Can Legacy Electric Guitars Brands Successfully Launch New Models?

With the introduction of the Gibson Modern Double Cut this year, I was reminded of the difficulty major guitar companies face when introducing models not rooted in the “Golden Age” of the late '50s and early '60s.

Gibson's new design was not even all that radical, yet seemed to elicit nothing but criticism and malice from the guitar–playing public. Reading through comments on various online venues, it honestly felt like there would have been the same general cynicism and dismissal for any new non–classic model from Gibson, regardless of its particular shape or form.

As I've noted before, guitar players are a fickle and conservative group of consumers, and there is, of course, a certain comfort in the tried–and–true familiarity that comes when a brand plays the hits.

We all love the looks and tones of the sunburst Les Paul, the simplicity and smooth lines of a Strat, the fab vibe of a Rickenbacker 360, or even the implicit speed of a Jackson Soloist. More than just the physicality of these attributes, the appeal lies in how we treasure them in our psyche and infuse that perception into our instruments and playing.

With such baggage and nostalgic weight baked into every classic brand's catalog (and by "classic brand," we'll say any widely distributed guitar maker from the '80s or earlier), you have to stop and wonder if these guitar companies will ever be able to successfully launch something truly new.

Just try to think about a popular new body shape introduced by a company like Fender or Gibson or Gretsch in the last several decades. Can you think of one that's been anymore than a marginal success that earned its spot in the pantheon?

These lofty requirements aside, there have certainly been new models that have found high regard with players. In order to unpack these questions with a little more evidence, I thought we'd take some time to look back at successful guitar models that were introduced in recent memory — the last 10 or 15 years — and examine what succeeded and why.

Fender and Gibson have the largest legacy to contend with, though other companies have also succeeded in bringing new models to the market that, in some cases, shifted even the most conservative mindset.

But as we'll see in the text below (and most assuredly in the comments to follow), there's always a question of to what degree these design were truly new and to what extent they can be considered legitimate breakaway successes.

Fenders Cabronita Telecaster: Success in Old Places

While not a new body shape by any means, one of Fender's most successful new models in recent memory has been the Cabronita Telecaster. The shape is classic Tele, of course, but its features are new tricks for an old dog.

Starting as a 2009 Custom Shop model, the Cabronita has subsequently been produced in a few different configurations by the Fender USA and Mexican factories, and as a Squier. The most revered version included a semi–hollowbody, two Filter’tron–style pickups, and a Strat–style hardtail bridge. This model gave players the traditional feel of a beloved Tele, but new sonic colors with the body style and pickups.

Premier Guitar found, “While the Cabronita Telecaster may be an adjustment for purists who feel Teles should be all about twanging treble of the sort that powered the Bakersfield sound, those who’ve hungered for more midrange bark from their Fender single–cut will find it a very capable tool.”

The combination of these features had not been seen on a Fender previously, and they all worked in harmony. One observation of the model’s success is that smaller custom makers (such as LsL) offer a similar model, and one can find quite a few “Partscasters” on Reverb striking the same pose. In that regard, it's not unlike the "Offset Telecaster" introduced by Fender a couple NAMMs back.

While the Carbonita was not a totally new model, the suite of changes did alter the Tele form significantly. The shape was familiar, but the sound was unique, marking at least one instance where Fender found success with a relatively fresh idea. All of that said, the Cabronita is not part of Fender's current model lineup.

Gibson’s Updated Body Construction

In its recent history, Gibson has introduced a variety of new models that differed enough from the classics to be considered new ideas, including the aforementioned and already notorious Modern Double Cut.

Another example came in 2001, with the introduction of the CS–336. While the guitar looked like a scaled down ES–335, it was a completely new concept under the hood.

The back and sides of the 336 were carved from a solid mahogany plank, leaving chambered wings and a solid centerblock. The top was also carved solid maple, rather than the laminate top of the 335. This gave the guitar a sonic space that was not quite semi– or solid–bodied but yielded tones of both varieties.

