The unmistakable sound of the Fender Stratocaster has been a key ingredient throughout Kenny Wayne Shepherd’s 25-year career. The gifted guitarist rode to the top of the Billboard Blues charts as a 17-year old blues prodigy with his 1995 debut Ledbetter Heights, with its single “Born With A Broken Heart.” The 1997 follow-up Trouble Is featured the breakout hit “Blue On Black,” which topped the Mainstream Rock Charts for six weeks. The song was recently revived in 2019 by hard rock band Five Finger Death Punch, who recruited Shepherd to perform on the track, alongside country singer Brantley Gilbert and Queen guitarist Brian May.
Today, Fender and Shepherd announce their second collaboration together, with the release of the Fender Kenny Wayne Shepherd Signature Stratocaster®. We caught up with the Shreveport, Louisiana native, who taught himself to play guitar and caught the attention of Fender at an early age.
Your love for Fender guitars began like so many other young, aspiring guitarists, didn’t it?
My experience is probably similar to so many guitar players. You see so many of these legends playing Stratocasters and Telecasters and that becomes the instrument you salivate over. The biggest ones were Hendrix, Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Buddy Guy. They were all Strat players. I just wanted to get my hands on a Strat. I felt like I had the Holy Grail when I got my first one. It feels right ergonomically for my kind of playing. Everything is in the right place.
You were quite young when you signed your record deal. When did you connect with Fender?
It was around the time of my first record deal. They had heard some of my music and went to Del Breckenfeld, who was working artist relations at Fender at the time. Next thing I knew Fender was calling and I had friends at Fender!
This is your second signature guitar with Fender. The first one was in 2007 and was a ‘Made in Mexico’ model. It was a good quality guitar with a reasonable price so that young people could afford it.
When we first sat down with Fender for my first signature guitar, they wanted to come out with the import Mexican version first, which made total sense to me. Young people were coming to my shows. In that same meeting we decided that wouldn’t be the only signature guitar of mine, and an American version would come at a later time.
And then you had great success with that model, right?
That run did so well for a long time. It had three different visual appearances (black with silver racing stripe, sunburst and white guitar with cross) but all spec’d out the same. We retired it a couple years back and then began development on this one.
What was this signature model guitar based on?
They made a replica of my ’61 Strat for me. Fender had it for two years and duplicated every nick and scratch mark. I don’t trust the airlines with my ’61 Strat. Now when I do fly dates I can travel with the replica.
How closely involved were you with the production?
I’m fully involved and I’m a hands-on guy. I’m not someone who takes this lightly. If it’s going to have my name on it, I want it to be exactly what I want it to be. I was involved in every aspect of this guitar. It’s my design head to toe, down to the custom color.
When did this project start?
It started about two years ago. Things take time. Every change that’s made requires a new prototype. You can’t assume that it’s going to work. You have to see it, play it, feel it. scratch. The main component of the guitar besides the sound is the feeling of the neck. You start playing and you know immediately if you’re going to put it back on the wall or not. This guitar captures the feel of my ’61 Strat.
What was your goal with this new launch?
The intention for this new guitar was for it to be a completely different guitar, made in America with a whole new set of features. I think we did a fantastic job with this guitar.
Tell us about the particulars of this guitar.
There’s an ash body on this where there was alder on the first. To me, you can hear a difference even though ash and alder sound similar. Ash can be heavy, so we did a chambered body to make it lighter and more resonant, which affects tone.
The color also dictates the wood type. This is a custom color called Translucent Sonic Blue. We tried a few prototypes with alder, but the grain didn’t pop through the finish. Early Strats were all ash so that’s why they had the beautiful grain popping through the sunburst. We wanted people to appreciate the grain on this guitar, so ash was the obvious choice.
And you refined the sound of the pickups, correct?
Yes. We revisited the sound of the pickups. These are Custom “Hot” Vintage Pickups. We used the sound of my last signature model as the point of reference and made improvements across the board. We got more output of them and made them quieter. That was a challenge to get an even response level from low end to mid-range to top end and create a balanced sounding pickup that maintains the integrity of the tone of the instrument without doctoring it up.
How does the guitar neck feel?
The neck is a 7 ¼” radius. The last one had a 12” radius. This is a very true representation of the neck on my ’61 Strat, the back profile, the jumbo frets. We did the block inlays as a nod to the very limited quantities of Strats in ’66 and ’67. It’s functional too. I think it’s beautiful and it’s a departure. I’m curious to see if people will be offended by it. Some guys just want to see dots on Strats! But it’s functional as well.
On stage, you get hit with certain lights which can render the dots invisible. I played a couple of Eric Johnson’s Strats and they have the same thing. I wasn’t trying to copy him but that binding really illuminates the docks on the neck. There’s a real functional reason behind it as well. We added one more binding to make it symmetrical. We also added the matching headstock which I always thought was cool option, especially with this color.
Any other unique touches players might want to know?
I also love the signature on the front. In recent years, players had all different spots where they put their signature, on the back of the headstock or the neck plate. I remember going into guitar stores in the ‘90s when I was starting out and seeing Clapton’s or Stevie Ray’s and everyone had their signature on the front in this spot. This is a nod to the original Signature series line. In my heart, to the teenage Kenny Wayne, that makes it a Signature Strat. I’m not putting myself on their level but if I’m going to have my own model, this is the icing on the cake. It’s the real deal. The cake is finished!
One of the great things about having a Signature Strat is there is a level of consistency. If somebody buys it, they are playing the exact guitar I play on stage. And I should be able to walk into a store, pick it up and walk out and play it on stage that night without having to do anything.
The Kenny Wayne Shepherd Stratocaster features a chambered ash body for vibrant and resonant tone, while the Transparent Faded Sonic Blue lacquer finish highlights the beautiful ash grain. The early ‘60s “C”-shaped maple neck and bound rosewood fingerboard—with a 7.25” radius—offer comfort and playability straight out of Fender’s golden age. Loaded with three Kenny Wayne Shepherd custom pickups, this guitar delivers punchy and full-throated Strat tones.
Premium Cosmetic Appointments: With a matching headstock, blocks and binding, and a lacquer finish, the KWS Strat comes loaded with our most premium cosmetic features.
Custom “Hot” Vintage Pickups: Designed in conjunction with KWS, these specially voiced pickups capture his signature tone.
Custom Color: Features a unique Faded Transparent Daphne Blue finish.