Just when you thought guitar design was irrevocably stuck in the past, along comes the Acoustasonic Telecaster. We chart its development with the designers behind the concept.
Unless you were on the inside, the first thing you’d have known about the new American Acoustasonic Series Telecaster was its appearance at the 2019 NAMM show or the subsequent (and substantial) exposure on social media. From nothing - to bang! But this wasn’t a simple refresh of Fender’s original solidbody electric guitar. It started with an idea and a blank sheet of paper.
“I had the idea three years ago and enlisted Tim Shaw and Larry Fishman to help bring it to life,” states Brian Swerdfeger, Fender’s VP of research and development.
Tim continues the story: “Brian flew out to me and [designer/engineer] Josh Hurst here in Nashville and we literally started work. Josh already had a slightly larger Tele design, but the three of us literally sat and figured out how the bracing was going to go.
“Over the course of three days, we actually made the ‘proof of concept’. It didn’t have the soundhole port or a bridge; it was basically a pretty good Telecaster-shaped cajón with a neck.
“The next time Brian came out, we created the port and basically tuned the cajón,” continues Tim, referring to the patent-pending ‘Stringed Instrument Resonance System’ (SIRS), which involved not only refining the bracing of the acoustic-like top but effectively maximising the acoustic response of the relatively small body cavity.
The guitar’s bracing looks more like an archtop than a flat-top steel-string, we suggest.
“It’s not parallel bracing,” says Tim. “Basically, the braces lock into the head block, then they splay out a little and extend past the bridge, then trail off to nothing. They’re not very big; they don’t have to be. But you’re right, it’s a flat archtop-type bracing. I started with the braces that were initially a little bit big, tapped the top and planed them - actually, I used a belt sander. I did that until the top woke up.
“The port, which was referred to early on as the ‘doughnut’, is a block of mahogany and we had this top assembly that I was sticking into the guitar, whacking it with my finger and sanding off a little of the doughnut, and there was a point it went from click to boom. We ended up with something that got more acoustic volume out of the small hollow space.”
“The design, size, location and depth [of the port] all contribute to the voicing of the instrument,” reinforces Brian, “and give it a fuller voice on your lap. This voicing, in concert with the movement of the top, are major components of what you hear when the guitar is plugged in. What you hear from the output jack is 55 per cent from the guitar and analogue circuit, and 45 per cent shaped by the electronics.”
“Early on in the project we knew the electronics were going to be a bear,” says Tim.
“Brian had had this idea of absolutely minimal controls. I’ve been building what I called hybrids for a really long time and on all of these instruments you’re balancing how ‘acoustic’ or how ‘electric’ they are; it’s a continuum.
“At this point, things like the Taylor T5 leans towards the electric side; the Acoustasonic that Fender did in 2010, which I also worked on, slots closer to the centre line, so to speak. But on all these instruments you’re trading stuff off.”
Making the magic
“That 2010 Acoustasonic Tele had an early version of what Fishman called Image Casting, or IC, in it and, of course, that technology has advanced,” Tim continues. “We actually talked to quite a few people on how to amplify this thing, but pretty early on it became apparent that Fishman had the infrastructure and skill set to do this. “Brian basically went to them and said, ‘I want this and that and I want to be able to sweep between the sounds,’ which Larry Fishman refers to as ‘knitting’. Fishman knows how to make this sound and that sound, but all the weird and wonderful blending stuff in the middle they had never done. No-one has ever done it and, for me, that’s where the money is.”
Brian doesn’t want us to get bogged down in the science, so when we ask for an explanation of the architecture of the ‘Acoustic Engine’ - what is digital and what is analogue - this is his response:
“Hmm... Would it be okay if we didn’t say? The board inside the guitar has over 380 components on it doing all sorts of magic and mayhem. The ultimate goal of the technology was to be powerful enough to drive the performance, yet transparent enough to get out of the way of the player and let them enjoy a great guitar... There are no simulations or models, just the real guitar being voiced by powerful filters to achieve the different performance experiences.”
Larry Fishman and his team are seen as equal partners in crime, as Tim explains: “Fishman really got involved and they enjoyed the collaboration: it was very much a partnership. The process certainly wasn’t like going to a sub-contractor and saying, ‘Make me this and I want to pay you this much.’ I think we pushed them and they pushed themselves to do stuff they hadn’t been able, at that point, to do. They were more than equal partners.”
“There was,” picks up Larry Fishman, “a big leap in the electronics. We were knocked out by the performance of the guitar; it far exceeded our expectations.” And he confirms that while they had most of the technology to do what Fender wanted, they didn’t have it all when they began work on the project.
While you’d expect some good acoustic sounds on what is obviously a modern electro-acoustic guitar, the angled bridge- placed magnetic pickup (which mirrors that of the T5, in which Brian was involved when he was with Taylor Guitars) is quite a surprise, particularly with the ability to add in a little crunch from the Mod knob.
“From day one I wanted the electric voice to go from clean to Keith Richards,” laughs Brian. “I wanted to be able to play the guitar direct into a PA system, or DI recording, or an acoustic amp and have a real electric experience - and we delivered.
“The mix of analogue and DSP gave us the ingredients to craft a signal chain for the magnetic pickup that transforms the guitar to fully electric and allows the player to plug into anything and get a great sound. It’s happy being played into any rig, pedalboard, desk, interface et al.”
The simplicity of the drive impressed us, as it did Tim.
“I think that’s the genius of the whole Mod knob concept: if you just shut up and play it you’ll find stuff that works and no two people necessarily find the same stuff. Early on, I found that on position 3 of the Voice selector, with the body sensor rolled about a quarter of the way up, I had this awesome big acoustic sound that didn’t feed back. But then I could go up to position 5 or down to position 1 and have perfectly workable sounds, too.
“I honestly don’t understand everything that’s going on,” Tim admits. “I understand the basis behind Fishman’s Aura concept, but a lot of what Larry was doing, well... But it’s not a parlour trick: it actually does some stuff that’s never quite been jammed into the same instrument before.”
As the word ‘Series’ in the Acoustasonic’s product name suggests, the guitar we see here could well be just the start, although Fender isn’t letting on just yet...
“Over time, as we continue to develop both the guitar and technology, then you may see other models and price points, but there is nothing specific to promise at this time,” says Brian, though Tim’s answer to the same question is a little different, as he laughs and says: “Nudge-nudge, wink- wink... Know what I mean?”
As we’ve stated, hybrid guitars themselves are far from new, but, suggests Tim, “I think we can now have a conversation about a food group that this guitar has done its part in legitimising. It’s created a new conversation about things that were marginalised.
“It could well be that in the future you and I can have another conversation about the differences between A and B. It was viewed at the beginning as a platform, not as a one-off.”
Fender was certainly showing some exotic wood samples of the guitar at NAMM and, Tim says, “If we go with those it spreads up in price and maybe at some future point it spreads down, but it could certainly spread wider - there’s a lot of sonic ground [the Acoustasonic] doesn’t cover. You look at what we’ve chosen to voice on the guitar and there are food groups that have not been played.”
It seems there’s plenty of life in the good ol’ Telecaster yet - and more to come.