By: JP Durand
Photos by: THT
Anaheim, CA (The Hollywood Times) 4/18/18 – The annual madness of the NAMM show took place again in late January. The Anaheim Convention Center completed an additional new building, which seemed to push the usual chaos into a further, more complex dimension. The layout of the last few years was radically changed, and thus almost nothing inside the hall, outside of the acoustic instruments in Hall E, was where it had once been. It was definitely a little harder to get oriented this year. Amongst the rare exceptions was Fender, with its usual sprawling 2nd floor arrangement. But, lo and behold, once inside, Leo Fender’s dreamchild was teeming with new and unexpected delights. Such visions warranted further inspection at a subsequent late March visit to Fender’s offices in Hollywood with Mr. Joey Brasler, product manager and guitar wrangler extraordinaire.
A quiet truth of guitar retail is that, for as many new lines as ever introduced, the guitar-buying public seems to want the tried and true: the Strat, the Tele, or other classic fave. This paradigm is not kind to innovation, but Fender’s Steve Pepper introduced me to Fender’s newest dimension-bending response to this ongoing guitar design dilemma. From a distance, the new Parallel Universe line looked classic – on the surface. The first guitar I saw was a beautiful Strat. Except it wasn’t. Something was different. three single-coils, tremolo bar, but then . . . the upper bout was a Telecaster, on an otherwise standard Stratocaster. And so the line went – classic Fender bodies and pickup configurations: Strats married to Jazzmaster necks, Telecasters with Jazzmaster pickup configurations. But they were not thrown together – the attention to detail on the necks, the pickup configurations, all clearly had been optimized for excellent sounds and playability, and were sexy as hell. This new line provides longtime player and excitable newcomer something they haven’t quite seen before, yet still looks and feels somehow classic. The Whiteguard Stratocaster with the Telecaster-configured pickups and 3-barrel compensated bridge was particularly stunning – based on the reactions of those around me, I knew I was not alone (a beautiful see-through vintage blonde finish had more than a little to do with it).
For 2018, Fender has introduced some new guitar pedals that should make a real mark. The company comes into the market on a wave of the pedal-mania of the last decade or so, with so many boutique pedal companies arising, blowing everyone away, then disappearing. The advent of the use of computer chips has also enhanced sound quality and options. Guitarist Chase Paul presented six items in the new line of super-versatile California pedals, all designed in-house from the ground up (primarily by noted Fender VP and tone guru Stan Cotey) to present some new and incredibly switchable flavors in the pedal game. First, the “Level Set Buffer” is a good, simple way to match levels if going between a single-coil and humbucking setup, or otherwise if you have two electrics with distinctly different outputs. Now, confession time: I am an overdrive junkie, so my eyes moved first to Santa Ana overdrive. The first thing I noticed visually, besides the lovely candy-apple red exterior, was four tone-controls, as would usually be found on an amp. This is way past the standard single-knob “tone” designation on something like a classic TS808, so that caught my attention. Add to that two switchable voices AND a boost on top of the standard overdrive level make this amongst the most versatile overdrives I’ve seen. Sound? Tubey, creamy, in a land beyond what a standard dimed Bassman would provide (which is to say, more than just a standard Fender overdrive sound) – it barks but is still quite touch-responsive. The “Pugilist Distortion” contains its own brand of sweet science, again with a well-considered control layout. There are two channels, thus two distinct saturation modes that let players really customize the interaction with their selected amp. There is also selectable channel interaction: the first and second channels can handle different parts of the signal, or the series mode drives one gain stage into the other for a “cascading gain” arrangement. It really screams! The “Mirror Image” Delay has the high-end sparkle of a digital delay, but can be switched into tape delay or bucket-brigade modes to get a little murkier 70’s/80’s vintage vibes. The literature indicates that Fender is quite aware of offerings by builders like TC Electronics, BOSS, and Line 6 over the last few years, and has come up with a box that sonically holds its own against those other established pedals while trying to carve out a new niche. Again, reflecting a commitment to jump into the market with both feet, the “Marine Layer Reverb” takes advantage of the stunning advances in technology to deliver a unique dark and lush reverb. Two halls, two rooms, and “special” (a modulated cathedral” sound) each have two variations for a wide tonal palette. Mr. Paul had the reverb and delay acting together for a beautiful sound I can only describe to other guitar players as a deep, washy, super-clean reverb tank with a shimmering delay going on. It was quite complex and compelling. Finally, “The Bends” compressor stomp box again did its job admirably, adding sustain and jangle as needed, blending two distinct compression paths. Fender has been touting the consistency of the pedal from gig to gig (via the bedrock software), which, as with all the pedals, displays a robust build quality. These new pedals rock – revisiting them at Fender Hollywood in a more peaceful environment only enhanced my perception from the NAMM show. Joey was partial to the Pugilist, whereas I was a little more sold on the Santa Ana overdrive. The truth is that the pedals perform very different tasks with a profound versatility. I need them both.
The California Series of acoustics was unveiled at 2018. The distinguishing characteristic? A return to the Fender headstock on the acoustics (remember Johnny Cash playing one in the 60’s?). It’s a classic look. But that’s where the similarities end. There are three categories: the California Classic, Special, and the Player series. At the Classic high-end of the series, Fender is now going with a mahogany body, koa binding, a deep blue or red top (matching the headstock) and a mahogany neck with pau ferro fretboard. They are offered in three sizes, largest to smallest: the Redondo (dreadnought sized, boomy), the Newporter (concert-sized top, with a lower bout that’s more like a grand auditorium), and the Malibu (parlor-sized). These guitars sounded lovely, quite full, and all feature Fishman electronics with onboard tuner. The sizes are reflected down through the budget levels, with some of the more entry-level offerings in the Player series coming in a pretty enticing range of colors (the Arctic White with the gold pickguard is really cool).
Finally, with the assistance of Fender’s amp man Richard Heins, I got to check out the Hot Rod IV series, the 4th iteration of the venerable amp line. The tiny but rocking 15-watt Pro Jr. now comes in tweed, plus a new Jensen P10R speaker. The new preamp configuration in combination with the new speaker doesn’t break up as easily in the low-wattage range as the previous models, though still sounds throaty and full as the volume goes up. The Hot Rod IV Blues Junior, DeVille and Deluxe have all now gone to a Celestion “A” speaker, a more American-voiced offering that moves away from the Eminence Speakers that Fender has featured for years. On the Blues Junior, the bass range has been extended a bit for a fuller-range sound, and the reverb circuit has been moved to a more complimentary location in the tone stack. On the DeVille and the Deluxe, the overdrive channel now has a warmer, fatter gain configuration that compliments the Celestion “A” in its more American (rather than British) tonal characteristic. Both models now feature 6L6’s. Creme knobs, solid pine cabinets, and a stronger reinforced steel-capped handle round out the visual aesthetic. I must mention the new ’64 Deluxe custom reissue. As a fan of the production line ’65 reissue (which is a classic, all-around usage amp) I was curious why they added a ’64. Well, this new beast is a hardwired job, with no detail spared. It’s 20 watts, done to original spec, blue capacitors, shared reverb and tremolo on both channels (this is a modern change from vintage spec), and the tremolo is a true bias tremolo. For bassists, the Rumble Stage 800 and Studio 40 have been revamped. The Stage 800 is quite notable for stage use, insofar as Fender has gone to a feature-packed digital preamp with 200 presets, over 40 effects, over 15 amp models, all powered with a 800-watt class-D configuration with two 10’s
at a suggested retail of $799! Talk about low-end bang-for-the-buck.
Whew! So much exciting stuff happening at Fender for 2018!