With the release of the Esquire back in 1950, the Fender Musical Instrument Corporation became the first company in the world to manufacture electric guitars on a grand scale.
In the seven decades that followed, Fender would grow to produce some of the most popular, most recognizable, best-selling and best-sounding guitars on the market.
From Buddy Holly to Hendrix, Springsteen to Petty, SRV to Kurt Cobain, Fender guitars were, and are, played by some the best and most influential artists of all-time. Whether it was surf rock, jazz, or any of the various strata of rock music, Fender was at the forefront with a body, shape and sound made for that particular music. Sure, the Fender Esquire has long been out of circulation, but classics like the Telecaster, Stratocaster, Jazzmaster, Mustang and Jaguar, all designs first unveiled in the ’50s and ’60s, still remain some of the most relevant and sought after guitars to date.
Last week, Fender announced their new ‘American Ultra Series.’ Boasting ‘all-new modern features, state-of-the-art craftsmanship and nuanced design,’ the new line takes iconic designs like the Strat and Telecaster and gives them their first significant updates in decades.
Customers can expect a high-end and hands-on approach from the new ‘Made in the USA’ division as they initiate some remarkable breakthroughs in sound and feel. Players can expect a faster, more comfortable ‘Modern D’ neck with compound fingerboard and rolled edges for ergonomic comfort and speedy solos, while new body contours provide increased access to the upper fretboard and more comfortable positioning for extended sessions. Advanced electronics come by way of a redesigned pre-amp, noiseless pickups and the option of a ‘Double Tap’ Humbucker, while a selection of new colours adds an exciting new aesthetic to the new offerings.
Monster Children caught up with Fender’s EVP of Product, Justin Norvell, to learn a little more about the new ‘American Ultra Series’ and the steps it took to lead a classic, tried-and-true guitar down a path toward the future.
How long has the American Ultra Series project been in the works?
About 2.5 years in total. It’s been a great journey.
How long were these guitars tested ‘in the field?’
Off and on over that time. We worked with artists and players at different times on different elements like the neck shapes, bass preamp, and pickups. We had them played in studios, at shows and given a real-life ‘test drive’.
Could you speak to the research that went into designing these new contoured guitars?
Comfort and ease of playability was our #1 priority. Leo Fender used to say, ‘Make it work, then make it pretty.’ So, we focused on evolving the body to ‘get out of the way’ a bit as you play higher up on the neck which took quite a few iterations. Then we switched gears to make it more design-forward/elevated and add sports car-inspired contours that worked in harmony with the original designs. It’s a more complex design compared to most of what we make, so it presented a challenge to the factory that we were able to work through. Luckily, we have such a talented team and are super pleased with the result.
Is any of the sound sacrificed?
No, the amount of wood that’s blended off is not really material to the sound of the instruments. Sound is a constant priority for all Fender guitars, amps etc.
How limited are these guitars?
They are the high-end offering of our US-made line but are not limited by quantity. They will continue to be manufactured and sold with no current end date in sight.
Are they already in the hands of musicians? If so, who is already playing them?
A wide base of artists is playing these, from doom metal band, Baroness, to funk band, Vulfpeck. Jim Root from Slipknot just got sent one. It really runs the gamut, and we expect more and more artists to be picking them up as they become globally available.
Tell me about the appeal of “American made” as a luxury item?
Our California factory speaks to people in the fact that it’s the authentic origin of Fender. We still use old machinery and old tooling in concert with the newest technology to make our gear, including the American Ultra series, so there’s a connection back to the classic part of Fender’s story. The California of the ’50s and ’60s was the conflation of car culture, surf culture, and the birth of Rock and Roll, and Fender was right at the epicentre of that movement.
How long has Fender been focusing their efforts outside of the US?
We’ve been globally distributed for decades; however, we recently have been more focused on our regional efforts, whether they be products or using regional artists in content for our marketing campaigns. My team and I travel all over the world and try to stay in touch with what’s happening out there. Keeping the California spirit is important, but also keeping relevant within each region/ culture is also massive. In fact, I was in OZ twice in the last year, got to add myself to the crowded lineup in Bondi at the end of my trip!
Tell me a little about the Corona factory and who is making these Ultra Series guitars.
The Corona, CA factory makes electric guitars, our new Acoustasonic series, amps and houses our Custom Shop as well. What most people don’t realize is how much we really do in there, and how much handwork there is (about a 150 hand process on each instrument). We don’t assemble components we get from the outside into instruments- we make almost everything in the house. We have a metal shop, a wood mill, so we’re very ‘vertical’. We stamp the parts out, glue up the body blanks. We don’t buy a pre-made bridge for a Strat, for example. We stamp out the plates, hand polish the saddles, screw them together, etc.
Does the Ultra Series represent Fender ‘reinventing itself’?
We live in a constant state of reinvention. Music keeps changing- sonically, as well as how it’s recorded. We literally wake up every day thinking about how we can make the experience better for players. Sonically having tones that are versatile and work great across all genres and looking at advancements in manufacturing that allow us to do things we couldn’t have done years ago like our new Ultra noiseless pickups.
Who is the Ultra Series for?
The more modern/contemporary leaning player, someone with a little more edge. The humbucking Strat model has a special set of hotter voiced pickups for example. These are built for speed!
Can you go in a little more depth as to what makes these guitars different?
Essentially everything is different – different Modern D necks, different body contours and sculpted neck heel, different Ultra Noiseless pickups, different wiring, new colours, like Texas Tea, Plasma Red Burst and Cobra Blue!
With Gibson declaring bankruptcy last year, I would assume guitar companies are starting to make penny-pinching, heavily-analyzed decisions that influence the bottom line. This seems to go the opposite way.
We don’t make decisions based upon other companies in the industry; we just focus on providing musicians useful tools to accompany them on their musical journey.
What were the biggest challenges you were presented within the process of creating this new line?
Not only designing these instruments but also designing them in a way that they can be manufactured en masse.
How many prototypes were developed before reaching a final design?
Dozens and dozens; that’s what makes it took 2 years. It’s not just about designing each component. A guitar is a system where all of the pieces need to cooperate and optimize the unique combinations of parts. Myself and my team are all comprised of musicians, so we pride ourselves in being perfectionists in this process thinking of every detail that matters to the player.
Would you say Fender has ever done anything this drastic since it’s early years? When and how?
Well, it has been decades since Fender has really changed the standard dimensions of the iconic body designs. It’s drastic, but still ‘colouring inside the lines’, so it’s not taking it too far afield. We want to push the boundaries but stay true to our roots. It’s all about finding that balance.