Now, there’s certainly nothing wrong with slinging a natural or sunburst acoustic over your shoulder and making like Woody Guthrie or Joni Mitchell or even Elliott Smith. But not everyone is into conventional or retro, and some artists would much rather mirror the twisted, iconoclastic creative spasms of their inner being with an instrument that absolutely broadcasts “Something Different Is Going On Here, Folks!” The Fender J5 Acoustic ($714 retail) is one of those instruments.
It should come as no surprise that the J5’s sleek, Goth-like design was partly borne from the extremely image-conscious imagination of John 5—former guitarist with Marilyn Manson, and currently a solo artist with a thrilling metal/bluegrass release, Vertigo. (John also partnered with Fender on a hot-rodded Custom Shop Telecaster and a more affordable Fender version.) The black finish, elongated headstock (with black, die-cast tuners), and chrome pickguard perfectly accessorize John’s severe makeup, bountiful tattoos, and 23rd-century clothes, and this beautiful acoustic/electric will still turn heads even if you tone down the blush, skin art, and body piercings a tad. Other features include Fender’s super-folk-style cutaway, a solid spruce top, laminated mahogany back and sides, a rosewood-on-mahogany neck, a rosewood bridge with a compensated saddle, 20 frets, a 25.3" scale, a 1.69" nut width, and a Fender/Fishman Classic 4 onboard preamp.
The J5 ain’t just some troll all dressed up to look like Brad Pitt, either. This is an extremely well-built acoustic. The finish is flawless, the innards are immaculate (no fuzzy bits on the bracing), and the frets are polished like jewels and innocent of file marks. Even the “5” inlaid at the fifth fret is perfect—there’s not a hint of filler. The workmanship is so stellar that I had to enact constant mental reboots to take into account that I was evaluating an under-$700 acoustic.
Sonically, the J5 definitely evokes a rockin’ bad boy in black image. It’s a very punchy guitar with taut lows, articulate mids, and shimmering highs. Strum it, and the guitar unleashes a well-balanced frequency spectrum, whether you bash the strings or baby them. Although the J5 doesn’t compress much—meaning that its tonality won’t cave in on itself when you really dig in and strum hard—the overall sound appears almost as if it is compressed. This is an amazing benefit for rock playing, as the J5’s magnificent clarity and uniform volume levels between low and high strings are tailor-made for busting out of noisy band mixes—both onstage and in the studio.
The evenness extends to single-note performances, as well. While picked notes don’t exactly explode from your fingertips, each note is clear and resonant—again, it’s as if some virtual recording engineer was compressing your lines somewhere around a 2:1 ratio at a threshold of –10dB. Fingerpickers might be a little put off by the J5’s lack of blossoming notes, but I was digging the fact that I could play chords and single-note riffs without a vast disparity in volume levels. In addition, no matter where you play on the neck, the intonation is as sweet as a puppy’s kiss.
Traditionalists and solo-acoustic performers can certainly tag the J5 for not delivering fat, extended lows, but you typically don’t want cowabunga bass when you’re blasting out classic rock or strumming like a demon. As stated earlier, this baby is a rock and roll machine, and it’s a masterful choice for adding Pete Townshend-like acoustic layers under electric tones or taking center stage with effervescent riffs or rhythmic strums. The J5 will also snap out your single-note lines and solos with an aggressive midrange attack that still retains a lovely hint of round, woody thunk.
Oh, and we haven’t even mentioned the electrified tones yet! The Fender/Fishman Classic 4 preamp offers Volume, Bass, Mid, Treble, and Brilliance sliders—as well as a low-battery warning LED—and the unit pops out for easy 9-volt battery changes. From an operational standpoint, the mini faders are pretty easy to grasp and position, although the preamp’s black-on-black color scheme makes it difficult to confirm control settings on a darkened stage. Soundwise, the Classic 4 kicks a hefty amount of butt. You’ll still get echoes of those piezo-pickup “plastic-sounding” high mids, but the preamp’s tone controls are very musical, and they do an excellent job of enhancing the J5’s inherent tonality. For example, I was able to cut the mids and boost the Brilliance to construct a super-thin—almost Nashville-style—timbre that snuck right into a multi-layered bed of strumming acoustics. I also pumped up the Bass and cut the Brilliance to craft a jazzbo-type woody tone that perfectly fit an octave melody I was using as a counterpoint line for a bridge.
Onstage, the J5’s rather light bass personality helped it avoid rampant feedback situations, but, like all acoustic/electrics of this size, it still shuddered and roared if I stepped too close to my amp, the monitors, the bass amp, or the kick drum. In these instances, the onboard EQ could do little to subdue the squealing or low-end hum, and I’d have to move away from the offending area and/or lower the guitar volume.
All-in-all, the J5 is one of the hippest, most fun, and best-sounding acoustic/electrics I’ve ever played at this price point. It invites aggro riffing (via its chunky neck and .012-gauge Fender Phosphor Bronze strings), rhythmic strummage, and even a few sensitive picking moments, and it seems to have a good amount of songs hiding within its dark silhouette. If you’re an acoustic-oriented rocker, you’ll find that the J5 ain’t just a guitar—it’s a collaborator, a compatriot, a taskmaster, and a muse.•