The Empire Strikes Back
The true story, told at last!
'They're owned by the Japanese now' - 'They went broke' - 'All the new Strats are made in Taiwan'... The rumours and distortions about Fender have spread like wildfire since their recent employee buy-out. To discover the facts, Gary Cooper spoke with director and guitar design supremo Dan Smith. He sampled some forthcoming Fender goodies, too!
Maybe it's something to do with playing music being a creative, passionate process. Possibly it's because of the sympathy which a musician has to have with his or her chosen instrument. Whatever the cause, many (most?) musicians sooner or later find themselves developing intense feelings not just about their individual instruments, but also about the companies that design and make them. At its highest expression this feeling becomes almost a religious fervour, but the number of companies whose names evoke this reaction are few; among them numbering Gibson, Marshall, Rickenbacker, Martin and, of course, Fender.
When changes take place in these companies, players care - and, if the facts aren't there, then the vacuum that's created becomes inhabited by rumours - most of them wrong, some positively damaging. In Fender's case, their 1982 decision to begin making the Squier guitar range and the Sidekick amps in Japan, leaving the legendary Fullerton, California plant producing only the top-end professional models, created the perfect climate for speculation to spread when, several months ago, the giant CBS Corporation decided to sell-off its unwanted offspring.
Not only were CBS prepared to sell Fender, but they were prepared to consider selling the company to a Japanese outfit and, as this story began to filter across the Atlantic, confusion and misunderstandings sprang up, giving rise to half-truths and gossip which we've probably all heard in recent months.
So what are Fender up to? Who now owns the company? Will there be any more USA-made Fenders? Will there be any new designs? To discover the truth, I recently spoke with Fender Director Dan Smith, the man whose ideas have lain behind Fender's guitar designs for several years now, and who remains the driving force of guitar design in the new Fender Company. I began by asking Dan just what had been happening to Fender since CBS announced that they wanted to sell.
'Initially, CBS sent letters out to about ten major people in the musical instrument manufacturing business, including some Japanese companies, soliciting bids for the company. There was no initial intent on their part to sell it to the employees, because there's more of a hassle involved in an employees' buy-out.'
For reasons best known to themselves (although one imagines that CBS were placing a mighty price on the value of the Fender name), none of the companies who might have bought them did so, which led to the chance which company President Bill Schulz and his team had been waiting for.
'Finally in the Fall of last year they allowed the employees, headed-up by Bill Schulz, to make a bid, and that's when it all started for us. Bill had to go out and find backers, find a bank that would handle us, put together a lot of proposals and packages, and show that it was a worthwhile investment - and that took us till about February, bv which time, at the Western NAMM Show, CBS allowed us to make an announcement that there was an agreement, in principle, for them to sell the company to the employees. The deal was finally closed on March 12th.'
During the intervening period, word had begun to spread that Fender was up for sale and that several leading Japanese companies had been involved in the bidding. This knowledge was undoubtedly what gave rise to the 'Fender is now a Japanese-only company' rumour which began to sweep Britain in the early part of 1985.
Of course, where Fender guitars and amps are made, it could be argued, really doesn't matter as much as how well they are made - but Fender is a piece of Rock 'n' Roll history, and a lot of players do seem to care - witness the numerous dealer ads purporting offer the 'last USA-built Fenders' appearing during the early part of this year.
The truth, on the other hand, is that there will be US-produced Fenders in the future, although the new employee-owned company is no longer based at that legendary Fullerton, California address, as Dan went on to explain.
'In the second week of July we moved out of the old building at Fullerton. That hadn't been part of the deal with CBS, and the price being asked for the plant was such that it could well have crippled us. 'The building was a lot larger than we needed,' Dan adds, 'It was constructed to build 70,000 electric guitars a year and 20,000 or so Rhodes pianos, 15,000 amplifiers - plus strings. It just didn't make sense to buy it for what we knew was going to be a scaled-down company.'
Scaled-down the new Fender outfit may be, but the enthusiasm and optimism of Dan and Bill Schulz is such that you can almost feel it as a tangible force down the 'phone wires. It's not over-confidence though, as both of them readily admit that they have a struggle ahead of them to build Fender as a force for the future.
Having quit the historic Fullerton address. Fender have now relocated themselves. What's the new plant like, I asked?
