Gene Baker was a Master Builder at the Fender Custom Shop between 1993 and 1999. Following a stint as Chief Engineer/Master Builder for Premier Builders Guild, in recent years his focus has returned to his b3 Guitars brand. Chris Vinnicombe finds out what Baker has brought to the Custom Shop’s 30th birthday party.
When Fender announced the 2017 Founders Design Project, of all eight limited edition instruments on offer it was Gene Baker’s artful mash-up of Strat and Telecaster that really set our pulses racing. Resplendent in a wide-fade Chocolate 3-Tone Sunburst Relic finish and featuring a sumptuous 10/56 V neck profile, plugging in doesn’t disappoint – in fact it’s an absolute tone monster with a tangible Blackguard vibe down at the bridge and fat, woody Strat neck pickup tones.
Position two provides a stark contrast to the usual hollowed-out Strat sounds, as the hand-wound Custom Shop pickups combine for some serious 60s power pop jangle and plenty more besides. We caught up with Gene Baker to find out more…
Q. Your work at Fender and beyond has exhibited a love of hybrid designs. When did you first start combining influences from more than one model and what do you think makes for a successful blend?
“I first started combining designs way back when I was 10th grade when I created my first unique design and basically continued from there. I feel there always has to be some sort of mental visual connection that makes shapes look familiar enough in order to be accepted within the first few seconds of a viewer’s perception. For me its always required a series of flowing complementary arcs and lines that also have to equally balance into form, fit and function.”
Q. What were the main challenges when combining a Tele and a Strat?
“In one response I could say there was no challenge combining them. Leo did it right from the beginning on both models, but in the same breath sometimes it’s just a matter of knowing where to start and where to end to get the most from the model. But the true challenge, I think, was to balance enough of both the Tele and the Strat to make it look almost normal to the point of requiring a double take – to look at it to go, ‘Oh wow, now that’s cool!’”
Q. The stepped headstock is particularly ingenious. How did that come about?
“I cannot take credit for that as Mike Bump – who is currently head of the R&D Model Shop – created that way back in our early Custom Shop years. From what I remember, he originally used a later big peghead Strat with the Tele inside, where I choose the 50s era for the headstocks. I just thought it was so cool that it needed to come to life more than once, as Mike had shown a one-off at NAMM 1993 or 1994, if I remember correctly, with more of a Tele-like body with light Strat attributes.
“Sometimes I think it’s the sum of all details that clearly rings a viewer’s bell and it reverberates as, ‘That’s it!’ I wanted something that looked like it really could have been built in the 50s without making it look modern.”
Q. What were the highlights of your career at Fender?
“You could say every single day was a highlight just working and mixing with that crew, as we had a strong core of very talented builders, people that were all very inspired to push the envelope raising the bar to a higher level of quality and shared their experiences.
“As John Page put it, ‘We are the Marines, we have to do it better.’ To pinpoint specific highlights, the Robben Ford Signature model – which was a completely hand-made guitar at the time with zero CNC support – that was considered a Master Apprentice level position.
“Then being pulled up in rank via John Page and JW Black, dubbed a Master Builder, and then Senior Master Builder at such a young age was an honour [Baker was at Fender between the ages of 27 and 33]. The Contemporary Carve Top Strat holds a special place in my heart, as well as the John Jorgenson Hellecaster signature model, the ‘Bird of Fire’ that debuted in the Steve Pitkin Custom Shop book and a handful of one-offs built for some special customers and NAMM Show display.
“There’s a lot of great memories during a very influential period of my career. Most memories are of the people we worked with daily just as much as it was about the guitars produced, [it was] a very fun half-crazed, dysfunctional kind of family.”
Visit www.fendercustomshop.com for more on the Founders Design Project.