April 2022
The Guitar Doctor Is In
Luthier Chris Fleming brings an A-game to Prescott-area musicians

When master guitar builder Chris Fleming retired from his job at the California-based Fender Musical Instruments Corp. in January 2021, he joined his wife in the White Mountains of Pinetop-Lakeside. It didn’t take long before Addison Matthew of Gray Dog Guitars in Prescott found him and lured him back to work repairing and refurbishing guitars for his Prescott customers.

Fleming, 68, found it an easy decision to make the move to Prescott last October. He and his wife had owned a second home here after they came to meet friends Dave and Donna Newman and became fans of the city more than a dozen years ago. Dave Newman had a shop that featured his art, which included art guitars that he collaborated on with Fleming (example, left).

One of the reasons Fleming said he was glad to return to Prescott is its small-town charm, which reminds him of the town in California where he grew up in the 1950s.

“I like that Prescott has the Courthouse and a center to it,” Fleming said. He adds that he’s glad he doesn’t have to spend an hour in traffic to drive five miles, as he did when he was living in California.

Fleming said he also enjoys that Prescott is home to a lot of musical artists and a music scene. He plays guitar and appreciates the music available. His favorite musical genres are Americana, western swing, country and folk music — mostly music dating from 1940-1965.

Gray Dog’s offer to Fleming made him realize he wasn’t ready for full retirement, and his wife agreed to the full-time move to Prescott.

“I’ve been saving tools and wood for years, and now I get to use it all before it encumbers my wife when I head to the big guitar shop in the sky,” Fleming joked.

The shop at 227 N. Cortez St. adjacent to Domino’s Pizza and the Peregrine Book Company has only been open since January. But already Prescott has proved to be a guitar-loving town. Chris Fleming Guitars is an adjunct to the soon-to-open expanded Gray Dog Guitars store, featured here last month.

Most of Fleming’s new customers need work done on their guitars largely because of wear and tear and damage caused by the dry environment. He says the lack of humidity causes cracks in guitars. To keep instruments in his shop in top shape, he has two humidifiers running to maintain 45% humidity, ideal for wood.

While a lot of the guitars he sees are standard models, Fleming said he’s been working on some truly fine vintage examples, including a 1956 Stratocaster, which can be worth tens of thousands of dollars. He’s restoring the guitar to its original look from the urethane finish it was given in the ‘70s, and its neck is very worn. He’ll also make the body of the guitar match the neck and give it a slightly worn look.

“The older ones are fun to work on to bring them back to life,” Fleming said, adding that it’s slightly more nerve-wracking than working on regular guitars. Despite being a master guitar builder for 20 years, vintage-guitar work is sometimes more of a challenge.

“It’s like being a doctor: First, do no harm,” he said. “Building something from scratch means I’m in control of the whole thing … but if I’m working on someone’s vintage instrument, I can’t be as laissez-faire. I have to really pay attention. A lot of times these old guitars are like a can of worms. You get something off and you find more problems. In the process of doing what you have to do, other things break. So I’m careful in how far I go, pay attention to what the state of the instrument is when I get it, and not do anything radical. It’s not for the faint of heart.” 

While restoring old instruments is challenging, it’s sometimes just as difficult to fix cheap ones, Fleming said.

“Interestingly, the least expensive guitars are the hardest to work on, generally,” he said.

“They’re not made in a way that makes it easy to work on them. Martins, for instance, the way they’re constructed and painted, you can take the neck off without causing major damage. Other guitars, like Gibsons, the paint is over the joints, so you have to work around that.”

Fleming has a storied history in the guitar field, which he started in after 15 years as a professional picture-framer. He worked for a shop called Worlds of Strings in Long Beach, CA, then had his own custom guitar repair and building shop before he began working in the Fender Custom Shop in 2000. “I loved figuring out how to take things apart and put them back together,” Fleming said. “I had a knack for it, and was fortunate to find out I was good at it.”

During the course of his career there he was a production coordinator for Guild guitars, director of R&D for Fender guitars and specialty guitars, and director of original equipment manufacturing, traveling to Japan, China and Indonesia to make sure the factories were operating optimally and to introduce new products to them.

His last stint at Fender was doing what he loved best, running the Fender Custom Shop and making them himself. Fleming said now he just wants to make “one-offs,” and has several orders. He works Wednesday-Saturday and does exactly what he likes doing. Some of the celebrities who’ve bought his guitars are singer/performer John Mayer — a fan who he’s made several guitars for — Ron Wood of the Rolling Stones, and David Gilmour of Pink Floyd.

He said he’s happy to be in Prescott, where there are plenty of working and retired musicians who appreciate his work.

“A lot of musicians from all over have moved out here to retire,” Fleming said. “This is about ideal for me, because I don’t want to be crazy busy. This is perfect.”

Toni Denis is a frequent contributor to 5enses. Staff photos.

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