'We moved into our new facility in Brea, California, only about six weeks ago,' (we were talking on August 29th, by the way). 'It's a new building with nice new offices, and the move to new surroundings has really been quite a lift to everybody. Fullerton was getting kind of gloomy during the last few months we were there - it was very sad...'
As an aside, this move of Fender to their new Brea site means that only C.F. Martin among the 'big three' American guitar makers retain their evocative first base address (in Nazareth, Pennsylvania), Gibson, too, having left their roots in the move from Kalamazoo to Nashville. Sic transit gloria mundi - which doesn't mean that the band's van broke down at the beginning of the week, with a groupie on board!
Now the vital question - will there be any more US-produced Fender guitars?
'Yes. In Brea we're only about four or five miles out of where we were in Fullerton, and when we moved we found a new facility out in Corona, which is about twenty miles miles East of here going towards Riverside, about halfway between us in Brea and Fullerton. At this plant we're currently bolting the guitar making equipment to the floor, and on Tuesday,' (September 3rd) 'we're going to start building the first necks. By the end of October we're going to be shipping the first Vintage Stratocasters, which are the first models we'll be making.'
Although Dan confirms that there will be American-made Fenders, he admits that the numbers (at least initially) will be small, the 'bread and butter' guitars and basses continuing to come from Japan, although strings and amps will continue to be US-made.
'What we plan to do is make the best quality guitars we possibly can here. It's almost impossible with the rates of exchange to be able to export US-made products in large quantities, plus it's very hard to compete with Korea and those other places in low-end instruments. That may change at some point in the future, because we've automated our production as far as we can, but what would make the real difference would be if the duties changed and became fairer worldwide. That might eventually put us in the position where we could be a little more competitive in the export market and allow us to raise the quantities of American-made products.'
Meanwhile, the instruments produced at Fender's new plant will be the top of the range models.
'Our main goal with the American guitar facility is to make the finest quality Fender-type guitars that are made anywhere in the world. We'll be making Vintage styles plus a couple of new models initially, like the 'Vintage Plus' Strat, which is a vintage-looking instrument incorporating the new Series 3 tremolo.'
In addition a new model, dubbed 'The Performer' will be made both in Japan and, in its ultimate version, in the USA. The US plant will also be making a new version of the well regarded 'Elite' Strat, along with the new System 3 trem and some changes to the electronics.
'I'd like people to feel just the same about buying a 1986 Stratocaster as they would about buying one made in 1956, and we're going to aim for that standard by controlling how many are made, and really busting our asses to make sure that the quality is the best that can be achieved.'
Interestingly, the revived Fender's plans don't stop at production line guitars. 'We're going to be able to make some custom instruments, too,' Dan continues, 'so you might well be seeing some set-neck Teles, neck-through-the-body Strats and so on. We've even tossed around the idea of doing a $3-4,000 Tele or Strat, which would include a plane ticket out to California so the customer could be here when the neck was being shaped, the colours selected and so on. That way the instrument would be made like a really good suit, and I'm sure that there would be players out there who would really go for that idea.'
Incidentally, any IN TUNE readers who seriously fancy this prospect, give us a call, won't you!
Dan, rather than being 'just' a businessman, has been the driving force behind the research, development and design at Fender for some years now and so is uniquely placed, as one of America's most important designers, to answer the last question I posed him. How does he see the electric guitar developing during the next few years?
'Well, one thing that I'm noticing in the United States is that there's a real trend back to R&B and Blues - old American-style Rock 'n' Roll. In fact one of my personal favourite guitar players, and one of my best friends, is Robin Ford, who has one of the hottest Blues groups you're ever going to hear, and he's just got signed to Warner Bros, by Teddy Templeton. Robin has an old Strat and a new Esprit, and he's just burning, he's so good. I can see his type of music being something really strong, and helping bring the guitar right back into prominence.'
Oddly, Dan's views about Blues and R&B guitar-based music being on the way back in the States coincides with the data which IT readers have been giving us lately - so if you're into that scene, watch out; your turn for stardom could be just round the corner!
Blues aside, what about the Electronics movement, I enquired?
'I feel that we're maybe two or three years away from a really inexpensive guitar synth,' Dan opines. 'In fact we're looking into this right now. Personally though, I feel quite ecstatic that regular electric guitar and good old fashioned acoustic type guitar playing seem to be on the way back. As far as instruments go, that puts the emphasis back on real good, high quality.'
