As the company from which the electric guitar took its first bold steps into the waiting world, Fender has a long and illustrious history flowing out behind it. To their credit, they have scarcely skipped a beat since shifting the paradigm and with many and varied pretenders to the throne falling foul of fashion and finance, the fact that they have simultaneously kept one eye on newness and the other on legacy seems to be the wind in their sails. This is one thing in particular that they have continually excelled at over the course of the last few years: tributes to historical builds with a few choice updates to add a pinch of freshness to proceedings. The California Series is a prime example of this as these three designs come plucked from the archives, without besmirching the pride of collectors the world around.
There are three body shapes in this series. The first and smallest in stature is the Malibu. Fender first released a Malibu design in the heady days of the early ‘60s and they fast became the guitar of choice for surfers and beatniks alike, with their blonde-on-blonde veneer and slung-over-a-shoulder portability. Looking like something out of a Peter Sellers movie, this little pipsqueak tips its hat to the calm and relaxed nature of parlour guitars without the boxy, square-necked nuance that causes many a love/hate relationship. The classic tonewood pairing of a solid Sitka spruce top on mahogany back and sides is gentle on the pokey mid-range commonly associated with guitars of this limited girth, offering a little more tonal width than expected and making it really come alive when approached with finger picking techniques.
Next up is the sassy middle child of the range. The Newporter, with its narrow hips and pronounced lower bout, definitely has a personality all of its own. With all the tightness and compression of mahogany rumbling around that big butt, the hip focuses the guitar’s energy and squeezes it out through the top end of the frequency spectrum, lending it an odd yet not unfamiliar voicing that almost sounds like a cocked wah. Lean back on your picking hand and it croons at you like an Elvis ballad; however, really dig in and get sweaty and it’s more like Neil Diamond in a sequined jumpsuit in its raucous, sexy, barking attitude. The six in-line tuners on Hot Rod Red matching headstock only accentuate this, making the Newporter the cocky front-person of the trio.
Once upon a time I was lucky enough to borrow one of the most original sounding and feeling guitars I’ve ever played. I pried open an ancient, chocolate brown hard case in the late afternoon sun and there in all its beach white spruce-on-maple glory was a late ‘70s Fender Kingman. Stately as a limousine and with the resonant glory of Abbey Road’s echo chamber, this guitar really set the benchmark for boldness that I expect when I pick up a dreadnaught. The Redondo, resplendent in Cosmic Turquoise, has a lot of that same confidence. The largest in stature of the three, this is where you really get to take in the subtle yet refined appointments that Fender has afforded their new beauties. The painted face and matching headstock crest over Koa binding like the edge of a cliff, and leaning over to gaze longingly at the naturally finished undercarriage is a classy and awe-inspiring experience. You really feel the solidness of the timbers as the increased girth sends low end rippling through your ribcage, while highs and mids dance hand-in-hand around the corners of the room. The balance and relaxed confidence in the Redondo makes it easily the most playable of this new holy trinity.
All three guitars in the California Series are a nod and a wink to what have since become collectors’ items in Fender’s history. One thing they are not, however, is a set of reissues. Aided and abetted by a Fishman co-designed pickup system specific to each tier, every one of these guitars has a voice and a vista uniquely its own that separates it not only from its ilk, but also from its ancestors and indeed most other guitars on the market. The Malibu’s plucky precociousness, the Newporter’s quirk and Redondo’s grand statesmanship make for a strident power-trio in combination, but all three stand alone as some of the more unique acoustic guitars in recent memory.
Hits and Misses
I’d like to see a natural finish top