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Building guitars with Jimmy Page. An interview with Paul Waller of the Fender Custom Shop.

Building guitars with Jimmy Page. An interview with Paul Waller of the Fender Custom Shop.

Posted by Roddy Scheer on Jul 17th 2019

Roddy got to spend a little time on the phone with Paul Waller of the Fender Custom Shop in preparation of our Custom Shop Master Builders Roadshow. Here is the transcript.

On August 1, the Fender Custom Shop Road Show will swing through Seattle with an event at the Guitar Store (8300 Aurora Ave. N. in Seattle at 5:30 pm) where Master Builders Paul Waller and Ron Thorn will discuss their latest projects and how they create amazing one-off Fenders for customers and dealers. Paul Waller answered some of our questions about recreating Jimmy Page’s mirror/dragon Tele and what it’s like to work for customers and dealers on creating special customized Fenders.

The Guitar Store: We are looking forward to seeing you soon in Seattle at the Fender Custom Shop Road Show stop at the Seattle Guitar Store. Are you on a big nationwide tour with the Fender Custom Shop now?

Paul Waller: Yes, we usually do it every year, although we’ll change up which of the builders go along. There is usually 8-10 stops across the country every year depending on how many stores want to participate, and then we’ll do some in Asia and Europe as well.

Why did you get the nod for the tour this year?

For whatever reason, the stores wanted to talk about the Jimmy Page thing this year, as a lot of them are purchasing a set this year. So I just was kind of lucky this year I guess.

Yes, the famous mirrored (then dragon) Tele that Jimmy Page used with the Yardbirds and in his early Zeppelin days that you helped recreate...

That was pretty massive, for a couple of reasons. He’s more notably associated with a different brand than this one so it was big on that level to kind of tell the story that a lot of people didn’t really know in-depth. The gear-heads knew, but so many people didn’t. So it kind of put it on a platter and served it up to the masses and said “Hey, just because he was associated with this other brand doesn’t mean that he didn’t do some with this one too.”

And it goes to show you that no one brand can really accomplish everything that you’re looking for unless you just want that one tone, that one sound. We all understand that you need a couple of different weapons in the arsenal to get the job done for most people. We understand that you’re not gonna just be associated with one brand. We’re not asking our fans and customers to be. It’s not an “us or them” thing. We’re saying, if you want the highest quality version of what we do, then come to see us.

Did you work directly with Jimmy on building the recreations of this iconic guitar for the Fender Custom Shop?

He invited us out to his home in London, and I took [the original] apart in his house. I spent the whole day there. And then I invited him to come to the shop because he insisted that it would make more sense for the market if he actually touched every guitar and had some participation. And I agreed. I said, “Heck ya! if you wanna come out, you’ll be my guest.”

You don’t say no to Jimmy Page!

No, you don’t! To all of our surprise, he agreed to come out. Once he approved the final prototype, he said, “That’s it, that’s the one.” Then he came out [to the Fender factory in Corona, California] two weeks later. He did an interview for half a day and then I put him to work after lunch for two solid days of work. Including our time in London, I worked with Jimmy for three days and what an experience, man. There’s so much that happened. So much conversation. We shared meals and weird stories. It was great. He had never toured a guitar factory before, which blew us away, so I said, “Well, let’s get the safety glasses and go out there and let’s see it.”

I gave him a tour of the factory and it was funny to watch a lot of my friends and co-workers melt as Jimmy Page came into each department. We toured the whole factory which is where all the U.S. guitars are made, the Custom Shop, Jackson, Charvel, EVH, Gretsch and amplifiers. It ended up being somewhere in the vicinity of 800 employees at work at the time. It was pretty incredible.

When you say you put him to work after lunch, doing what?

His level of involvement was he wanted to touch every guitar. So all the guitars are sets. It’s the mirrored version and the dragon version that I’m building, and actually almost done with. He wanted to hand-sign in silver pen on the back of all the mirrored guitars. And on the dragon body, he participated in painting sections, some more than others. I have pretty detailed documentation of what he painted, that is , which portions he painted on each guitar.

We filmed the whole thing. We put it in part of the press package so people could see that he actually touched these guitars. It wasn’t just, “Hey make these and let’s just sell them.” He was participating, which in and of itself is a huge deal but then you throw in the fact of who it is, and the legacy, it just makes it jaw-dropping to see the whole thing come together.

Is that video something the public can see?

Yes there’s a video people can see either on our Youtube channel. And then there’s an animated version where he tells the story, which is really cool as well. That one is my favorite because he’s actually talking about the life of the guitar, how he came to get the guitar, and how it became the dragon in different phases of life. He tells the story better than anybody else, obviously, so that one’s worth a go for sure.

What’s the timeline on the Jimmy Page Teles? How many are being made?

It’s 50 sets — so 100 guitars — for sale, worldwide.

Do you have to buy them as a pair? Can you buy the dragon without the mirrors?

