When it comes to customizing guitars, John Cruz has heard it all.
In 30 years at the Fender Custom Shop, the senior master builder has built glossy collector models with luxurious custom finishes, turned hundreds of new guitars into well-worn replicas of famous instruments. But it’s the one-off custom models that challenge him.
“There’s a lot of things that people have done here that it’s like, wow, I can’t believe somebody would ask for something like that, but the customer gets what they want most of the time.”
He’s built extra-light guitars for players facing long sets with back trouble. Gold frets? Gold magnets on the pickups? That’s easy. He’s even infused guitar cases with the smell of whiskey and cigarette smoke to give add a been-to-a-thousand-gigs vibe.
“We’ll stretch the boundaries to fulfill their dream guitar,” he says.
Cruz’s passion for guitars extends to playing as well as building. He had no formal training, but was inspired by the guitar gods of his youth. His connection to the guitar, he says, is spiritual.
“There was a time where I actually stopped playing guitar for a couple years. My wife saw me going in kind of a downward spiral and said, ‘You look depressed. You need to start playing again,’” he says with a laugh. “I love to just pick it up when I can and create music.”
Sometimes Cruz and the other master builders at the Custom Shop compete to see who can come up with the most beautiful for a “Masterbuilt” model. At other times, they’re enlisted to create “relic” replica guitars. Cruz’s resume includes a Stevie Ray Vaughan replica Stratocaster series and, most recently, a series re-creating one of his heroes’ guitars: the 1961 Fiesta Red Stratocaster played by Irish rock and blues guitarist Gary Moore.
Moore was also self-taught, and he was a role model for Cruz. “He pretty much changed my life,” says Cruz. The Gary Moore replica, he says, is “my ultimate tribute to Gary.”
“To share that with the world and fans like myself, I think it’s a big deal.” With the end of the production run in sight, he says “It’s an emotional time for me. But I know that there’s a lot of happy people out there that are enjoying these guitars.”