Fender: An American Icon and Reminder of Our Talents

According to the National Association of Manufacturers, every $1 spent on manufacturing contributes $1.81 to the American economy. That’s why even the sharks on ABC’s Shark Tank made a switch halfway through the series from encouraging offshore manufacturing to openly encouraging products made in the USA.

I’ve always been an avid musician, and I was able to get a hold of a company still manufacturing products in the USA. Fender Musical Instruments Corporation (FMIC) isn’t just any American manufacturer, however. The company makes some of the most iconic guitars, basses, and amplifiers in the world, and it’s very likely your favorite musician owns one.

They sent me their latest electric and acoustic guitars to play with and review. The American Professional series represents the latest iteration of the legendary guitarmaker’s line, replacing the flagship American Standard Series that’s been around since 1987.

But before we get into the details of these newly designed guitars, I have to delve a bit more into Fender’s history and my own personal experience as a guitarist.

The Death of My Epiphone

Back in 2009, my life was in an entirely different place. Nearing the end of my 20s, I successfully climbed the corporate ladder and had some spare cash laying around from working 12+ hour days. I decided it was time to finally upgrade the entry-level Squier acoustic I bought at 22 to a full-fledged guitar.

One sunny Saturday afternoon, I went to Guitar Center and played around with a few before I finally settled on what I decided would be my new favorite guitar – an Epiphone Performer ME acoustic electric, along with a small Marshall amp, a few different Ernie Ball strings to find a sound I like, a quick-change capo, and a pack of Fender thin picks (which my friend Danny, a guitar prodigy, assured me were the floppiest around and exactly what I was looking for).

Fender Jazzmaster Electric Guitar Case Inside

Excited, I came home and spent hours in my garage building my callouses exploring what I knew of the pentatonic scale. I stayed glued to music videos by guitarists I admired like Jack White, Samuel Beam, John Lennon, and Damien Rice. I played until my fingers were purple, calloused, and bleeding, determined to mimic the maestros.

It wasn’t long before I was detuning the guitar and exploring the musical landscape available. Nearly every weekend for months was spent learning as many of Danny’s tricks as I could. We recorded quite a few songs (or at least snippets) from those days, especially after I left Bank of America and had more time to kill.

Here’s one I haven’t listened to in quite a few years.

From January to May of 2011, I used my guitar to confront and process the pain of separating from my career. We sang songs of growth, pain, love, and fighting the system – it was exploring the art of music that got me through the depression caused by the bank’s retaliation machine. Music brought me peace, but it wasn’t meant to last.

When my roommate Alex graduated from Arizona State University that May, his cousins stayed with us for the weekend, and in the drunken debauchery, one of them destroyed my guitar. I woke up the next morning and noticed the head sticking out of a blanket behind the couch. Curious why my precious Epiphone was in a place where it could be easily broken, I pulled it out from under the blanket to find it completely snapped in half.

Alex offered to pay for it, but I refused. Danny told me he could repair it, and I left the guitar with him thinking I would one day get it back. I never did.

Soon I disconnected from both my guitar and friends, as my whistleblowing journey consumed my time and resources and I started a new career as a freelance writer. For me it represented the end of a dark tunnel, and I was happy to shed my material possessions in search of enlightenment through a minimalist lifestyle.

But I never let go of the music – like August Rush, it’s a permanent part of my psyche.

The Rebirth of American Music

CES Parking at Night

In 2016, I attended CES in Las Vegas in the middle of a run on trade shows, conventions, and expos. My goal was to network and make contacts with the brands I love so I could learn more about them and understand how their industries work.

Entering the Las Vegas Convention Center, I saw the giant Gibson tent outside and couldn’t believe it. I thought I’d have to attend the NAMM Show to have a shot at talking to any of the guitar companies. I was so focused on drones, computers, VR, and other tech, I hadn’t considered electric instruments and amps count as consumer electronics. It was a no-brainer I completely overlooked.

I had to go in to check out the latest guitars.

It was the first time I saw one (much less had a chance to hold one in my hands) in nearly four years. I picked up a Les Paul Standard and strummed Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin'” for a few minutes while reminiscing of those moments when a guitar was the only outlet I had.

gibson-music-life

As much as I enjoyed those few minutes of bliss, I knew it couldn’t last forever. Living in a van, I had no room to carry a guitar and certainly couldn’t afford to buy one. As a starving artist not being paid to play the guitar, I simply didn’t have time to dedicate to it – I have to focus on my website to survive. The bank’s whistleblower retaliation machine is too strong.

It wasn’t meant to be, but the feel and smell of the wood was enough to reignite the old flame with my Epiphone. For another year, I longed for the numbness of those calloused fingers. I needed something longer than just a couple minutes on a showroom floor. I could’ve done that at Guitar Center. I needed to spend some time relearning to play, and I wasn’t that great in the first place.

