‘The Real Ones’ - A history of G&L

 
 

On March 21, 1991, Clarence Leonidas Fender passed away after a long and fruitful career in the industry he had practically invented. Even 2 days prior, he had still been working in his sound-lab at G&L putting the finishing touches on a guitar with a new hum-bucking pickup (S/N G028886). To celebrate his life and accomplishments, co-founder, partner, and Vice-President of Marketing and Sales Dale Hyatt decided to design a Commemorative Edition based on the ASAT Classic since this had been the last model to which Leo had contributed. From the get-go, Dale envisioned these to be very special instruments which would give testament to the best G&L could produce. His ideas were tested on S/N G029677, a Sunburst ASAT Classic with white pickguard and all gold hardware. A specially fabricated decal was added to the upper bout using a “Leo Fender” signature, the word “COMMEMORATIVE” underneath, and the years “1910-1991”, all in green. Good it was a test mule, because Leo was born in 1909 of course! The final design of the Commemorative decal consisted of a gold “Leo Fender” signature, his year of birth and death, now correctly indicating “1909-1991”, in black underneath and a black stemmed rose with gold petals. These guitars received even more gold hardware than found on the prototype, i.e. not only the bridge, control knobs & control panel, pole pieces, tuning machines, but also the special neck plate (see below) and even the plastic pickguard were gilded. To top it off, it came factory strung with a set of .009” gauge gold-plated Maxima strings. As expected, the Commemorative would receive a lot of individual attention during the build process, hence a separate sales log was created (see picture of 1st page below). Manufacturing and assembly started in mid-October 1991.


Only 12 instruments were built before Dale retired on November 4, 1991, and BBE Sound, Inc. started to take over management of G&L. This batch contains 5 guitars with a unique look: a Honduran mahogany slab sandwiched between an Australian lacewood veneer top and back, built for a handful of people who had been instrumental to the success of G&L. Lacewood Commemorative #1, with a maple fingerboard and completed October 17, 1991, Dale kept for himself. Plant manager Lloyd Chewning received Lacewood Commemorative #2 with rosewood board. George Fullerton got #3, which also has a rosewood board. It is featured in the color section of George’s book “Guitar Legends, The evolution of the guitar from Fender to G&L” on pp. 74 and 77. The next Lacewood Commemorative is #5 which has a maple board. Although the sales log indicates it was shipped to Craig’s Music, the “Louisiana Music” scribble underneath is closer to the truth. Initially, Dale also kept #5 for himself and took it to the Louisiana Music Sales stand at the November 1991 Fall Nationals Guitar Show in Arlington, TX. Although intended just to be displayed, he sold it eventually to British singer-songwriter Trevor Midgley better known as Beau. It was featured in the February 1992 issue of Guitarist magazine as well as in Willie G. Moseley’s book “Stellas & Stratocasters” as the last B/W picture of “DALE HYATT: A Salesman’s Perspective” on pp. 163-166. Trevor sold the #5 to another Briton in April 2016. Lacewood Commemorative #9, with rosewood board, went to Roy Ferguson, proprietor to Roy & Candy’s Music in Oklahoma and a dealer Dale had close ties with. The final 2 Lacewood Commemoratives were completed in the BBE-era. Lacewood Commemorative #26, for shop foreman John Rodriguez, was completed a week after Dale’s retirement and has an ebony fingerboard. A seventh and last Lacewood Commemorative (#69 with maple board) was presented to Mrs. Phyllis Fender on April 10th, 1992, after it was signed by many of the then G&L employees. This guitar can be found on p. 72 of George’s aforementioned book.


The other 7 of the first 12, as did all subsequent ASAT Classic Commemoratives, have a double-bound, swamp ash body with Cherryburst finish and share with the rare Lacewoods a choice of a highly figured, bound Bird’s Eye maple or, in some rare cases, curly maple #1 (12”) or #2 (7½”) neck with 1⅝” nut width. The Commemorative w/maple board was produced the most, followed by the Commemoratives w/rosewood board, with only a few ebony boards mixed in. Commemorative #4 with a maple board was the first Cherryburst completed October 22, 1991 and reserved for Paul Lombardo, a friend of Dale. Commemorative #6 with a rosewood board, completed on October 24, 1991, has a darker Cherryburst finish almost veering towards Sunburst. Although originally marked for ‘SHOW’ in the sales log, it was sold with Dale signing and dating the back of its headstock on November 2, 1991, just a couple of days before his retirement. Commemorative #7, built for ‘HILDA’, has a maple fingerboard and was completed November 1, 1991. Commemorative #8 also has a maple fingerboard and was reserved for ‘ANDREWW’. It ended up in Greg Gagliano’s collection but note that the page on his website for this guitar incorrectly states it to be from May 1993, the final month of Commemorative production (see below), instead of October 24, 1991, its listed completion date. Commemorative #10 and #11, both with a rosewood board, have written entries in the log with #10 going to Smith’s Music in Portland, MI, run by Milton (Milt) Smith for over 70 years until his passing in 2017, and #11 to Roy & Candy’s Music. And although both entries do not mention a completion date, it an be safely assumed they were completed before Dale’s retirement given his personal relationship with either proprietor. Finally, the typed entry for #12 shows it to have a maple fingerboard and a completion date of October 31, 1991.


