Meet the Master Luthier Who Turned the Hollywood Bowl's Bench Seats Into Guitars
If you attended a Hollywood Bowl concert between 1981 and 2013, the bench you sat on might now be part of a high-end Fender guitar. Your spilt beer, sweat and even tears from that fondly remembered Madonna, Morrissey or Radiohead show may lurk deep within the pores of a $12,000 Front Row Legend Esquire, the bodies of which are built from wooden bench seats removed from the storied venue in 2014.
“That natural sunlight, the rain and the wind … it just makes it, obviously, look kind of old,” says Yuriy Shishkov, a celebrated master builder at Fender’s Custom Shop in Corona, cradling one of the Alaskan yellow cedar "blanks" sawn from the Bowl benches. “But inside, if you look at this piece, it looks like it just was cut yesterday — but this is about 100 years old!”
In his early 50s, with silvering hair and moustache, Shishkov’s Mister Geppetto air is completed by half-moon glasses, tidy apron and hypnotic Old World accent. The Front Row Legend Esquire is the latest in a long line of imaginative creations from this self-taught luthier, who began building guitars from salvaged parts back in his native Belarus, then part of the Soviet Union, in 1986. His early efforts were, literally and figuratively, underground creations, cobbled together from castoff timber and cannibalized headphones and transformers in a tiny root cellar beneath his apartment building in a closed-market, communist U.S.S.R. that frowned upon such entrepreneurship.
“In U.S.S.R., rock & roll itself technically didn’t exist, so obviously there was no need for musical instruments of that kind,” Shishkov explains, perched on a stool in his modest, tool-laden workspace inside the Custom Shop — the revered, special-order inner sanctum of Fender’s substantial headquarters in a business park near the 91 freeway. “[The electric guitar] was a symbol of freedom.”
Faced with choosing between a famously shoddy, Soviet-made Ural or Tonika brand guitar, or somehow finding a small fortune for a black-market import model, the young Shishkov opted to have a go himself. Using only hand tools and starting, ironically, with an attempt to copy the Fender Stratocaster, he successfully made (and illegally sold) a string of such improvised instruments, before emigrating to the United States in 1990. Stateside, he first worked at Washburn Guitars in Chicago before landing his dream job at Fender in 2000.
Shishkov has since built one-off instruments for the likes of Jimmy Page, Paul Stanley, Dimebag Darrell and Robin Zander. An entirely gold flake–encrusted Fender Stratocaster commissioned by Prince and a "shattered mirror" Telecaster made for Australian country music star Keith Urban helped fuel his reputation for tackling challenging, boundary-pushing builds.
Affable and quietly focused, Shishkov is an endlessly inquisitive craftsman, a product of both the true hand-building of his youth and the contemporary digital lutherie required to achieve the millimeter-specific dimensions that help define the distinctive (and often trademarked) look, feel and sound of Fender instruments.
The bodies and necks at the heart of Shishkov’s creations are cut and shaped by machine, to time-honed Fender specs, before he individualizes each with elaborate finishes, inlays, hardware — often “reliced” with a closely guarded proprietary process to give an aged appearance — and sheer artistic flair. Custom Shop creations may feature hand-wound pickups, exotic woods (such as claro walnut, koa and zebrawood) and ambitious, individualized paint jobs.
Shishkov’s compact Custom Shop cubicle belies his near-legendary status in the boutique guitar world. A throwback wooden tool chest juxtaposes with an utterly modern CNC ("computer numerical control") wood router. Snapshots of him with Led Zeppelin guitar-slinger Page and of Urban’s light-refracting Telecaster are outnumbered by framed family photos.
A rack of guitars in various states of completion is evidence of Shishkov’s daily multitasking, while a slender safe speaks of his love for precious materials. He’s incorporated sapphires, pearls and hand-engraved gold and silver into his never-before-seen concepts, even painstakingly inlaying 1,000 diamonds into the one-of-a-kind Fender Studioliner guitar he built for the 2017 NAMM trade show.
A Fender Front Row Legend Esquire guitar, made from reclaimed wood from the Hollywood Bowl's old bench seats
The Front Row Legend Esquire continues in this inspired, meticulous tradition, with each model bearing a different original “seat number,” oxidized brass hardware and an original-spec Broadcaster bridge pickup. Crafted from eight separate pieces of Hollywood Bowl seating, the faces of the Front Row’s body retain the old benches’ weathered patina, cracks and bolt holes, preserved and made playable with two coats of ultra-thin satin finish. As a conventional cutting tool might leave a ragged edge around such an uneven surface, Shishkov used a step cutter to shape a delicate, 90-degree step around the body.
“It creates the illusion of a laminated top,” Shishkov explains. “But, in reality, it’s just one piece.”
As well as the Front Row Legend Esquire, Fender is marking the 30th anniversary of its Custom Shop with a second limited-quantity Shishkov brainchild, the Pacific Battle Tele and Strat (as well as seven other limited-edition Stratocaster and Telecaster models). Continuing a theme of historic salvaged materials, the $8,800 Pacific Battle guitars — of which there will be just six Strats and five Teles — feature aluminum cut from the fuselage of a B-25 Mitchell warplane as pickguards.
“It was perfect timing, too, because this year it was the 75th anniversary of the Doolittle Raid — one of the really famous and historical events of World War II,” says Shishkov, referring to the 1942 U.S. air raid on Tokyo, which was conducted by 16 B-25s.
Accordingly, each Pacific Battle body is stained in a military-ish deep transparent green and decorated with stenciled white numbering corresponding to actual Doolittle Raid aircraft. Tarnished brass hardware furthers its “war-torn” appearance, and each instrument comes with a small model B-25 autographed by the last surviving “Doolittle Raider,” Richard Cole.
“There is not a single place on Earth that would have such a power and knowledge to create pretty much anything you want,” Shishkov says, mulling the Custom Shop’s three decades of experience. “There’s no limit to what we can deliver. If you can dream it, we can make it.”
To learn more about the Front Row Legend Esquire and other Fender Custom Shop guitars, visit fendercustomshop.com.
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