Are Fender Custom Shop Guitars Worth The Money?

Naturally, as an owner of a guitar shop that specialises in pre owned Fender Custom Shop I am going to give a biased answer to this basic question. I am going to say yes! But to justify and expand on this I will go into some detail.

For years now Fender have offered a product for almost every income bracket. From Chinese Squires at the lowest end, up to Master Built Relics at the other extreme. The giant that is Fender Musical Instrument Corp has an incredible marketing operation and global sales in the millions. But it wasn’t always like this.

Fender in the 1950s

If we scroll back in time to 1954 when Fender launched their ground-breaking Stratocaster. A new Strat cost $249, or $290 if you wanted a form fit case included. This was an entire months wages for the average American.  Today this equates to around $3200! By 1968 the average salary of Americans had doubled while the humble Strat remained at a modest $314, barely much of an increase from it’s original price point!

Fender Today

Today the Fender catalogue is vast, if you take the Stratocaster in isolation there are scores of versions and models available with a price point to suit almost everyone’s budget. Fenders marketing team know that if they can sell you a Squire as a first guitar when you’re a teenager then you’ll probably go through a handful of upgrades before you get your hands on an American or Custom Shop model as an adult.


The evolution of the Stratocaster

Launched in 1954, the Stratocaster underwent a series of changes and by the mid 1970s was a very different instrument. By the end of the 70s the product had changed so much that pro players simply weren’t interested in playing them. All the guitar legends of the era played either pre CBS models or late 60s large headstock models. This made the earlier guitars desirable and they became sought after. The beginnings of an incredible market in vintage guitars was born and by the 1990s pre CBS Fenders were changing hands for five or six times the cost of a new American Fender.

By the end of the 80s Fender was under new ownership and the narrative at the time was that the quality was now back. But was it?  When Fender was sold in the mid 80s there was no factory included in the deal. The new owners of the brand had to set up new manufacturing facilities. It was now the 1980s, not the 1950s so there was no way they could slip back in time to recreate what was done before. What came was a new product, completely fresh, a sort of rebirth of the brand under new ownership with a new factory and modern production facilities and methods.


1980S Fender Statocaster Advert

A Typical 1980s / 90s Fender Ad Displaying their ‘Plus’ models

With the advent of the USA Standard and the American Vintage reissues we certainly had better quality than the firewood of the late 70s but they certainly didn’t capture the character, sound and status of those early instruments from the 50s and 60s. While Fenders offerings on their production American guitars were OK in the 90s, they weren’t anywhere near as exciting as what was around the corner in the pre-owned or vintage guitar shop. I can remember going into guitar shops as a teenager and becoming hypnotised by the beautiful American Fenders on the wall at prices I couldn’t afford. They were beautifully made, consistent, very well put together and looked lovely with their glossy lacquer and perfectly finished shiny hardware, but they lacked any of the character that was there with the originals. It was hard to get really excited and inspired by them.


The Fender Custom Shop

Many feel that when the Custom Shop came into being there was finally a return to the quality, feel and magic of the early guitars. At last there were new guitars being produced that in some cases, re captured the essence of the pre CBS era. Where the main production line was focusing on very modern, economical and profitable mass production with maximum consistency the Fender Custom Shop was able to focus purely on the end result.

The Custom Shop embraced making custom one offs for some of the world’s greatest names in guitar playing, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Yngwie Malmsteen, James Burton, the list was endless. Before long these guitar legends were hanging up their pre CBS Fenders and playing Master Built Custom Shops on stage instead. It was now clear that Fender really was back!


Times have changed a lot since the 1950s. The world of business, manufacturing, wood procurement and marketing is now in a totally different era. While the very design of the early Fenders was aimed at creating a mass production instrument that could be made with cheap labour today it’s impossible to reproduce what was done then in the same way. So while it may seem counter intuitive to make a mass produced design by hand, with care and sometimes by one person it’s now the only way to fully recapture that original magic of the early Fenders. Environmental regulations, labour controls, higher wages, materials procurement and market competitiveness mean there can never be a true return to the 1950s guitar making days. That being said, relative to monthly wages, a Fender Custom Shop guitar is only marginally more expensive today than a Strat was in 1954!


What happened around 2009 – 2011?

For the first twenty years of Custom Shop production we saw some amazing quality instruments get produced. They were the top of the range that Fender had to offer and were excellent quality. But around 2009-ish something changed. There seemed to be a finer attention to detail, more authenticity, little details like patent numbers, correct markings on hardware and a better selection of period correct options. We saw the return of Pat Pend saddles on Strats, precise logos, more neck shapes and more authentic relic work. More special editions began appearing in the catalogue and they pulled out all the stops to make editions like the 60th Anniversary 1954 Stratocasters which were on a new level of quality and authenticity.



Finally, it had become more appealing, more fun and just as entertaining to buy a Fender Custom Shop as it was to buy a real vintage pre CBS guitar. Only at a fraction of the price! Why spend £25,000 on a pre CBS model when you can have five guitars that are just as good, maybe better and in a variety of versions, each feeling totally different to the next.

Fender custom shop vs American, professional, Ultra and American Vintage

The Fender USA production line guitars are without doubt excellent quality instruments. Consistent, well made, some excellent design features and they are lovely things to look at. While I don’t actively look to trade these models I very often get them in part exchange as part of my trading with Coffee House Guitars. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind and through years of experience handling these guitars that while they are great, they are simply no cigar when compared to their Custom Shop cousins.



In conclusion

So are they worth the money? Absolutely! I don’t think I’ve ever sold a Fender Custom Shop guitar to a customer who has subsequently regretted buying and owning it. Not only do they hold their value very well, will rise with inflation and always be desirable on the used market but the sheer enjoyment from owning it makes it worth every penny. For that perfectly balanced and rounded, authentic Fender tone with no compromise, it has to be Custom Shop.








Posted on 29th October 2023

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About the Author

Coffee House Guitars is owned and run by Julian Deverell who's been playing, buying, selling and collecting guitars since the 1990s.

Julian has owned hundreds of guitars over the years and has extensive knowledge of Fenders. He's also passionate about high end guitars and getting them in optimum condition, set up and at their best.

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