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  • Writer's pictureBarış Şahin

Interview of Yuriy Shiskov from Fender Custom Shop

This interview published on Sound Magazine, TR, May 2010.

Yuriy Shiskov is one of the most talented master builders of Fender Custom Shop. He has ultimately great custom, replica, reliced and special guitars.

Hello Mr. Yuriy Shishkov. Its a great honor to make an interview with you. You are with us on Guitarism. First of all, i like to begin with general information about you. Can you please tell us about yourself and your background including from very first beginnings of guitar interest to Fender?

Its all began for me many years ago in Soviet Union. I started playing guitar at around twelve years old and for many years I had to play on very poorly made Soviet instruments. It was very bad guitars from esthetic and structural point of view. All musicians were suffering from the same problem… unless you had a lot of money to buy a “real” Western or Japan made guitar on a black market. For me it was not an option and in 1986 I decided to make my first electric guitar.

Without any power tools, real materials and parts I made my guitar which was inspired by popular electric guitars of the time. It was a complete success. As soon as my friends saw my creation I instantly got “orders” to make guitars for them and other musicians. I set up a small “shop” in a root cellar in our apartment building and started a true “underground” production. Everything was made by hand without any power tools – bodies, necks, hardware, pickups and other parts.

It continued until 1990 when I moved to USA. Shortly after arriving to America I got a job at Washburn Guitars in Illinois. For almost ten years I was involved in making guitars for artists, Trade shows, prototype instruments and restorations.

My knowledge at that time about Fender was limited to the facts that it was a legendary brand, very popular among all styles of musicians and... it was a guitar. My “horizon” of knowledge in Fender Guitars was exploded in year 2000 when I learned that Fender Custom Shop is looking for a new Master Builder. I got in contact with Mike Eldred and he invited me to visit Corona and see what’s Fender truly is. He gave me a tour through the factory and the Custom Shop and my impression was overwhelming. It was a life changing experience, especially when Mike offered me a job to be one of the Master Builders.

What’s the story behind that you became a luthier? Did you have any academicals education about this?

I don’t have any “academic” education in guitar making. There were not any “Guitar making” schools or classes in USSR. In fact there were no any classes that would allow you after you graduate to do any trade at home without government control. Remember, it was a communist society and private enterprise was prohibited and punished by law.

The knowledge in tools and craft came from a hard Soviet life that everybody had at that time including children. Often, in order to play with toys, first - kids had to make the toys themselves. Using kitchen knives we made boats so we could play with them later and the wood craftsmanship was learned “on the street”. Soviet schools however, gave us some knowledge in tools so most of us would be ready for a “fight for Communism” at the Soviet factories after the school graduation.

What are your favorite guitars from all of them that you are most proud to make & why?

It is very difficult to pick one from all I have built. They are so different from its construction or a “sentimental” point of view. I made guitars which were extremely complex and guitars that had more “importance” factor in them than I can express. You can almost break them down in to categories by those natures. Guitar for a “special person” has a different type of value than guitar I made with gold, diamonds and precious stones. Many of them I can be proud of or pick some as my favorite, but at the end there will be only one which truly changed my life and determined my destiny. Its my first guitar that I made in USSR. Without that instrument I would never became a guitar builder and have the life I have right now.

Who are your most favorite musicians?

I think I am very “diverse” music enthusiast. I can easily listen wide range of music styles. Often it depends on what am I doing - working on the projects or playing vinyl records at home. I can listen Bach and Iron Maiden and after that go to Jazz or Koto Japanese music. I can listen Yes and ABBA and always liked Led Zeppelin. Like for many other people its also depends on the mood, but I love all good music regardless of its kind.

Who are your most favorite luthiers?

Making guitars in Russia gave me the ultimate understanding of woodworking hand tools. Despite only having limited and primitive tools compare to the Western world it was the same woodworking techniques and rules that I learned and polished it in my “root cellar”. Unfortunately, I had no deep knowledge in complex guitar constructions, its tonal and wood differential properties. All this information was off-limits in USSR. After arriving to United States I was desperately gathering all available data about Guitar Making from every source I could. I joined “Guild of American Luthiers” and ASIA (Association of String Instruments Artisans). However the big change in guitar making philosophy for me was when my interests in complex guitar constructions lead me into the world of Arch top Jazz guitars. I started making these magnificent instruments and my source of inspiration was Jimmy D’Aquisto. I studied as much as I could about his vision and concepts in Arch top guitar design and found him to be a true “Stradivarius” of guitar making of our time. While the Jazz guitars are profoundly different from solid body electric guitars, the craftsmanship and discipline I learned from it has no boundaries and applies to any type of making guitars.

What kind of woods do you use for guitars?