In their bid for the future. Fender are beginning to work even closer with leading players - something which I know Dan has been keen on developing for several years. As a result, Fender plan to start a new 'Artists Relations Board' in the near future, and have already received some quite staggering offers of help from top players who want to see Fender survive and prosper as a major guitar force in the remainder of the 1980s and, no doubt, beyond. Further Fender plans include clinics, books, educational programmes, and one particularly exciting idea (which Dan swore me to secrecy on) which will, all being well, be revealed soon!
Talking with Dan Smith and Bill Schulz is an invigorating experience, perhaps best summed up by one particularly telling quote from Dan. 'We really want to establish Fender, now that we're on our own, so that people can tell where our hearts are.'
From a lot of people in the instrument making business, a statement like that could be instantly dismissed as bull, but I've personally known (and grown to respect) Dan over several years, and learned that his enthusiasm and commitment to his work is utterly genuine. Based on what I now know of the Fender team's plans, I'm looking forward to enjoying their future products and ideas. Wouldn't it be ironic if, in a few years' time, we were talking about post CBS Fenders in the same way that, today, we talk about pre CBS models?
In British shops now or due here soon, is a host of new instruments and ideas from Dan Smith and the Fender team. Some of these follow established Fender designs, some (like the adventurous-looking Katana) are altogether new. We've seen that future plans include new USA luxury-class models, but a line-up of the latest Japanese-produced Fenders is as follows.
The basic old favourite Fenders remain unchanged, with Squier Standard Stratocasters featuring traditional Strat trems. These are available in both maple neck/fingerboard and rosewood fingerboard versions. In addition, there are also Japanese-made Fender (as opposed to Squier) Standard Strats, now fitted with the new Series 1 tremolo system.
More in keeping with heavy metal playing styles are the 'Contemporary' Strats. These conform to the current demand for Strat-like guitars with humbuckers, the Squier versions being fitted with either single or twin humbuckers and traditional Strat-type trems. Moving up market, the Fender Contemporary Strats offer various pickup formats including single humbucking, twin humbucking, one humbucking and two twin coil, plus various configurations of System 1, System 2 or System 3 trems.
In the Telecaster department three choices are offered: Squiers (both traditional twin single coil models) with either rosewood fingerboards or maple neck/fingerboards, and a Fender Contemporary model with a System 1 trem and twin humbuckers. The Katana too comes in both Squier and Fender models - the Fender version featuring a Series 1 trem and twin humbuckers, the Squier offering just one humbucker and a 'vintage' trem system. Finally, on the bass side there are now bass Katanas with single Precision-type pickups, Squier Precisions, Squier Jazz basses and a Contemporary Series Jazz bass, which has one Precision and one Jazz pickup.
Importantly, many of the models mentioned above also feature Fender's exclusive 'TBX' tone control system, a passive circuit device which acts rather like an active tone control, delivering a 'straight' sound at its centre click-stop setting, top cut when reversed, and enhanced output and resonant peak for extra attack and hotter sounds when wound forward towards its maximum setting. Even newer is the 'Performer', exclusively pictured here. This model is so new that it has yet to reach U.K. shops, although you can expect it soon. More will be revealed as soon as we get a sample to try and report back to you on.
My first taste of the new 'things to come' from Fender was a System 3 tremolo, loaned to me by Fender's artist liaison man John Hill for a short trial, and fitted (as a prototype) to a Japanese-made three single coil pickupped Standard Strat.
In its own way, the System 3 is Fender's answer to the Kahler/Floyd Rose generation of advanced tremolo systems, and is the top-flight trem offering from Fender. Some guitars in the new range are fitted with the basic Vintage (ie Strat-type) models, others with the System 1 designs and yet others with System 2 types, while the System 3 is reserved for the top of the range.
To try and guide you through this apparent maze, the System 1 is an 'advanced' trem, featuring an allen key operated locking nut, floating bridge, knife-edge pivots, right hand fine tuning adjustment plus variable height pivot posts, roller saddles and a snap-in, adjustable whammy bar. The System 2, meanwhile, uses Dan Smith's ingenious capo-like locking cam device at the nut, which dispenses with clumsy, easy to lose allen screws. As with the the System 3, the System 2's nut is also height adjustable. What it lacks, mainly, is a fine tuning system at the bridge. It is also without roller saddles (although each saddle is individually adjustable for height), but it does have the adjustable snap-in trem arm. Most importantly, it shares the impressive sideways locking action on the arm which cuts out all tremolo action when so desired.
