George Blanda first joined Fender in 1985 as Senior Design Engineer in the newly-created Fender Custom Shop, and was initially tasked with making Artist Signature electric guitar models. He was soon recruited, by then Vice President of Marketing Dan Smith, to help overhaul Fender’s product in the wake of the CBS era.
Blanda helped establish the American Standard Series, one of the most significant launches in Fender history, and went on to work on a variety of signature guitars including: the Yngwie Malmsteen, James Burton, Muddy Waters and Jimi Hendrix artist models. He was also instrumental to Fender’s working relationship with Eric Clapton.
How did the Fender Custom shop come about?
They had talked about it a little bit at CBS. When Bill Schultz and the investors bought the company from CBS, they envisioned Fender being a distribution company. They were buying everything from Japan and were keeping the Vintage Series alive in the U.S. to give credibility to the company. They decided to start a Custom Shop to make instruments for artists. It wasn’t meant to be a commercial thing.
Initially, when I was hired to start it up there wasn’t a real budget and things were always delayed. I was working in R&D and they hired Bruce Bolen who worked at Gibson. He was the head of Artists Relations, Sales, and Marketing at Gibson. They started a Custom Shop a year before. When he came to Fender, Bruce said the Custom Shop at Gibson was very successful commercially. Fender decided to make the Custom Shop a profit center rather than marketing support.
Can you talk in depth about remaking Muddy Waters’ telecaster?
At the time, 1999 I believe, I was working in R&D and Dan Smith was the Vice President of R&D and he also ran the Custom Shop. Fender had arranged to do a Muddy Waters Tribute in the Custom Shop which was the first in the Tribute Series. This meant recreating an artist’s iconic instrument after they had passed away. We were going to get a Master Builder to get all the specs off his guitar but everyone was on a tight schedule, so I was sent. The guitar was in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland Ohio. The five-hundred-pound glass shield that it was behind had to be moved to get the guitar out. They left me in a room alone with the guitar, which the museum referred to as the “artifact”. I had to wear cotton gloves when handling the artifact. I realized this was not going to be like the normal documentation exercise.
The guitar itself was interesting. It had been refinished in a metallic red automotive color. The quality of the work was very good but there were so many dings along the edges of the guitar that it looked like a beaver had chewed it. Little flakes of metallic red paint fell off every time it was handled.
Typically, when documenting a guitar, you would cut the strings off to disassemble the thing. The strings on this guitar were rusted and looked like barbed wire that had been in a field for thirty years. I realized the strings had been on the guitar since Muddy had last played it. I began to feel the magnitude of how special this instrument was; I was literally holding history in my hands. Obviously, I couldn’t cut the strings. I still needed to take the neck off to find the date so I had to carefully unwind each string to do that. Unwinding the strings was frightening as I was imagining what would happen if they broke.
The project had come up quickly so I tried to read as much as I could find about Muddy Waters guitars. There was not much in those pre-internet days. Early in his career he had a blonde 1950s Telecaster. Later he was pictured only with the iconic red rosewood neck Telecaster that we know. What I came to realize is that it was the same guitar which had been refinished and had the neck replaced. It had an ash body which would not have been on an early 60s Tele and the bridge pickup had the two staggered magnets on the G and D string. That was only done for two years; I believe in 1957 and 1958. It also had a single ply pickguard with some extra screws added due to the edges starting to curl up. These changes happened around 1960. One big difference from what I expected was that the guitar had an aftermarket brass bridge on it. All of the pictures I saw showed a regular Telecaster bridge. The brass bridge was a late 70s early 80s thing. The decision was made we should release the guitar as it was during most of its service.
I took all the specs for the Muddy Waters Tribute model, but John Cruz built the sample guitars and the around 25-piece run. John continued to handle all the Tribute Series models. I took photos and videos showing all the dents and scratches which would be reproduced on the tribute models.
Now there is just so much information on the internet. I was looking on the internet recently and I saw pictures of the guitar in the New York MET, where it had been on display at some point. It had a detail on it that I saw back in 1999. The G string came up through the bridge plate as normal but then got looped through the intonation spring before going over the saddle. When I was looking at the picture from the MET, the G string is still going through the spring. They are the strings that were on it back when Muddy last played it.
Can you talk about the Hendrix model?
