Review: Fodera Emperor Classic and Imperial Deluxe

On review here is the Fodera set-neck Imperial Deluxe with 24.75" scale, hardtail, and humbuckers; and a bolt-neck Emperor Classic with 25.5" scale, vibrato, and single-coils.
By Dave Hunter,

For most of its 34-year run, Fodera has been known for its handmade basses—the choice of monster players such as Victor Wooten, Anthony Jackson, Lincoln Goines, Mike Pope, and others—while 6-string guitars popped up only on an occasional custom-order basis. Now this Brooklyn-based maker is storming the boutique guitar market in grand style, with two new standard models available in several variations and trim levels. On review here are the set-neck Imperial Deluxe with 24.75" scale, hardtail, and humbuckers; and a bolt-neck Emperor Classic with 25.5" scale, vibrato, and single-coils. Both guitars were tested through custom AC15, tweed Deluxe, and JTM45-style amps, with a selection of overdrive pedals for added dirt.

IMPERIAL DELUXE

This model’s basic format, as defined above, might scream “Les Paul” on paper, and it’s clearly Fodera’s alternative to anything you’d likely apply that single-cut classic to, but the Imperial Deluxe comes across as something very different both on the stand and in the hand. The Fodera aesthetic is revealed in the elegantly rounded lines, subtle use of wood-trimmed hardware and abalone inlay, and the overall shape and balance of the guitar. The body is a single semi-hollow piece of walnut topped with flame maple, while the neck is Fodera’s three-piece mahogany construction with an Indian rosewood fretboard. In a nifty piece of design, the mahogany neck seems to reach a dead-end right at the walnut body with no visible seam or overlap, creating what is essentially a heel-less dovetailed neck joint flowing into a scooped body section that further aids upper-fret access. The other end is bolstered by a volute behind the nut, and the top-matching flame-maple headstock overlay wears a colorful Fodera butterfly logo inlay of abalone and mother-of-pearl.

There’s no binding anywhere on this guitar, but the Imperial Deluxe looks confidently “upscale” regardless. The fretboard, headstock, and body edges are finely rolled and tapered, the latter two revealing an enticing side-on glimpse of the maple’s luxurious flame set off by a dark key line of wood beneath. The complementary black hardware includes Fodera’s own tailpiece constructed of a brass block set into a dark rosewood shell that matches the fingerboard, and the pickup rings are also carved from rosewood. The pickups are Fodera-spec’d humbuckers custom-made by Seymour Duncan, measuring 8.68kΩ at the neck and 9.36kΩ at the bridge, wired through individual Volume and Tone controls and a 3-way toggle switch.

The Imperial Deluxe feels lithe and easy in the hand, with no playability issues at any point on this full and bountifully rounded neck. It’s just a tad on the heavy side for a chambered instrument, but not at all outside acceptable standards, and it balances well both seated and standing. What I first notice about this guitar when amped up are degrees of clarity and chime unusual in a set-neck, dual-humbucker design; it still has those LP-style underpinnings in the chunky low-end and meaty midrange, yet somehow with more of everything—texture, richness, body, and articulation. The brew leads to a supreme sweetness and musicality within clean settings, appealing edge and sparkle into slight crunch, and singing harmonic saturation with heavy overdrive. Which is to say the Imperial Deluxe does just about everything extremely well. It’s an expressive and responsive rock tool, yet also rich and tasteful enough to do jazz or more outré fusion, while anything in between is an utter breeze. There’s excellent balance between the two pickups, and the guitar speaks boldly at all positions across and along the fretboard. I could go on, but suffice to say this is one stonkingly good guitar, a great addition to the marketplace, and an Editors’ Pick Award winner for its achievements.

EMPEROR CLASSIC

Although outwardly this might be Fodera’s take on the Stratocaster, it approaches the format from an entirely different angle. Other than the original and more swooped body shape, immediately notable points of departure include the straight-aligned bridge pickup mounted into a Tele-style metal plate (through which the Gotoh vibrato’s mounting posts also pass), the angled middle pickup, and the stylish tortoise ’guard which nicely complements the body’s two-tone burst in urethane high-gloss nitro. Dig deeper, and this guitar’s construction also proves unique on many levels. The three-piece birdseye maple neck is fixed with four staggered wood screws set into cup washers, and there’s a sculpted body recess behind the joint to facilitate a more comfortable reach. The 1 11/16" width at the nut and flatter fretboard radius lend a more contemporary playing feel to the 25.5" template, coupled with a narrowish but not overly thin profile, which should be great for the fleet-fingered and thumb-behind players, but might start to feel a little strained to those familiar with rounder, more vintage-inspired necks.

Three custom-made Seymour Duncan Strat-style single-coil pickups (6.83kΩ, 7.05kΩ, and 7.95kΩ, neck to bridge) run through Master Volume and Tone pots for the neck and middle pickup, with a 5-way switch and one mini-toggle to mute it all and another to add the bridge pickup to the 4 and 5 positions. Plugged in, the Emperor Classic definitely presented the alternative takes on S-style tones that Fodera is chasing. To be specific, it’s generally richer and broader in all positions than your average Strat-style guitar, and even though there’s no Tone control on the bridge pickup (a common mod these days), that position was snarly and thick through an edge-of-breakup amp, with a Tele-like grind that evaded any hint of spikiness. My second-favorite position was probably the neck and bridge together—enabled by that mini-toggle—but this guitar excelled at all settings. The two-post Gotoh vibrato felt both solid and smooth, and while I did experience some tuning instability with moderate use, it’s a minor issue that usually can be adjusted easily enough. All in all, though, the Emperor Classic is a beautifully executed and extremely versatile S-style alternative that many players should really enjoy.

SPECIFICATIONS

IMPERIAL DELUXE

CONTACT fodera.com
PRICE $5,995 direct
NUT WIDTH 1 11/16" Graph Tech Black TUSQ XL
NECK Three-piece mahogany neck with dovetailed joint
FRETBOARD Indian rosewood, 24.75" scale, compound 10"–20" radius
FRETS 22 medium-jumbo
TUNERS Sperzel locking
BODY Chambered walnut with flamemaple top
BRIDGE TonePros locking ABR-1 with nylon saddles
PICKUPS Two custom-made Seymour Duncan humbuckers
CONTROLS Independent Volume and Tone for each pickup, 3-way switch
FACTORY STRINGS D’Addario, .010-.046
WEIGHT 8.6 lbs
BUILT USA
KUDOS Extremely well made. Exalted tone and playability. Great versatility from rock to jazz.
CONCERNS None.

EMPEROR CLASSIC

PRICE $4,995 direct
NUT WIDTH 1 11/16" Graph Tech Black TUSQ XL
NECK Three-piece birdseye rock maple
FRETBOARD Indian rosewood, 25.5" scale, compound 10"–20" radius
FRETS 22 medium-jumbo
TUNERS Sperzel locking
BODY Alder
BRIDGE Gotoh two-post vibrato
PICKUPS Three custom-made Seymour Duncan single-coils
CONTROLS Master Volume, neck Tone, middle Tone, 5-way switch, mini-toggles for mute and to add bridge pickup to positions 4 and 5
FACTORY STRINGS D’Addario, .010-.046
WEIGHT 7.5 lbs
BUILT USA
KUDOS Extremely well made. Offers thick alternatives to standard S-style tones.
CONCERNS Some tuning instability with moderate vibrato use.

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