By Pauline France and Jeff Owens
Fender is deeply saddened by the loss of one of its own, Dan Smith, 70, who passed away Sept. 28 in Orange, Calif.
Smith was a pivotal figure in the modern history of Fender, with an immeasurable effect on the company and its people. He played a major part in Fender’s mid-‘80s resurgence as an industry leader, with other remarkable achievements including the 1987 creation of the Fender Custom Shop, the development of the original American Standard series, and the introduction of the first artist signature and vintage reissue instruments.
“For me, I lost my hero; my mentor; my father,” said Smith’s son, Jason Smith, who carries on his father’s legacy at the Fender Custom Shop as a master builder. “For all at Fender, you lost a passionate innovator who took this company from its darkest moment and helped build it into what it is today. But mostly, for those of you who had the pleasure to know him or work with him, you lost an amazing friend. I want you all to know he went peacefully, surrounded by his family who loved him.”
Dan Smith joined Fender in 1981 at the invitation of then-CEO Bill Schultz, with whom he had worked previously at Yamaha. Smith was tasked with overhauling Fender’s ailing product line and restoring quality, performance, value and credibility after years of decline under CBS—all of which he accomplished with masterful skill and remarkable success.
As vice president of marketing, Smith played central roles in re-establishing Fender’s U.S. manufacturing facilities and creating the Fender Custom Shop, which he ran from 1998 to 2003. Smith also ran Fender’s guitar R&D department from June 1995 until his 2006 retirement, and the many challenges he faced regularly summoned all of his many skills—those of a guitarist, guitar builder and repairman, guitar teacher, artist and designer.
Custom Shop chief design engineer George Blanda was Smith’s right-hand man for 10 years, and recalls Smith’s fervent passion and determination.
“He was strong-willed,” Blanda said. “If he had an idea, it was going to happen no matter what.”
Smith and Blanda were behind many successful products players still enjoy today.
“The Eric Clapton Stratocaster and the American Standard Series are some of the projects we worked on together,” adds Blanda. “Also the James Burton and Yngwie Malmsteen signature models, to name a few.”
Smith’s expert abilities weren’t limited solely to marketing and product development. He showed great warmth and charm, and he genuinely had a way with people — a trait Blanda said made Clapton want to seal the deal to create a Fender signature model.
“Dan was a very hands-on type of guy,” says Blanda. “Eric Clapton was one of the biggest endorsements at the time that really helped us. Clapton was a real quirky type of guy who wasn’t really trusting. In just a short time, he and Dan talked about obscure records they both listened to; they bonded pretty well and Clapton realized Dan was a musician. All of the business people wouldn’t have been able to do that and make it work. Clapton’s manager wasn’t super interested in doing the signature model, but Dan helped gain credibility for the whole company and helped win over this endorsement.”
Mike Lewis, Custom Shop vice president of product development, also enjoyed memorable years of great work and friendship with Smith.
“My history with Dan goes back way before I was working at Fender,” said Lewis. “I was a dealer and he visited my store. We got into a conversation and we learned were both very interested in guitar instrumental music. We would send each other cassette tapes of our favorite songs.”
Lewis joined Fender in 1991 after the two were already friends, and the bond grew stronger from there.
“Dan was a great mentor to me,” added Lewis. “He taught me the best ways to put product lines together; how to create products that would have mass appeal versus segmented products. To this day I use a lot of things that I learned from him in my daily work.
Smith’s achievements were celebrated in 2008 when he was inducted into the Fender Hall of Fame. In his induction remarks, Smith paid tribute to his fellow honorees and to the first Hall of Fame inductees of one year earlier.
“I am truly humbled and honored by this,” Smith said. “It is an honor to join Leo (Fender), Don (Randall), Forrest (White), Charlie (Hayes) and Freddie (Tavares)—the ones who started all this. And especially to join Bill Schultz, who trusted in me and gave me and a few others the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity of bringing a faltering American icon back to life.”
On a more personal note, Blanda fondly remembers how much he enjoyed going out to lunch most days with Smith.
“He appreciated a good barbecue,” Blanda said. “He liked to go out to lunch every day. It was either Thai food or barbecue. He always found strange little hole-in-the-wall restaurants that were really good.”