieces in her mind that might be buried in a stack on a shelf.
This laser cutting machine is used to cut out pieces of wood that will be used as guides later in the build process.
For example, this guide piece is cut to determine the dimensions of the inside of the guitar body, and provide some locations for things like internal components and bracing that will later be read by a CNC machine.
Some of the information lasered onto the wood aren’t just for measurement, they can also give the builders reminders of what the heck guitar they’re working on!
Here’s a top for one of the new Fender Custom Shop Acoustic models coming out this year. Notice the tabs still attached to the top. Those will be trimmed off later but for now will come in handy during the body assembly process.
Here’s a guitar back that has been routed and had a decorative inlay installed. Traditionally when you see a strip like this running down the back of the guitar, there might be a two piece back glued together, hidden by the inlay. What Fender does is route a perfect channel down a one-piece back for the decorative inlay, no two piece back required!
Here’s a closeup of the inlay in the perfectly routed channel. Check out part two of the Fender Custom Shop Acoustic Factory tour, where we’ll get into tops, backs, necks, and frets!
Continue to part two