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FMIC’s Justin Norvell on Fender’s 75th Anniversary

Christian Wissmuller • April 2021Upfront Q&A • April 1, 2021

Justin Norvell

Not many brands, companies, or organizations make it to the three-quarter-century mark, but Fender is celebrating that anniversary in 2021 – and doing so in style. The newly introduced 75th Anniversary Commemorative Series and Diamond 75th Anniversary instruments are unique, limited, and collectible and the company will be recognizing this significant milestone in other ways throughout the year.

MMR sat down with Justin Norvell, executive VP Fender products, in mid-March to discuss the many defining moments in the history of this iconic musical instrument and gear line.

Fender’s Precision Bass

First question, which almost certainly is going to be the most difficult to answer: Looking back at the previous 75 years, of all the many product introductions, innovations, big-name Fender players, and other developments… if you could narrow it down to, say, the four or five most significant milestones for Fender, what would those be?

The debut of the Precision Bass in 1951 – “it changed modern music forever.” Bands got louder, PAs got louder, which ushered in new music, new possibilities, et cetera.

The Strat in 1954

The Strat in 1954 – “got it totally right out of the gate.” It’s a fantastic platform that has infinite possibilities, but also is so relatively unchanged all these years later, which is a testament to its design perfection.

The debut of the American Standard in 1986 – it showed that Fender was “back” post CBS-era and looking forward, not backward, and set the stage for a new chapter.

The Tone Master Amp Rollout – using digital technology to properly and accurately replicate the response of a tube amp.

 

The Acoustasonic – an all-new platform, a new versatile tool for players that shows our continued commitment to innovation.

Leo Fender with an early business card (lower right) for the company’s founder and president

Can you talk a little about Leo Fender and his lasting impact on the brand? Obviously as the company’s founder his importance to Fender is clear, but he was also such a unique character – inspired designer and engineer of all sorts of electronics and electric instruments, but never learned to play guitar, himself, et cetera.

HIs approach was unique. He was all about function and serviceability, and keeping things simple and intuitive. He was quoted as saying, “If I had $100 to make something, I’d spend $99 making it work and $1 making it pretty.” Ironically, the designs are timelessly beautiful, but the ethos of simplicity and function, above all, endures. Also his tireless forward momentum was admirable. He just kept going, from the Esquire to the Tele, the P Bass, the Strat, the Jazzmaster, the Jazz Bass, the Jaguar, Mustang… and that’s not even getting into the amplifiers, which evolved through TV front – from tweed to black panel and several iconic models.

Fender went through its first change of ownership and during that time the instruments produced weren’t considered to be of as high quality as those from the early years and Leo’s ownership. With the passage of time, positions have softened towards the “CBS models.” What’s your take on the legacy of the CBS ownership years, the enduring fervor for “pre-CBS” instruments, and how lessons from the CBS years have informed the present-day FMIC?

There are lessons we hold from the CBS-era of what not to do, but there were also some great things that happened. The wide range Humbucker designed by Seth Lover, the thinline models and more. Some other things were good designs, but weren’t executed well like the three-bolt neck joint, something we have addressed and fixed in our reissues. We also have used much of the odd esoterica of the CBS era where they were mish-mashing instruments together (many opine to use up overstock parts). Guitars like the Swinger and Maverick became a jumping off point for successful series like the Pawn Shop, Parallel Universe, and Paranormal Series. You have to pay attention to the details and stay true to the recipe, overall.

There have been a number of acquisitions of other brands throughout the years for Fender – some which remain in the FMIC fold, some which haven’t. Looking back, which of these were most significant to the company?

I would say the distribution of Gretsch Guitars has been most significant. We applied the Fender style forensics and rigor to the guitar designs that had drifted a bit over the years and tightened things up. Since then, we’ve developed several new lines which have led to a total resurgence for the brand.

A 1950s shot of the early Fender factory

As Andy [Mooney] told me last November, “I would never have thought I’d be able to say that Fender is going to have the biggest sales year in its history,” and yet 2020 proved to be just that. He estimated at the time that sales would surpass $700 million. Clearly pandemic-related lockdowns and increased focus on “at-home entertainment” was a catalyst that benefitted a number of MI market segments (while, unfortunately, decimating others), but FMIC was especially clever (and helpful) via initiatives such as Fender Play. What are your thought on the past year as well as any continuing – or emerging – trends when it comes to sales of fretted instruments and related gear?

I think the pandemic, tragic as it was, has caused people to introspect and pursue creative and fulfilling pursuits, which is leading to a renaissance for the guitar business and music making. We feel that this trend will continue, and more new players are entering the market to this day. Tools like Fender Play exist to retain these new players and reduce the abandonment rate to make these new entrants players for life.

Hard at work at the Fender Factory in 1966

Let’s talk about the new 75th Anniversary Commemorative Series and Diamond 75th Anniversary instruments: What were some of the goals in designing these instruments (aside from the obvious – celebrating the milestone)? What features are unique to these guitars and basses that set them apart from other high-end Fenders?

In addition to being limited and collectable, they debut brand new finishes that we’ve never done before, unique cases, and compelling ‘greatest hits of the last 75 years’ feature sets. The U.S.-made models have a 75th Anniversary ingot inlaid into the back of the headstock and Fender Custom Shop pickups as well!

How can Fender dealers best get on board to be part of the yearlong celebration and involve their customers?

The anniversary creates infinite possibilities for a dealer. The recorded body of work with our products and the enduring nature of our core models is a great springboard to educate customers about the history, relevance, and impact of the instruments they carry in a cultural context. Also, we are putting 75th anniversary markings on our products this year, which makes everything a dealer buys limited and collectible!

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