Fender's R&D chief: The Acoustasonic "is the transitional guitar"
Brian Swerdfeger either has one of the greatest jobs in the world, or one of the toughest; as VP of R&D at Fender Guitars, he spends his days crafting tools of musical inspiration, with the formidable machinery of the world's biggest-selling guitar company standing ready to push his ideas and creations out into the world at incredible scale and volume. So on the one hand, he's in a unique position to create the things the next generation of musicians will use to change the world.
On the other hand, the guitar world is rich in the mystique of heritage. New stuff is cool, but what's really cool is the way they were doing it in the 60s. So Swerdfeger and his team have to be careful when they approach new technologies as they have with the Mustang Micro mini-amp and the Acoustasonic guitars they've just launched. They've got to make sure this stuff still feels organic and cool, like the guitars that the company's built its name on.
We spoke to Swerdfeger over a Zoom call about the Acoustasonic Jazzmaster we reviewed a few weeks back, and what follows is an edited transcript of our chat. We hope you enjoy the conversation as much as we did!
Loz: Nice to meet you, Brian, where are we speaking to you from?
Brian: I'm in the Fender factory in Corona, California. I'm the VP of Design here. So all new things come out of our world.
Loz: What a gig. How do you end up in that job?
Man, I'm telling you, I was a guitar player at Disneyland when I was young, and just wanted to be in the guitar business. And so that journey took me on an interesting path, and now I'm at the top of the food chain. I'm just a guitar player with a really, really cool job.
Loz: Right! It's not the sort of thing you need technical qualifications for?
Well, interestingly enough, at Disneyland, there was a local guitar maker that used to come by the park. And he kept on saying "you should be playing Leo Fender's new guitars!" I was making my own Strats at the time, you know, putting parts together. And so finally, one day, I rang up the gentleman that kept hounding me. And it was the guys at G&L. They invited me over to Fender Avenue in Fullerton. I sat in an office for about 45 minutes looking at 10-year-old trade magazines. And finally, they came around the corner and they said, "well, here's Leo, he'll take you on the tour."
So my first tour of a guitar shop was from Leo Fender, at G&L. And you always hear those stories of him using local players for feedback. For the next two years, I was one of those kids. So I played at Disneyland, and he'd give me a guitar to take and he'd go "come back next week, tell me about it." And I did that for two years. So that was my first jump into it.
And then I met Tom Anderson, who is a high-end guitar maker. And I worked alongside and kind of studied with him. And then I did some work as a consultant for the very beginning of Line 6, with the company called Fast Forward design. And so I was at the birth of Pod and Line 6. That led me to W.L. Gore, who wanted to know if guitar players would like Teflon on guitar strings. And so I helped Gore develop the Elixir string. And so I was in the beginning of that, which then led me to Taylor. And I worked personally with Bob Taylor for eight years.
Loz: You've had your fingers in some pretty amazing pies!
I have. Yeah. So my education, while not formal, is with pretty much the leaders of our industry.
Loz: So rather than being a technical guy, you're coming at this purely from from the perspective of feel and tone and the art of it?
I am. And the dream, right? The "what if," because I learned from from Leo and Bob and the others that, you know, new products don't come by copying others. New ideas come when you follow the dream, you've got to figure out a problem and solve it. And with the Acoustasonic, I'm coming from a performer's view, right? It's hard to get a great acoustic sound live. So how would we do that?
And then Andy, our CEO asked me, what if Leo was going to build on acoustic today? What would he do? So we looked at this problem with a fresh set of eyes and said, well, wait a minute, it'd be production friendly, it'd be easy to use, to plug in and get great sounds right away. It has to feel great, has to play great, like Fenders do. Alright, so let's do it! What's that look like? And it comes out, oddly enough, looking like a Jazzmaster Acoustasonic.
Loz: Can you give us a potted description of how these things work?
Sure. So, as a guitar player, I like playing guitars. I don't like playing science projects. In our past, there's been many tech products that were more science and less guitar. So it was super important to us as a team that this be a great guitar first.
So the way it works starts with that – what the top is doing vibration-wise and all the information that it's feeding into the electronics is a super high quality acoustic. Right. So the feel when you play it, the way the strings and the body are interacting with you, they're giving you, as a player, all the feedback that says, yeah, man, I'm playing a great guitar. Your body's feeling the resonance, your hands, the string tension, all of that's right. More than 50 percent of what you're hearing in the end is actually coming right off the guitar.
What the DSP is doing wraps around that. And if you think about it like an impulse response, like the electric guitar guys have for cabinets and digital modeling in their world, we take this Jazzmaster Acoustasonic and give it the wardrobe of a mahogany dreadnought. Or I'm going to make it a maple jumbo or I'm going to do this and that to it. And so the the DSP works in harmony with the analog.
