Suburban native designs Fender guitars for Clapton, other stars
When he walked into the recording session and handed Eric Clapton the Fender guitar he'd custom-designed for him, George Blanda apologized.
The La Grange native and Fender guitar master builder told Clapton he was sorry that he ran out of time and didn't add the trendy distressed look -- stuff like cracked paint, chips and cigarette burns.
"Oh, that's OK. I'll do it myself," Clapton told him with a laugh.
Blanda, the son of the late Hall of Fame NFL quarterback and place-kicker George Blanda (who spent 10 years with the Chicago Bears in the 1950s), has been designing guitars since he was a student at Northern Illinois University, working part time at the legendary Ax in Hand guitar store in DeKalb.
While Blanda has designed guitars for many rock stars during his more than 30-year career with Fender -- including rockabilly hall of famer James Burton and heavy metal Swedish guitarist Yngwie Malmsteen -- his latest design is something special.
It's a limited-edition George Blanda Founders Design Jazzmaster, a rockabilly-styled electric guitar made for the 30th anniversary of Fender Custom Shop. It retails for $6,650 and is available online or at three Chicago area guitar stores, including Music Gallery in Highland Park.
The Jazzmaster guitar, a classic brand launched by Fender in 1958, was designed for jazz musicians but became the go-to guitar during the golden age of surf music in the 1960s.
"I took the Jazzmaster ... which had gone through a long period of not being popular. I took that as a base of the design," Blanda said. "... It was misunderstood, so I wanted to make it as good as could be."
The redesign details are complex, but the process combines engineering, art and sound quality. Some of Blanda's main changes include making the guitar smaller, giving it a different neck shape, creating a new layout for the controls and designing it in an ash white color with a purple-dyed maple burl wood.
Blanda first fell in love with music and guitars while a teenager at Lyons Township High School in the 1960s (David Hasselhoff was in his freshman gym class. "I looked like I was 12, and he looked like he was 19," Blanda joked).
Blanda listened to the Beatles, Cream, Jimi Hendrix and blues music, and started playing guitar in a band, Jackson County Transfer, that performed at suburban high school dances and other local gigs.
When the band broke up, Blanda figured he was done with rock 'n' roll. He sold all of his guitars and started studying art. He majored in sculpture at NIU and, for his senior project, asked if he could build a guitar. The answer was no.
But he built guitars on the side anyway, becoming a self-taught expert.
"I wanted to have something that looked really cool. So I thought, I could build the whole thing myself," he said.
When he reunited with the band, Blanda had no money to buy a new guitar. So he found a junky, $25 pawnshop guitar and made it into a working guitar. He continued to build guitars at Ax in Hand, and then at other guitar shops in California, until he began to work at Fender in 1985.
"Then I had cooler and cooler guitars after that," he said.
Looking back, Blanda says he's grateful to have a career doing what he loves. He has no interest in retiring.
"As long as they'll have me, I'll do it," he said. "What would I do if I didn't need money? I'd just build guitars all day."
-- Jamie Sotonoff
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