In most cases it’s the wood that our customers prefer. The “standard” material for an electric guitar would be Alder or Ash body. For a neck its Maple. When it comes to Custom guitars than this spectrum becomes almost infinite. All kind of exotic material goes into work: Flame Koa, Bubinga, all sorts of burl-like material Redwood or Claro Walnut, Zibra and Tomo-Ash. The limits are only structural properties and compatibility of wood for guitar making. …and our imagination. This is what we do all the time at the Custom Shop.

What was your toughest guitar project?

Without “tough” projects my job would not be interesting. I would not call them “tough” however. I would call them may be “complex” projects. What’s actually are tough is not the projects itself, but something not associated with guitar building (like deadlines etc).

Like any other craftsman I did face the “complex” and “tough” projects in my guitar making career. Every time I am working with these kind of challenges - it’s a part of my job. And its not bad – its actually good. You always get something positive out of it. You learn something new and expanding your expertise in different fields.

Fortunately most of these projects are very interesting and unusual. Last year, for example, Mike Eldred asked me if I can make guitar for Keith Urban that would be covered with broken mirrors. That guitar was “complex” … and “tough”. At the end it was one of the most interesting guitars I made at Fender. It gave me a lot of material to think about, like its “special” complicated construction as well as its whole unusual concept. And that’s why I love my job.

In tone and sound-wise, what are the most critical parameters about an electric guitar?

If I could answer this question in a simple way, I would be very lucky. Unfortunately there are so many sound changing “ingredients” coming into play in this case. It will be impossible to name only one… or even two.

You have to consider what kind of wood you have for a body, than you have to chose the pickups. Same kind of pickups will sound totally different for example on Ash than on Alder. If you start “playing” with fingerboard, bridge and finish changing, it will also bring different characters to a sound mixture. And do not forget the tone preference factor which can be totally different between different musicians. While you think that the “good” tone in guitar should sound “like this”, I can have totally opposite opinion about that.

We do not know how exactly guitar will sound when it will be finished, however we can predict the tonal range (“warm”, “thin” etc) based on material and guitar components factor. There is no single “critical parameter” that controls the tone of your guitar. Again – it’s a mixture of different “ingredients”.

Have you ever had a project about using a wood (or other materials) which is not common, like seeing an oak log somewhere and say yourself “hey, i may give a try with it”?

When it comes to wood, we use all kind of species from “plain” to “exotic”. As I mentioned before there are pretty much no limits to what can be used for guitar building.

In case of “other materials” there is always a room for it. However, in my projects I like to use it only for inlay work. Many different metals and natural minerals have been applied for my inlay projects. When it comes to using something different than wood for a guitar itself - I am very conservative about that. I see wood as the most beautiful and time tested traditional material for guitar making and while there are always plenty of experimental projects, I would never made guitar out of something like marble or copper.

Looking at the old log of a tree on the street and dreaming of making a masterpiece guitar out of it sounds romantic, but in real life it is not a professional approach to guitar making. Chances of discovering a beautiful wood on the street today are very slim … We use only trusted and professional wood suppliers.

Do you have specific approaches for guitar designing and making?

Every guitar maker has a different approach and inspirations to his projects. In my case, I often get inspired by an old armory maker’s craftsmanship. If you look at antique decorated arms, you will see how the gun craftsmanship was taken to a very high artistic level. It was done on the objects that had very little to do with “poetic” or “art related” nature. It was done on weapons that was used in some cases for hunting…. in most cases - to go into a battle. However, the old Gunsmith artisans gave these arms a different purpose and a new reason to be owned besides for shooting at the target.

When all technical and functional parts of the arms construction reached its limit in quality and precision, the gun makers started decorating rifles with intricate and complex inlay work and embellishments. It was a logical progression for a fine craftsmanship growth. It was a statement about the high skill and precision.

I often use the same approach when making my guitars. Guitars, however, is a more “romantic” product of human hands than a rifle and I love to decorate my instruments with inlay and other types of artwork. Taking the musical instrument to a different art-like level is very exiting job. I love to do it!

What are your advices to anyone wants to be a luthier or interests in luthiership?

When I was working on one of my first guitars in USSR, I was making the body on the floor. I made a mistake by placing a soft blanket on the tile floor while chiseling-out the body’s pocket. Unfortunately the soft blanket gave my guitar a bad support. The bottom of the pocket collapsed under the blow of the chisel. It was a real disaster. It happened after many days of hard work making the body using only primitive hand tools. So much of my labor now was wasted as well as the body itself. It was my worst nightmare and I was at the edge of giving up on my project. I could not accept the fact that I had to make a new guitar body again. It was a true test of my will and dedication. I came to a realization however, that it was a good lesson and I can start again and finish my guitar. All I had to do is learn from my mistake and be ready to overcome any other challenges. And I did. I finished my guitar and I never stopped before any problem or gave up on any of my projects regardless of how difficult they were. This is what I would advice to anybody who wants to become a true guitar maker: Never give up! Be dedicated and be creative!

Thank you.

Yuriy Shishkov

Baris SAHIN, 2010

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