The Classics – Series 3: The Instrument
When one thinks of rock music the guitar is usually the first thing that comes to mind and when one thinks of the guitar Fender is usually the brand that first comes to mind.
What’s your name and what do you do at Fender?
Justin Norvell, Fender’s Director of Electric Guitar Marketing. I am basically in charge of product design, guiding what the lineup in a specific year is, what artists we are working with and generally promoting our guitars. Just a 60+ year legacy- no pressure! : )
When you were younger were you musically inclined? If so, what instruments did you play? Were you apart of any bands?
My upbringing was pretty musical- my dad had a massive record collection that he gave me free reign over, so even as early as 5 & 6 years old I was listening to Zeppelin, Hendrix, Cream, etc. Then at about 8 years old when MTV debuted, that was it. I took the obligatory piano lessons for a few months but really wanted to play drums. When I was about 9, I got a paper route (in suburban Maryland), and saved up to buy my first drum set. Most kids don’t seem to get serious about playing until their early teens, so I didn’t really have anyone to play with at that stage. Instead, I used to put on the old-school big headphones, and play along with records and the stereo.
Then in 1985 my family moved to England, and I got really into the ‘goth’ and punk scene, and joined my first band over there, a group of art students about 5 years older than myself. Through skateboarding culture, when I came back to the states in 1988 and my punk leanings went more metal (via bands like Suicidal Tendencies that lived in both worlds), and played in a few bands during high school that admittedly didn’t get out of the basement much…
Who are some of your favorite rock artists/groups – past and present?
I was a sponge, all styles, genres have a affected me in some way…Hendrix, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin,The Cure, The Clash, The Smiths, The Cult, Slayer, Buzzcocks, Fishbone, Catherine Wheel, Helmet… With drums in my background, I have a strong leaning towards funk or stuff with a groove….so Nile Rodgers was a huge influence.
Modern bands I like would be Clutch, Fighting With Wire, Brand New, Jimmy Eat World, Sonic Youth, Thrice, Explosions in the Sky, Queens of the Stone Age….
Growing up, what were you earliest memories of the brand?
My Dad had an acoustic guitar in the house and I remember I would see tortoise shell picks laying around with the Fender logo on them; it looked cool with that F that looked like a number 7!
How did you come to land at Fender?
Serendipity- I happened to go to college at Arizona State, and Fender’s corporate office moved from California to Arizona in my Junior year there. After finishing school (and having a few uninspiring jobs) I remembered Fender was in town and I applied for a few job openings, and eventually got hired on the third try. Of course, working at Fender was just going to be a day job until my band hit the big time (laughs)!
Early on, who were some of the significant artists/groups that really helped to establish the Fender brand?
Buddy Holly, Dick Dale, the Ventures, the Beach Boys, then later Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Keith Richards…(later Bruce Springsteen, The Clash, U2, Kurt Cobain, Smashing Pumpkins, John Fruiscante, Nile Rodgers, etc….)
What do you think it is about (a) Fender’s sound that separates it from other brands?
I believe that Fender guitars are more expressive than others…You can hear the distinctive sound of a Strat or Tele guitar in a recording, yet you can also hear someone’s specific style come through, where the player has their own signature sound, so the instrument serves the player rather than overpowering them. Most of the iconic players that really have a recognizable sound or style like David Gilmour from Pink Floyd, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Hendrix, Clapton, most play a Strat… Robin Trower, a well known guitar player has said that a Strat is “the nearest to the human voice that one can get”…
Why do you think Fender has stood the test of time as the premiere guitar brand?
The musical body of work it helped soundtrack overall….the sound of a Fender is the sound of rock music. It’s what you grow up used to hearing, so it’s comfortable and pleasing and each generation has influences from previous generations that inspire them.
What do the words “quality” and “commitment” mean to the brand?
We are artistic enablers, we make interactive tools of self expression. We make our art so people can make their art. The second our sonic tools cease to deliver or don’t do the job, we are done, so we have to be committed to a quality instrument, as well as be associated with quality music at all times.
Why do you think rock music will remain a timeless genre?
