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.
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.’ ”
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.”
When the guitar was finished several months later, “A friend of mine saw it and said, ‘Wow! Can you make one for me?’ ”
An entrepreneur was born but at a place and time where free enterprise was more than just technologically challenging.
“It was a crime,” he said, “it was anti-Soviet.” Still, Shishkov managed to start a lucrative business. He began surreptitiously selling his guitars for 2,000 rubles apiece -- about $100.
“That was typical annual salary then,” he said.
Go west, young man
By 1990, Shishkov knew he’d never be able to make guitars legally in the Soviet Union and decided he would need to move to the West.
“It was the time of perestroika, Gorbachev and glasnost,” he said. “Everybody was excited about changes. We saw it on TV screen. But in real life, in the city where I live, it was far from reality.”
After securing a tourist visa and having received assurances he could stay in the U.S. permanently if he could arrange to leave Russia, he and his wife, Natasha, settled in Chicago.
“I was lucky to get permission,” he said. “I think the next year, or a couple years later, they had tanks in Moscow. That was pretty much what people remember as end of perestroika.”
Shishkov’s dilemma was shared by many who lived under Communist rule. These outcasts who chafed under the state’s rigid political structure eventually helped force down the Iron Curtain .
Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards once said that “Levi Wranglers and rock ‘n’ roll . . . probably did more of the job than all those rockets.”
USC Annenberg School of Communications professor Jon Taplin, who has consulted with the U.S. State Department on cultural issues, said, “It wasn’t called ‘the Velvet Revolution’ for nothing. It didn’t end with a gunfight. It ended with people saying, ‘Enough, we want to live in a world of freedom, and by the way, that world of freedom to us is equivalent to rock music.”
Shishkov found such freedom after he and Natasha arrived in the U.S. with only their life savings of about $500 -- and a few of his guitar-making tools. He found a job with Washburn Guitars, a century-old manufacturer based in Chicago, where he worked for a decade in research and development and artist relations, turning out instruments for former Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page and Kiss’ Paul Stanley, among others. (Eldred hired him in 2000.)
“Working for Fender, the freedom to create is unlimited,” said Shishkov, who lives in Aliso Viejo with Natasha -- both became U.S. citizens -- and their two daughters.
Shishkov pulled open another drawer at his workbench and produced a box with dozens of pieces of intricately carved abalone and mother-of-pearl inlay for another guitar he’s working on. He cut all the pieces by hand, rather than using computerized inlay cutters that have become the standard.
This one isn’t for any rock star -- it’s Shishkov’s test of his own artistry. When it’s done, Eldred said, Fender will use it as one of its master-builder showpiece guitars to display at industry conventions and consumer-oriented promotional events.
“I was kind of bored, so I came up with this design,” Shishkov said, unfurling his sketch of the flowery baroque-like inlay. “I like a challenge. Some people would look and say, ‘I don’t want to deal with that.’ I tell Mike, ‘Give me more. Give me more wild ideas before I come up with my own.”