While this was a “Custom Shop” model, Gibson smartly released these direct to dealers in moderate numbers allowing the public a chance to give them a whirl. The shape was familiar with the new twist hidden from view, and eventually the design innovation trickled down to other shapes as well.

Taking the same successful construction method minus the centerblock came the Gibson Johnny A model in 2003. This signature guitar was another striking Custom Shop offering with a shape that echoed the Barney Kessel Custom of the '60s.

The limited nature of the guitar kept it out of the hands of most players, but reviews of the model were stellar. Guitar Player effused, “At this point, I’m much too embarrassed to unleash any more accolades about this guitar, but it’s hard to stop. Although quality control could be slightly improved, everything else about the Johnny A.’s tones, construction, and playability is extraordinary.”

The model has proven popular enough that there's even been an occasional Epiphone take on the design. Beyond the original CS–336 and Johnny A, Gibson has used its solid back and sides construction method on the Midtown Standard, Custom, and Kalamazoo models from the mid–2010s. While not totally revolutionary, these modestly successful designs did, in fact, strut new body shapes with non–archtop soundboards.

Charvel: Shedding Shredder Vibes

Charvel guitars have almost always been about speed and high–octane metal playing. According to guitar lore, they were conceived out of the frustrations bred from the limits of classic guitar designs. Yet for their robust shredding acumen, one of the most surprisingly successful Charvel models was the retro–steeped Surfcaster.

This model was a pawnshop–inspired hodgepodge of classic designs and came in both six and twelve–string versions. Its pickups were Danelectro–inspired lipstick single–coils paired with a Strat–like trem, Jazzmaster body shape, and finish and fretboard–style that's all Rickenbacker.

Introduced in 1991 from the Japanese import line, the model caught on with players far outside Charvel’s normal market, such as Vince Gill and Steve Cropper. With the subsequent reintroduction by Jackson (and a change of production to Indonesia), the model suffered and faded away in the mid–2000s. A few Custom Shop models were made sparingly and command a high price now.

While not necessarily the most groundbreaking guitar ever conceived, the Surfcaster does earn its mention today, as it is a marked example of a guitar company trying something radically new and finding at least some level of positive reception. It was a bold play with a new shape and nostalgic vibe that gave it a connection to the market.

It's worth noting that Eastwood Guitars — the reigning champions of lost classic guitar resurrection — does currently offer its own spin on the Surfcaster format.

PRS Singlecut, the Unwilling Lawsuit Guitar

For many players, Paul Reed Smith has come to represent the most successful blending of classic and modern guitar aesthetics and playability. Many were taken aback when PRS came out with the Singlecut in 2001. This model was much more vintage in style than the “normal” PRS Custom 24, and some thought it was just a Les Paul copy. Even Gibson itself thought this and sued, lost, appealed, and lost again.

While different from the Maryland builders’ normal fare, it did have the distinctive PRS sound and playability, which were decidedly modern. And though once an outlier for the company, this model has become a common and well–selling PRS standard.

More recently, PRS also launched the Starla, Vela, and Mira models. They’ve been released in a few iterations, including the barebones Mira X introduced in 2009. The latest models — the Starla, Vela, and Mira S2 — shed the hallmark bird inlays and flame tops in favor of more subdued appointments. These guitars certainly do represent something new for PRS. But, again, they stick to the classic guitar forms of the olden days — at least aesthetically.

As you can see from the above, it's difficult to find an example of a positively received new guitar model from a major guitar brand that strays very far from the classic templates.

That said, while new models have not yet reached the classic heights of the models of years past, the models discussed have made inroads among the sea of reissues that dominate the market every year. Incremental change has been what has driven new models forward.

While guitar players are a conservative bunch, new tools and tones will find their place for players and advance our tools and tones. Just don’t tinker with the body too much.

What new models have you been excited about in recent years? Let us know in the comments.

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