The ASAT Classic Commemorative was the first model actively marketed by the new owners. BBE’s then national sales manager Rob Rizzuto sent a letter dated December 30, 1991 to all dealers, with the ad shown below attached, announcing it would appear in the NAMM Show issue of Guitar Player Magazine, i.e. (likely) the March 1992 issue. Note that the list price was $3,000, making the guitar the most expensive “production” G&L at that time by a large margin. On BBE’s first G&L price list effective January 1, 1992 is the S-500 holds that honor at a $1,249.99 retail price.


Although the aforementioned letter and stamped neck plate for each ASAT Classic Commemorative Edition indicates it is one in a series of 1,000 guitars, production was halted well before that number was ever reached. G&L had stopped offering the Signature versions of their models shortly after Leo’s passing, but his eponymous scribble makes one more glorious appearance on these Commemorative models. Now with the main man gone, and the company in transition to new ownership by BBE Sound, Inc. (BBESI), the Fender Musical Instrument Corporation (FMIC) finally saw an opportunity to throw a monkey wrench in the machinery and sued BBESI for infringement of the “(Leo) Fender” name! As part of the inventory of the original 1965 CBS-Fender deal, they claimed they now owned the rights to the name after having bought Fender from CBS in 1985. What a weird world! The case was settled with the result that production of Commemoratives would be limited to 500 instruments, but not just guitars! Not wanting to overlook Leo’s impact on the development of the electric bass and leave the low-enders out of the loop, room was made for a number of basses, which led to the now infamous 350 guitars/150 basses split. The choice fell on the ASAT bass, which had been introduced in 1990, leading to the ASAT Bass Commemorative Editions with choice of ebony or maple fingerboard.


In a letter to dealers dated February 11, 1993, it was announced production would be halted in May of that year and more than likely even the 350/150 numbers were never reached. George Fullerton states in his book “Guitars from George & Leo: How Leo Fender and I Built G&L Guitars” that only 250 guitars were produced, which might even be an overestimate. ASAT Classic Commemorative Edition #250 is listed in the Guitars by Leo Registry, but so are 2 neck plates only: #214 and #217. The next highest registered S/N for a completed true Commemorative is #208. And to add some mystique, judging by the date stamps, my #29 is one of the last built even though it was also entered in Dale’s log on November 18, 1991 but with a rosewood fingerboard instead. G&L did offer a neck plate with the updated ‘350’ production number (Gabe Dellevigne assures me they do exist) but as far as one knows, nobody has taken them up on it. Note that the aforementioned letter only offers to replace the COA and I have seen updated versions for #97 and #178 with calligraphed “# of 350” while both neck plates still read “# of 1000”. A small number of neck plates, maybe no more than 25, read “#-of-1000”. Lacewood #26 has the dashes and their presence has been observed in auction pictures for #27, #36, #37, #42, and #48. Here #29 is again a notable exception; with the dashes missing, this guitar is likely a replacement. The situation for the ASAT Bass Commemorative Edition is not much different. While the neck plate is similarly stamped with “# of 150”, the highest S/N in the Registry is #23 (and a neck plate only for #27), leading to a likely upper limit of about 25 basses produced.


Since so few Commemoratives of either kind were built, the factory had a large surplus of headstock model decals, signature decals for the body, as well as neck plates. Similar to what happened with the original Broadcaster, this facilitated the appearance of replicas and/or so-called employee instruments, i.e. non-original Commemoratives still built by people connected to G&L with proper parts but (much) later than May 1993. An example of this is the entry in the Registry for #229, previously owned by the late Gene Engelhart, which almost looks like a Commemorative. Gene, a big presence at CLF Research Corp./G&L from March 1979 until his untimely passing in February 2009, also secured the neck plate with S/N ‘1000 of 1000’ which then was used on a triple-bound “Commemorative” with an ASAT Deluxe body, i.e. mahogany back and quilted maple top, still with ASAT Classic pickups with gold plated pole pieces, similarly gold plated bridge plate/Dual-Fulcrum Vibrato combo and control panel, but no pickguard. Both #229 and #1000 have a matching Cherryburst headstock, unlike any other Commemorative, making it likely they were built after the run was finished. The date stamp in the neck pocket of #1000 reads ’27 MAY 1993’ and the one on the neck heel ’22 MAY 1993’, 4 days prior to the neck date stamp on #29 but still the very end of the production period. Note that #1000 does not even have the pickups soldered into the wiring harness! Another example of a guitar with Commemorative decals is an ASAT Deluxe with S/N G04531, one number removed from my F-100 Series I. This one was also built by Gene around 2001 or later, as evidenced by the ’20 FEB 2001’ date stamp in the pocket and the presence of a 4-bolt neck attachment, hence no Commemorative neck plate with S/N. This beautiful instrument, with double-bound quilted maple body and matching bound quilted maple neck, currently resides with another collector.

 

The Commemoratives