‘A louder, crunchier, rock ’n’ roll sound’: Fender Chief Engineer Tim Shaw explains the new Acoustasonic Jazzmaster

Hot on the heels of the launch of the new Fender Acoustasonic Jazzmaster, Tim Shaw, the guitar maker’s Chief Engineer spoke to Audio Media International about the development of its latest hybrid guitar and how the team managed to combine the latest technology with Fender’s 75-year heritage…

What was the initial inspiration for the Fender Acoustasonic series?
Brian Swerdfeger [Fender’s Vice President for Research and Design], who’s been a friend of mine for a long time, had an idea for a guitar, which would be a hybrid – an electric acoustic that would do things that previous versions didn’t. There have been tonnes of these things over the years. But they hadn’t quite got it right yet. 

So Brian came in initially as a consultant with an idea. He talked to a bunch of our high-level people including [former Fender Chief Product Strategist] Richard McDonald and our CEO Andy Mooney. And Andy basically threw out a challenge and said, ‘okay, what would Leo [Fender] have done if he was doing this?’. And we started on that basis. We wanted to create something that was a valid musical tool, but was also something where we could break new ground.

Tim Shaw, Fender Chief Engineer (pictured centre), with Fishman President Larry Fishman (left), and Brian Swerdfeger, Fender Vice President, Research and Design (right)

Did the new Fender Acoustasonic Jazzmaster require a lot more engineering than the Telecaster and Stratocaster models?
It’s similar in many key aspects. The essential structure of these things is the same – like a platform in car design. The Acoustasonic models are relatively thin, so the aim for the platform was to get as much sound as we could out of a small surface. The sound port extends into the body by a specific distance and with a specific set of angles on it. So we can basically tune the body resonance, so it works like a speaker port would. That was new technology, which we’ve got a patent on. And that technology, along with the concept of a braced top which sits into a hollow body, a sound board and simple electronics carries across the entire family.

Did the Jazzmaster’s irregular shape provide any new challenges compared to the earlier Acoustasonic models?
Yeah, it’s bigger and that was a big help. All three of the Acoustasonic pickups can be combined in various permutations on the instruments. The trick with the Jazzmaster was that it was the biggest, so acoustically it had the most volume.

There’s a point with acoustic-electric instruments, where if you have too much input from the guitar, it’s hard to deal with onstage because it’ll actually feed back like a hollow body guitar would. These never get to that point.

They’re definitely contributing 50% or better of the sound of the instrument, when you actually hear all the sounds that come out of it. And we can select how much of that we want to bring in. The Jazzmaster, because it was the biggest, gave us the most information. So in early prototyping, we were actually cutting some things back. It’s an odd shape, so we ended up modifying the internal cavity to get rid of a couple of resonances I didn’t like.

Acoustasonic Jazzmaster

How did you balance getting the acoustic sound with the need for on-board electronics to create a unique instrument?
Well, our partners at Fishman were totally key to this because without them, it wouldn’t have worked. The basic interface is two knobs and a switch. One knob is just volume control but the other actually blends each switch position between two different images. If we take the switch toward the peghead, we’ve got acoustic sounds. And as we rotate the knob clockwise, we have one sound of a big rosewood dreadnought at one end, and at the opposite end, the sound of a slope shoulder mahogany guitar.

The interesting thing about the system, and what’s never been done before, is what we’re calling the ‘knitting’ of these images. Part of our design brief for this model was to get 10 sounds which were unique to the instrument, so we’re not simply repackaging the stuff we already did for the Telecaster and Stratocaster. 

Of the three Acoustasonic guitars, the Jazzmaster is my favourite, sonically. It’s the most versatile and because of the pickup, and the way we voiced the electric sounds this is by far the rowdiest. The first two guitars had more traditional Fender-sounding pickups. This one, I voiced the magnetics specifically for a louder, crunchier rock ’n’roll sound.

How did you ensure that the new Acoustasonic models reflect Fender’s 75-year heritage?
Fender has always been a very, very player-centric company. Our history of innovation, simplicity, listening to what the players need, and giving them something that they can use was absolutely at the forefront. I’ve often said that guitars have to give us the sound we need, at the volume we have to play, and we have to want to play them. If we don’t want to play them, they’re decorative wall art.

What would you say to people who are sceptical about an electro-acoustic hybrid?
I would encourage them to plug one in. We originally did the voicing in a studio so we ran through a flat response system. So while it works perfectly well through a guitar amp, the more stuff you put in the signal chain, the more coloration you get to the original sound. So I would say listen to it clean first and then as you put it into an electric guitar amp or whatever else, you’ll hear the coloration of those extra things. You’ll find that it gives you a lot of stuff you can use and it’s very intuitive.

Are they any plans for other models in the Acoustasonic series – maybe a bass?
A bass would be more difficult because the wavelength of the note is so long. Capturing the information correctly is an issue and takes a lot of processing power. Is there potential for additional instruments in the family? Of course, because why wouldn’t we.