Interview: Fender CEO Andy Mooney on Ultras, MIJ Superstrats, and the Future of Guitars

As Fender CEO Andy Mooney recently told us, Fender's history with Japan stretches back decades. That cross-Pacific relationship even once came to be a savior, when Fujigen served as the sole source of manufacturing for Fender during a transition from the Fullerton factory to the Corona factory in 1985.

Ahead of the release of the brand-new Fender Ultra Series and the company's Fender Songs app, Mooney sat down with Reverb's team in Tokyo to talk about these new products, the company's history in Japan, and the all-important MIJ vs. US-made Fender debate.

Andy Mooney

The avid metal fan also shares his thoughts on shredders, the future of the guitar market, Fender's current MIJ Modern models, and more.

The Japan-produced Fenders enjoy an outstanding reputation for quality. Sometimes it's suggested that they rival the US-made models. What do you feel really separates a US-made Fender from a Japan-made Fender?

I've been collecting guitars for 30 years. And I would have said 30 years ago, you could have put a US, a Japanese, a Mexican, and a Southeast Asian guitar on the table without a country of origin on them and you would have been pretty much able to tell what the difference was between the guitars. I think that's not as true anymore, because I think the quality level in every region has elevated.

One of the things I learned working at Nike and Disney and here at Fender over the last—you know, coming here a hundred times—is that the Japanese quality standards are probably the highest in the world. They like consistency and uniformity. But always at a high quality level. And the definition of quality in Japan sometimes surprises you.

One of the experiences I had at Nike when we were struggling with defects: A lot of people back in the USA felt it was, The Japanese just don't want us to sell US products. I actually brought in someone from Toyota to a meeting with their product line team to say, "Will the US companies have the same problem in cars? Is it because the Japanese are just being nationalists and don't want to have US cars in?" And he goes, "Are you dreaming?" [Laughs.]

I go, "How do you define quality?" He goes, "Well, in a car it's noise." Because it's the sound a door makes when it closes, the sound when you turn the engine. In a Japanese car, you hear nothing. In an American car, you hear bolts all over the place. I'd never thought about that as being their definition of quality. At Nike, when we started to make watches—I mean, Japan's like the watch capital of the world. When you take a plastic part out of the mold, what's acceptable, in terms of seeing where the part comes out of the mold, in any other markets is completely unacceptable in Japan.

So I think it's the quality of the finish. It's the uniformity of the finish that really is something that appeals to the Japanese consumer—but I think that's also really perceived as high value by pockets of consumers around the world. And then there's some people who just like Japanese guitars because they're Japanese, and you know, I want a Japanese Fender in my collection because I've got all these other guitars.

My Japanese collection of Fender guitars were all heavy metal. The Japanese team were a very competitive team, and they were always trying to fight against high performance guitar brands, particularly at that time where that type of guitar was getting used by a lot of the virtuoso guitarists. I've always loved metal, so I collected some of those guitars. It's kind of interesting to see if we're going to be revisiting those guitars from the '70s, coming out of Japan again.

There have been a number of limited-edition models released to the Japan market. Yet the demand overseas means these models can go for more than their original price in the secondhand market. Is there a plan to make some of these models more widely available?

Well, the trick with limited-edition is keeping it limited [laughs]. What we found, increasingly, are two reasons: One is a consumer-oriented reason, and the other is a more business-oriented reason.

On the consumer side, we're now sitting at about 40% market share in electric guitars and amps. And you know, one of the things I learned in my Nike days is that the higher the market share, the more this necessity to create a broader range of products, so people can access the brand but still feel different. You know, everybody wants to be the same, and everybody wants to be different.

Fender 1956 Relic Stratocaster 56 Special Run. Photo by Max Guitar.

When I joined Fender, there already existed FSRs [Fender Special Runs] but it wasn't a particularly well-organized program worldwide. There was a program [for custom orders] called American Design Experience, but there were 1.3 million options, which was way too confusing for the consumer, and, in my view, was about 1.2 million too many options. We reconstituted that idea as Mod Shop, reduced the options originally to 70,000—it's about 110,000 now. But the big changes that we made are that we made the consumer interface much easier to navigate, and we cut the delivery time down from 90 days to 30 days. Because even though you personalize it, you can wait for so long, but not 90 days.

