By Carol Brooks email@example.com
Keith Richards. Eric Clapton. Sting. Waylon Jennings. Jeff Beck, Lenny Kravitz, Jimi Hendrix. Robben Ford. Bonnie Raitt. All of these artists – and more – have at least one thing in common. They all play Fender guitars.
“The question may be more like, ‘What professional artist hasn’t played a Fender?’” said Gene Baker, one of the original Fender Custom Shop master builders. “At one point in time or another, almost every pro player has recorded with or had a Fender in their touring arsenal of guitars.”
Baker is no longer with the Fender Custom Shop but the former Jamestown resident now is part of Roscoe/b3Guitars across from the Greensboro Coliseum.
After starting to build guitars when he was 11, Baker was 27 years old when he joined FCS in Corona, Calif. He stayed at the shop from 1993-99.
“I was at the time working for the Gibson West Custom Shop based out of Burbank, Calif.,” Baker recalls. “We chatted with the Fender Custom Shop from time to time, swapping hardware for various artist repairs. Then one day I asked if they were hiring, as Gibson was closing the Burbank shop and I had no intention of leaving California as of yet.”
He began at Fender in the Set Neck department handling sanding, buffing, grain filling and fret dressing before moving to the newly-formed Carve Top division. It was at this point he began creating what became known as the Robben Ford signature model with a carved top with set neck.
Baker said that a custom shop begins where a production shop ends.
“Typically in a Custom Shop order there are less people involved in the build process, as one Master Builder envisions everything from start to finish of the order,” he said. “A Master will see obstacles or decisions that have to be made well in advance or along a build process to insure the order comes out as perfect to the customer’s intention as possible.
“Custom Shops put added time into an instrument, paying more attention to small details that make it stand out in form, feel and function.”
He added that most guitar orders were based on earlier products but with special details added by the individual customer. Sometimes, however, an artist wanted a very special guitar that had to be designed from scratch.
Baker’s most favorite guitar he’s designed is the Contemporary Carved Top Strat.
The Detroit-area native Baker considers himself to be handy at almost everything he does and finds guitar building to fit perfectly. He explains why he was drawn to guitar design.
“The art of evolution and the quest to build the ultimate guitar, as well as the love of making things in repetition to constantly improve a product to be as consistently repeatable in the highest of quality expectations,” he said.
“I’ve always lived by the thought that anything worth doing is worth doing, as long as it instills more pride into you putting your best work forward every day.”
This year marks the 30th anniversary of the Fender Custom Shop and each of the original eight master builders were asked to create a special design that would see limited production of only 30 guitars each. The introduction of each builder’s guitar was spread throughout the year, with Baker’s Stelecaster design debuting in October, the final guitar in the series.
“I wanted to add something that was new and never done before rather then just release anything. I wanted it to be a true representation of what the Custom Shop is, bringing new dreams to life,” Baker said. “I could have offered up something I wanted, but that seemed selfish, and I wanted to add something that would be unique and more collectable to Fender fans from players to collectors – something that may make you think that Leo Fender may have actually built the guitar in the ‘50s and ‘60s.
“The Stelecaster is literally 50 percent Telecaster and 50 percent Stratocaster, so “Stelecaster” just seemed the most fitting name borrowing from both designs. I had made limited runs of the Stelecaster around 2007/2008 for Destroy All Guitars located in Fuquay Varina, N.C., but it lacked the Fender headstock and logo. So to see it get built at Fender as a real Fender, I just brought it home so to speak, and made it more authentic as if it was just meant to be.”
It might seem a little odd that such a craftsman to the stars would live in Jamestown. Baker was asked by Greensboro’s Keith Roscoe to come help as he expanded into CNC, or computer design, guitars.
“Jamestown is where we ended up renting a home for the first year before we bought one in Greensboro earlier this year,” Baker said. “We love the small-town-to-country settings. Jamestown has some very old-school roots and a cultural feel to it that really helped us get acquainted with the state and local communities.”