Fender Custom Shop Caballo Tono
NAMM 2015: The past exerts a hold on the world of guitars that's truly fascinating.
The very earliest solidbody electric guitar designs, such as Fender's Telecaster, are still deeply cool 60 years on and the hunger for authentic reissues is still strong.
But what's really interesting to see, walking around the NAMM exhibition halls this year, is an emerging trend for guitars that look and sound like vintage designs but are completely new.
Fender's Cabronita Especial, arguably, kicked the whole thing off back in 2009. Designed by the then-head of Fender's Custom Shop, Mike Eldred, the formula was simple but stunningly effective: take a dollop of Telecaster, add a pinch of vintage Gretsch, plus some vintage styling cues from the scuzzy but cool world of rat-rod custom motorbikes, and you get a guitar that has a cool vintage vibe but also a voice of its own, that's new and unique.
Fano Alt De Facto ML6
Fast forward to 2015 and we're seeing some really exciting developments on that retro-futuristic theme.
Dennis Fano builds some of the best examples and our interest was most definitely piqued by his latest creation, the Alt De Facto ML6. It's loosely build on the contoured-body, set-neck double cutaway template of Gibson's SG, first launched in 'Les Paul' form in 1961. But as with all Dennis Fano's creations, he's taken it in a fistful of different directions from the off.
"It's kind of a cross between an SG and a doublecut Telecaster," Dennis told me. "So we got the SG contouring on the front and the back, a 24 and 3/4-inch scale, and we're offering it in a wide variety of woods for both the neck and the body. We're doing them in set neck all-mahogany, in alder with a maple neck, and swamp ash with a maple neck and there's one here which is all-korina. Pretty much you name it, we're doing it."
We saw variants with Lindy Fralin-designed Telecaster pickups at the bridge, others with two P-90s like a mutant SG Special, and yet another with a maple fingerboard and TV Jones Filter'Tron-style humbuckers. All were gorgeously styled, exuded vintage cool (without actually being old).
If it weren't for the undeniably salty prices of his guitars, we'd take one home tomorrow - but this degree of care and attention doesn't come cheap.
Fender's Custom Shop can't easily be outdone on their own turf, however, and the latest wicked stepchild in the Cabronita family, the Limited Edition Relic Caballo Tono (Google translates this, amusingly, as 'Tone Horse') looked equally righteous with its RSD Bridge, TV Jones Classic neck humbucker and one-piece quarter-sawn maple neck.
We saw the same game of retro mix-and-match at the economy end of the market, however. The new Ibanez FR365TFB caught our eye straight away.
It hints at Tele, and winks mischievously in the direction of an old Les Paul Standard 'burst but doesn't really resemble either. But despite having a wholly modern, dog-tooth Ibanez headstock and 24 jumbo frets, it somehow still feels vibey and vintage.
The combination of Tele-style Core Tone neck pickup and what we sincerely hope is an underwound, vintage-voiced humbucker at the bridge is potentially a great combo and though we didn't get to play it on the stand today, it's definitely on the list of electrics that inspired my curiosity this year. It's well priced, too, at an MSRP of just $551.
How long will this game of 're-imagining retro' last? Well, relic-ing is still with us well over a decade after fake road-wear on new guitars became socially acceptable, so there's every chance this fascinating trend will continue for a while. Here's to brand-new old ideas.