The build quality of the Kingman and Malibu is very good, with tidy interior construction, flawless binding and rosettes, and blemish-free finishes that highlight the deep, rich graining of the mahogany. A few glue smears could be seen on the bridge of the Malibu, but that’s the only cosmetic flub we found.
Based on the original King guitar of the mid ’60s (a model that Fender discontinued in the early ’70s), the Kingman is a dreadnought-sized instrument that feels a little more svelte than many of its ilk, due to its lightness and relatively slim neck. It plays comfortably—despite the action on our review model being on the high side—and the neck shape and width are quite satisfying. Those who predominantly play electric guitars may only need to switch to lighter strings in order to feel right at home with this axe.
This guitar plays tunefully in all positions, and it delivers a bright, full sound with plenty of bottom and clear, detailed highs. The Kingman isn’t quite the sonic cannon of a standard Martin D-28 we used for comparison, but it does put out a good deal of volume, and it sounds cool whether you’re softly fingering jazzy chords or strumming hard with a flatpick. The Kingman’s neck and cutaway make things very inviting for lead playing, and the guitar’s abundant midrange punch helps the notes cut though in louder situations. Plugged into a variety of amps—including a Genz-Benz Shenandoah Pro and a Mesa/Boogie Lonestar Special—the Kingman needed only minor tweaks of its onboard controls to deliver happening tones. Piezo coloration is very minimal. Even when picking strings forcefully, you don’t hear much in the way of spiky artifacts. Whatever Fender and Fishman have done to make the Classic 4T system sound this natural is a very cool thing, and the result is a more satisfying amplified experience than you often get from lower-priced acoustic/electrics.
Another all-new version of a ’60s model, the Malibu (now sporting a cutaway) comes off as the ideal take-to-the-beach guitar that Fender probably originally intended it to be. With a slightly shorter scale on the same shape of neck, the Malibu feels even easier to play than the Kingman. The Malibu is on par with its bigger bro’ in construction quality, finishing, and onboard electronics, and it would seem to be an ideal choice for those who want a travel-friendly guitar that plays like a full-sized model.
Unfortunately, the price you pay for this petite package is a rather anemic sound, as the Malibu doesn’t have anywhere near the low-end girth of the Kingman, and it tends to sound more boxy than bountiful. Extra tweakage was needed to bring the lows and highs to the fore when running the Malibu through our amps, and as this guitar is already somewhat challenged in the acoustic department, a case could be made for downsizing its body even further in order to make it more feedback resistant, and better suited for electric use.
Considering it costs exactly the same as the Kingman, it’s difficult to make a case for why one should opt for the Malibu. In some cases less can be more, but not in this situation. The Kingman clearly reigns supreme.