I tried the top model, the System 3 - and quite a device it is! I've often complained about allen screw fastened locking nuts, reasoning that whilst they may well hold strings almost perfectly in tune even during the most outrageous tremolo arm use, they make string changing a slow and unnecessarily awkward business. The System 3, however (and the System 2, for that matter) improves the situation, through the use of an ingenious locking cam device which clamps and unclamps the strings in the nut slots just by being swung up or down.
As with many advanced ideas, Fender's System 3 trem isn't easy to understand at first. Yet it's vital that users know how to both set and use it, and the accompanying instruction manual must be read and digested unless some bizarre results are to follow. Unfortunately, explaining the System 3 isn't easy, and Fender's quite lengthy manual could make for a little head scratching among less mechanically inclined guitarists. Bearing that in mind, I'll try to detail how the device works.
One of the System 3's main benefits is that no extra tools are needed to adjust and use it, other than two allen keys which are ingeniously fitted into the trem arm itself! One (a 2.5mm wrench) is located at the end of the arm which snaps into the body. This key handles the allen screws which allow you to set string balance at the bridge, and loosens the individual saddles for intonation adjustment. Another key (measuring 1.5mm) is revealed by unscrewing the cap at the other end of the trem arm, and this one adjusts the nut height via two screws recessed in the nut itself; one between the E and A strings, the other between the B and top E, in addition to height adjustment of the individual string saddles. Obviously this is a fine idea, as it means that you don't have to carry loose allen keys around. Provided you don't leave the trem's arm at home, you'll have all you ever need on stage with you.
Delving deeper into the complex mysteries of the System 3 reveals that it works both as a fixed bridge device (ie conventional non-trem) device and as a floating type. To insert the trem arm properly, you align it with a line inscribed deeply into the chromed, rounded receptacle in the bridge, and push it to lock. Once inserted properly, you then swing the arm downwards (towards the controls) to lock the trem altogether. If you're inclined towards fiddling around with the internals of the system, a full range of adjustment is also offered so that you can determine where the bridge locks relative to the arm's downward movement of the arm. The major attraction, for me, of being able to lock the whole bridge is that it enables a player to determine exactly when the trem is in use. One of my strongest personal objections to most floating trems is that they are far too sensitive and, when you aren't intending to use them, contact between your right hand and the bridge can cause violent and unwanted pitch changes. Once the System 3 is locked and properly adjusted, it doesn't matter what you do; the pitch remains constant and you can play away in the non-trem mode just as if you had a non-trem bridge fitted.
Another benefit is that you can set the guitar up without the 'floating' bridge making any sort of stability impossible. Once you've set your string height, intonation and so on in the locked mode, all you do is swing the trem arm back towards the strings and the System 3 is 'on'. This isn't quite perfect, as the bridge might pull up or drop down towards the body when you do - but yet again, Dan has arrived at a solution. If the bridge is either up or down when you unlock the bridge, just use the 'balancing rod', which is accessed immediately below the strap button on the body's base. Insert the 2.5mm alien key on the trem arm into this and you can turn it clockwise to raise the bridge from the body, or counter-clockwise to lower it. Which direction to adjust it is shown by checking the tuning of the third and fourth strings against your original reference tuning source.
Mechanically speaking, the System 3 has several other plusses going for it, including right hand fine-tuning (extremely smooth and very precise in use, I discovered) plus fully adjustable saddles.
Moving up the guitar to the novel nut locking system, it mustn't be forgotten that this is one of those rare creatures, a genuinely height adjustable nut, which must make for supreme accuracy when setting your string height. Perhaps more significant, however, is the cam-lock system itself, which does away with the usual allen screw arrangement found on other locking nuts. Swinging this cam lever up or down locks or unlocks the strings in a vice-like grip between the nut slots. To accommodate different string gauges you first have to set a thumbscrew located on the left side of the nut. Initially, you're advised to loosen the thumbscrew until the right-hand mounted clamp cam arm closes freely. With this closed you then tighten the thumbscrew until it's finger-tight, then open the cam arm and tighten the thumbscrew about 3/4 turn clockwise. When re-locked, you should try de-tuning your B string 1/2 a turn. If it does de-tune, you tighten the thumbscrew another 1/4 turn and check again.
