Alpine custom guitar maker honored by Fender
By JOHN DANIEL GARCIA
ALPINE – In 1987, the Fender Guitars Custom Shop – also known as The Dream Factory – opened its doors in Corona, California with Alpine luthier Michael Stevens co-founding and heading the design engineering team.
Thirty years later, Stevens – along with the other seven original designers – has been honored by Fender as a Master Builder with a special limited edition guitar built to his specifications.
The guitar, a Fender Esquire built from a solid piece of sassafras wood with a backwards cavity switch and left-handed bridge pickup, was designed, Stevens said, as an homage to the first-ever guitar built at the custom shop, which he designed.
Fender Custom Shop #001, he explained, is a double-neck guitar with the top half emulating the iconic Fender Stratocaster and the bottom half giving the guitar the Esquire cutaway.
For the 30th anniversary edition, Stevens stuck with a blonde finish and gold hardware, both of which are adorned with the original Fender Custom Shop badge on the pickup cover.
Though the guitar looks like just any Fender, he said, the electronics are what makes his guitar unique.
“You look at it, it’s an Esquire,” he said of the classic design. “I didn’t want to come out and make a B.C. Rich Bitch. What makes my guitars differ, really, is what’s under the hood.”
An old guitar of his, he said, was recently acquired by a friend in New York City, who called to ask how he could reroute the pickups, which Stevens advised against.
“At my request, he decided to not mess with the routing. I told him I try to make it as impossible as I can for people to f*** with it,” he said with a laugh.
Though the guitar has yet to be shipped – with a March date for completion – all 30 of the limited run have already sold out, each piece coming with a $5,500 price tag.
The first of the limited run, he added, has been sold to the owner of the 1987 double-neck #001.
“I guess he kind of owns the bookends of my Fender work,” Stevens said and declining to identify the buyer.
For Stevens, the collaboration following his 1990 departure from The Dream Factory – during which time he moved to Alpine – comes after a decade of discussions.
“I tried to talk to them (Fender) about 10 years ago. I mean, how many guys from the original Gibson Custom Shop are still around making guitars and have their own company? I guess (Fender executive Richard McDonald) figured it was a good idea,” he said.
Though Stevens began working on guitars in the late 1960s after working in the drilling of Bay Area Rapid Transit tunnels, Stevens began woodworking as a teenaged high school student.
“I just kind of fell into it,” he said of his career working with wood. “I was pretty hot in mechanical drawing in high school. I’m also a farm boy, so I had been mending and building fences since I was 12.”
His inherent talent in woodworking, he said, led to a job assisting his high school shop teacher while he himself was still enrolled.
After high school, Stevens found himself bouncing from college to college, ultimately winding up at the University of California at Berkeley, where he immersed himself in the music that would become legendary.
“I got to see (Bob) Dylan get booed off the stage when got up there with an electric guitar,” he said.
It was also during this period when Stevens chipped his Martin D-28 acoustic guitar, landing him at Larry Jameson’s Guitar Resurrection.
“Larry and I hit off, and when the BART work started slowing down, I went into just doing guitars,” he said of the beginning of his luthier work, repairing and customizing instruments for legendary musicians from bands such as Creedence Clearwater Revival and Commander Cody. “I had a handful of work to do.”
Stevens would later reunite with Jameson in Austin in 1978 following a brief stint as an Arabian horse trainer before opening his own Austin shop.
In 1986, while Stevens was playing with the famed Austin Lounge Lizards (for whom Stevens wrote their hit song, Saguero), he was called to California to work for Fender.
“It was like, a real job and they offered me actual money,” he laughed. “We put together a great team with a crazy bunch of guys.”
During his tenure with the Fender Custom Shop, Stevens built guitars for such greats like Ray Price, George Strait, and Eric Clapton.
“When I was building a prototype for Clapton, they brought Blackie (Clapton’s iconic Fender Stratocaster) to me to copy the neck,” he said of a memorable build. “I kept that locked up in my office and slept with it under my bed with my .357 in my hand at all times.”
The prototype, Stevens said, was later sold at a Christie’s auction for around $100,000.
Stevens is possibly most famous for the creation of the guit-steel, a guitar/lap steel hybrid, created for country/western shredder Junior Brown.
Though “Old Yeller,” the original guit-steel, was built in Austin in 1985, Brown’s second guit-steel, Red, was built in Alpine in 1995, with a third one coming around soon.
Though Stevens’ output had been hindered for two years as he cared for his late wife, Alice, his schedule is still full.
“The last couple of years were rough,” he said. “I didn’t get much done, but the people who ordered my guitars have been really patient and understanding. Some have been on a four-year waiting list.”
As for his relationship with Fender, the luthier doesn’t see an end to it.
“Richard (McDonald) said they’d call us back soon,” he said. “I mean, if it stops here, I’m plenty happy, but if they come up with a new concept, I’ll be there. But for now, I’m just gonna get my stuff out the door.”
Michael Stevens’ guitars, mandolins, and guit-steels can be seen on his website at www.stevensguitars.com.