Kenny Wayne Shepherd: “For years we’ve been trying to replicate the neck from my ’61 Strat... And this one comes the closest“

Kenny Wayne Shepherd
(Image credit: Fender)

Kenny Wayne Shepherd has served as one of the foremost modern practitioners of the blues, and also of the Fender Stratocaster, for going on 25 years. 

For most of that time, his primary Strat – the one heard on his 1997 breakthrough Trouble Is… and every album he’s recorded since – has been a 1961 sunburst model. 

But now he has a new number one, having collaborated with Fender on his second signature model, which, like his approach to the blues, combines classic elements with forward-thinking and unique appointments. 

“It’s a number of different ideas and different components and different perspectives that are all based on some of my favorite guitars,” he says of the Kenny Wayne Shepherd Stratocaster. “The goal was to make not only a premium-looking instrument, but also something that would provide a premium experience for the end user.” 

And premium it is. The Kenny Wayne Shepherd Stratocaster starts with a classic Fender ash body and an early '60s “C”-shape maple neck.

“For years we’ve been trying to replicate the neck from my ’61 – all the dimensions, where it joins the body, the overall feel,” Shepherd says. “And this one comes the closest out of everything we’ve ever done.” This familiar-feel neck is topped with a rosewood fingerboard that, unusual for a Strat, boasts white binding and pearloid block inlays.

Shepherd got the idea for these features after recalling a very-limited run of Strats from the mid-'60s that sported binding and blocks. “I’ve always wanted to see a premium Strat with that treatment,” he says. 

That’s just the beginning of the personalized touches. There’s also a chambered body for a more comfortable, lighter feel as well as added resonance, and a trio of custom-voiced Kenny Wayne Shepherd Single-Coil Strat pickups that recall the tone of the ones in his cherished ’61 Strat, only hotter and with more range. 

“We boosted the mids just a little bit, and the pickups are a little more responsive, but also quieter, which was a big thing as well,” he says. There’s also one other new detail – that finish. The KWS Strat comes in a striking Transparent Faded Sonic Blue lacquer, which Shepherd says is a “custom color that was created around this guitar.” 

He continues, “In my mind I just kept seeing a light blue guitar, and then we took it a little step further and said, ‘How can we add some real depth to it?’ One of the best ways to do that is by revealing the grain that’s underneath. So we came up with the idea to do a translucent finish that would show the character of the wood.” 

As for why he chose blue in the first place? “I mean, obviously, I play blues,” Shepherd says with a laugh. Indeed he does. And to hear the latest example of his blues playing, look no further than the Kenny Wayne Shepherd Band’s new Straight to You: Live, a concert package released in various DVD/CD/Blu-Ray/vinyl configurations, as well as digitally. 

The new collection, Shepherd says, has been a long time coming. “Our fans have been asking us to release a live video. So when touring came to an abrupt stop [due to the COVID-19 pandemic], it seemed like a good time. The fans may not be able to go to live concerts right now, but I wanted to offer them the next best thing.” 

Straight to You captures the KWS Band onstage in Leverkusen, Germany, at the Jazztage Festival, and the set spans Shepherd’s full career, from early hits like Blue on Black to cuts from his most recent studio album, 2019’s The Traveler. There’s also fiery covers of Elmore James’ Talk to Me Baby, Joe Walsh’s Turn to Stone and Jimi Hendrix’s Voodoo Child (Slight Return). 

“It was originally recorded for the Rockpalast television show, and it was a really great night,” Shepherd recalls of the gig in questin. “We were nearing the end of a very successful European tour and the whole show was very special…” He continues, “I hope people enjoy the songs as much as we’re looking forward to performing them again. Because I can’t wait to get back out there!”

  • The Kenny Wayne Shepherd Band's new live album and Blu-Ray/DVD, Straight To You: Live is out now on Provogue.

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Richard Bienstock

Rich is the co-author of the best-selling Nöthin' But a Good Time: The Uncensored History of the '80s Hard Rock Explosion. He is also a recording and performing musician, and a former editor of Guitar World magazine and executive editor of Guitar Aficionado magazine. He has authored several additional books, among them Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, the companion to the documentary of the same name.