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Aug 29

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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.

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Jun 18

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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.

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Apr 03

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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.

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Mar 14

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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.

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Nov 18

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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.

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Oct 24

Fender Custom Shop Acoustic

Factory Tour: Part One  Part Two  Part Three

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.

 

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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.

 

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Here are some bent sides cooling in a rack.

 

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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.

 

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Here’s the rim assembly process after getting removed from the fixture.  The head and tail blocks are clamped onto the calls.

 

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Here are some completely assembled rims with kerfing installed.  These bodies are an OM style with Gibson/Martin inspired 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.

 

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Fender uses basswood kerfing in the guitars.  It’s lightweight, easy to work with, and bonds well.

 

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Here’s an individual maple side stay getting sanded.  These have to fit between the kerf on the top and bottom of the rim.

 

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Colin is bonding in the side stays using clamps.

 

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This shot shows the clamps in action, and also gives us a look at the truss rod access in the neck block.

 

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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.

 

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The position of the rim inside this collar is important, as you’ll see when the part gets sanded.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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Here’s the interior of the guitar during fitting, complete with the laser Fender logo.

 

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Here’s Marty applying some glue to radiused braces for the interior of the guitar.

 

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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.

 

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This vacuum membrane bonder will lower over the braces and suck the parts down tightly together.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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Here’s a nice look at a beautiful FSR built with claro walnut and a carpathian spruce top.  Very elaborate purfling and rosette.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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This is Mike Shear, the body department supervisor.  He’s worked with Fender/Guild for years and has done bindings on thousands of guitars.

 

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The binding process is hard, precise work.  This is a Doyle Dykes Guild model with an intricate multi-laminate binding.

 

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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.

 

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Here’s Drew spraying color onto the walnut FSR run of guitars we’ve been seeing a lot of today.

 

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Some of these FSRs are getting a sunburst finish, while some (like the one in the back there) are staying natural.

 

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The sapwood part of the walnut is the lightly colored area next to the darker hardwood.  It’s bookmatched to great effect here.

 

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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.

 

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Scraping the Fender logo on this sunburst painted headstock.

 

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This FSR has been scraped, and will now go to get clearcoat.

 

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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.

 

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This guitar is being buffed by Todd, a long-time Guild guy who has been building guitars since the Westerly era.

 

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Lead buffer Chris is working the wheel on this headstock.

 

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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.

 

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Final setup time.  Chris Jarvis is shown here working on a Fender koa auditorium limited run.

 

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This builder is filing the nut slots.  All the nuts used on Fender Custom Shop guitars are made of bone.

 

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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.

 

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Dialing in the action.

 

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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.

 

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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. 

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Mar 06

Fender Custom Shop Acoustic

Factory Tour: Part One  Part Two  Part Three

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.

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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.

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Here we see Deb matching booksets that will become the tops and backs of the guitars.

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These are bonded together with glue and put into this fixture until they’re dry.

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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.

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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.

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A worker is creating the rosette she’ll inlay purfling into the route on this top.  It’s precise, and beautiful work.

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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.

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A finished rosette.  The area with the gap will be hidden by the end fretboard later.

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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.

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Here’s the same purfling, but as back strips.

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The same type of thing happens with the wood used for the fingerboards.  These boards are routed and profiled, and then sanded…

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…in this “time saver”.  We can only imagine how sore everyone’s arms must of been back before they invented stuff like this.

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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.

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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.

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The customized form cutters give the bracing a “V” shape.  It’s perfect for both strength and lightness.

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The braces are trimmed, and flap sanded.

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Finally the finished braces are notched so they fit together perfectly.  Boom.

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 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.

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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…

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…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.

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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).

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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…

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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.

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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.

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The same cutter can take care of the route for the truss rod as well.

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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.

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Then, it’s time to carve the headstock shape.  Every model has its own master template.

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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.

fenderEarlier 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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This builder is going to install the inlays and binding on the fretboard.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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They’ll route the slot for the nut after the fingerboard has been radiused.

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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

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Feb 16

Fender Custom Shop Acoustic

Factory Tour: Part One  Part Two  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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Here are some beautiful figured maple boards.

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And this black walnut is typically used to make necks.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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This laser cutting machine is used to cut out pieces of wood that will be used as guides later in the build process.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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!

