Q&A With the Fender Custom Shop’s Mike Eldred
The Fender Custom Shop’s Mike Eldred.
On Tuesday, March 16, the Fender Custom Shop’s Mike Eldred joined the Seymour Duncan® user group forums as part of its popular “Guest Luthier Series.” Eldred fielded questions for four hours and we’ve got the highlights here …
Q: Can you walk us through the decision process used to decide whether to include your own pickups or those of another manufacturer (like Duncans) in your guitars?
ME: Pickups are just one of those things that we as players like to mess with. Nobody has the end-all pickup (including Fender), so you have so many great choices out there. We love Duncans! We use them in lots of different instruments, but the main thing is that we are a Custom Shop, so people will ask for certain manufacturers, and we use them.
Q: To oversimplify the variables, assuming that all bridges are of “equal” quality, what tonal differences do you find to exist between 6-point and 2-point trems? Let’s say that both are set up for dive only, non-floating.
ME: Man—tonal differences are hard. A vintage trem as opposed to a two-point trem we use on our Strat® Pro, for example: The Vintage has bent saddles (steel) and a CRS (cold rolled steel) block. The Pro trem has milled stainless saddles and a CRS block that is smaller than the vintage. The bent saddles don’t have as much mass, but the vintage block is bigger; the Pro saddles are milled stainless, which is brighter, but there is a smaller block, so there is this … balance thing. It all depends what you hear, and what you like.
Q: You’ll get plenty of guitar questions, so I’ll go ahead and slide a bass question in—have you built any custom basses for high-profile guys, and which would be your favorite if so?
ME: Pino Palladino. What a machine!
Q: Are there any plans to produce a Tele® from the Custom Shop with a B Bender in it anytime in the near future? Not like an artist model, but something at the Custom Shop level with a bender as a “standard” type of model.
ME: We do the Fender Bender version. Not much call for them, really. But we do them occasionally. I remember when we did the Marty Stuart Tele we offered that option. Marty said, “Me and about six other guys use that.” It was pretty funny.
Q: Do you feel extra pressure to live up to the high standards that people expect from the Fender Custom Shop, or are you able to treat it as a “normal” job?
ME: (laughs) This job is anything but normal, for sure. Sometimes it’s weird, but not like “extra pressure to live up to the high standards that people expect from the Fender Custom Shop.”
There is a commitment. From everybody at Fender. We have a historical responsibility. That is very clear and everybody pursues that with a rabid enthusiasm. May sound corny, but it’s the truth. Nobody wants a CBS scenario on their watch. There were a bunch of people and families relying on what not only the Custom Shop but the entire company does, so everybody at Fender is very focused on the job at hand. We just celebrated (last Friday) the anniversary of Bill Mendello (current Fender CEO) and Bill Schultz buying the company back from CBS. It was a great day!
Q: Is it true that any endorser artist gets exclusive rights to have a Custom Shop guitar built for themselves for free (at least once)?
ME: Ha! No, not true. The Custom Shop artists do get guitars, but not the regular signature artists.
Q: Who is your favorite (artist that you have worked with) and what do you like about him/her?
ME: Favorite artist: I don’t know. They are all pretty amazing. Gibbons is a good friend, so is Mayer. Clapton is a very nice guy. Beck made me coffee in his house once. Robert Cray is probably one of the nicest people I have ever met. Lots of our customers are famous albeit not rock stars, and those guys are pretty amazing too. Dean Fearing. Google him. One of my best buddies.
Q: How do you feel about the CBS headstocks?
ME: I like the bigger headstocks. It’s a cool look; I mean … Hendrix. C’mon. Blackmore!
Q: What do you consider to be the ultimate upgrade for a Strat and/or Tele?
ME: Ultimate upgrade? Man, it all depends on what you want. We make a Strat Pro and a Tele Pro that have lots of features that we get called for from artists, and those guitars really have a bunch of cool features without having to get a Master Built guitar.
Q: Why do the necks on the Custom Shop guitars always feel so right?
ME: Thanks for the kind comments. I think the necks feel that way because of the people there. We all love guitars and there is a respect for certain aspects of the guitar, especially the neck, where your hand really has the most contact.
Q: Does the Custom Shop still do customer request one offs? I’m guessing if you want specific neck profiles, etc., that would be Master Built rather than Team Built territory?
ME: Absolutely! We never stopped that! That’s the main part of our business. It depends on what you want. Just a neck shape change? Just a color? No problem. It’s when it gets into lots of changes that you may end up with a Master Built guitar.
Q: What is the most unusual request you’ve gotten for a guitar?
ME: Most unusual? The Guitar World “Design Your Own Strat” winner. What a nightmare. Aluminum body with chambers holding different colored liquid. We had to bring in the uber builder—Scott Buehl. I have a movie with it somewhere.
Q: You mentioned several posts ago a “historical responsibility” to Fender and its legacy. Do you feel this hinders growth and innovation for Fender products? People may not be as accepting of a redesigned Strat from Fender as opposed to another company doing the same thing.
ME: Not at all. We are constantly growing and being innovative. It’s what we have to do. Look around. When I say “historical responsibility,” I mean that people are writing about Fender all the time. They did in the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, ’80s etc., and they are writing about us now. It doesn’t hinder growth and innovation; it forces it! We have to push the envelope. Not only on the guitars and basses, but amps too.
Q: Do you feel like the instruments that are most often requested through the Custom Shop drive the direction of what production line instruments Fender is offering? Also, are the instruments most often build by the Custom Shop unique in some way to the instruments offered by Fender, or is it that most people/artists are just looking for a higher-quality instrument with more attention to detail?
ME: Yes, what we do in the Custom Shop usually ends up on the regular production. That’s kind of why we were
created. The way we build is different from the regular production. The machines and techniques are more of the original methods, and therefore take more time. Construction is different as well. There isn’t a “higher quality” per se; just more personal attention to detail. Components, detail and time. That stuff adds up.
Q: Who was the first guitarist who really got your attention when you were young and made you say, “Wow! I want to do that”? Also, is there a contemporary/current artist that still makes you say that?
ME: Scotty Moore. Later, Ritchie Blackmore. Today … Jeff Beck. He’s on another planet.
Q: Of all the celebrity-owned guitars you’ve had in your hands, which was your fave? Which stood out the most for whatever reason?
ME: The Woodstock Strat. That guitar still haunts me. I sat up all night looking at the video. When we took the neck off, there was dried sweat under the neck plate. Unreal.
Q: Also, of all the pros you deal with and have dealt with, who is the hardest on their instruments?
ME: Hardest on the instrument? SRV or Rory. Those guitars were absolutely mangled.
Q: What are your experiences with the tone qualities of a Fender-style neck—one piece (skunk stripe) vs. two-piece (no skunk stripe) with all other variables the same—type of wood, etc.
ME: Two-piece is brighter. It’s that lamination of the fingerboard. Really stiffens up the neck.
Q: What are your experiences, tonally, of a maple fingerboard vs. an Indian rosewood board vs. a Brazilian board?
ME: Rosewood is a bit warmer. Indian is what we like the most. Brazilian shouldn’t be used. It’s been misrepresented in the solid-body guitar market, in my opinion.
Q: What is your experience, tonally, of a slab-style (’62) Fender neck vs. a veneer-style (’63) Fender neck?
ME: Slab style is warmer; round lam is brighter. It’s all good, just need to take that into account when building the instrument. Slab board on a lighter body is going to sound woofy … and if you’re looking for mids and highs, you’re gonna miss it.