Every time we share a post of a Tele, Jazzmaster, or Jaguar that’s here for review, we get a ton of likes on our social feeds. Not only do worship musicians love their gear, there is an emotional transference that extends to the manufacturers who craft it. Tele players aren’t just Tele fanatics, they’re Fender fanatics.
Many people will never meet someone who works at Fender, but that seems to have no bearing on their love for the brand – why is that? Akin to the restaurant that serves up your favorite dish on special occasions, Fender has become an integral part of many of our musical existences. I got my first electric guitar for Christmas, and opening that case and seeing that 1964 Jaguar changed my life in an instant, and it hasn’t been the same since. Simply put, Fender was there.
Like many brands whose history is as storied as the one founded by Leo Fender and George Fullerton, not every season in the company’s history is a ‘golden era’, as demonstrated by the somewhat lackluster instruments produced in the years they were owned by CBS. However, as we’ve gotten to know many of the people at Fender today, I’m happy to say that from where we sit, Fender is in great hands. Even better, they recognize and appreciated the love that worship musicians have for their gear. Our friends at Fender have gone out of their way to invite us to press events where we get a chance to stand shoulder to should with our colleagues from the mainstream guitar magazines.
Although you might not meet Max Gutnik, Vice President of Fender Guitars and Basses in person, when Fender reached out to see if we would be interested in interviewing him about the new Player Series, we jumped at the chance. In part, so you could get a chance to hear first-hand from one of the most influential people on the Fender team.
Before we jump in, I will say that several of the Player Series instruments have arrived for review. Simply put, I love them, especially the Jaguar. As Max points out, the changes they’ve made to their MIM (made in Mexico) instruments are improvements designed to improve the experience for players, not Fender. These instruments look cool, sound great, are a pleasure to play. Even better, they are all under $1,000, offering tremendous value for worship musicians and churches looking for affordable instruments that rock. Look for a detailed review in our next issue.
In the meantime, I’d like you to meet Max Gutnik. Max is a serious heavyweight who has worked at a number of the most esteemed companies in the business. I will once again remind you that Fender reached out to us with this interview request, so it is with great pleasure that I get to introduce you to Max Gutnik!
[WM] Max, your official title is Vice President VP of Fender Guitars and Basses. Can you tell us about the things you’re responsible for as well as some of the day-to-day things you do to make that happen?
[Max Gutnik] Sure. I’m responsible for stewarding the business from a product and a product portfolio perspective. My team and I work on the Fender brand guitars and basses across all of the different series. We plan the road maps for the products over a multi-year period. As you saw at NAMM we’re doing a lot here with the Player Series, we have some new artist products, and we have some new limited stuff coming out. We work with customers, artists, dealers, and vendors to solve problems. To make the best instruments we can and to inspire creativity in all of the Fender faithful around the world.
[WM] Your background includes working for Apogee, Avid (Digidesign at the time), Line 6, and Seymour Duncan on products like Eleven Rack, Helix, and Palladium. Ironically, as you’ve moved through the industry you’ve moved further away from the digital into the analog world. Noting the massive number of guitars in the Player Series offering, were there any particular experiences that you could point to that prepared you for this?
[Max] I identify my authentic self as a guitar player if you will, the digital side of my career was always an ancillary aspect to getting things done as a guitar player. Whether it was recording, producing, songwriting, solving live problems with things like modelers and stuff like that it was from a guitarist perspective.
As I went to Avid and worked on that kind of stuff, it was of interest to me to get closer to my roots. Line 6 was a great step in that direction. I got to work on things like Helix, Amplifi, and the HD500X, all of that from a digital standpoint. When I went to Duncan it was really to get at the nuts and bolts of the guitar, the heartbeat of the thing that matters. And then the culmination of that was coming to Fender, which is kind of the dream gig for someone like me.
Everything I’ve done up to this point informs how to make the best instruments with the team. This is the center of the universe when it comes to all of the other products that I’ve worked on, so it feels really good to be planted squarely at the root of everything that matters to me.
[WM] You’ve been in this role for seven months, so considering the breadth of the Player Series, how much of a road map for this series was already in the works when you stepped into your role?
[Max] A lot of the Player Series was already in place. We have a roadmap that’s out two to three years plus, that we’re looking at in order to plan for the future. Of course things change, the market changes, and we need to be agile with the problems we want to solve.
As you saw from the launches with American Pro and American Elite, and American Original, this type of refresh on the more venerable lines has been going on for years now. This is the cherry on that effort and I think the team has done a really good job with that.
[WM] One of the things that I love about the promo videos for this line is that there is a huge range of diversity in the artists that are being featured. If Melanie Faye can’t convince you that these instruments sound great, nobody can!
[Max] There’s a really exciting movement that’s going on in music. More and more women are picking up guitar than ever before and that’s exciting. It’s bringing a whole new style of playing, a new style of musicianship, and a new character to the industry as a whole.