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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

 

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Aug 15

Electro Harmonix Tour 1

Factory Tour: Inside Electro-Harmonix by Jordan Usatch

What do David Gilmour, Carlos Santana, Billy Corgan, The Edge, Kurt Cobain, J. Mascis, and Jack White all have in common?  They’ve all crafted some of their most well-known tones out of pedals made by Electro-Harmonix.  From Gilmour and Corgan’s use of the Big Muff for searing sustain and super-saturated fuzz to Kurt Cobain’s watery chorus tones provided by a Small Clone, I’ve been hearing Electro-Harmonix’s products since before I even knew what a guitar pedal was. It was a total blast for me to be able to visit the birthplace of some of my favorite tones on behalf of the Music Zoo, not to mention right here where they’re made in New York City.

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May 20

Original article on Gibson.com by Ted Drozdowski  04.27.2012

For many players and collectors the Gibson Custom Shop in Nashville, Tennessee, is a six-string Mecca, a nearly holy place where great instruments with the aura of history are created and re-created. And the Custom Shop’s most valued guitars are its Signature models and Collector’s Choice issues.

In recent years, the Signature line has yielded exact recreations ofJeff Beck’s 1954 Oxblood Les PaulJimmy Page’s Number Two,Slash’s Les PaulPeter Frampton’s Les Paul Custom and many more highly coveted instruments.

More recently, the Collector’s Choice Series – which recreates guitars from both star players and collectors – has built its first issues. Collector’s Choice #1 is the 1959 Les Paul Standard that was owned by Peter Green and Gary Moore, nicknamed “the Holy Grail.” Likewise, Collector’s Choice #2 is also a ’59 Standard, dubbed “Goldie” by the collector who owns it. The brand-new Collector’s Choice #3 is a ’60 burst with a Bigbsy and ’59 neck profile, owned by Joe Bonamassa. These hand-built beauties are among the finest guitars made today.

The creation of both Signature model and Collector’s Choice guitars is under the direction of the Custom Shop’s Historic Program Manager, Edwin Wilson. “I started playing when I was 12,” Wilson said, “and started working on guitars when I was 13. I enjoyed building and working on the guitars more than playing, and today it’s become an obsession.”

Part of that obsession has been cultivating relationships with collectors and artists for 25 years. “I have a network that I can draw on to find these guitars,” Wilson explained. “A Signature model guitar is pretty self-explanatory. It’s an instrument owned and played by an artist. The Collector’s Choice series is literally that – their choice. They present us with a guitar that is interesting and important to them, and typically these are instruments from the ’50s and ’60s, so they’re naturally of major importance. And this is where the process begins.

“Once we have decided what guitar we are going to focus on, then arrangements are made to get the instrument into our possession so we can start the development process. We try to accommodate the owners and the guitars in any way we can. If it means flying to another location or country even, in order to get our information together, that is what we do. Sometimes we are fortunate enough to have the guitar brought into our building, this way we can use our equipment in house instead of traveling to the guitar with our equipment, but the rule is ‘Whatever it takes to make it right.’

“At this point I have a ‘partner in crime’ that I work with,” said Wilson. “He is truly a Master Luthier in every aspect, his name is Matthew Klein and with 40 years of guitar building experience, there is not too much that presents a problem for him. Matthew and I have known each other for over 31 years and worked together for 26 of those years and that is what makes this part of the process work so smoothly. Typically Matthew or I will get a scan of the instrument and then Matthew will take the raw data, clean it up and use this to generate machine code for manufacturing of the guitars, generate fixtures for production of the instruments. Once this part is done then we will discuss any nuances with the scan to figure out what are important features to reproduce, then Matthew will start the prototype neck and body.”

The first step in the process is getting the guitars to the second-floor engineering department of the Custom Shop’s building off Nashville’s Elm Hill Pike. “Sometimes the guitar is shipped here,” Wilson said. “Sometimes collectors bring the guitars here. We’ve literally bought first class tickets to fly guitars here.”

After their arrival the guitars are documented with photos, notes and measurements. “We’re looking for authenticity,” Wilson said. “There’s different nuances to every guitar Gibson’s ever made. We’re looking for what it is exactly that makes each one unique. Those qualities are the real selling point. There has to be uniqueness on some level. Collector’s Choice #2 had amazingly wide flame on it because of how the top was cut, and that made that guitar unique.

“In the case of the Peter Green/Gary Moore guitar, Collector’s Choice #1, we went to the collector’s location in Florida and copied it there. It’s got a particularly unique top – the same kind of figure that’s on Billy Gibbons’ guitar – and the pickups are out of phase. That gives it a unique look and sound.”