An alternative method is given, suited to those who've used the System 3 for some while - but regrettably neither approach is as straightforward as one might have hoped from a genuinely easy alternative to the usual allen screw locking nut types. Re-stringing a guitar with the System 3 nut lock is still slow, but it is definitely faster, and less fiddly than allen screw locked kinds, and any improvement in this area is to be welcomed.
Finally we come to the System 3's special needs with regard to stringing. To achieve this, you have to make what amounts to a double bend in the ball end of the string, the top point of the bend's 'V' occurring around 5/16" from the ball end, the other around 5/16" from that. 'Although stringing may seem a little difficult at first,' the accompanying instruction sheet says, 'you will find that in a short time it becomes quite easy.' Yes, well - I can't disagree with this statement, but to be honest it still makes for another delay when restringing in mid-set.
Forgetting for a moment the initial complexity of its setting procedure, the Fender System 3 is really exceptionally good in use. Once you've got it set up correctly (and this must include pre-stretching the strings, as with all floating/nut lock systems) you can attack it with a mad ferocity and not find any significant drifting, apart from that caused by any unrelieved string tension. This, of course, you can cope with via the bridge mounted fine tuners. In terms of its effect range the System 3 performs as well as any of the current crop of super-trems, whilst adding its speed and full adjustability into the mix. To me, however, the main feature of the Fender's trem was the way in which a quick shift of the arm allowed me to indulge in my heavy-handed right hand damping and close-to-the-bridge picking, completely secure in the knowledge that I didn't have to pussyfoot around through fear of setting the bridge movement off. One neat test of any of these new generation trems' effectiveness is to finger-bend a string good and hard and see whether or not the bridge moves, and - most importantly - whether or not it comes back to tune properly. The System 3 passes this test perfectly, making it ideally compatible with conventional Rock techniques.
To really get the feel of any trem, one has to play around with it for some while (at least, I have to!), and unfortunately my prototype sample was snatched away amid the process of being whisked around from top Fender user to user, so I had only a limited time with it. Nonetheless, to my tastes at least, it had a really fine feel to it. Not so light as to be temperamental but not so heavy as to be clumsy. I'm not at all sure that - shock, horror, heresy! - I didn't prefer its action to an original Strat's.
Nonetheless, the System 3 is undeniably complex. When I first saw it, I marvelled at the apparent simplicity of the capo-like lever cam nut lock, but I didn't bargain for the need to be so careful with this device - especially all that business with thumbscrew adjustment. It may be faster and more convenient in use than the familiar allen screw system, but it's still nowhere near as fast as I'd like to allow rapid string changes midset. Moreover, making pre-bends in your strings before fitting them imposes yet further delays, and whilst this might be perfectly acceptable for the pro player with spares at the side of stage (not to mention the attentions of a guitar roadie or two) I fear for the more typical player who has just the one guitar and needs to be able to replace broken strings in a hurry. In this respect, I'm really not sure that the System 3 is fast enough.
There was no doubt in my mind that as an advanced trem offering tuning stability despite violent use, the Fender System 3 worked beautifully well. However, it's difficult to understand at first and needs considerable patience to get the best from it. Once you've mastered its depths The System 3 offers a heck of a lot of advantages and is probably both more infinitely adjustable and quicker to use than any other of the latest generation of floating tremolo mechanisms. However, it is only slightly faster from a string changing point of view than, say, a Floyd Rose or a Kahler, and some players might still find (as I do) that the lack of speed with which strings can be changed is a major drawback. Fender's new System 3 is clever - but is it too clever? Speaking purely personally, it does seem to entail a lot of fiddly setting adjustments to do what I find the original Fender trem does quite satisfactorily. Maybe, despite all the advances offered by the System 3, Fender's simpler System 2 might be easier on the brain - as well as the wallet? Only time, and the judgement of Fender buyers, will be the deciding factors.
More info on Fender from John and Ivor Arbiter Ltd., (Contact Details).
Feature by Gary Cooper
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