We want the players to understand what these guitars, amps, and instruments deliver as a solution for creative inspiration. So, some of the people we feature in these ads are really good archetypes for who we’re speaking to, and that’s why they were chosen. They understand it. They resonate with other customers who are looking. It’s pretty simple from our standpoint as far as the authenticity of us communicating with these artists and our customers, all of it is genuine.
There are all kinds of new diverse music out there where guitar isn’t necessarily a lead instrument. Sometimes its atmospheric. Sometimes it’s doing other things, like being creative in other ways where historically the guitar didn’t play that role.
[WM] At Summer NAMM you introduced the Albert Hammond Jr. Signature Stratocaster. Ironically, Albert’s main guitar was a MIJ (made in Japan) reissue of a ’72 Strat, not entirely different than the instruments in the Player Series. Noting that these instruments will likely be played by a number of the coming generation of influences, how much were you thinking about this as you crated this line?
[Max] Tons. Throughout my whole career that’s been my inspiration. All of us in the product group are guitar musicians. We’ve all been in bands. We’ve all toured. We’ve all done it professionally. We’re very connected to our customers and artists in that way. We’ve all experienced that for ourselves, as fans, and through our mentors and what they play. It’s kind of front and center when we’re putting something like this together, especially with the artist guitars and even with the Player Series. We know that tons of people are going to make amazing music with these instruments. There’s a responsibility there to make sure we deliver on the promise so that kind of stuff comes true. It’s why we do it. It’s why we get out of bed in the morning.
[WM] The Player Series six strings share a number of common features like an F-stamped neck plate, 22 fret C-shaped necks, more traditional body radii, and alnico pickups. While these core features add some great continuity to the line, this offering has a ton of choices in terms of finishes and pickup configurations. Was refining the core features partially designed to reduce option overload, and in turn how do you present so many unique feature sets in a way that is not overwhelming?
[Max] We don’t choose the features of a guitar for the sake of simplicity for the end user from that standpoint. What we do is we choose the features that we think are going to create the best result for the players that we’re targeting with the series and what we think will get them the best outcomes. Whether it’s a problem we want to solve with tone, feel, or whatever, when you’re a product person you’re trying to solve problems and give solutions to people.
So, it really starts with what does the customer want? What can we do to make this better for the customer? Making sure the customer understands what they are getting, can get you a little bit in the weeds with some people, but other people really like to dig in. At a high level its really about the feel of the guitar, the tone of the guitar, and the experience that customers of the Player Series are looking for. Is it authentic, does it vibe, is it a true Fender? Does it make you feel good and lend you credibility? All the things players look for when choosing their gear.
The things that we addressed like the body radii, pickups, 22 frets, those are all things that customers have given us feedback on in the past that we thought would be really good things to address to make the instruments even better. We continue to push the envelope and make the best guitars we can. This will challenge us because we will continue to disrupt ourselves and as we go up the aspirational ladder. That’s really the approach we take.
[WM] Noting that the vast majority of the comments on the YouTube launch videos are positive, the reaction to the Player Series is super strong – congratulations! This series features 94 new SKUs across 19 models, which is a massive undertaking for any manufacturer. When you started, were you planning on having this number of options?
[Max] It was pretty much a plan from the start as a replacement to the Standard Series, which had pretty much the same number of models and SKUs. In terms of our unit volume, this is our highest velocity category, so it was always planned to be this great in scope. It takes a lot of due diligence, you’re looking at all the lines, models, what colors we want to do, how we want to spec up the guitars, what pickup configurations we want. All of this is based on the old series, customer feedback, our own data, new data, talking to customers, talking to dealers, what’s working, what are customers really into, how the market is evolving, how music is evolving, and how we can address some of those things with tone and with solutions for music as it evolves etc. This is all a decade in the making. We haven’t overhauled the standard line in ten years, so a lot has changed in the music market. Some things are addressed from that standpoint, others are colors, and fashions change. Playing styles change.
So, you want to use all of that as you plan for how the line is going to change and evolve to meet all of those needs. This was always going to be a big undertaking – all of the major core product series are. But the team was totally up for the challenge and really excited to do it and I think the results speak for themselves. So far, I’m really pleased about it.
[WM] 22 Frets! I bought my first Strat in 1979, right around the time that brands like Charvel were putting 22-fret necks on their Strat-inspired offerings. Noting that all the six string instruments in the Player Series feature 22-frets, what was the inspiration behind doing this now?
[Max] I think it’s just an understanding of where customers are, where their needs lie, and us feeling like it was time to address that need. I can’t speak as to why Fender didn’t do it in the past, but as I came in here and we were talking about this product line it was clear that we thought this was a big enough “ask” from the market that it needed to be addressed. One of the things that we won’t do, is not put things on for the sake of keeping things the same. We’re always going to push the envelope. The guitar is going to evolve, the sound is going to get better, and 22 frets was a natural evolution in making the guitar more versatile and more playable for today’s modern players. I think that’s an important aspect of a guitar, I don’t think 22 frets is exclusive domain of Charvel or the Pro Series anymore. I think all players want to be able to grab that high E when they can. It’s about evolving and making the instruments better, so 22 frets was an easy call to make.
