We’ve always lusted after the 1966 Shelby Mustang GT350H that lives in the stable of cars just beneath the Music Zoo. It’s owned by the Zoo’s landlord, Howard Kroplick, a car collector who knows the way to our hearts via a pretty amazing collection of vintage cars. With its Wimbledon White finish and gold Le Mans stripes, Ford Mustang GT “Fastback” body style, and car-isma that nearly had us forgetting that guitars ever existed, Howard’s car and its ilk epitomized automobile greatness. It’s these cars that paved the road for those incredible Detroit muscle cars that came in the next few years, among them the Camaro, GTO, Barracuda, and AMC Javelin.
Car culture was beyond huge in the ‘60s, and the automobile mystique seemed to tie-in with everything, including guitars. It wouldn’t be long before the racing car motif found its way onto ’69 Fender Mustangs with competition “racing” stripes. Meanwhile, the off-white and gold mashup bridged the connection of cars and guitars when a very, very rare Fender Custom Shop guitar built specially for Reverend Billy Gibbons showed up at our door. We realized there was a Cars and Guitars hookup that had to happen.
We’ll start with the car since it was here first. On first glance, the casual passerby might think, “Okay, a vintage Ford Mustang with racing stripes.” Howard’s car is actually a 1966 Shelby Mustang. Certainly, the GT350 began life in a Ford factory in San Jose, California before making its way to the garage of race car legend Carroll Shelby, whose Shelby American company would modify the cars with custom Magnum 500 wheels, disc brakes, a Cobra engine (water-cooled V8 with overhead valves and 306 hp at 6000 rpms), high-performance shocks, and a torque-controlled rear axle.
Of the 2,370 GT350s acquired by Shelby, 999 were specially modified for the Hertz Sports Car Club, which invited card-carrying Hertz car rental customers the privilege of driving a Shelby modified racing car, for $17 dollars a day and 17 cents per mile. “Business travelers who want a change in pace in motoring, sports car owners away from home, vacationers who consider driving an enjoyable holiday sport,” read Hertz’s advertisement. You can tell that its 1966, and traffic wasn’t what it is now. The GT350 earned the “H” designation for the purpose of distinguishing it as a Hertz rental car. Another tell-tale indicator of this car—and any other Mustang, new or old, is the gold racing stripes throughout. The gold stripes specifically indicate that the car is a Hertz rental, along with the standard automatic transmission. Kroplick acquired the GT350H in 2004 at an auto auction, the first car in a collection that also includes the famed 1909 Alco Racer that we profiled in the Cars and Guitars: Beauty and the Beast article that we published as a blog in July, 2014. Vroom! Let’s now turn our attention to the guitar.
Approximately three years ago, guitar journalist Tom Wheeler created a meticulous and detailed coffee table book that celebrated the Fender Custom Shop and its one-of-a kind guitars. Titled “The Dream Factory: Fender Custom Shop”, it captures some of the most fantastic, inconceivable solid-body Fender guitars ever created. Interviewed within are a cast of artisans involved in making the Custom Shop guitars such as jewelers, graffiti artists, fire breathers (just kidding!), wood carvers, pinstripers, pearl inlay artists, and a master luthier or two.
One of these master luthiers is Chris Fleming, a Music Zoo friend and Custom Shop veteran who’s built many incredible guitar imaginings for players such as Billy F. Gibbons—a guy known for his hardly unordinary guitars. In the “Dream Factory’s” introduction—written by Gibbons—he describes a visit to the Custom Shop to pick up three new instruments that he commissioned Fleming to build. Gibbons took two and left one behind with Fender Custom’s Mike Eldred, and much later the guitar made its way to The Music Zoo.
So what is it? In essence it’s a Fender Custom Shop Billy Gibbons Stratocaster. One of us—okay, this writer in fact—have called it the “Fender Custom Shop Duo-Strato-Tele” because it draws inspiration from three distinctly Fender designs: The late 1950s-era Fender Duo-Sonic (and single-pickup Musicmaster), the Stratocaster, and the Telecaster. Fleming essentially took a Stratocaster’s contoured body, pickguard shape, the slanted bridge pickup, and Strat control knobs, and combined it with a Telecaster neck. The pièce de résitance, however, is the late ‘50s classic, eight-screw gold anodized pickguard which perfectly completes the look. And, all you have to do is hold this thing to realize it’s the greatest guitar of all time, or at least that moment in time; a feeling similar to watching a guitar master like Jeff Beck, when all sense of temporality is paused and for that distinct moment he’s the only guitarist that matters. And then the bubble pops.
The Gibbons Strat was built by Fleming with an ultra-lightweight ash body, perfect for Gibbons who always plays guitars as close to featherweight as possible. There’s an aged maple neck with a Tele headstock, 9.5” radius, a big soft “V” profile, and 21 big 6105 frets. The pickup is a custom-wound and noiseless stacked humbucker pickup. Electronics also feature a volume control and a Greasebucket tone control that allows Billy G. to retain top end when he lowers the guitar’s volume. Then there’s a chrome vintage-style hardtail bridge that aesthetically compliments the gold pickguard. Finally, the Sperzel non-locking tuners have pearloid knobs that subtly blend in with the entire color story. And them’s just the parts; Chris Fleming’s brilliance as a guitar builder is evident with the Gibbons Strat’s brilliant aging. He could probably be on staff at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art doing anti-restoration or aging if he wanted. Let’s start with the body and its translucent Vintage Blonde finish, which is lacquer-checked throughout and aged such that a slightly brown-ish discoloration appears in all the right places: near screws on the side-mounted jack plate, on the tummy cut, on the body’s edges and cutaways. The very subtle dings and marks here and there have the kind of slight discoloration that would normally happen over time. Meanwhile, the neck is aged to show heavy player wear and lacquer checking, and Fleming even captured the time-honored discoloration around the frets that occurs with vintage guitars. Yep, exquisite is the word.
As we said earlier, playing the Gibbons Strat is like suspending the space-time continuum. That lightweight ash body contributes to amazing acoustic transparency and presence. And plugged in, it’s bridge-pickup Stratsville all the way—somewhat hot, but combined with the natural sustain and acoustic properties you’ll hear amazing harmonic detail and nuances. Up the amp gain and this guitar growls and barks. Hit some nice broken chords while picking close to the bridge and it’s too beautiful for words. The sonic detail is the result of the lightweight ash, that great Strat-like custom-wound “hot” single-coil, and a whole lotta mojo and x-factor that we can’t pinpoint. Often, great guitars—and great American cars from Detroit’s golden era of high-quality, high-performance design—just have that…thing! Hats off to Ford, Carroll Shelby, Leo Fender and Chris Fleming, and Reverend Billy for helping to make American design and culture the envy of the world.
Written By Mike Bieber
Photographs By Walter Bryant