The other reason for doing a lot of segmentation through limited-edition, dealer exclusives—whatever it might be—is so the dealers in the market don't have to fight each other on price. Particularly in a market here, where it's a non-MAP environment [with no "minimum advertised price" policies in place, as there are in the US], dealers are totally free to sell at any price they want, and you don't really want to sell them all the same thing and then just have them lose money by beating each other up on price. So the more that we can segment the market by having a broad offering of options for dealers, I think the better it is for them, the better it is for us, but, principally, the better it is for the consumer.

I think the other thing that's changed is that four years ago the two predominant body styles were Stratocaster and Telecaster, and they'd been that way for... ever. But now, the number of Jazzmasters and Jaguars and Offsets, Duo-Sonics, you know, the Mustang—like the signature one, for example, that we've just done with Char. Those have been widely adopted. And it's just more options, different horses for different courses, depending on what you really like—both in terms of how you play, and, actually, how you look. We've got more options than I think we've ever had in our history.

People used to just give Jazzmasters away for a song.

I think that's true. I mean, I have Jazzmasters and Jaguars, Duo-Sonics—I have four in a line on my wall from 1966. I've never played one of them, because then they were not particularly good guitars when they were first introduced, in my view. But like many of the things that we've done since—if you look at the Johnny Marr rendition of the Jaguar, that's a killer guitar. We've made all those guitars functionally better. They've always been aesthetically beautiful, but now you can actually play them.

Fender Johnny Marr Signature Jaguar. Photo by JHS Pedals.

You're going to see more of that. Even as we reintroduced the metal guitars from Japan, the thing I loved about them was they were great to play, they had the big modern specs on it... [but the] pickups from old ones, not so good. So we said,"OK, if we're going to make MIJ Modern, they should be with great pickups. We had to do something different in the pickups so that they work for contemporary guitarists, not just the nostalgists who want an exact replica of the original guitar."

You have some new exciting lineups coming out both here in the States and in Japan. Can you tell us a little bit about those?

Well, on the electric side is the American Ultra. It's the best guitar I think we've ever produced. The analogy that I use is: I have a Porsche 911, which has all the DNA of the original Porsche—the Ferdinand Porsche design—but it's the highest-performance rendition to date. I can look at the Ultra and it's got all the original DNA, but we've pushed it as far as it can possibly be pushed at this point. And the response that we got from dealers and from artists who got their hands on it has been really, really encouraging.

It is one of those renditions of the Strat, which is, once you play it, it's tough to go back. Because the feel of the neck is really profoundly different. The access to the upper register. It's lighter weight, because we've carved more of the wood from the body form. A lot of things that people, I think—maybe even inside the company—a lot of things that people four years ago would have said would be sinful, heretical... you know, "Don't screw with the body type."

Well, if Porsche still made the 356 Porsche, I don't think they would sell many. We have respect for the past, and the beautiful thing about us compared to Porsche: If you want a 1955 Stratocaster, we'll sell you one, right down to the original specs. But [while] we have respect for the past, you've got to push the instrument along to really reflect what current consumers are telling you is important to them, like 22 frets instead of 21, or jumbo frets instead of... you go down the list, and all of that's been incorporated in this collection.

And that's just one.

CITES rosewood restrictions are coming to an end, but Fender was successful in adapting to CITES conditions with things like pau ferro fretboards. Looking forward, will it be back to business as usual, or have some of the forced innovations brought about a change in thinking?

Well, it was a challenge to comply, it was a real challenge. And the biggest challenge really was not making sure that we were using wood that was not on the endangered list, it was the customs agencies in most geographies not being able to adjust to the reality of when it should certificate.

To give you an example, we could ship a rosewood guitar from San Bernardino in the US to Europe quicker than it would take them to produce the certificate to get it in. We literally had to start sending guitars through the Panama Canal on the slow boat to allow them time—because we couldn't ask for the certificate to be cut until it left the warehouse, but if it got to the Amsterdam customs before the certificate had been issued, they impounded it and destroyed it, which seems to me the worst thing you would want to do to an endangered wood. So I think the decision [to rescind such restrictions] is great.

But to get back to your question, one of the interesting things, and I didn't even know this: Within the broad collection of guitars that I've got, I had the Stevie Ray Vaughan, the original version of the Stevie Ray Vaughan, sitting on my wall. And we were having a conversation: "Well, what are we going to do with CITES, are there other alternatives?" And we said, "Well, we can use pau ferro." And I go, "Have we ever used pau ferro before?" And they go, "Well, yeah, it's on the Stevie Ray Vaughan guitar."

And I go, "By the way, if it's good enough for Stevie Ray Vaughan, I think it will work for most people."