When given the opportunity to play and review Fender’s latest guitars, I knew it would be the only opportunity I’m likely to get to spend some quality time with a quality instrument. I jumped on the chance, and soon Fender’s marketing department had a Jazzmaster electric and Paramount acoustic sitting on my doorstep.

American Professional Jazzmaster Electric Guitar ($1499.99 at Fender.com)

Fender Jazzmaster Electric Guitar 2017

In the spring of 1950, Leo Fender’s Fender Electric Instruments Company introduced the world’s first solid body electric guitar. Named Esquire during preorders (changed to Broadcaster before production), the nearly $200 instrument forever changed the musical landscape.

A year later, it was rechristened and released as the Telecaster, the popular guitar that defined the sound of every musical genre, including folk (Bob Dylan and Martin Karthy), country (Phil Baugh and Waylon Jennings), rock (George Harrison and Jimmy Page), punk (Wilko Johnson and Joe Strummer), and blues (Muddy Waters and Albert Collins).

American Professional Series Jazzmaster Guitar

After three years of working directly with musicians for feedback on what can be improved, Fender released the innovative Stratocaster that revolutionized the entire idea of music. It was the first guitar with three pickups and a spring tension tremelo system, and is the most well-known, played, and imitated guitar on the planet.

Eric Clapton played “Layla” (and hundreds of other songs) on a Stratocaster. You’ll hear it on albums by Pink Floyd, Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Who, U2, The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Buddy Holly, Ike Turner, John Mayer, Bonnie Raitt, and countless others.

Fender Jazzmaster Electric Seafoam Green Brian Penny

This would be the peak for many manufacturers, but Fender isn’t just any manufacturer – it’s one of America’s most innovative.

At the 1958 NAMM Show, Fender upped the ante and introduced a premium version of the Stratocaster – the Jazzmaster. Despite its name and archtop design meant for seated players, the Jazzmaster’s unique look and sound was destined for surf rock. While the model briefly fell out of style, it’s still a part of the brand’s signature American Professional Series today.

Even the case the 2017 Jazzmaster comes in is hardcore, with a lock and key to ensure its oversized alder body and maple neck are protected. I started to feel like every character in Pulp Fiction who opens Marsellus Wallace’s briefcase. I was about to look into my own soul again.

Fender Jazzmaster Guitar Case

The Mystic Seafoam guitar I found myself staring at was beautiful. I could hear “Stairway to Heaven” in my head as I grabbed it by the deep C head and pulled it toward my chest. I don’t have a strap, amp, or pick yet, but it’s going down right now.

I’m 6’2″ and have long fingers, so occasionally they can be a bit overbearing on the strings and unintentionally bend strings. It makes for an interesting sound but makes me feel awkward and bowlegged in the hand. Feeling the extra weight and girth, I was impressed by how well I was able to form the handful of chords I could remember off the bat.

Bending the chords felt much more controlled thanks to the extra width of the neck and height of the narrow-tall frets.

Fender Jazzmaster Guitar Closeup

The bridge was beautiful, though, as pointed out by another reviewer, it moves both E strings dangerously close to the edge of the fretboard and leads to most strings not lining up with the bridge pickup pole pieces. Despite these minor setbacks, it sounded great just strumming, but I needed to find a friend with an amp to really put it through its paces.

In Pulp Fiction style, this is where the story gets chronologically out of order, as what actually happened next was me returning the guitar to its case for several weeks while I focused on the Paramount acoustic and waited for an amp.

Fender Jazzmaster Electric Pickup

After finally getting a hold of a Fender Mustang amp, I through on a down vest like Marty McFly, cranked things up, and (in drop D, as power chords made things easier for the time being) worked through what I remembered of Nirvana, Metallica, and Audioslave’s catalogs.

The sound is best described as full-bodied, with a strong tonal quality that perked me up and reminded me why I fell in love with guitars in the first place. Even with no distortion, my sloppy playing was accentuated by a grungy punch that almost made me feel like I was shredding for the crowd in Guitar Hero.

I turned off the lights and sat in the dark, meditating to the lyrics in my head as I stumbled through Nirvana’s “Come As You Are.”

Fender Jazzmaster Electric

In a post-psychedelic world filled with an Internet of Things, EDM, and computers taking over music, I couldn’t help but appreciate the raw, uncut power of the chords I was playing on this Jazzmaster. The rough start to 2017 melted away as I transcended from this reality and fell into another world.

I didn’t record that session – it was for me. But you can listen to Nick Reinhart exploring the full range of it here.