Loz: So there's a computer inside the guitar, running full time. It's taking the input from this electric pickup, and what other inputs are there?
There's a piezo pickup under the bridge. And there's a third pickup called a body sensor that's underneath the bridge. So there's three different pickups feeding the system at different times when you move the switch. The guitar is feeding all that information off the top into the processor. And then you've got the volume knob, the blend knob and the five way switch; each time you move the switch, it loads two new experiences, one at either side of the blend knob, and then you can blend between those two experiences and make anything new that that would tickle your fancy.
Loz: So is it fair to say this is this is an emulator built into a guitar?
No, because in my world, emulation means it's starting from nothing and creating an emulation. In our case with this guitar, you're starting with something and you're modifying it. Think of an actor in two different roles; same actor, two completely different experiences. Imagine that on either side of the switch, right? It's the same guitar with two different experiences on either end. So yes, there's a digital processor in there, but it's enhancing what the guitar does instead of emulating what others do.
Loz: Gotcha. How did you choose which sounds to go for?
Well, this is the third Acoustasonic. We started with a Telecaster, and it has a collection of sounds. Then we did the Strat and it's a different collection. The Jazzmaster, we kind of viewed it as the rowdy sister.
Jazzmasters have always been the alternative guitar in our family. In the 50s, when they were designed, they thought jazz guys were gonna play it. But what happened was in the early 60s the surf scene picked it up, and started doing surf and spy music on it. Over its lifetime, you had all the alternative guys and punk bands and Elvis Costello and you know, J Mascis, and all these different guys. They used the the solid body jazzmaster as an alternative guitar.
So we thought, man, with this third Acoustasonic, what if we can make it a rowdy acoustic? So we chose bigger, bolder acoustic sounds. And when you get down to switch position 2, you've got that really dry piezo that goes into a distorted piezo sound. We thought, what if you could play an acoustic guitar through, like, an ac 30 and an overdrive box? It would be a punky, rowdy acoustic sound. And then by the time you get to the full humbucker at position 5, and those electric overdrive sounds, it's a guitar that wanted to roar.
Loz: Okay, that raises an interesting question. The key "what if" behind this guitar is "how do we get a great acoustic sound in the modern age?" And yet, these have been named and modeled and designed after the electrics. Why use Fender's classic electric names for a guitar with such a focus on the acoustic sound?
Well, first, I just have to say, Have you ever tried to name something? It's impossible, right? You know, if it was up to us and be called Betty or something. (laughs) But we have this rich history of great guitar names, right? A Stratocaster or Telecaster, a Jazzmaster, what great names!
Second, the outside perimeter is a Strat or a Tele or a Jazzmaster. Right, you can look at the three on my back wall, and from a distance, you can tell me what those are, right? So even the one you're holding in your hands, that's a Jazzmaster perimeter that we've modified with a beautiful forearm contour, and other things. So yeah, I guess the the long answer to your short question is, we have great names that are in our legacy. We have great shapes in our legacy. And so we did acoustic versions of those shapes.
Loz: Right. What are the challenges involved in taking an acoustic body with this new pickup system, and then trying to work your way back toward those classic, well-known electric sounds?
I think the biggest challenge is ignoring the critics. Because everybody will tell you, it can't be done. They'll say, "people have tried that before and it doesn't work," right? Or they'll say people have tried thin-body acoustics, and that doesn't work.
If you get past that, and you get with a bunch of other dreamers, like our team, and the Fishman team, and we say, listen, we're going to the Moon. No one's been there before, but I think we can do it, right. Once we give ourselves permission and freedom to explore new ideas, then it's about having fun. It's about making it feel great. And then it's let's make it sound great.
And yes, that's subjective. But the truth is, once you get a great sound, you can look around the room, and all of our heads are gonna start nodding. If we play a bad sound, we'd kind of all look around and go, hey something's not right about that. So we just start working on sounds and we start modifying them and we tweak them and tweak them until everybody's going, Yeah, man, right on, I want that!
Loz: Did you A/B them against the original guitars and ask did we capture the Strat here? Did we capture the Jazzmaster here? Or is it a matter of hey, we've got a whole new guitar here, we'll let it find its own character?
Yeah, so both are true. But I would say, think of it like a family. You got three kids, and they all came from the same parents. All three kids have components of their parents, but they're all unique from one another, right? So even though we've done solid body Stratocasters or Jazzmasters, and the Acoustasonic Jazzmaster has the DNA of its parents, it's still its own thing, just like your sisters and brothers are different than you are. It has to start with the Fender DNA, and then after that, it's like, well, what's its personality? It had permission to be a little more rowdy than, say, the Stratocaster, you know?