I go, "I've been playing that guitar for 15 years. I didn't know that wasn't rosewood." And I go, "By the way, if it's good enough for Stevie Ray Vaughan, I think it will work for most people." So I think there are some decisions that we made as a result of [CITES] that are actually... there was a lot of debate about whether people would really care.

I think that our consumers of US-made guitars and Custom Shop guitars even more, sure—they really, really care. But I think for a lot of consumers, the difference between pau ferro and rosewood is not as important to them. So I think we're going to have some things, like pau ferro, we'll keep in the line probably forever. We've used ebony more broadly in the line than we ever would have imagined. But that's been well-accepted, particularly on the Elite and will be on the Ultra too, I believe.

There's a broader range of wood options now than we've ever had before. That seems to have worked. I don't think we're going to revert back to maple, rosewood, and call it a day; I think you're going to see pau ferro and ebony and other woods over time that I think will be incorporated in the line.

Though we know now that the death of electric guitar has been greatly exaggerated, how do you see the trends between electrics and acoustics here in Japan and Asia in comparison to the US and Europe?

Unfortunately, outside of the US, there's very little data on the industry in general. I can tell you that in the US, what we see is, the pendulum swings back. The good news overall, is the market for both acoustics and electrics is growing. The pendulum swings back and forth between the rate of growth, acoustics and electrics. Last year, electrics grew at a faster rate than acoustics. But for the four years that I've been there, I think maybe one out of the four years electric grew faster than acoustics. But it still grew.

I don't know what drives the swing back and forth, but it's important for us to be a leader in both categories. We've always been a leader in the electric category, and I would say it's only in the last, well, nine months, could I honestly characterize us as a leader in the acoustic segment, with the introduction of the American Acoustasonic.

Fender American Acoustasonic Telecaster. Photo by Musicians Workshop.

Because that's really the first time in our history where we had a pretty ambitious plan for the acoustic—we've had to increase production three times and we're sold out for the year. It's been immediately embraced by working musicians, including folks like Jack White, or Billie Eilish's brother [Finneas O'Connell]. It's been widely seen on some of the biggest stages in the world. That, to me, is the litmus test of whether you've really created a guitar that's acceptable to working musicians.

I'm hugely optimistic about the industry in general worldwide. And the reason I am is the two big driving external forces are universal. And one is the growth in demand for recorded music. 255 million people paying for a streaming service last year; Goldman Sachs predicts that will go to 700 million in three years and 1.1 billion by the year 2030. Most of the growth is actually coming from back catalog, which is largely guitar-based music. Growth in live music is at an all-time high and growing. Live Nation: 93 million people going to see a Live Nation concert last year, up about 10% over the prior year, largely guitar-based music.

You've got these external trends that are floating all boats up, then we're doing, I would say, three things simultaneously to help fuel overall growth in the market, but also to gain share. One is: We've upped our game and upped our pace in product innovation. We cut our life cycle for products to four years as opposed to seven. We've increased our marketing from 4% of revenues to 10.

We've changed the mix from being solely dealer-oriented to largely consumer-oriented, and largely through social media. So when we introduce a new product, I used to characterize it as a tree that fell in the forest—nobody knew other than the clerks in the store, and they were already in the store. The consumer didn't know to go there. Now, when we do a product launch, there's 26 million in our social network worldwide. They are learning about this product, they're crossing the threshold for dealers or they're going online to buy it. So we're driving more consumption and more conversion.

Then the third thing is Fender Play.

When I joined the company, there was a desire on the board's part to expand the brand to digital products services, but they didn't know what to do and neither did I. We conducted, I think, what would be the most comprehensive piece of consumer research in new guitar buyers at that time, four years ago. We did a second round of research last year.

Fender Play.

There were five key insights that came out of that that have shaped our strategic direction for the last four-plus years: 50% of new guitar buyers are women. Well, that was a surprise. Their preferred choice for the first guitar is acoustic, and they're intimidated by buying in traditional music stores, as are most first-time buyers, so they predominantly buy online. That propelled a desire to become a leader in acoustic. If 50% of new buyers are women, and they're buying more acoustic than electric, we better make sure that we get something that satisfies that consumer.

Second was 45% of the guitars that we sell every year are bought by first-time players, much higher than we thought. 90% of those first-time players abandon the instrument in the first year, if not the first 90 days. We don't have a problem as an industry getting new people in; we have a problem keeping them in. Those first-time players spend four times as much on lessons as they do on gear. And the trend in lessons, as you might imagine, was towards online lessons, as opposed to face-to-face.