After the Muddy Waters guitar, we did a Tribute model of the Jimi Hendrix Woodstock Stratocaster. It was the white Strat that he played at Woodstock and one that was special to him. He had many Strats that he would break, burn, and give away to people, but this guitar was one that he always kept with him. It was a production 1969 Stratocaster but one that happened to have every part of it done right. It had a perfect neck pocket, a great neck shape, and the pickups were very good sounding. It was in the Experience Music Project Museum in Seattle. At the time, I believe they paid a million dollars for it. Mike Eldred and I went to Seattle to document it.
For the Muddy Waters Tele, they told me to wear gloves and left me alone with the guitar. For the Hendrix guitar, there was a film crew with three cameras recording the whole process. It was partly for promotional purposes, but I was thinking if anything goes wrong, there is the evidence. For the Master Built Limited Edition (I think 25 pieces only) we had to document all the dents and scratches so they could be reproduced. Because of his extravagant clothes and upside-down playing position, all the wear on the guitar was unlike any other guitars we had seen. It was covered with hundreds of very light impressions and dings from the beads and rings he wore.
Is it easier to replicate a guitar or build it from scratch?
It’s two different things. Personally, I like building things from scratch. I think of myself more of a designer and artisan rather than a reverse engineer. It is very gratifying to understand what a musician is asking for and give them the feel or the sound or whatever they are looking for. It is a gratifying thing to do.
What was it like working with Eric Clapton?
We worked with him in person and also by sending guitars and parts back and forth. We would meet him at a recording studio or a concert and bring different versions of guitars for him to evaluate. The Clapton was a big project for Fender and his guitar is still one of our bestselling Signature Models. At the time, the new company was fragile. A lot of people in the industry were predicting it wouldn’t survive. Clapton’s career was starting to really take off after a dormant period. We just happened to connect with him as his career skyrocketed through the late 80s and 90s. We featured him in a lot of ads at the time and it really helped with the credibility for the new company.
The neck shape for his electric guitar was a big deal. He also wanted some extra gain. He liked a CBS era Elite Strat Fender which had an active midrange circuit. We modified that circuit to be the Clapton. He had Blackie at the time and he lent it to us to duplicate the neck shape, but he wanted it tweaked. He had a Pre-War Martin acoustic that his mother gave him and he really liked the neck. It was a real extreme V neck. It was very triangular. Dan Smith who was the V.P. of Marketing and I stayed late after work for several days and we carved about a dozen necks with varying amounts of the V shape; everything from extreme V shapes to a C shape. We sent them all over to England so he could try them. He picked the Martin one, but that guitar developed a problem and it was sent back to us for repair. In the meantime, he played one of the other guitars and changed his mind on the shape. He chose a soft V shape which is on his current model.
What about the John Mayer Strat?
I was aware of the John Mayer model and oversaw it lightly. I was in the meeting when he came over to Fender. He wanted a very traditional kind of 60s Strat. I also worked on the James Burton Tele, the Yngwie Malmsteen Strat which was interesting as it has been updated several times, and the Jeff Beck model. The SRV was done by Custom Shop and that was an interesting project. After the Muddy Waters and Jimi Hendrix tributes we (myself, Mike Eldred, Richard McDonald) went to Austin to document Stevie Ray Vaughan’s #1 Strat and Jimmy Vaughan’s ‘56 Strat for future Tribute Series models.
How does Fender decide which signature artist models to make? How are artists selected?
I give all the credit to Dan Smith on this. He was very concerned about how we did this. He wanted it to not be the most popular or famous player but someone with a long guitar legacy. He really wanted a player’s player. Someone who influenced the popular players. Initially, Fender was really particular. James Burton was one of the first models Dan wanted to do, but he wasn’t set on what he wanted. Jeff Beck was another artist who wasn’t sure if he wanted to do it. Eventually, he did one. As time went on it became a much broader criterion. Popularity plays a big part. It has really expanded.
What are some challenges when building and designing guitars?
A lot of times you are trying to balance two opposite things. For instance, having a thin neck but still having a big sound. Or just trying to squeeze the components into a small space while maintaining enough structure to support everything. There is no definitive ideal. It is all a matter of making the best compromises for a given situation.
What do you miss most about working for Fender, and what do you look forward to doing in retirement?
I miss the people, and there was a lot of camaraderie. The early days of the Custom Shop was like Animal House and it was a real crazy time. There were a lot of projects and a lot of fun ones. There were some weird ones that turned out to be great. There were also some big ideas that didn’t work out at all.
My wife and I were going to travel, and I essentially retired right as the pandemic hit. We haven’t done any of that. I have a big backlog of projects that I started years ago. I play guitar a lot more now. I made all my old guitars whole again and have restrung them. I really want to spend more time surfing.