I’ve never seriously considered a Fender Custom Shop guitar before, I always thought it was a way to get your dream instrument or something a bit crazy looking, like a Tele finished in a beautiful Welsh flag! Even though that’s totally possible, I wouldn’t recommend it as it’d be ugly.
Custom Shop instruments are a lot more than that. There’s a particular attention to detail that you just don’t get from standard line instruments. The woods used are all hand picked for their resonant qualities, the finish ageing can be customised to your requirements — which in turn, affects the way the instrument feels, the pickups and wiring can be customised, amongst hoard of many other options. But at a basic level, the attention to detail and quality of workmanship is generally of a higher standard.
A Strat was never my “dream instrument”
If a guitarist chooses to go custom, they typically tend to order their dream instrument. For me, that’s always been a Les Paul, not a Strat, so I’ve never considered ordering a Custom Shop Strat. However, over the years I’ve learned that the Stratocaster is one guitar I couldn’t live without, but finding the right one for me has always been a bit of a chore.
The Strats that came and went
I started with a USA built Candy Apple Red ’57 vintage Reissue back in 2013 and I loved the beautiful maple board but never gelled with the pickups or the 7.25" fretboard radius, notes choked out and the frets felt quite small.
In 2017 I satisfied my curiosity for the “perfect Strat” and bought a beautiful Suhr Classic Pro, which many regard as one of the best in terms of consistency and quality. It had stainless steel medium jumbo frets and a compound radius fretboard which never choked out. The 2-point bridge was superb and it rarely went out of tune. It also had Suhr’s silent pickup system (SSCII) and a trio of V70 vintage pickups which oozed Hendrix and were great with high gain, just as I needed.
The issue with the Suhr was not just the lack of authenticity, which rarely bothered me unless I was staring at a Fender headstock, but also the tone. It didn’t sound like my old Strat. I don’t know if it was the pickups, the immaculate build quality or the silent system, but it sounded too bold even though notes bloomed beautifully. It was almost too perfect and really lacked the subtleties that I liked about my old Fender.
I used my old Strat every day and often wondered why I rarely picked up the Suhr even half as much. I didn’t have the same love for that guitar and didn’t love it as much as I did my Fender — it’s very a personal and often subjective thing.
So, I set about finding the perfect Fender Strat for my needs. I knew I wanted a Lake Placid Blue guitar. I liked a 9.5" fretboard radius, that was the main thing for me. I liked the medium jumbo frets on the Suhr and I knew I wanted pickups that would stay tight and growl for high gain in the bridge position, but be sweet and bluesy in the neck. But most of all, I needed it to sound like a traditional Strat.
The difficulty, of course, is that we all have a very specific set of requirements for our dream instrument and no matter what it looks like on paper, there’s no substitute for actually playing an instrument before you buy it, to see if it’s what you dreamed of.
Standard or Custom?
I had tried a few Custom Shop Strats and although initially it didn’t click, I tried one which was absolutely out of this world in terms of playability and sound. So I put a question out to the UK’s fretboard forum, asking “can you make a less expensive Strat feel/play/sound as good as a Custom Shop?”
Initially, the response was mixed, but the crux of the argument was that Custom Shop guitars have something about them that really set them apart, and that’s mainly down to the resonance of the wood chosen/used and the shape, feel and ergonomics of the neck. Things that are you’re unlikely to find on a standard model, and are unlikely to get on a guitar without going custom, whether that be through an independent builder or through the Fender Custom Shop.
I think it was generally accepted that the pickups could be loaded into any guitar and the desired tone could be achievable on less expensive guitars. But I had already made my mind up, I knew Custom Shop would be the way to go, not least because my requirements were by and large not available on standard line guitars.
Off the shelf
My next question was answered in that thread, should I order a bespoke guitar or should I go with what I felt was a good example of a Custom Shop guitar off the shelf and readily available in the UK? Nobody could make that decision for me, but I was given examples of where people had spent a lot of money ordering their dream guitar only to find that they played their American Standard more.
So it was plainly obvious that it would be a sensible thing to find a reputable dealer who had placed an order with the right specs and go and try the guitar out first.
As I mentioned earlier, I played a Custom Shop Strat that really resonated with me like none of the others. It was in World Guitars in Stonehouse, Gloucester. They had a batch of Strats that were all ordered with identical specs with different finishes. The takeaway from that is that they knew exactly what worked on a Strat, and they took great pride in telling me so. I respected that,. I know a lot of it is marketing spiel, but who was I to argue when the spec worked for me when I tried it.
Relic or not, here I come…
Perhaps the biggest choice of the whole thing, was what type of aged finish would I prefer? I always gravitated toward a brand new finish and my heart always skipped a beat when I got dings in those beautifully clean guitars. So I considered what it was I was buying. The neck screamed 60’s to me, the colour was vintage too, so why would I want it to look new? I was informed that a very large percentage of Custom Shop orders are for relic finishes and ‘NOS’ or ‘Closet Classic’ are rarely ordered as much as something a bit road worn. Maybe I should consider going for a more aged looking guitar.
I tried two Lake Placid Blue Strats, a ‘Relic’ and a ‘Journeyman Relic’, they were identical. The neck wasn’t more worn on the ‘Relic’, looks like you need a ‘Heavy Relic’ for that. But I was in love, the neck was perfectly playable for my tastes and felt gorgeous and worn in. I am totally sold on the ‘Journeyman Relic’ and really love that I don’t have to worry about dings on this one.
The ‘Journeyman Relic’ is meant to look like an old guitar that has been road worn and used, but looked after and not battered to death. Tasteful and true to what you’d imagine a classic guitar to look like, not over done. I was told that it’s one of the most popular choices of ageing on Custom Shop guitars.
I have changed my stance a lot on relic’s, even my mother commented saying that it wasn’t like me to buy something that didn’t look new. I couldn’t be happier with it though!
I got it home and those subtleties I liked about my old Strat were there. The sweetness of playing a double stop high on the G and B strings and how the notes just blended perfectly. There was a tasteful chime rather than the bell like blocky texture of the Suhr.
The pickups were perfect for blues and rock — Hendrix, Clapton and Gilmour, my favourites. The Texas Special in the bridge maintains that perfect Strat sound, inspired by Stevie Ray Vaughan, but is hot enough to sound dynamic and richly harmonic when played with high gain pedals such as the Big Muff or a Tube Driver style pedal for the big Gilmour solos which I like to play occasionally.
It looks stunning. Enough said…
Lastly, it’s a dream to play. Sounds incredible and the bridge is ergonomic and playable. Right now, I can’t wait to get home to play it, and that in itself is testament to how nice the guitar is, considering how little I wanted to play the Suhr. The Suhr never inspired me to write music, my new Fender inspires me to play and I’ve already written and recorded a few ideas with it. To me, that makes it worth it’s weight in gold.
- Colour: Lake Placid Blue
- Finish: Journeyman Relic
- Body: Alder
- Number of Frets: 21 Medium Jumbo
- Scale FLength: 25.5"
- Fretboard Wood: AAA Dark Rosewood
- Fretboard Inlays: Dots
- Radius: 9.5"
- Neck Wood: Maple
- Neck Shape: Mid 60’s Oval C
- Bridge Hardware: Vintage Tremolo
- Pickguard: Mint Green
- Bass Pickup: 69 Strat
- Middle Pickup: Fat 50's
- Treble Pickup: Texas Special
- Pickup Switching: 5 Way Blade
- Weight: 7lb 11oz
- Case, Strap and Certificate of Authenticity