That was the North Star for a digital endeavor. We felt that we could create an independently viable, profitable business in online lessons with Fender Play. But we felt if we reduce the abandonment rate by just 10%, we could double the size of the entire industry, over time. As of this morning, we've got 116,000 users of Fender Play; 108,000 of them are paying. We're seeing it drive increased numbers of first-time players and increased engagement from those first-time players.

We found that if those first-time players get through the first year, there's a high likelihood that they'll commit to the instrument for life and have a lifetime value of $10,000. Because they're going to buy five, seven guitars, multiple amps, multiple accessories—they drive the hardware side of the business. We're really, really happy about where we're at with that.

We will launch our second subscription-based product on October 22, in the US on iOS with Apple Music. It's called Fender Songs. Basically it's Shazam for guitar players. It will auto-generate the chords for any song that you play on your streaming service, with the lyrics. There'll be about a million songs on day one. It will produce the chords for guitar, ukulele, or piano.

We think in that case, if Fender Play is for first-time players, then Fender Songs is for players who know how to do chord structures, and now you can expand the repertoire and keep them more engaged in the category, and more likely that they will be committed to the category for the long run. We're pretty optimistic about that. I look at between these external trends sort of fueling growth and the internal of things that we're doing, and I couldn't be more optimistic about the future of the industry or the future of our company.

It sounds like Fender Songs will allow them to self-learn once they've gotten through that initial hurdle.

One of the product features is you can slow it down—it retains pitch. I think no matter where you are on the beginner-to-advanced stage, it can be a rapid tool. If you're pretty advanced, you can go through the song in one take, or if you need some time to figure it out or get the chord changes down, you can do that too.

Definitely a different era. Much better than going, "Wait, where's that bit again?" [Mimics moving a needle onto a record.]

I mean, that's that's the way I started, with the stylus getting worn out on "Paranoid" and "Black Night," and then tape was not much better going back and forth.

Fender has revisited several ideas from its past in recent years, whether it be reissues or reinventions, like the Pawn Shop and Parallel Universe guitars. When digging back for these ideas, did you discover anything interesting in the vault that has never seen the light of day?

Fender Meteora. Photo by Rock N Roll Vintage.

The Meteora in some ways was a little bit of that, because that was a bonafide design that never really saw the light of day. The funny story about that particular product, which I think is emblematic of today's consumer, is that that was a product we had an embargo on and somebody snuck it out. And because it snuck out, that immediately split camps into: "Oh my God, I want this" and "Oh my God, what is Fender thinking?" But the thing it did is it got people talking. There's a few more of those designs in the hopper.

Going back to your earlier comment on the Jaguar and the Jazzmaster, I think there are other forms where we didn't quite get it right [laughs] when we first introduced them, but I think we know enough now that we could take the genesis of the original idea—the Coronado is a good example—take the genesis of the original idea and you know, What would it take to really make that a functional contemporary guitar? The Starcaster, I think, is another good current example.

What was the one with the pickups under the pickguard? The Maverick?

Maverick, yeah, or look at the Swinger. You know the history of that shape right? It's pieces of wood that Leo didn't want to throw out. [Laughs.]

Recently, on Reverb, Fender decided to sell five very historic guitars that have been used as templates and models for a lot of the modern reproductions. What was behind the decision to let these guitars go?

Well, we've never actually retained a collection of our own history. It's funny, I got a letter from an old school pal, who sent me a photograph of a Fender electric violin. And I'm going, "This is BS. Fender never made electric violins." Well, yes, they did. And he said, "I want to write a book on this. Can you send me all the old documentation that you have, you know, the spec sheets and stuff?" So I inquire and we've got nothing. Absolutely nothing. We were not very good at maintaining a history of our own culture.

Maybe that had to do with the transition from Leo to CBS, or from CBS to the current management. But we bought those guitars to tear them apart to figure out what we could learn. And then, kind of concurrent with that, I actually met with—I thought I was an obsessive collector—but I met with someone else who'd been searching for a '54 Strat. He came in LA and he wanted to meet with me. I met with him and I said, "Did you find one?" He goes, "Yeah. I found one." I said, "What was the asking price?" And he said it was $95,000. I said, "Did you buy it?" He goes, "No. I just wasn't sure it was authentic."

I said, "If we told you it was authentic, if we actually tore it apart, and we verified it was authentic, would you pay $120,000 for it?" And he goes, "Yeah, I would. Because why would I pay 95 for something if I'm going to be second-guessing myself for the rest of my life." He's a super-high-net-worth guy. He goes, "I'll pay 120."