I think it has the potential to last because it doesn’t have a set of restrictive format rules, it was countercultural at its inception….the 2 constants to rock music have been the youth pulse and continuous change or evolution. The Arctic Monkeys and Nine Inch Nails sound nothing like Buddy Holly to illustrate….
Culturally, the guitar seems to be interwoven within the fabric of Americana – just like James Dean, apple pie, or even hot rods. Why do you think that is?
Part of it stems from timeliness, that Fender started in that post WWII design boom where cars got fins, and industrial design got a futuristic look, and the rock n Roll movement happened right at that time….so there’s a lot of the soundtrack to people’s lives in there, a nostalgia. Our instruments have become a touchstone or symbol of expression, freedom, youth, etc…very powerful stuff.
As far as guitars, why do you think people tend to be drawn to that instrument? Where does the instrument’s sense of “cool” come from?
Its presence at Rock’s inception through to today…like a black leather jacket or a motorcycle, it’s a symbol of independence, expression, counterculture, edge, etc.
Is there a personal relationship that musicians have with guitars? If so, where do you think that comes from?
It’s tactile, it’s portable, it fits with your body, it moves both with and against you in symbiosis or struggle….a drum set or grand piano doesn’t have the same freedom of expression, it’s less connected to the person. Since it becomes like an extension of the player, it becomes super sentimental and emotional….also guitars hold the stories of the songs written on them, the songs still yet to be unlocked from inside them, and the dents and scratches tell the story of a musician’s experience and journey. I’ve talked to countless artists that can tell you where every scratch came from on their instrument, like it’s their personal 3-D musical biography.
What are the qualities that you look for when sponsoring a new artist/group?
Energy, a unique sound, a unique approach to the instrument…
What are some of the brand’s latest technological advancements?
We’ve messed with about everything that we can- we’ve done digital modeling, semi-acoustic hybrids, alternate materials, silent pickups, advanced switching capabilities and more.
In an age of technology how does Fender maintain a feeling of authenticity, a sense of craftsmanship?
All of our instruments are still largely hand made…even if we use a machine to cut the general shape (for improved consistency), every neck and body are sanded and shaped by hand, so they’re all a little different…plus the skilled hands-on work at the end where the guitar transcends from being a ‘combination of parts’ into that fine balance where it becomes a playable instrument, all hands-on, guitar craftsmanship.
As we’ve more than furthered ourselves into a “digital age” how has the brand been embraced by a younger group of musicians?
Very well…these are the tools of the trade. We listen to what people want and adjust for changes in modern music…
I read that the basic design/construction of the Fender hasn’t changed much from the 40s – 50s original. Why is that?
A lot of that speaks to Leo Fender ‘getting it right the first time’. We branch out fairly often, but people speak with their actions and lean toward the classic stuff. Guitar players on the whole are into technology in their amplifier or in their effects chain, but many like the physical guitar unfettered on the whole.
Through Fender’s Custom Shop who are some of the brand’s high profile artists it has created guitars for and what were some of the more interesting requests?
Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, Andy Summers, John Mayer, Nile Rodgers, Iron Maiden, Johnny Marr, Kurt Cobain, and countless others…..we do a lot of cool stuff for music videos and live shows, like we did ‘upholstered’ guitars for OK GO, and we did Flashing LED light guitars for Fall Out Boy.
In your work, what are some of the challenges that you face in maintaining such an iconic brand?
Continuing to move forward and stay relevant while respecting the legacy of the past. The brand means so much to everyone that loves it, and not letting them down. Some people want us to stay like it’s 1954, and some want us to push forward, so we try to offer as many variants as make sense for what people need to create their music.
How is the brand received internationally? What are some of the things that you do to cultivate the following?
We are global- rock music had strong US roots so Fender is a symbol that ties into that heritage. Japan, the UK, Scandinavia, Germany have very strong guitar communities….it’s important to align and work with artists that resonate in each of these geographic areas- staying relevant and in the mix.
What are some of the things Fender has in store for the future?
To continue to serve musicians with sonic tools…it’s never been easier for people to make music, record at home, etc, and we want to keep on top of that to keep music important and advancing as an artistic medium.
For more info visit Fender.