As one of the world's most enduring and iconic music brands, Fender doesn't have much to prove.
The company that helped shape the sound of the last 60-plus years of popular music, from Dick Dale to Jimi Hendrix to Pink Floyd, Deep Purple, Nirvana and so many others, Fender has always been about innovating — listening to and meeting the needs of musicians.
The brand new Ultra Series is Fender's most diligent attempt yet in fine-tuning the ergonomics and expanding the sonic capabilities of its instruments. The new designs feature sleek tapered neck heel joints, faster playing necks with compound radius fretboards, a new generation of noiseless pickups to bring clarity and versatility and Fender's most substantial body contouring ever.
Fender has been an industry leader throughout most of its history. So the main surprise of the Ultra Series isn't why, it's why now?
While Fender may have been focused in recent years on paying tribute to its past, the Ultra Series — along with Fender's growing array of mobile apps for guitarists — signifies the company's emphasis on remaining at the forefront of a guitar industry that's more competitive than ever.
The company's Executive Vice President of Products, Justin Norvell, explains to Q104.3 New York's QN'A, that the Ultra Series that was unveiled earlier this month is the culmination of a few years of development.
With sales of new guitars at an a 10-year high, these Ultra Series advancements are Fender's way of meeting its fans at every step of their development as artists and providing instruments to meet nearly all of their needs.
When did the design process for the Ultra Series begin?
Really, at Fender, we’re always looking at improvements and enhancements and ways to make it better. We’re always looking at technology, if there’s something that exists now that didn’t exist then. It’s kind of a constant process. But I would say this particular series, it’s probably been about two-and-a-half years that we’ve been working on it.
It kind of follows the continuum since Fender’s early days. If you look at the instruments in Fender’s catalog in the ‘50s and ‘60s, they kept changing. A ’59 is different than a ’54 — the wood changed, the pickups changed. We’re holding to that ideal.
At a company with that much history now, we go through and we do things that are retrospective and we do things that are very image-minded. And then we also want to flip it around, though, sometimes and be super contemporary and be like, ‘What if Fender started today, what would it look like? What would it sound like? And what would the most contemporary version of that be?' That’s really what the Ultra Series is.
It seems like Fender has been doing a lot of retrospective releases over the past few years. I think part of the excitement around the Ultra is how forward-looking it is.
Yeah, it’s finding the art and the balance between honoring what is beloved and iconic to a lot of people but also thinking of the future and bringing [the brand] forward a little bit.
What were some of the challenges of creating the Ultra Series?
Reinterpreting the body shapes and doing things like that is pretty radical and so it’s something we had to do very carefully.
The neck is different, the neck joint is different, the contours are things that the factory hasn’t had to do [in the past]. Just really getting the team up to speed on a completely new interpretation of all of our body shapes was one. To make sure that they’re all the same and that it’s all perfect and that it flowed with the design.
I’d also say the new noiseless pickups. Noiseless pickups have long been a thing that people have been playing with for over 20 years, including Fender. It’s usually some sort of compromise to eliminate the hum that single-coil pickups have; you usually have to eliminate something tonally to reduce the hum. That then eliminates something magical about the pickups.
This round of testing of artists who are coming into our Hollywood office really got us to a point where I think we got multiple sets of pickups where that compromise isn’t necessary anymore.
How much did Fender consider what other brands have done other the years with their own Fender-inspired designs?
I think that we definitely try to stay pure in our own path and we don’t really follow, but we also can’t help but be aware of some of the things that other people are doing. There are so many things that are batted around in [research and development] for the last 20 years that don’t all see the light of day.
The only main thing that we would get from that would be the inspiration of what particular features seem to be resonating with the market, not only in Fender but just out in general guitardom.
Some have interpreted the Ultra Series as an old brand trying to keep up. But I do think, for guitarists, Fender’s approval rating is at an all-time high because of what you’ve been able to do with the brand at all different price points.
We don’t get distracted. Really it’s just about offering the best tools for musicians to create. We’re the guy behind the guy, in terms of providing creative tools. There’s the democratization of being able to record at home … it’s created a new boom in the industry. Keeping a core mission of just making great guitars and basses for people kind of keeps us honest.
Fender encapsulates country, punk, blues, funk and whatever in between. If you like the retroactive part of Fender and the history and think that’s the lane we should be in, we’ve got guitars for you. If you want a Fender and you want it to be modernized with appointments that are not as vintage, we’ve got guitars for you. And if you want something in between, we’ve got that for you as well.
And the modularity of our guitars is a unique thing, where you can easily swap pickups, pickguards, personalize it, change it.
An Ultra is an investment-level instrument, where this could be your lifelong guitar and if you change styles or shapes, [just like any Fender] you make adjustments to the guitar and it comes with you.
It’s funny you mention the modularity of Fenders; that's a big part of the appeal to me. Whenever I think about getting a Fender, I always ask myself how I would modify and personalize it, in part, because I play in a metal-inspired band. But after seeing the Ultra series and hearing the pickups, I’m not sure there is anything I would change.
Wow, that’s great to hear. While these are not trying to posture as metal guitars (especially the humbucker guitar has a hotter set of pickups). Particularly the basses have preamps that are voiced to be a little more aggressive than previous versions.
There’s a bit of a faster neck, a bit of a flatter [fretboard] radius, it’s all stuff for someone who’s looking for a higher level of performance out of a Strat, compared to a more vintage style guitar.
Well, I saw Ola Englund's video with the Ultra Series Telecaster, and that did metal awfully well.
I was surprised he didn’t do it the humbucker Strat; he did it with the Telecaster, but it certainly did chug.
Speaking of the contouring and the new pickups, do you anticipate features of the Ultra Series will move on down the line to become available at other price points in the next few years?
That’s typically how things go.
The American Deluxe stuff of old ended up staying the Deluxe Series out of Ensenada [Mexico]. Things like the noiseless pickups have been cascading down into other models. Usually, this is the debut point where these features can sort of enter the lexicon and become part of our working arsenal of components.
With the Ultra Series came a new round of finishes. Does the Ultra Series mark the debut of the Texas Tea finish? People seem to love that.
Yes, a lot of those finishes are new. We wanted to have colors that were not so bright or polarizing [that would alienate most players] … we were like, ‘Well, how can we take black but reinterpret it in a way that when you hit it with light, all of the sudden this whole new world opens up?’
From 10 paces from a normally lit room inside a house, [the Texas Tea finish] looks like a black guitar. But you put that thing up on a stage under lights, it’s brown, it’s green, it’s gold, it’s got metal flake in it.
Yes, the changes to the looks are very subtle, but there are a lot of appointments just for the player to enjoy.
What does the Ultra Series say about Fender going forward?
I just think that this is what Fender has always done.
It would have been easy to stop with the first ’51 P-Bass and the first Esquire, but [the Esquire] became the Telecaster, and then that became the Stratocaster and even that kept going. Amplifiers. The smoothing out of the P-Bass, the split-coil [bass] pickup, the Jazz Bass, this is what Fender has always done.
[We] look back reverently and understand the magic about [Fender's past] but also not be too penned in by it because it is a tool — it is a sonic paintbrush for people to use to be creative with. That’s what is most important.
All photos are courtesy of Fender