By Adam Perlmutter
The Telecaster, Stratocaster, Jazz Bass and Precision Bass may be Fender’s most ubiquitous models, but they’ve never been seen like this before. For the company’s new Select line, the four instruments have been reconfigured with tonewoods not ordinarily seen on Fender instruments, like breathtakingly figured maple and koa. But the treatment goes beyond cosmetics to include smartly designed necks and custom electronics. As Fender’s vice president of marketing, Justin Norvell, explains, “They’re works of art that are made to be played.”
Constructed at the company’s factory in Corona, California, the Select Series closes the gap between Fender’s American Series and its Custom Shop models. The idea for the line emerged in 2011 when Fender celebrated the 60th anniversary of the Telecaster with a dozen variations, including a model whose redwood body was once part of a late-1800s California railway bridge. Wood is similarly a focus of the first Select instruments. To meet the criteria for inclusion, a raw board must be both visually striking and lightweight. “Each instrument must be under eight pounds,” Norvell says, “which means that it has to be reweighed a number of times during the manufacturing process to make sure it remains light enough.”
It took a small feat of engineering to craft the Select Telecaster in a way that would meet this weight restriction. The guitar has a flamed maple top on an ash body, and ash tends to be on the heavy side. To forge a lightweight body, Fender designed an innovative, honeycomb-like sequence of small chambers that have negligible sonic impact. Norvell says, “The body gives weight relief without creating tonal change, since the holes allow for continuity in the wood. We subjected some of our Custom Shop master builders to blind tests between non-weight-relieved and chambered Teles, and no one could hear any difference.”
To enhance the beauty of the woods used in its Select instruments, Fender went with sunburst finishes, such as Sienna Edge and Dark Cherry, that are arguably lovelier and more complex than the standard two- or three-tone patterns, and which look much like autumn foliage when viewed as a family. “These finishes are not just sprayed on,” Norvell says. “They are first carefully hand stained, then covered with a clear coat of lacquer. The staining takes quite a bit of time and ensures that each instrument has a unique appearance.”
The Select guitars sport figured-maple necks with a modern C profile, while the fretboards feature a compound radius that ranges from 9 1/2 to 14 inches, lending them a distinctively inviting feel across their lengths. “In the open position, the radius is a little round, for open chords,” Norvell says. “Around the 12th to 15th frets, it’s 12 inches, which is perfect for playing those E blues licks. By the 22nd fret, the radius is 14 inches and very comfortable.”
As for the electronics, the pickups in the Select Series have been thoughtfully voiced to suit the tonality of each instrument. Maple, for instance, sounds bright, so the treble has been attenuated slightly in the electronics of the maple-capped Select instruments. The pickups were also designed with versatility in mind. Norvell says, “On the single-coil Strat pickups, we wanted to capture that traditionally glassy tone but also make something that paired well with lots of gain.”
If you find yourself lusting after a Fender Select instrument, it would be a good idea to act now. The instruments are made in limited quantities, and the series will change every year, perhaps in unpredictable ways, making for instant collectibles. “There’s no telling what we’ll do for 2013,” Norvell says. “If our wood guy scores some amazing bubinga, we might go with that. On the other hand, we might experiment with high-tech new materials. We’ll stay in motion with new ideas and won't get stuck looking in the rearview mirror."