Wilson and his staff already know the materials and electronics in every guitar the company has made over its history, so during intake they document aging and checking patterns, color fading, any customizations and unique wear patterns that need to be reproduced. “We make templates of wear patterns so we can accurately recreate the look of the guitars,” he explained.

The date an instrument was built also has to be verified. Most often, serial numbers tell the story, but in some cases, features and materials specific to certain periods – such as tapered necks, speed dial knobs, pickups and tuners – are used.

Next comes scanning. Guitars are placed on a table in the engineering department, held in place by felt-covered blocks and custom-cut chucks.

A scanner with a pointy-tipped, nylon data-measuring stylus that’s made in-house is passed over every bit of the guitar’s surface to create a computer map of its contours.

In the case of Billy Gibbons’ 1959 “Pearly Gates” Les Paul Standard, this process revealed a sharper-than-usual reverse curve to the instrument’s top than is customary for the model year, which precluded using standard reissue bodies for the signature edition. Instead, each “Miss Pearly” has its own body custom cut.

Using all that data, the next step is creating test pieces of the guitar in Wilson’s shop area. Usually that involves making an exact copy of the neck and other parts that may be unique to that instrument. “Starting with the Billy Gibbons guitar, we began a new procedure,” Wilson explained. “We now create an entire unfinished prototype of the guitar and send it to the artist or collector we got the original from, so they can play it and let us know if it looks and feels correct.”

Pains are taken on every model to ensure authenticity. “When we shape the neck, we shape the neck the exact same way they did in the 1950s or ’60s,” Wilson continued.

On the day we visited the Custom Shop, Wilson had Kirk Hammett’s 1979 Gibson Flying V on his workbench in the aging room – also known as “Edwin’s Room” – alongside a prototype that recreated the original’s wear marks and checks, and even boasted three strips of gaffer’s tape on its back, just like Hammett’s.

The Metallica guitarist’s axe arrived with a distinctive bridge made by out-of-business company Stars Guitar. Rather than compromise, Wilson and his team are outsourcing the bridge to a machine shop for exact reproduction.

“It’s a stand-out feature on this guitar,” he said. “When we recreate something, we try to the best of our ability to recreate every detail. Even checking lines and cracking lines in the finish – it’s all reproduced as closely as possible. We work on things that the consumer is interested in looking at. The checking pattern has to look the same as on the original. We make patterns of the wear on the edges. The general public would never see these details on the original guitar, but they’re looking for us to see everything for them.”

After prototype Signature and Collector’s Choice models are approved, the building process for each run of specific guitars moves out into the Custom Shop’s manufacturing area, which is kept at 45-percent humidity to create an ideal environment for maintaining the cured woods. Bodies of prototype guitars and their subsequent production models are carefully chosen from the stock of mahogany, which Wilson purchases.

“Typically vintage guitars are lighter, so we start with a block of wood with an average weight of about 9.2 pounds,” Wilson said. Carving and sanding deletes nearly three pounds from that raw block’s weight.

Then the guitar building begins. All of the woods used in making the bodies of guitars at the Gibson Custom Shop – mahogany, spruce, maple, and holly from Canada, the Pacific Northwest and the Northeast – is kept stacked on shelves and pallets just inside the shop, right behind the wall that separates ready-to-ship guitars and the factory floor. Programmable machines in the rough mill carve the necks and the bodies, including the routing necessary for electronics.

All jobs in the Custom Shop are highly specialized and require the expertise of staffers such as Richard Ickes. The dean of the wood shop with 36 years of service, Ickes came to Nashville with the company when it moved from Kalamazoo, Michigan, in 1985. “They had these same machines way back in the 1930s, and I learned on them,” said Ickes. “They were originally steam powered, but were converted to electricity before I came on in 1973. It takes a while to get the hang of them, but it comes. You learn how to change the fixtures that get fitted in place on the table of the machine. And you make all the adjustments by hand to get the correct radiuses and curves and thicknesses of the tops, and then guide the carving.”

Next to the wood shop are various stations of the neck making process. After the necks are rough cut they are smoothed and sanded.

Two small holes are drilled into their faces to anchor the fretboards, and a channel running the length of the neck is made for the truss rod. At the same time, the maple tops for Les Pauls like the classics in the Collector’s Choice series are glued in place and bound while they set. Binding gets especially complex for semi-hollow and hollowbody models like ES-335s and L-5s, since they also have interior supports that need to set in place.