Loz: Yeah, right. Seeing as you've got a DSP in there, will it be possible in the future to do downloadable sounds, editable sounds, these sorts of things?
Yeah, I would think someday. The reason we didn't do that, at the beginning is, if you think of Fender gear, you don't have to have an owner's manual for any of it, right? You plug a guitar in, you spin the knobs, you find a good sound and you start playing.
Loz: It's almost an identity issue, isn't it? Like, you don't want this to be thought of as a digital toy. It's got to be something that speaks to you through your hands like instruments have for thousands of years.
Exactly. It's not a science project, right? It's not a tech piece. In house, we use the analogy of the iPod. When the iPod first came out, it was your whole music library with a spin wheel and a button. You went through with a thumb wheel and you spun around, you selected your song, boom, done. 10,000 songs at my fingertips. How's it work? I don't know. Magic, right? There were MP3 players before the the iPod, but you had to know file structures. It was a techie thing. Apple took it and went, nope, here's your whole music library, thumbwheel, button.
And that's what we've tried to apply here. It had to be bonehead simple. It was just like, you plug in, you turn the knobs, you start playing, you make music. The technology is there, so someday we could add downloadable sounds or you could mix and match a collection on your phone and load in the performances you want. But I think right now, it's about adoption. And it needs to earn its way as a great instrument first.
Loz: Gotcha. Do you think maybe this is a generational thing, whereby players of our generation have a certain idea about what a guitar should be, and players of the next generation might might really be interested in pushing that digital side to the max? Because people are starting to take amp and effect emulators out on stage now.
Right. I see the full-size acoustic on your wall behind you. And I think that was a generational instrument. That was before good pickups, right? And you had to have a full size acoustic guitar to make noise. The volume came from the fact that they had a big box and it's essentially its own built in amplifier.
This is a modern acoustic. In fact, that's what we named it when it was in development. The younger generation doesn't need a full-size acoustic to get great acoustic sounds. And that's what drove us. Really the dream on this guitar was, what if you could get those sounds from something thin and comfortable like this? I agree with you that in the in the future we may see more, you know, digital or app-savvy versions of this kind of thing. But again, it has to earn its way.
You know, guitar players are a funny lot. We're all about rebellion, rock and roll. I'm gonna rebel.... As long as I'm playing the same guitar that has been played for 50 years. We're so conservative; we talk about rebellion, but we don't want to allow something new into our life. But I agree, the younger generation are more open to that.
And I think this bridges the gap, right? This is the transitional guitar. Someday, future generations are going to dig one of these up out of the landfill and go, look, this was the transitional model!
Loz: Yeah. Right. So I guess in your R&D capacity, that's how you're conceiving the future of the guitar, it becomes more more of a... Well, it takes more advantage of what the digital stuff can do.
Sure, I mean, 70 years ago, Leo Fender looked around and said, What do I have? OK, I got wire, I got magnets...
Loz: I got rhythm, I got music...
You know what I mean? But he looked around, and Country and Western and swing were happening. The birth of Fender and the first Telecaster is, you know, pre-rock and roll, four to six years ahead of Johnny B Goode. So they were really still in the western/swing era, trying to make a guitar that these guys could take on stage.
Fast forward 75 years, here we are saying, alright, what are the tools around us? Hey, we've got digital tools now. We've got chips. We still have wood, wire and steel. But we also have computers, and we have loud PAs and sound systems. And we have this ability to record straight into a DAW on our computers. So what tools should we make today?
We're all huge, huge music fans, we all play, we're all tuned into multiple genres and cultures and generations. And so we just look and go, alright, if you're having a hard time getting an acoustic sound, what would we do? Well, we'd make a new new fangled acoustic guitar, and we'd put it in a classic shape that's easy for you to hold and play and feel. And then we'd load it with technology, but we give it an interface that's really easy: two knobs and a switch.
Loz: It is super comfortable and super lightweight. And it's definitely going to be a dream to travel with. And, it's got a lovely feel to play. Obviously, you've got access to incredible technicians at Fender, who've built hundreds of thousands of iconic instruments over the years. So yeah, what a pleasure to be able to throw those kinds of guys at this new project.
Yeah, again, it's a Fender. So it's got to sound great, be easy to get great sounds from, play great, and be durable night after night, gig after gig. Right now I do two shows nightly: 7.30 and 9.30 on my couch. The first one when is when my kids are still awake. And then after they go to bed, I play some more. But every day that I pick up my guitar, I don't have to think about it. I just pick it up and play. And so, to me, the Acoustasonics had to have that same feeling of this is my friend. It's my companion. It's my therapist. It's my girlfriend, right? It's my boyfriend. It's my go-to guitar.
Loz: Right. How are people using these?