They were sold to the stores as sets. They didn’t have a choice. They had to purchase a set if they wanted it. We even had a couple of stores that even offered to buy all 50, which we would never do because it wouldn’t make sense to keep some from other stores. And we based the allocation of the sets to the stores that are doing the largest amount of business. So about 50 dealers get first crack. If anybody in the top 50 dealers says “No we don’t want it,” it goes to the next guy in line. There was such a demand for these that they sold out to the stores right away — nobody gave up their set, in other words. And most of the sets were sold through to customers within the first week. I spoke with one customer who purchased a set from a store in Chicago and that same week he called around to all the U.S. dealers that had sets and he only found four dealers that had them available, and he purchased another set from another dealer. So him and his buddy both have a set now.

How much are they?

MSRP is $50,000 per set.

For two guitars?

Right.

Are you done building them?

I’m working on the last few. I’ve been at this for almost a year and a half, and I think I’ll be done completely in about four more weeks.

Is this all you are doing? Or are you doing other stuff as well?

I’ve been trying to get some customer builds out too. It’s been tough. I’ve been working a lot of hours. Lots of Saturdays. I haven’t had weekends off in about a year. So, as grateful and appreciative as I am about having this project, I am looking forward to its completion so I can go back to kind of a normal life for a little while before I start up my next project.

What have been some of your other favorite projects during your days

so far at Fender?

As far as artist builds, Nile Rodgers, working with Nile was awesome. Troy Van Leeuwen. I’ve worked with Keith [Richards] a lot.

Has Keith been through the factory?

No, he hasn’t but I did bring his whole crew in here when they were on tour a few years back and I gave them a tour of the factory and they had a good time. And when they are on tour I usually go and hang out.

Is Keith still buying or getting Fender guitars?

Usually we just kind of give him guitars, so it just depends on the situation what they need it for. We’ll either give him a really good deal on it or just give it to him.

There’s no Keith Richards signature model?

No.

Has the idea come up?

Yeah of course. I brought it up, and he has no desire to do anything right now.

Well, he is Keith so he can do whatever he wants...

Exactly! I don’t push because I respect him as an artist but my counterparts at Fender say, “When’s that gonna happen?” It’s strange because I work for Fender but I also work for artists, so I have to keep the interests of both parties in mind when I’m doing this kind of stuff. It can be a delicate dance of making sure the artist is taken care of and happy but also making sure my boss is happy. It’s sometimes difficult to do.

What was your path to becoming a Master Builder at the Fender custom shop?

When I was hired on I had gone to guitar building school and had also worked as a cabinet maker so I had quite a bit of woodworking experience before coming into Fender in 2003. I originally worked on the factory production line setting up guitars as a tune-tester for three months as a probation period before they hired me on full-time as an Apprentice in the Custom Shop. So the first three months was just kind of paying my dues, so to speak, and then I came right into the neck mill and very quickly thereafter went upstairs and started working with Stephen Stern, Yuriy Shishkov and Bob Benedetto on the Benedetto archtop models for the first year.

Before that you had been making guitars on your own or for other companies?

Yeah. I worked at repair shops and then another brand where a gentleman had his stuff made in Korea and they would ship them over and would warehouse them in my hometown. I was really really excited to get the job in the industry because I had been in construction in my early 20s and I thought, “Man this is really what I want to do.” I would do set-ups and fix any problems with the instruments that needed repair and then ship them out to the stores.

Were you in the Fender orbit during those years?

Yes. This industry is funny: just because somebody might leave one company, they’ll usually go work for another one. It’s incestuous that way. It’s been that way for a long time, so everyone kind of knows one another. So your reputation is important if you decide you want to move to another company. You don’t burn any bridges, so to speak. The gentleman I worked for actually had worked for Fender for 13 years before he had started his own company. So that was kind of the tie-in to Fender. He was struggling a bit and ended up shutting the company down and selling off his licensing. He said, “You know what, you should go up to Fender and see if you can get a gig up there. I think you’d fit in with that crowd up there.” So I went and did an interview and was hired right on the spot.

Can you describe what the experience is like when you work on a guitar as a master builder with an individual?

Yeah, It’s not unlike any other custom industry. There’s a conversation that happens. I’m trying to tailor-fit a guitar to a customer, so there’s usually questions and concerns and a conversation is needed to nail all those bullet points. And it can be difficult because we’re a global company and there can be a language barrier if it’s in Europe or Asia so there’s usually a translator or someone to help me understand what it is exactly the customer is looking for. So it usually starts out with a conversation. Occasionally changes get made because, you figure, the wait time for a master-built guitar is anywhere from a year to four years depending on the builder and their backlog. It’s kind of a lot to ask of a customer to order their guitar and then not make any changes during that lengthy period of time. So there’s an initial set-up with the order placed, then getting in line. And then another conversation will happen just before the build starts to make sure there are no major changes in the spec. If there is, it’ll have to get re-quoted. If not — if it’s just a few minor details — we’ll make those changes at no additional cost. And then at that point it’s just a matter of making sure that the information is correct on the spec sheet, and then building it properly for the customer.