Fretboard woods arrive at Gibson as blanks. They are trimmed to fit specific models and fitted with fret wire, and then seated and glued to the necks. The glued neck and fretboards are put into a press to be glued. The truss rods are placed in the neck channels, which are covered with a thin strip of maple.

Every bit of this process is done by hand. And every guitar player knows how important a guitar’s neck is to its overall playability, so there’s no room for carelessness or corner cutting. The necks and fretboards are cleared of excess glue, rough fret edges, sawdust, and any other imperfections at various points in the manufacturing process before – and after – the necks are seated and set into the bodies.

Guitars and necks that require binding, which lends many classic models including Les Pauls extra beauty and style, make a stop for one more procedure before that binding is applied. The “rabbet” channels that accommodate the binding are cut along the edges of the body and neck where the decorative strips will be applied. Some guitars require binding on the inner edges of their f-holes, as well.

Sanding is the next important step, with the edges of necks and the contours of bodies hand-smoothed on a giant sanding belt. There are no computers involved. The Custom Shop’s professional sanders must make constant judgment calls about the look and feel of the guitars taking shape during this process. Next to the sanding station another computer-controlled saw cuts out pickguards.

At this point, the guitar’s body and neck are ready to unite. Neck fitting is extremely hands on.

Sandpaper and wood chisels are the fitter’s tools, but before that begins the fitting department crew examines the quality of what’s been done so far – every aspect of neck, fretboard, binding and body work. Ultimately, however, this is where neck tenons – typically extra long in keeping with vintage designs of classic Gibsons – are fitted into body cavities and, once perfectly snugged, glued in place.

“Neck Fit” is also where the transponders that are standard equipment for every Custom Shop guitar are inserted into a tiny hole drilled in the neck tenons, which makes removal virtually impossible after the necks and bodies are glued together. Each transponder is about half the size of a typical oblong headache pill and has a distinct number. They allow guitars to be tracked during the manufacturing process with greater precision. More important to musicians and collectors, the transponders can be used to foil counterfeiters and thieves. If somebody’s trying to sell a guitar, it can be scanned to see if it belongs to another owner, is a genuine Gibson, or is a vintage guitar or a reproduction.

From there the guitars move along to fret inspection and filing, where the fretboard gets yet another thorough exam, cleaning, and tweaking. Next to the fret filing department stands the Custom Shop’s twin Plek machines. A hallmark of every guitar produced here is that it is adjusted and set – leveled and dressed – for maximum playability by the machines, which have a greater degree of accuracy than any human. They are remarkably self-contained: glass boxes with armatures and other mechanisms to run the cutting tools and measuring devices over the guitars. Every guitar that leaves the Custom Shop goes through this process.

The next major stop for the Collector’s Choice and Signature guitars is the paint room, where the bodies are sprayed – binding already in place – and air-dried on conveyors. Every guitar gets multiple coats of paint. Some, like ’bursts or other specialized shades, more than others. Typically in sunbursts there are four different colors: two in the necks and two in the body. Of course, each guitar is airbrushed by hand.

After the paint is applied and dries, it needs to be removed from the binding so those stylish bands once again become visible. This is done by Custom Shop employees wielding sharp edged blades that they draw over the binding to remove the excess lacquer and reveal the perfectly defined, straight-edged binding strips. The process is done seamlessly by eye, without any edging or alignment tools.

As the building process heads to conclusion, guitars get several thin coats of nitro-cellulose lacquer, readying them for a shine that’d put any sports car to shame. They move on to the buffing area. There, these optimum lacquer coatings are buffed to a rich finish by utilizing buffing wheels containing a red wax, then yellow wax and then finally a high gloss polish.

When Collector’s Choice and Signature models are aged, Wilson’s hand-picked staff uses wet sanding, staining, hand-rubbing and various scarring tools to get the details models such as the aged Randy Rhoads Les Paul Custom– missing toggle switch cover, yellowed original white finish, nicks below the bridge – correct.

The final assembly area is where all the electronics – wiring, volume and tone controls, the pickup selector switch, and Gibson’s own in-house wound and wax-potted pickups – are installed. And then, each guitar gets a final inspection, gets played, and has its transponder number entered in a logbook, before it is put in a case for shipping.

All that’s left for the guitar is to make some lucky player’s dreams come true.

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