6 Guitars with an Identity Crisis

The iconic guitar builders have spent decades carving out their unique sets of defining characteristics: set necks vs. bolt-on; 3x3 vs. 6 a-side headstocks; humbuckers vs. single coils and so on. But consumers are fickle and fashions change. And ever since the Fullerton-made Broadcaster riled the Jazz-box builders in Kalamazoo, Gibson and Fender have been battling for the hearts and minds of players.

To respond to trends and increase market share, marketers occasionally are willing to step out of their comfort zones and offer products that appropriate the features and designs of their competitors.

We all know of the misses that were ahead of their time, such as the Jazzmaster, Jaguar, Flying V, Explorer and more recently the Night Hawk, but both Fender and Gibson have a long history of one-upmanship and attempts to draw from the other's ranks of the converted. Here are a few of the most out-of-character models by the giants.

Fender Coronado (1965)

The semi-hollow body guitar is very much out of step with the Fender lineage. But in the wake of Beatlemania, the company needed to respond to rising demand for semi-hollow guitars despite the fact that Gibson invented the semi, mastered the design and so thoroughly cornered the market that “335 style” is an accepted description for these models.

The Coronado, designed by former Rickenbacker designer Roger Rossmeisl, was visually in the style of the hallowed Gibson models but featured bolt-on necks and DeArmond pickups, which are more similar to those found on a Grestch, and did little to convert 335 aficionados. Also, the fully-hollow construction was much more prone to feedback than a proper semi-hollow. While considered a failure at its time due to low sales and high-production costs, the Coronado later became a cult classic and even had a reissue run.

Fender Starcaster (1976)

The Starcaster was Fender's next attempt to capture the semi-hollow market. Its features were very similar to the Coronado, including the bolt-on neck, but sported Seth Lover designed pickups, a more proper semi-hollow construction and a Fender style bridge. The body also was more offset than the symmetrical shapes of classic Gibsons, although it was surprisingly similar in shape to the ‘70s Les Paul Signature semi-hollow.

Ultimately the Starcaster was doomed to the same fate as the Coronado, although the declining quality of Fender in the late ‘70s also contributed to the demise of the model. Again a reissue has emerged, so the model lives again.

Fender D'Aquisto (1984)

Perhaps Fender's greatest borrowing of Gibson attributes was led by Jimmy D'Aquisto, the de facto heir to the D'Angelico legacy and an undisputed master of the arch-top guitar.

The D’Aquisto is a proper set-neck jazz guitar, similar to Gibson L5-CES and ES-175 models, and was built by Fender Japan. The guitars were well designed and made, but poorly timed in terms of consumer tastes.

During the rise the “Super Strat” shred-friendly guitars from Jackson, Kramer and Charvel, this jazz box — from company not traditionally known for jazz guitars — was met with puzzlement and slow sales.

Gibson Grabber Bass (1970s)

Gibson has made many forays into the low-end realm, but never has achieved anything close to the success of Fender designs. Other than the EB-O and Thunderbird, Gibson basses have been misses in the public eye.

With the new Norlin ownership in the 1970s, Gibson went after the Fender style bass with the Grabber. Introduced in 1973, with a Fender long-scale bolt-on neck, moveable pickup, and all-maple construction, the model shared little with the Gibson bass heritage, perhaps a good move. Bill Lawrence also designed the pickup to sound very different from the “mud 'buckers” of previous Gibson bass designs. This model did enjoy moderate success, but faded away in the early 1980s. Like most all guitars, a reissue came about later.

Gibson MIII (1991)

Gibson made its name in the Jazz era with L-5s and banjos and the brand never has been associated with shred-style guitars. But in the ‘80s, brands like Jackson, ESP and Kramer began to take a bite out of market share and Gibson’s classic designs increasingly were perceived as stodgy.

In response, Gibson tried a few new and mostly-original models in that era, such as the Corvus, which is quite possibly brand’s ugliest production guitar, as well as making more shred-friendly versions of Vs and Explorers by adding Kahler tremelo systems. Eventually, the Fender-influenced MIII was born. With a set neck, H/S/H pickup arrangement and a Floyd Rose, Gibson finally had its own shred machine.

Poor timing killed the model, however, as shred waned in popularity and gave way to Grunge; Fender offset guitars, such as Jazzmasters, Jaguars and Mustangs, which never had enjoyed widespread popularity, then had their moment in the sun. Again, a reissue later could be had.

Gibson Music City Junior (2013)

The most recent Gibson model with the largest Fender influence was 2013’s Music City Junior. At first glance, one would be hard pressed not to see a Telecaster. The ash body, maple neck and fingerboard all scream Fullerton style, as does the familiar pickguard; the addition of the Fender-style bridge and a B-Bender system makes this guitar perhaps the least Gibson-like Gibson of all time.

While this guitar saw very limited production in just a single year, it makes one wonder what the marketing guys were thinking when this model came out.

While imitation may be the highest form of flattery, none of these models displaced their competing-brand equivalent. And though some of these models have developed cult followings, the take-home message very well may be to try new things, but stay true to your roots.

Any borrowed designs we missed? Which “in-between” models are your favorites?

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