Do you single-handedly do every part of that guitar?

Not necessarily. We do employ CNC machines to help with a lot, you know, the placement of the bridge, etc. If it’s just a stock vintage model or a stock model that we currently make, it gets the holes drilled and the perimeters cut on the CNC machine. So the hand-work really comes into play when it comes to shaping, or maybe there’s additional routing that would be done by hand for a custom pick-up configuration or something different with the electronics. And then there’s the neck shaping — all the builders do their own. There’s era-specific flutes and rollovers. The neck is really important to me so I spend a great deal of time shaping necks.

You guys use some of the vintage equipment from the 1950s Fender factory to do some of this work?

Yeah, we still have a bunch of the old machines. Not so much on the woodworking side. I mean, we do have some of the old templates. But everything used to be pin-routed. There’s pros and cons to it. The major con to pin-routing would be that you really gotta check your fitbit and as easy as a Fender guitar looks to make, it’s hard to make very very well because of, for example, there’s no shelf on the neck pocket. You want everything to fit nice and tight. You don’t want gaps everywhere. These are all the things that customers look at and can appreciate from a high-quality build. CNC machines really help us dial in all those parameters and make sure we have nice tight fits.

What we do that is really old school is hand-shaping necks. We can make programs on CNC machines to program any neck shape, but we really go to the trouble of employing talented people and making sure that all the Custom Shop necks are hand-shapes. Of course, all the builders are shaping their necks and it just goes into what’s so loved about the vintage guitars. Those kind of quirky, asymmetrical shapes and other stuff that really makes it feel like your own. They are kind of like individual snowflakes.

You’d have an initial call with customer to go over things and then in a check-in call when their number comes up? Is that usually the extent of it? Are the customers typically dictating every detail?

Some customers can be very, very picky. It’s part of the gig. Some are more easygoing and they will actually say, “Hey do whatever you think is cool.” So it’s a broad spectrum of customers that we deal with. You just never know. Sometimes they are repeat customers so you’ll get to know a guy or a gal and understand what it is that they’re really picky about, and make sure to ask the right questions. Those can be really fun too because you know what you already built for them and now they’re asking you to do another one which is a privilege for us, for me, specifically. I think that’s awesome.

When you are working on specific custom runs for dealers, is the process different?

It can be, depending on who is ordering from the store. There’s usually one or two guys from every store who handle the custom shop master-built stuff. Not a whole lot of stores are doing master-built. It’s a pretty small core group. Sometimes they’re very detailed on the whole, and sometimes they’re just kind of throwing baloney on the wall to see what sticks. You end up building a relationship with those guys too and working well with them. Then they’ll ask you a question like, “Hey, what do you think about this?”

And every market is different. Guys in Europe are designing stuff a little bit differently than, say, the guys here in the U.S. Everybody kinda wants to have their own thing, which is cool; they don’t want to copy anybody else. It helps you steer the boat in terms of getting specs that are still very, very tangible for customers — and saleable — but also different and unique.

What are some of the features and finishes you would build into your

own dream guitar?

The longer I do this I realize what I like isn’t necessarily what anybody else likes. I think when I think about designing something new or something different, it comes around electronics. I play around a lot with pick-ups because I feel like there’s so much untouched territory that can be done. And different combinations of woods and hardware with the pick-ups makes different recipes of tone. So we can tweeze and kind of bend these things and they still have that iconic Fender sound but maybe just slightly more one direction or another, whether it be more mid-range or low-end. I tend to kind of like fatter sounds and tones. It’s obvious that you wanna try to make things better, but there’s so much that was right on, right out of the gate, so it’s kind of hard to improve upon what was already done. It’s just a matter of coming up with different combinations.

What do you play at home?

I tend to like vintage radius, small fret wire, vintage fret wire, lower action. I didn’t really play a lot of guitar; I played more bass. And even my bass, I refretted it with mandolin wire because it gives it that low, almost fretless feel. I like that. I like to feel the board and the action really low, whereas a lot of the guitars I build for my customers have giant fret wire on them. Who am I to tell them? That’s a perfect example of the fact that what I like might not be what the masses like. If someone asks me what I think, I’ll tell them. But I’ll also say, “This is your guitar not mine. Don’t pick what I like, pick what you like.”

Beyond the Jimmy Page Teles, any new projects on the horizon you’re looking forward to?

Yeah I have another pretty massive project. I just started on it in the prototype phase and that will release at NAMM and that’s all I can say about it actually.

Is it an artist thing?

Yup.

Someone we’ve all heard of?

That’s all I can say about it.

Thank you so much. It’s been really interesting and helpful and we look forward to seeing you in person at the Guitar Store in Seattle on August 1 at the Fender Custom Shop Road Show event.

Thank you and see you then.

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