2017 marks the 30th anniversary of Fender Custom Shop, a special-order division of Fender Musical Instruments Corporation. Since its foundation in 1987, the Custom Shop has developed limited edition models with guitar legends such as Eric Clapton, David Gilmour from Pink Floyd and even helped Kurt Cobain with designing his famous Jaguar-Mustang hybrid, the “Jag-stang.” To celebrate the anniversary, the custom shop has brought together the original eight master builders to build their dream guitars.
Among these master builders is Gene Baker, who has recently moved to the Triad area to join forces with the Greensboro-based Roscoe Guitars. For the anniversary collection, Baker designed a unique Stratocaster-telecaster hybrid, nicknamed the “Stelecaster,” with a limited run of 30 units.
“The intent was to create something that is so reminiscent that one would think Leo Fender built it in the ‘50s/‘60s – literally a Strat and Tele near split in half and married at the centerline,” Baker said. The lower half of the body features a typical Telecaster cut for comfort in the player’s lap, while the top half has the typical Stratocaster arm contours for ease and playability. Even the headstock contains a thin Telecaster design overlaid above the wider Stratocaster design.
Baker recognized that his inspiration for the design came from Mike Bump.
“Mike Bump, who is still a Fender employee…. He had been messing around with a Strat-Tele hybrid which always intrigued me, and it took many years later when I was working as b3 Guitars to revisit the idea,” Baker said.
Baker began his woodworking journey at his Junior High School in the Detroit suburbs.
“Our woodshop teacher was very supportive of letting us build anything we wanted, as long as we finished our assigned curriculum projects first,” Baker said. “I would basically reverse engineer how to build an electric guitar by tearing apart other guitars, recycling its hardware or hanging out at a local music store… not being able to afford that Fender Stratocaster or Gibson Les Paul in local shops made me want to learn how to build them.”
Even after moving onto high school, Baker kept coming back to this woodshop, as it was the only place he could continue building his guitars.
“My first guitar was loosely based off of a Gibson SG, which I later smashed on a Halloween night dressed up as Ace Frehley of KISS. It did not play very well,” Baker said.
In his late teens, Baker moved to Los Angeles to play in garage bands and study at the Guitar Institute of Technology. Upon graduation, Baker began working at Gibson as an apprentice to Roger Giffin. In 1993, Fender Custom Shop hired Baker, where he worked his way up to becoming a Senior Master Builder.
“At Fender, there was such a larger work pool of gifted people,” Baker said. “I felt like I excelled on a daily basis.”
Gene Baker eventually left Fender to start his own company, Baker Guitars USA. In 2003, the company went out of business, but he soon started a new brand, b3 Guitars. On top of this, Baker served as a master builder for Premier Builders Guild from 2009 through 2015.
“Being an owner has its rewards as you make the final call on anything related to the business, but it also comes with countless hours that go far beyond the normal workday.”
Baker sees himself as flexible to his business approaches. “[I] don’t have to be the captain of the team and can also be a very good team player,” Baker said.
Over the course of his career, Baker has dozens of notable customers including guitar legends, Lenny Kravitz, Joe Satriani and Joe Perry. On a few occasions, Eric Clapton has hired Baker to do restoration work on a few of his guitars.
When it comes to his process, Baker said that “no one guitar is perfect, as different music and styles often require a very specific instrument that fits the tonal charter required… a guitar often directly influences an attitude, tone or visual perception of the artist.”
Recently, b3 Guitars has partnered with Greensboro’s Roscoe Guitars, and Baker made the move to the nearby town of Jamestown. “North Carolina is simply beautiful,” Baker said.
He is impressed with the local music scene, which he has enjoyed playing in, finding that “it directly fuels [his] passion for building guitars.” One can hope that our great state had a bit of influence on the beautiful Stelecaster design.