We actually thought, well, maybe there's even a business there. Like BMW Certified, maybe we could do Fender Certified. So we bought these five guitars. We pulled them apart, we learned as much as we possibly could about them, we absolutely ensured that they were all authentic, and then we're going to put them back into the marketplace. We'll see what the value is for them.

This is a strategy that the watch companies have used quite a bit. They bought up a lot of their old inventory off the marketplace, reconditioned and made sure it was pristine condition, and then resold. What happened is it floated up the entire price profile of the market. I don't know if this will be visibly true with electric guitars, but we said, "Hey let's try five guitars. Worst-case scenario, we'll learn what was unique about these five guitars. That will only help future limited-edition collections. Maybe we'll even have a future business with it." Time will tell.

On a personal level, you've been playing guitar since you were young, and before coming to Fender you already had a large guitar collection. Has that grown? Could you tell us about three of your favorites?

I grew up on a Stratocaster, so the bulk of my collection before I joined the company was Stratocasters. If I want to play blues, I go to my '55 Strat—I got the '55 instead of the '54 because it was the year I was born. I got it when I was 40, so I bought it 24 years ago. Glad I bought it then because I'm not sure I would spend the money now. But my go-to guitar that I play now mostly is a Jim Root Telecaster, because it does the trick. It's just one knob, two pickups.

When I finally got to meet Jim Root [who plays with Slipknot]—who I'm a huge fan of and he's a really gifted guitarist—I said, "Why is this all one knob?" He goes, "You should stand on stage all night long with all the costumes and all of those masks." He said, "I lose between seven and eight pounds a night, just sweat. It would fry the guitars." It would literally go into the pickups. You could count on a guitar a night, basically, shorting out. And he goes, "I wanted to take everything I possibly could out of the guitar, so that I could stay on stage with the guitar for the longest time." It's an unbelievably simple instrument, but it works. So that would be my second.

My third is is the black "The Strat" that was made by Fuji, I think? It's a four-pickup, heavy metal guitar with a floating Floyd Rose, and it's been my go-to heavy metal guitar for years. I'm kind of happy to see that come back, especially if it's going to have—as I know it will—better pickups.

You're also a big metal fan, going all the way back to your first Deep Purple concert. Who are some of your favorite metal players or metal players who use Fender guitars?

Well Jim Root would definitely be up there. We were actually having this conversation today, that most of the really virtuoso metal players that we have in the Fender family are playing Jackson or Charvel [Ed: Both owned by Fender]. It's great now, when you go to a Slipknot concert you've got Mick Thomson on one side of the stage playing a signature Jackson and Jim Root on the other side of the stage playing a signature Fender. I think my go-to is going to change when Jim Root's [new] signature Jazzmaster comes out this year, which I think is going to be another killer guitar.

You've got Scott Ian from Anthrax, who goes back and forth between Fender and Jackson. He just sent me a video of his 12-year-old son playing on stage with his favorite band. The Foo Fighters let him play "Everlong" on stage with them. I said, "You must have been emotional." He goes, "Yeah, I was going back and forth between crying and cheering." It must have been great to see, because his son nailed it.

Japan is a big metal country. Have you discovered some of the Japanese metal bands? Do you have any favorites?

I learned classical, you know, traditional Spanish classical guitar—all orchestral pieces, no popular music, it was almost baroque. Part of why I loved Ritchie Blackmore is I felt he was a classical guitar player in a rockstar's body. He could do all of those operatic solos and, you know, smash guitars on stage—he had all of the theater that came from the Hendrix era. So my favorite bands tend to be heavy metal bands that really have that operatic bent, and there's a few of them here in Japan. X Japan is one of them. Unbelievably gifted soloist.

Also, Syu from Galneryus—unbelievably gifted player. And again, those types of players tend to play ESP or Ibanez guitars. I'd like to get players like them or players like Sinister Gates from Avenged Sevenfold—again, he's of a genre of player that I personally love—frontman, gifted, can do anything from very classical pieces to rock pieces.

We were talking about Babymetal a bit. Babymetal is not really metal, but they're a great band, and they have a great following, but not really metal.

Thank you for your time. Is there anything you'd like to add?

I always love coming every time I come to Japan—and like I've said, I've come many times. There's always something new to learn. Just when you think you've got it figured out, it's like, Where did that come from? It's a market I love visiting. And I think the brand's in really good shape here. The team's done a great job since taking over control of the business directly, and I'm hugely optimistic about the future.

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