- Fender recently launched a new range of extroverted acoustic guitars.
- Lately, the company has been rolling out new products in areas where it traditionally hasn’t competed strongly.
- I checked out the range at an event in New York.
Fender is arguably the most successful electric-guitar brand on the planet. Its Stratocaster and Telecaster designs have been played by everyone from Jimi Hendrix to Lucinda Williams, in every imaginable musical genre. Much of the time, those guitars are plugged into Fender amplifiers.
CEO Andy Mooney told me that when he first got the job and went out the festival circuit to see how many acts were using Fender gear, it was something like 80%.
So Fender, a company started in 1946, does electric. But as Mooney also pointed out to me, there’s been notable growth in acoustic-guitar sales of late, driven mainly by women taking up the instrument, inspired by artists such as Taylor Swift.
Fender hasn’t traditionally been strong on the unplugged side. That’s been the realm of competitors such as Gibson, Taylor, and especially Martin, a 185-year-old Pennsylvania company that makes the acoustics that pretty much every musician who pays attention wants to own.
Under Mooney – who took over as CEO at Fender in 2015, after working at Nike and Disney – Fender is in the midst of a serious product rollout. In 2017, it introduced Fender Play, an online learning system.
Earlier this year, the company debuted a new line of effects pedals for electric players (another category where Fender has spent much time competing in the past), and this month, the company officially unveiled a new lineup of acoustic guitars.
Enter the California Series
Called the “California Series,” they aren’t going to be for everybody. The quick take here is that these are acoustics for electric players – and very much intended to deliver a visual punch when played live.
The colours are bold, and while the designs of the guitars’ bodies aren’t radical, the necks are a bit of a departure and the headstocks could have been taken from a Stratocaster. (Fender has done this before – and there’s currently one acoustic, the Sonoran, in its range that evokes the look of the company’s electrics.)
Fender held an event in New York to introduce the lineup, and I attended and got to sample a few of the new guitars. These are China-made instruments, but the quality is quite good (as it is for Fender’s more traditional Paramount lineup of acoustics, which I’ve also fiddled with) and there’s no questioning how much fun it is to get your hands on such expressive axes.
But really, what you notice right away, either grabbing basic chords or working single-note riffs and passages over the neck, is how quick these guitars play.
This is due to what Fender calls a “slim-taper” C-shaped neck, made from mahogany and borrowed from the company’s electric lineup. I’m no shredder, but what quick playing I can do was speed up considerably when I sat down with a $US700 matte-black Redondo Special, one of the large dreadnought-style guitars in the range.
Chords sound rich, but there’s also something about the general vibe of the California Series that makes you want to pick out notes and strum hard and overdrive the tone. That said, the guitars seem versatile and dynamic, and what little fingerstyle playing I did came off nicely.
Aimed at younger players
Fender appears to be pitching the lineup at younger players who might not aspire to sitting alone on a stool at a coffeeshop on an open-mic night, plucking out gentle ballads.
The best word to describe the California Series could be “extroverted.” At the event, Fender convened a panel to discuss the state of the guitar, moderated by Matt Sweeney (he of the recent Iggy Pop-Josh Homme band and YouTube’s delightful “Guitar Moves” fame) with Mooney, several music writers and executives, and artist-producer Doc Mckinney alongside Gina Gleason, who plays lead guitar for the band Baroness.
The discussion highlighted a relatively new trend, in an effort to explore the ongoing relevance of acoustic guitars: performers who wouldn’t normally be associated with guitars potentially bringing them onstage. The fascination of rap and hip-hop artists with 1990s alternative guitar-based music was a prime example. The upshot is that it can be good to have a guitar in your hands that doesn’t look like it aspires to be Willie Nelson’s legendary Trigger or Father John Misty’s Martin D-28.
Before you say this isn’t about serious music, consider that flashy acoustics are nothing new.
For every old-school Spanish shape in a basic natural finish, there have also been sunburst jumbos with exotic pickguards and mother-of-pearl inlays on the fretboard.
I should know because I own one of these, a 10-year-old Epiphone Hummingbird based on famous Gibson dreadnought design. It’s the type of guitar that you want to sling over your should and take out for some enthusiastic busking. It feels weird to play it while sitting on the couch.
Affordable pricing and good quality
The California range is priced from $US400 to $US800, with considerable variety of size and shape. The Player is the least expensive, the Special is up next, and the Classic tops the group.
It’s worth pointing out that with all-wood construction (sitka spruce top and natural mahogany back and sides) and a bone nut and saddle, the Classic is pretty impressive deal.
All the guitars come with Fishman electronics onboard and basically beg you to plug them in (I didn’t, but I will later when I get a chance to check out these guitars in-depth).
“We’ve never really had the same commitment to pedals and acoustic guitars as we’ve had to electric guitars and amps,” Mooney told me, describing the new California range as a fork in the road that will redefine Fender’s product mission moving forward.
“Electric guitars have been a 70-year journey for us,” he said. “I always like to look at these things as the first step in a another 70-year journey.”