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A craftsman instrumental to guitarists

One of Fender's elite guitar makers is a self-taught immigrant from the former USSR who counts pop music greats among his fans.

March 30, 2009|Randy Lewis

Within the confines of his Corona work space, guitar designer Yuriy Shishkov had transformed a plank of blond ash wood into the body of a new Fender Telecaster. Seated at his bench, where he spends hours every day creating one-of-a-kind hand-crafted instruments, he studied the nascent creation. Holes had been cut for where tone-control knobs, a five-positioning pickup selector switch, the bridge and the pickups will be mounted, and the instrument's neck, sawed and shaped from a complementary piece of bird's-eye maple, rested in a rack to his left, finely sanded but still unfinished.

Shishkov -- one of a handful of "senior master guitar builders" working at the Fender Custom Shop, the high-end division of Fender Musical Instruments -- reached into a box of 700 square pieces of mirrored glass, selecting pieces to adorn the guitar that soon will be presented to its new owner, Australian country- music superstar Keith Urban.

The musician, a longtime Fender aficionado, wants a special Telecaster for his new concert tour, which opens May 5 in Connecticut. He wants one with a top that looks like a cracked mirror, or a disco ball -- they're still shooting e-mails back and forth on the final design. Urban is after something that will split the light into hundreds of fragments that will be reflected back on his fans.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, April 01, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 1 inches; 49 words Type of Material: Correction
Guitar maker: An article in Monday's Calendar on Fender Custom Shop guitar designer Yuriy Shishkov said the body of a new Telecaster he is building for country musician Keith Urban had a hole for "a five-positioning pickup selector switch." The finished guitar will have the Telecaster's usual three-position switch.

Shishkov's passion is crafting elite, money-is-no-object instruments for some of the world's most successful, and most demanding. He's crafted instruments for blues man Buddy Guy, Journey's Neal Schon and Ernie Isley of the Isley Brothers, among others.

In the case of Urban's instrument, Shishkov is thinking beyond just achieving the mirrored effect, beyond cementing and grouting the sharp-edged pieces so they don't slice Urban's hands while he plays. He's added a strip of sparkling metal-flake veneer on the edge of the guitar body to heighten the dazzle factor.

"Even if they've got wild idea, sometimes we throw in something to make it even more wild," said Shishkov, 45, who will speak about his work at the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles tonight.

His boss, Mike Eldred, the Custom Shop's marketing director and an accomplished guitarist himself, said Shishkov's DIY approach to the art of guitar-making reflects "survivor instinct. . . . Everybody here is pretty well-rounded, but his stuff has that old-world craftsman vibe. A lot of guys don't have that."

That instinct was born in a 4-by-6-foot cinder-block root cellar beneath the city of Gomel, near Chernobyl, in the then Soviet Union, where Shishkov built his first electric guitar. He did it by hand and completely from scratch, about the same time Fender opened its Custom Shop half a world away.

"If somebody would tell me when I lived in Soviet Union, 'You're going to end up at Custom Shop building guitars for famous people,' " the gentle-voiced guitar maker said, "I guarantee I would believe more if somebody tell me, 'You will fly to space.' "

Guitar dreams

Space flight, in fact, was a more tangible part of life in the Soviet Union when Shishkov was growing up in the 1960s and '70s than anything to do with the chief instrument of that most decadent of Western cultural forms, rock music.

He loved the music of the Beatles, Led Zeppelin and other rock bands he heard over shortwave radio, soaking up rock's core message of freedom and individual expression, even when he couldn't understand the words. He started playing music at age 12, using a guitar owned by the school he attended. "After finishing school, I end up having no decent guitar. . . . One day I decided, 'You know what? I can't afford on the black market, really expensive instrument. So I have to make it myself.' And I did."

Necessity, as it so often has throughout human history, sparked innovation. From a magazine acquired on the black market, he took a slide photo of a guitar -- it was Fender's iconic Stratocaster -- projected the image on a wall so he could trace the outline and went to work.

The only electricity in his workshop powered a single overhead light bulb. There was no heat, and the cellar, about two stories underground, kept a constant temperature around 55 degrees. In the spring, he set down bricks to walk on to keep his feet from getting soaked in the frigid water that would collect on the floor.

He bartered for primitive hand tools and created others, making a chisel out of a screwdriver, a gouge from the curved handle of a stainless steel spoon. He used magnets from the door of a refrigerator for pickups, which convert the strings' vibrations into sound. To play it, he hard-wired it to a radio's speaker.

"For a bottle of vodka or wine," he said, "I could get scrap materials from furniture factory. . . . What I learned then taught my mind to work around complex issues and to think outside of the box. There was nowhere I could go and get this part or that part. If I needed something, I know I just have to come up with something."

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