Yuriy Shishkov, 54, is a Fender Guitar master builder.
Where did you learn how to build guitars?
In my hometown, Gomel, Belarus, when it was still part of the former U.S.S.R. The government had banned rock ’n’ roll, to play or listen to it. But we could hear it on shortwave radio. I fell in love with rock by age 12, and wanted to play guitar so bad.
But you could only buy professional guitars made in the West through the black market for the equivalent of four years of salary. The government allowed some to be made, but they were so bad that now they are sold as examples of terrible instruments. So I taught myself out of necessity.
How did you learn to make them?
I loved Ritchie Blackmore, the guitarist for Deep Purple. I had a picture of him with a Fender Stratocaster. I blew up the image, traced it to paper and measured it all to scale. That’s how I replicated the perimeter design.
Then I figured out the electrical parts. That was not so hard: Most kids in the U.S.S.R. then did not have toys, so we all were pretty good at making our own. Soon I started making guitars for other people, all underground — literally underground, from the root cellar of our house.
How did you end up in the United States? And what did you do when you got here?
I left Belarus in 1990, when I was 26. Fortunately, it was during the glasnost period of open reform under Mikhail Gorbachev. The door was slightly open, so leaving was not as difficult as during the Cold War.
I went first to Chicago, where I had no family or friends. I spoke no English. The only thing I knew was how to make guitars, so I applied at Washburn, a guitar company. My resume was a few black-and-white photos of guitars I’d made back home. One new Russian friend served as my translator for my interview.
They hired me as a guitar technical, meaning I tuned guitars. After a while, they realized I could do more than tune guitars, so they made me a luthier. I stayed there 10 years, until I heard about the job at Fender.
What is the latest Fender guitar you’ve introduced?
I made one that’s now in production called Front Row Legend Esquire. It’s made from some of the salvageable planks of 96-year-old Alaskan yellow cedar from benches at the Hollywood Bowl when the venue was renovated in 2014. The wood is particularly resistant to insects.
The numbers on the front are the actual seat numbers, and the holes are for bolts that held the benches down. So the guitar — which as a bench used to be spectator to performers at the Bowl like Paul Robeson, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix and so many others — now is a performer itself. It retails for $12,000.
You made a guitar that fulfilled a dream. What are the details?
It’s actually a bizarre story of cosmic coincidence. I once had a literal dream of making a guitar completely covered with gold leaf, from top to bottom and all its parts. But the concept was too gaudy, too flashy, so I put the idea aside.
Then one day in 2010, a Fender customer rep came to my cubicle and asked if I could make a Stratocaster covered with gold leaf. I asked who the client was, and he said Prince, who also had had a dream of playing such a guitar for his “Welcome 2 America” tour. He eventually auctioned it off to benefit the Harlem Children’s Zone.
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