His name may only be recognizable to the most ardent of guitar collectors, but music fans around the world have benefited from his work.
Fred Lloyd Stuart, a Klamath Falls native, for decades built custom guitars for the iconic guitar brand Fender, which this month celebrates the 30th anniversary of the custom design shop Stuart helped launch.
Stuart was born into a life of music in Klamath Falls in 1947, where his father, a radio engineer, had helped establish KFLS 1450 AM the year prior, a station which bears Stuart’s initials.
His father was a big fan of swing music, his mother loved opera and classical, and throughout his childhood music was prevalent in the family home. The family relocated to the Sacramento area, but returned to Klamath County often for business.
While an ardent music fan, Stuart didn’t start playing guitar his time spent in the military during the Vietnam war. He discovered a passion for guitar repair and performance, though fame and fortune as an artist never blossomed. Soon Stuart found a career working in guitar shops in California.
One customer changed his life, mentioning to Stuart that Fender had recently relocated its factory to a facility nearby in Corona, Calif., and Stuart quickly sought employment there.
The timing was right, as Fender in 1987 had decided to launch a specialty shop to handle custom design requests, and Stuart joined a select team of designers to help cater to guitar connoisseurs. Prior to joining Fender Stuart had led a somewhat nomadic career path, but he found a home among the misfits and creative geniuses left to be somewhat autonomous in their musical mad scientist workshops.
For the next several decades, Stuart and the custom crew designed guitars specific to whatever oddball request may come their way, sometimes from world-famous artists, sometimes from doctors and lawyers who played growing up and now had the capital to afford something uniquely their own.
“It was an odd dichotomy, I knew I was going into this iconic brand, but they had started over from the ground-up,” reflected Stuart, who now operates his own custom guitar business out of his home in Riverside, Calif. “The real fan-boy moment for me came the first time in the custom shop I did the bulk of work on a guitar and got to put a Fender decal on it, I will never forget that.”
While Fender has its share of iconic designs — the first Fender Stratocaster being designed in 1954 — Stuart and the custom shop were given relatively free rein to come up with whatever design might pass the discerning eye of clientele. Whether odd paint jobs, unique pick-ups, strange shapes or vintage looks, Stuart fulfilled the tools of the trade for some of the top guitarists in the world.
There was some strange problem-solving from time to time, such as when Fender’s Japanese distributor wanted a series of custom guitars with pick-ups from a company that no longer existed that resembled lipstick tube covers.
He visited department stores trying to find the right style of lipstick, eventually matching the pick-up style perfectly with Maybellene brand lipstick, and negotiated with the corporate headquarters to get covers made that could be used for guitar pick-ups.
“I remember once we did a velvet Elvis guitar,” laughed Stuart. “We covered a Fender Telecaster in black velvet and sent it to our favorite artist to paint a portrait of Elvis on it with gold lame`. Some of the stranger requests I basically had to engineer from the ground up.”
While the musicians wielding Stuart’s instruments gained the fame or fortune he never collected himself such as G.E. Smith of Saturday Night Live band fame, Stuart’s body of work has provided a wealth of iconic music that will live on long past his days.
His guitars have been used by many famous musicians in studios and on the road, and occasionally in album artwork as well including a custom design Stuart built for Elliott Easton of The Cars which was prominently featured on the band’s greatest hits album artwork.
“I started doing it out of necessity, but it occurred to me that these instruments will probably outlive me,” said Stuart. “I have some instruments that were built in the 1920s, and the people who made them are long gone. There will be a day when I’m gone but the instruments I built will still be making music. That always motivates me, in a way people like Beethoven and Mozart are still with us because we can still hear their music.”
In celebration of the 30th anniversary of the custom shop that Stuart and others began, Fender has created a limited edition series of guitars built by each of the original custom shop designers. Limited to just 30 in total, they are being shipped out to dealers in mid-June, including a series of Fred Stuart special designs. A documentary film has also been produced by Fender profiling the custom shop’s team and their ongoing legacy of providing the tools that have shaped popular music for three decades.
While Stuart has called California home for much of his life, he keeps close ties to his original home. He has family in Eugene and Bend, and visits often, while carrying pride that the radio station that bears his initials continues to broadcast to the Klamath Basin.
These days Stuart remains active in guitar design, focusing on research and development of new guitar pick-up designs in his home shop, which may someday end up on Fender guitars.
“Fully retired means nothing to me,” joked Stuart, who while no longer a part of the Fender company continues to dabble on guitar designs daily. “If I didn’t have some reason to get up in the morning I’d be dead by now.”