While it’s certainly not a Les Paul or Stratocaster, the Jazzmaster is simply gorgeous, and with DJs, even MCs like Kendrick Lamar and Chance the Rapper, exploring the sonic boundaries of music, there’s a good chance the Jazzmaster will finally rack up the slew of legendary artists of its brethren.

Paramount-2 Parlor NE, All-Mahogany Natural Acoustic Guitar ($599.99 at Fender.com)

Fender Paramount Acoustic Guitar 2017

While most of the buzz surrounding Fender’s guitars revolve around its electrics, the guitar I actually fell in love with writing this review is the parlor guitar from the 2017 Paramount line. Like the folk guitarists of yesteryear, she fit my lifestyle and was all I could play until I found an amp to use the Jazzmaster.

It’s simple, small, affordable, and all-natural, providing the vintage sound I craved.

Fender Paramount 2017

The open-pore mahogany top and all-solid mahogany back, sides, and neck made for a beautiful color and tone that warmed my heart to look at. I tuned her, threw a capo on, and played into the night, stoked I could finally get back my finger callouses. It was a rocky start:

Although I didn’t exactly hit “The Weight,” it was enough for me to realize I could still remember to play the guitar. Like riding a bike, the skill may be shaky, but I can get it back. Switching from the larger Jazzmaster solid-body electric to a small parlor acoustic felt like serendipity, and I soon started moving through some of my favorite warm-ups.

Fender Paramount Acoustic Head with Capo

Foo Fighter’s “Everlong” particularly hit a chord as a flood of memories came back to me from that era at the end of my banking career and the beginning of my rebirth as a whistleblower. It was one of the songs I was learning back then, and I had no idea how the stars were soon going to align, as Dave Grohl had written the love song while homeless in the midst of chaos.

I was soon going to be facing the same situation yet again in my own life.

Fender Paramount Acoustic Brian Penny

For two weeks, I made a point to practice as often as I could throughout the day, sometimes for only a few short minutes – others for several hours. I had just moved into a new house a month prior, after the products coming in to my work-from home job motivated theft, lies, and bad blood between my former roommates.

Moving to Flagstaff seemed like an idyllic place, and it probably is when you have money. Because of the stigma from whistleblowing and its many consequences, I don’t have much money and didn’t consider that the people I was living with were so broke and desperate.

The income gap is very real in Flagstaff, where real estate prices easily eclipse those of even Phoenix (Arizona’s largest market). I soon learned it wasn’t a fluke as the next roommate saw me dealing with the police and courts over the people before him and decided to strike again while I was vulnerable.

Fender Paramount Guitar

My tests with Fender’s guitars had to be cut short – instead I needed to focus on getting as much stuff out of the house as possible last week when my roommate injured himself at work by carelessly shoving his hand into a snowblower. I woke up Friday morning to him screaming at the hospital for not performing surgery because his insurance wouldn’t pay for it.

The next thing I know, he was punching walls and screaming “FUCK YOU, BRIAN!!!” in a high-pitch squeal I didn’t think possible with male genitalia. Although at 5-foot-nothing, I knew this midget couldn’t possible hurt me with his fists, seeing him completely lose his shit made it clear I had to leave. It was only a matter of time before he tried to make his failures my fault.

By Saturday evening, a friend had driven up from Sierra Vista to help me pack and move as much stuff as possible into a storage unit. I then filled a backpack with some camping essentials and walked into the woods for a few days to get my head straight and figure out a plan.

Fender Paramount Acoustic Guitar Head

By Monday I had my stuff moved down to Phoenix where I’m crashing at a friend’s house I can actually trust. Through all of it, I even lost my access to HuffPost’s contributor platform, which is really all Fender or any of the other companies cared about my reviews being published on. After six months of feeling trapped by the platform, I was finally free of the curse.

Yesterday I reached out to the landlords and explained what happened to find out two days after I left, he made up a lie about them as well, forcing them to hire an attorney to defend themselves against him. By speaking up, I provided comfort that they won’t be victimized – he didn’t count on me calling him on his shit.

Now that they can sleep comfortably knowing they won’t be blamed for a crime they didn’t commit, I’m sitting up all night, feverishly working on completing at least one of the dozen or so articles I need to at least post here to satisfy the PR reps and marketing departments of the companies I’ve been working with. I just spent two months explaining the other thefts – this isn’t cool.

My new roommates are asleep and I’m staring at the sealed boxes awaiting a return shipping label from Fender. Six years have passed, and I find myself yet again in the same position. Maybe it’s a pattern with me. Fuck it – I’m reopening the Paramount to play Everlong one last time before she leaves.

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Brian Penny is a former Business Analyst and Operations Manager at Bank of America turned whistleblower, troll, and freelance writer.

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