FEATURE: Fender EVP Richard McDonald & Master Builder John Cruz at NAMM 2017
At The NAMM Show 2017, SoCalMusicToday.com spoke with Executive Vice President of Fender Guitars to get insight on their new offerings for 2017 and had a conversation with Master Builder John Cruz to discuss his experiences building custom guitars.
Richard McDonald, Executive Vice President
What does Fender want to highlight or promote at NAMM this year in 2017 in regard to new equipment and/or existing equipment?
During Winter NAMM we debuted our new electric guitar series, The American Professional, which is the reworked American Standard after 30 years. We changed the name and everything about the guitar while maintaining the iconic designs the brand is known for. Some of the biggest changes were the silhouettes of the Jaguar and the Jazzmaster and working to update those within this elevated series. The offset styles like that have had a big resurgence and have become hugely successful so it was crucial for us to include within the American Professional series.
Around the corner, we also have the 30th anniversary of our Fender Custom Shop. It’s unbelievable when you think about it, we have eight master builders. When you think about it, in 1986, when we started this, nobody was selling new guitars as collectible artists. Nobody was making new guitars that looked old or relic. Nobody was talking about personalization which is a buzzword today. Thirty years ago, this group was redesigning a lot of the aspects of instruments. That’s a huge thing. In-ear monitors is a new thing for us and a new segment, professional stage monitoring for musicians that come down to being a consumer audio experience as well. The acoustic focus with Paramount is also a huge story for us. We have been selling acoustics for 50 years. People don’t really think of us as an acoustic brand. We have just engineered a marvelous collection of guitars. We have a whole new line of acoustic amps that have award-winning designs. Everything that we brought to NAMM, plus the brand new booth, which is incredible, is all new. We brought the largest collection of master built custom shop guitars we have ever brought to the show.
Are there particular characteristics or features of the products you want to draw attention to for our readers?
The American Professional is our electrical guitar core business. This is the heart of what Fender is. We changed everything: the name, the neck shape, the fret style which is a narrower and a taller fret, we changed the electronics with a treble bleed off circuit, the bridge and designed new pickups. Other than being made out of wood, they are pretty much brand new.
Fender is extremely respected and well known in the guitar world. How does the company, in your opinion, continue to excel and keep up with the competition, especially at NAMM with so many other guitar manufacturers in attendance there?
We stay relevant and our story is an interesting story. What is unique about our company, is it was founded on this doctrine with the player at the center of our strategy. I didn’t say artist but I said player; but the artist thing is important. We placed the guitar player, whether they are a beginner or some of the most-accomplished players in the world, we put them at the center. This relationship we have, this communication between builders, like John Cruz, and our product specialists and Fender in general, that dialogue actually shapes and informs our innovation. So we listen, we build, put it back into the hands of artists, and then artists make music that matters that people care about and that circle continues: innovation, relationship, product excellence to a body of work created by musicians. This cycle has been going for 70 years at Fender and I think we stay relevant. It’s also important to be technologically relevant in social media and the way we communicate with customers. For Fender, it’s a story of sustained relevance for over 70 years. That relationship and that intimacy is manifested in the Custom Shop at the highest level. You’re having a one-on-one relationship with a builder and defining an instrument that fits all your unique needs.
John Cruz, Fender Master Builder
How long have you been a master guitar builder for Fender and how did you become one?
I started with Fender in 1987, the custom shop in 1993 and became a Master Builder in 2003. I worked my way up. I spent six years out on the production floor doing American Vintage and American Standards. I got asked early on to come over to the Custom Shop when they were first starting. It was a guaranteed full-time position elsewhere and Custom Shop was a part-time position and I couldn’t do it. I had a full-time job, so I denied the request. I felt bad because I didn’t think I’d be asked again. I kept working and working and honing my skills. Six years later, the opportunity came up again and I jumped at it. So I started in 1993 at the Custom Shop. As a tuner tester, anything I could do to help out anywhere. John Page knew I had a good track record on the other side. I worked my way through there and apprenticed with some of the best builders in the world at the time that are no longer with us now. I literally worked with all the builders helping them here and there. That helped me a lot to learn the next thing, which moved me onto a full on apprenticeship gig with John English and Mark Kendrick and J.W. Black. They are the founders of the Custom Shop. From day one at Fender, I was waiting for my opportunity. I started from the ground up, I swept floors and cleaned out machines when I started at Fender.
How has your skill gone into the development and evolution of Fender guitars since your arrival?
The evolution of the Fender guitar was already there. It’s up to us and the future people working for Fender Custom Shop to continue on the tradition and elevate to new boundaries. The Custom Shop is the hood ornament of the company for making the best of the best.
Can we discuss your accomplishments at Fender or your favorite works?
Every guitar is hard to let go of especially if it’s a one off guitar for a customer or rock star. There is so much passion that comes from all of us for each of the instruments we build. The best things come out of us when we can come to these shows. For the NAMM Show, for instance, nobody is telling us on an order sheet where we need to have this guitar made. This is the time of the year we get to do our own thing.
Some of the things I have done in the past are artist tributes, like Stevie Ray Vaughn, that was a big one for me. That launched me into success and we had so many orders. I was told you are not going to be able to sleep anymore. It’s kind of been that way ever since. I like doing collaboration projects with artists. I’m a big boat enthusiast and did a Chris Craft boat guitar with a little boat and custom case. At NAMM, you see kids running around with their parents. The dads look at guitars. Kids are bored as hell. I took that in mind and I thought I’m going to do something for the kids. So next year came around, I made a miniature Strat. We got a miniature motorcycle because usually dads want the man cave stuff, like a killer guitar and Harley Davidson to go with it. I did miniature version of that mini Strat and miniature chopper. It had Fender Custom Shop stuff all over it. It was unreal and people flipped out. I get ideas when I go on road shows all over the world and find out what makes people tick and what they like. I come back and go into my area and come up with stuff to create. Then I take what I create on the road shows and people say that is exactly what I was thinking about.
It’s complicated sometimes, but it’s the best when we talk to people. We see something special we want to make something for. It helps out with the brand, as Fender started making just a basic guitar. It was easy to work on and take apart. We have evolved into so many different things now that show why we are the best.
Do you have a signature thing that you do?
We have eight talented master builders. Everyone in the Custom Shop are masters at what they do. There is one guy that will build a million dollar guitar with actual rubies, diamonds, silver and gold. It’s something I would never even touch. I want to make a working man’s guitar. I’m good at relic type guitars – the aged, old-looking guitars. They started off at NAMM years ago almost as a joke. People love them so much, they don’t want to take the real guitars on the road. It makes sense because a real 1957 Strat is worth thousands and thousands of dollars. Why not get something for a fraction of the cost, so they can take it out on the road to play, so it still looks and plays better and sounds better. That’s kind of my forte.
I love the historical colors and aging. I also like to do art stuff and I’ve been getting into that for the past couple of years. It’s become a friendly competition between the builders at NAMM. They don’t show us what they are working on before the show. They put the guitars under their desk and cover them before they bring them. It’s like poker face with everyone. We have to set the level higher every year. It’s getting harder to do, but it’s a lot of fun.