Electric guitars haven’t changed all that much since the most popular designs were created in the 1950s, and acoustic guitars haven’t really changed in the last hundred years. Generally, that’s for good reasons—why fix what isn’t broken?—but it also leads many professional musicians (or gear-obsessed amateurs) to hoard countless guitars to capture all the various tones and sounds they like. Fender, one of the oldest electric guitar companies, has a new idea.
Fender asked me if I’d like to test its latest creation, the $2,000 Acoustasonic Telecaster. Although I’m a (quite poor) guitarist, I thought this was a bit strange at first, given that I mainly cover technology, not music. But it was soon revealed that this electric-acoustic hybrid guitar wasn’t like anything I’d seen before. It wanted to be just about every type of guitar in one, using a combination of electric pickups and processing technology.
First, a quick lesson in how electric guitars work. Most hybrids like this tend to use what’s called a “piezoelectric pickup,” which translates the pressure of the movement of strings when playing the guitar into sounds. They tend to give that tinny, singer-songwriter-at-a-coffee-shop sound that isn’t exactly soothing, which is why many acoustic guitarists prefer to just use a microphone set up near their guitar to get a more accurate representation of how the guitar sounds. Electric guitars tend to use magnetic pickups, which translate the vibration of metal strings into electric signals, and often produce a far warmer sound.
Fender’s new guitar has both kinds of pickups, which isn’t exactly a new idea in and of itself—John Lennon had an acoustic guitar with a magnetic pickup jammed into it in 1962—but what Fender does with the pickups in this guitar produced something I’d never heard come out of a single instrument before. The Acoustasonic has two knobs on the front of the guitar, like most other electric guitars. The first one, as is commonly the case, just controls the guitar’s volume when it’s plugged in, but the second is a piece of technical wizardry. In tandem with the pickup selector switch, this knob changes the guitar’s tone to mimic 10 different sounds—for each notch on the selector switch, the second knob can produce two sounds, one by turning it all the way to the bottom, and one turning it all the way to the top. You can also blend each of those two sounds together by leaving the knob somewhere in the middle.
According to Fender, the sounds the Acoustasonic can recreate are:
5 - Core acoustics: rosewood dreadnaught / rosewood auditorium
4 - Alternative acoustics: maple small body / mahogany dreadnaught
3 - Enhanced harmonics: sitka spruce / rosewood dreadnaught
2 - Acoustic / electric blend: mahogany dreadnaught with Fender electric
1 - Electric: Fender clean electric / Fender fat electric
If all these guitar types don’t mean anything to you, this probably isn’t the guitar for you. But if you’re a gigging session musician who is sick of lugging around multiple guitars or effects pedals to only use for a few minutes, then this might be just what you’re after—assuming you can get over the sticker shock.
The Acoustasonic is about the size of a standard Telecaster, considerably lighter than one, and can produce a truly surprising range of tones, mimicking far more expensive woods than it’s made out of. Some of the tones—especially the core acoustic and electric sounds—are sounds I’d love to play and record with all the time. The guitar even sounds surprisingly bright when not plugged in—it won’t blow away a full acoustic guitar, but it packs a punch given the size of the body.
Depending on who you ask, guitar sales are falling or possibly rising, but the financial troubles of Fender rival Gibson, along with those of retailers such as Guitar Center, are likely signs of the instrument’s waning popularity. As amazing as the Acoustasonic is, it’s not likely going to find wide appeal, given its price tag, and Fender told me it was aiming for the “pro-sumer” market with this model, rather like the chameleonic Mustang amplifier it released last year. Presumably the hope will be that much like other tech gadgets, what starts off as expensive gets more affordable over time. While I really enjoyed messing around with the Acoustasonic, Fender gave the guitar to talented musicians who came up with some truly creative songs with it.
If this is the direction the company is going, though, it definitely signals there’s a ton of potential left in the bolted-together pieces of wood and electronics that Leo Fender assembled and that kicked off a musical revolution. I just hope it gets more affordable.