[WM] The 22 fret neck is not the only departure. You dared to make some pretty radical pickup changes to both the Jazzmaster and Jaguar. Was this the plan from the beginning and if not, can you describe the process of how you ended up choosing these pickup configurations?
[Max] Music has evolved and customers have embraced the offset body styles over the last couple years. The feedback we’re getting from customers on how they like to use them, where we think we can get them the outcome they want, is really what it comes down to. I am a particularly big fan of the Jaguar. I think it looks great and sounds amazing. We were using it to demo all of the pedals at Summer NAMM and I just loved playing it. It’s a great sounding guitar. That’s really what it comes down to. Are we getting the outcomes that customers want, and do they sound amazing in those configurations? So far, so good.
[WM] The Player Series instruments range from $649.99 to $774.99, which is pretty darned affordable considering the color and feature set options. I also love the fact that they’re made in Mexico aka ‘MIM’. What are some of the benefits of manufacturing this line in Mexico?
[Max] We have our own plant in Ensenada, and they do an amazing job making instruments. The Mexican Standard Series has been manufactured there for years and years, and like I said, we hadn’t upgraded this series for ten years, so this is the natural evolution of that line moving into the Player Series.
Ensenada is really close by. We go there all the time, and we engage and collaborate directly with the folks there. They’re all a major part of the team. Its Fender’s own factory, just like the one in Corona. So, between the two, we feel really strongly about the quality, craftsmanship, and expertise. The Player Series is a great testament to that.
[WM] For musicians looking to buy their first Fender, or maybe even their first guitar, what do you want people to know about the brand as well as these instruments?
[Max] I’d say the most important thing is that we are setting a baseline for what it means to get into the Fender brand. Not Squier, Fender. What is that supposed to mean? There’s a lot of history with Fender – over sixty plus years. There are a lot of cats in our industry who have been around a long time who know what Fender means.
We’re especially focused on all the new musicians coming into the market, the next generation of players and creatives who may have a different or uninfluenced view of what Fender means. They’re going to introduce themselves to the brand or be introduced to the brand in a whole new way. Maybe without knowing who Eric Clapton is, unlike someone who grew up listening to the Yard Birds and Cream, you know? So, it is important that we make an instrument and communicate what the instrument means today, not just what it meant in the past.
There is that aspect of what we want to deliver, of what it means for an instrument to be a Fender. What it delivers to your music, your expression, your creativity as an up and coming or aspiring player who wants to finally get their first real Fender.
Then there’s the players who have been around for a long time and have been fans of the brand, had many instruments, to whom we want to say, “Hey, we’re going to continue to push the envelope, were not just sitting on our laurels. We’re going to continue to improve, and there are still things we can do to continue to make these instruments even better.” This is a testament to that. All of the things that we’ve done are things that customers have asked for over the years. It was great to see all the people at the show pick up the guitar and go, “Wow!” They were surprised this was a replacement for Standard because it felt like something at a much higher level than ever before.
That spoke to what we’re trying to do in both aspects of the market. We really want the outcome to say that you can be in your dorm room, be in your garage band, be on stage with this. Or, whether it’s your first one, second one, or the one you take on fly dates so you don’t have to worry about that custom shop guitar, you can rely on it, depend on it, and enjoy the experience.
Then hopefully if you’re one of those up and coming players, just as in our past history, you will become insistent on the brand because we care so much about you and your outcome that you will want to stay with the brand. Because we listen to you, take care of you, and make the instrument that helps you make the best music – ultimately that’s what we’re trying to do.
[WM] Is there anything else that you’d like to add?
[Max] I think it’s really important that we recognize something that Fender has taken initiative on. There’s this opportunity in the market right now. People understand that the guitar market is healthy and growing. It’s up year over year, and the guitar is having a resurgence both in the industry, and as a lead instrument or main ‘driver’ of music. We’re seeing a whole new Grunge movement happening. Like I said with some of the atmospheric stuff, we’re seeing guitar starting to replace keyboards in some areas. There’s a lot of versatility happening with the guitar in the market.
A whole new generation of players who are seeing the instrument a little differently than what we’ve traditionally seen over the past thirty plus years and I think that’s exciting. Its changing how we view the instrument, how we view guitar players, and how we view the creative process. That keeps it fresh for everybody and makes what we’re doing kind of new again. It feels like a new guitar renaissance is happening and that’s really exciting.
It will be interesting to watch that unfold and we will continue to support that and stay connected. I think one of the big advantages we have is how well artists feel they can communicate with us, to our artists relations department, and directly to the products team. We spend time dialoging with them and learning about what they’re doing and how they’re doing it, so that we’re right there with them taking this journey, providing what they need in order to be successful.
So that is what I would add. The market is healthy, the industry is changing, and I think all of it is positive and good. I think it’s going to be really exciting what these people do with these instruments in the future!