First, pardon my long-windedness—it’s a story and the context is important I think! I’ve been on a run of non-Fender (and non-Strat) guitars lately. I’ve been filling out the collection recently with various shapes, wood combinations and pickup confirgurations. My first electric was a Strat Plus...that’s going on 25 years ago now. It has aged nicely and is a wonderful sounding and playing instrument. It’s still the first guitar I pick up and play. So at heart I’ll always consider myself a “Strat guy.” I’ve been thinking about adding a custom-built S to the lineup and, oddly, I ran through Tom Anderson, Suhr, DeTemple, amongst other “boutique” builders before it dawned on me that it had been about 15 years since my last experience with the Fender Custom Shop (and their distribution channel) and that for what I was looking for, they might be an option. 15 years ago I had an itch for a custom bass. Nothing too crazy, just a flame top, a different color finish, a unique body wood combination (which they were currrently using on a different model) and a custom inlay. I remember calling around and going to the website to find out how I started the process. It led me to a Guitar Center about 40 miles away from my house. I walked in, headed for the bass department and explained to the salesman that I wanted to inquire with Fender Custom Shop about a build. He handed me a checklist, told me to fill it in and bring it back. I did so, waited a week or two, and then he called to bring me back to the shop to review their feedback. Nearly every “custom” item I wanted was marked “no.” Ha. What a bad taste that left in my mouth. No explanation, just “no.” Fast forward to yesterday and my Strat search. I pulled up the Custom Shop website to find that they’ve incorporated a “menu” (similar to the checklist I suppose, but with options to choose from instead of a blank box to write in...big difference), and a refreshed distribution channel—no more Guitar Center! GREAT! Despite the fact that Fender were the ones saying no (I hope so at least!), I chalked up my negative past experience to the salesperson at Guitar Center (though they only had one or two guys in the store that had been “certified” with Custom Shop). Perhaps he thought I was too young and not serious (I was about 23 at the time?) or perhaps he was just crappy at his job. Either way. My nearest Custom Shop dealer this time around was Chicago Music Exchange. I’ve dealt with them quite a bit...new/used purchases of guitars and amps, repairs, special equipment rentals, custom orders of other brands, etc. And I’ve only worked with two guys. I get the feeling that most any employee can do anything there, but obviously, everyone has their specialties and better relationships with certain vendors. One of my contacts had a great relationship with Collings and the other worked closely with Nash and (come to find out) Fender. I rang up my guy, told him what I was thinking and he...surprise...started to ask me questions. He told me that Custom Shop sometimes gets a bad rap for being overpriced compared to builders but based on what I wanted, it might be at least an option to consider. Nice start, I like the honesty. He directed me to the Design Guide PDF on Fender’s website while we were on the phone, and we walked through it together. I told him I wasn’t looking for an art piece and that most of my desired options fell very much within “normal” spec for Fender, just couldn’t get them all on a current production model. More importantly, we both knew that I didn’t place enough value on the Master Built concept to expand my budget quite that far. Ended up completing the PDF later that day and submitting it through him. I was so excited to see all of the options I wanted to combine, and he’s got enough experience with them to have a good idea the quote will be returned within budget. So, moral of the story. 15 years ago, I had a different set of expectations, I was a different player, and a different consumer. Needless to say, I was disappointed in my experience—BUT could it have been me? Sure. Could it have been Guitar Center? Yep. Could it have been the particular salesperson at Guitar Center? Absolutely. Could it have been Custom Shop’s approach? Of course. I think the most likely answer is that it was some combination of all those things! And the good news is, seemingly all of those things have changed for the better and I think I’m well on the way to ordering a Custom Shop instrument. Kudos to Matt at CME for being a great advocate for his store and the Fender brand, and kudos to the Fender brand themselves for making great improvements to their process and for making great decisions about their distribution chain! (And kudos to me for being a more educated buyer!) Whew. Time for a nap, sorry!!!