Well I like to go on Instagram, there's a #acoustasonic thing going on. And it's really fun to see just how widespread it is. Every age group's represented there, all different nationalities... Some people are doing the looping thing with it. You've got Alessia Cara and others doing singer/songwriter with it, you've got Sting playing with it. Some are writing with it, some are performing with it.
Loz: Right, so they're starting to show up quite a bit on stage.
Yep. We're two years into it now, so you've got thousands and thousands of them out there. And the Strat and the Tele are being super well received, so we have every belief in the Jazzmaster, which most people say is the best one yet.
Loz: Right. Do you guys talk about sales figures? Rough numbers, say, compared to some of the traditional electrics?
Let me think of a clever way to put it. The sales of the first Tele were so great that it was sold out for 18 months after its introduction. And that made it as popular as some of our core instruments. So around here at the factory, it takes up a major space and the workforce is equivalent to all of our classics in essence.
Loz: Just thinking about using it on stage, the typical electric guitar rig doesn't use a full range speaker, obviously, but an acoustic guitar, you do want that full range kind of sound, particularly when you start thumping and looping and really trying to get into the bottom end and have some sparkle off the top of the strings as well. I guess the idea would be that you'd run a split rig live?
Have you played this guitar yet? Just straight into a full range system?
Did you notice when you played it through the PA, the overdriven electric pickup sounds? They have all of the cabinet emulation built in. So you can play it 100 percent direct, including if you wanted to play through your pedal board, and then keep going DI to a PA or to a DAW.
So it's optimized for that. But certainly you could go into your Kemper or you know, other things for the electric side. It's just a simple A/B box. Guys like Jack White, that's how he's using his Acoustasonic, he's got an A/B box. One side of his rig goes through the electric amps and effects, the other side is going straight to the front of house. That's only because he likes to hit a bunch of crazy fuzz, and octave pedals, and completely smash it on the electric side.
But there's amp and cab emulation on the electric pickup. You can just do that direct all night long. The output is maximized to be able to be used direct, including all the electric sounds, because they're going through a modeled amp, and a modeled cabinet and everything.
It's really just not picky about how you're using it. And, to me, the most important point would be to give you the freedom, like if you want to just play all night into the Kemper you should be free to do that. If you want to play an acoustic amp or an electric amp or the the DI to the front of house... However you want to make music, this guitar is happy doing it.
Loz: Gotcha. So the idea here is 10 guitars in one. And it strikes me that most guitar guys, they really like having 10 guitars.
It's not meant to replace those other things. If you want a collection of guitars...
Loz: Now you can have 11 guitars!
This is to inspire you, right? So if you're in the studio, it's hard to mic 10 different acoustics, right? This helps you get to a great sound quickly. Here's a great sound, track it. Live, you could take all your 10 guitars out with you, but it's kind of a pain to carry them all. This goes in its gig bag, and it says let's play all night, and I'm gonna give you a great sound however you want to do it. I'm trying to do give you convenience. I'm curious, what are your impressions of it so far? Was it fun?
Loz: Well, I've got one of those little Positive Grid Spark amps. It's a little practice amp that emulates hundreds of amp and effects sounds through a full-range speaker. So I guess with the Acoustasonic I was kind of running an emulator into an emulator. So I instantly went, how hard can we rock here, and I put it through some real high-gain metal patches. And it seemed to do that fine. And then I ran it through some through some clean sounds, which went OK, and then I looked for the acoustic sounds and was like, oh yeah, we can get a get a nice big strummy kind of thing going here. Something else I noticed was that it's fun to play unplugged as well, in a way that's not socially offensive. Because it's quiet, but it's not that quiet. And you can be in a room with other people and not interrupt the conversation, or...
Or feel too exposed, right?
So you've discovered some of the real important things: it's fun to play. You got the smirky big good fun when you played it with big overdrive. You discovered you can play it on your lap. And it makes enough sound to make you want to play. And to me, that's important because the more you play, the better you get. And if you're doing that, then you want to take your guitar with you and go play with others. Then you get brave enough to be in a band or you get brave enough to share your songwriting with others. And it doesn't matter if it's your hobby or if it's your profession. I want this guitar to inspire you to play.
Loz: Yeah, absolutely. And and I think part of that is just the comfort factor, how small it is compared to these big acoustics where you've really got to get your arm around those suckers and find a way to sit that accommodates the guitar. You don't have to accommodate a damn thing with with this. It's a very nice form factor.
Yeah. So you've discovered a lot of its essence. But before you even plug it in, it does all of those things, which distinguish it from a traditional acoustic. Then you plug it in, and you're like, oh, my gosh, this sounds great.
We thank Brian for his time catching up with us. We'd also like to thank our good buddy Cory Jach for demoing the Acoustasonic Jazzmaster on video and consulting on our review, as well as Jaclyn Williams from Fender's local team.