Fender - Trapped by Tradition
My first guitar was a Fender.
In 1985, I was bought a Fender steel strung acoustic (dreadnought type) for my fourteenth birthday.
That was the first and last Fender I ever had until the middle of last year (2015), when I felt obligated to buy a Telecaster to use in a Northern Soul band I had begun playing with. Full and nauseating details on this acquisition and others can be found in the forthcoming SIXTH part of my Blog series 'Benny's Guitar History', so I won't go in to excessive detail here.
Suffice to say, that first Tele was an FSR (Factory Short Run) Thinline Deluxe (made in Mexico), and very lovely it was too. I now have a 2016 Elite Thinline (made in the USA). She is called Elsa, and again very lovely.
However, the reason for this blog is not to wax lyrical about guitars per se, but to make an observation about Fender guitars that is probably rather obvious and well documented elsewhere.
Is Fender trapped by their own traditions? By which I mean this: Is there an expectation in a majority percentage of Fender customers today for the guitars to basically never change, even if such changes can be improvements to existing designs? Does this represent a somewhat 'Amish' attitude to technological advancement in this field?
The 'feature' that got me really thinking about this was the redesigned heel joint on my Elite. Now, let me lay some context out for this.
The Deluxe FSR I bought last year, like almost all Fender electric guitars; had a traditional square neck joint, with the standard four bolt plate. This is essentially the exact same design that Leo Fender 'innovated' on his original prototypes. So in 1950 it's true innovation, but in 2016 it's...what? An anachronism? A Joke? What does this say about Fender's instruments? What does it say about Fender's customers? Has there been zero advancement in the field of bolt on necks in the last 66 years?
So, last year's 'USA Deluxe' range of Telecasters had a slightly shaved down neck heel joint. It was still square at the point at which neck meets body, but the wood of the heel had been subtly removed to make upper fret access a little more comfy, necessitating an asymmetrical four bolt plate. Now this year the 'USA Elite' replaces the 'USA Deluxe' and the neck heel joint has been reduced further in that it is now fully reduced on that fretting hand side leading corner. For Fender then, this is basically a technical improvement on the old design. It still does the same great job of securely bolting the neck to the body, but the altered shape reduces the amount of wood obstructing the fretting hand/palm in those upper reaches.
So that's great, right? Well, I am happy enough with it, but let me bring some further context to bear on the situation.
In 1993 Ibanez introduced their All Access Neck Joint (AANJ) system to the world, and rolled it out on most, if not all of their bolt on neck models (Jems, RG, S etc). The system was (and still is 23 years later), pretty much perfect from a 'solving the issue' point of view. It eliminated the need for a big bulky plate, by instead using four large bolts countersunk directly into the body heel, which itself had been shaved down to a wonderfully ergonomic shape that basically represents the inverse of your cupped palm. Each bolt has it's own individual 'Plate' in the form of a kind of heavy duty washer. This solution provides all the security and transverse strength of a traditional four bolt system, while simultaneously solving the ergonomic flaws inherent with them.
My question then is: Why is it that a company with all the resources that FMIC can bring to bear, only just introduced (and only on limited models), a slightly improved neck heel joint system? It must also be said that Fender's solution is not as clever or effective as the one that Ibanez rolled out in 1993? Indeed, why doesn't a 2016 Stratocaster have an AANJ type neck joint and 24 frets? Ok, let's not go there with the frets, although a very salient conversation could be had regarding Fender's rather cynical policy of limiting the Mexican made models to 21 frets, while having 22 on the US ones as some kind of part justification of the price premium.
So, I believe there is a certain circularity to this and (truth be known), many other issues. Fender have in fact brought many innovations at least to the prototype stage (seven string Stratocasters for example), and sometimes brought them to market in a limited way too. Most have spectacularly failed to find mass acceptance among their customer base, which must frustrate the innovator types at that company no end.
Gibson ran afoul of this with their 2015 Les Paul range by introducing a smorgasbord of technical innovations that left a great many fans of the Les Paul angry and mystified at why Gibson would fiddle with a recipe that clearly (in their eyes) didn't need to change. It was bad actually, and sales suffered. On a personal note, I felt that for 2016, Gibson's decision to offer every Les Paul model in the range in both 'Traditional' and 'High Performance' spec, was a tad over-complicated, but still a brilliant compromise, as it allowed them a means by which they can satisfy the trad folks, and still actively improve the Les Paul design as well. Otherwise what are Gibson in the business of doing, but building antiques?
Again, from my point of view (as something of an anti-traditionalist in some ways), If i were to buy a Les Paul (and I did come close this year), I would not hesitate to go for the 'High Performance' Les Paul Studio every time, no question. Why wouldn't I want a beautifully streamlined, palm friendly neck joint, rather than the traditional 200+ year old acoustic style bulky design?
Back to Fender then.
Why does my 'Elite' Telecaster still sport that terribly badly designed 'cup' style output socket? You know, the one that doesn't actually have a well engineered means of staying firmly attached to the guitar body?
It's baffling that the various forces at work here, seem to be powerful enough to prevent the wholesale improvement of the instrument.
It reminds me a little of the old Jaguar XJS (1976 to 1996) motor car. That car had curious 'lozenge' shaped headlights that never quite fitted in their chrome surrounds properly. Putting it right would have no doubt entailed a financial investment that Jaguar was unwilling or unable to justify in a cost to benefit ratio sense. So for the entire life of the model, it's headlights didn't quite fit snugly.
Fender of course have a very different set of factors applying the pressure to prevent them changing things too radically. This is shame, as like Gibson; it seems to artificially retard the potential of the instrument.
That being said, there are areas where things are looking good, the fourth generation N4 Noiseless pick-ups on my Elite USA Tele (pictured), are a good example. The drawback with them is the lack of traditional Tele brutality in terms of head slicing bite in the bridge.
Mentioning this particular guitar does bring me to interesting area where Fender seems to have developed an interesting 'new' innovation. Of course, I must be talking about the 'Suspension Bridge' which is a new for 2016 design found only on the Thinline.
The idea with this design is that the entire bridge assembly is not fixed to the bodywork. Rather, the base plate is such that it fits snugly into a slot in the body, and is kept in place by string tension running over the saddles.
I believe the idea is to help bring out the Thinline's semi-hollow resonance.
Ok, so far so good. However, there is a catch, and I'll tell you what it is.
Anyone who has ever changed a string on a traditional Telecaster, can testify to how simple a task it is (especially with a classic string through Tele). You simply feed your string through the appropriate ferrule on the rear of the body, and it ops through in the correct saddle on the bridge, and you can then complete the string change at the headstock end. Simple right?
OK, now change a string on the new Elite Thinline...it's horrible.
Normally, bridge designs that feature stringing like this are simple enough, you simply thread the string through the back plate and you're done. However, with the Elite, there is a sort of gully or trench at the back of the bridge (part of the suspension slot configuration). This means that the holes for the string to pass through sit very low compared to the surrounding bodywork, which makes getting the string through the bloody thing an absolute pig of a job. You have to 'pre-bend' the string, so you can angle it up and through, and even then it wants to go underneath the saddle instead of over it. It is a stunning example of Fender deciding to be single minded in pursuit of some intangible subjective 'improvement' that nobody asked for, and really screwing up something else in the process.
I can't tell you how long it takes me to change the strings on the Elite compared to my old Deluxe. This does not seem like progress to me.
At the beginning of this blog I asked the question 'Is Fender trapped by Tradition'. Well, in conclusion the answer is yes and no, but mostly yes. However, with FMIC seemingly going from strength to strength, this prison seems very very loose and incredibly comfortable.