The Fender Tradition

When we talk about guitars, I think there is an immediate association everyone has in their heads.  Some people think of 70’s classic rockers like Jimi Page of Led Zeppelin or Angus Young of AC/DC.  Some may think of soft folk/pop acoustic artists like Jack Johnson or Ed Sheeran.  Some may think of bedroom pop players like Rex Orange County or Boy Pablo.  The point is, the guitar as an instrument has many identities.  There’s no one size fits all since guitar is present in practically every genre.  Yet, despite certain guitar models being associated with certain genres – the twangy country tunes of a Telecaster, the solemn sliding solos of a Stratocaster, or the loud rock licks of a Les Paul- players across the world have shown that the true voice of any guitar is that of the person who holds it.  For the avid player, a guitar becomes more than a mere tool for making sounds.  It begins to take on a life of its own.  We need only look to the live performances of Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughn, BB King, and John Mayer to see the magic that’s created when a player and their guitar are in perfect harmony.  In many cases the guitar and vocalist become two voices engaging in a euphonic duet of the soul, showing the human spirit almost materializing, as the universal language of music is spoken to those willing to listen.  Naturally all of us who listen intently, chills running down our spines and hearts racing, are able to have the undefinable experience of being able to not only listen, but feel the music running through our very being. 

    As with any high, once it’s felt the brain only wants more.  And for the players, we seek to have that first hand experience of creating the music that moves millions.  We spend hours of our lives studying and practicing to experience it.  So it’s no wonder that for many players, guitars begin to become as personal as a family home.  Many times, guitars become family heirlooms passed down through generations of players.  I myself was given an electric guitar from my grandfather when he heard I was learning to play.  While individual guitars hold immense personal value, like I said earlier, guitar models in general hold special places in many players’ hearts as well.  So as I have been studying guitar and graphic design simultaneously, I became aware of the guitar brands themselves and how they are linked to the player.  

    Very naturally, as guitar players, people know the brand of a guitar before the actual instrument itself.  Whether it be Fender, Gibson, Taylor, Martin, or PRS, players know nearly every brand more than the brand’s guitars.  Old players who were around for these brands’ inceptions and young players new to the guitar world all know what each of these brands are best at.  Within the brands, there is a consistency that is seemingly unchanging.  Many young and new players, at some point or another, have the same criticism of the guitar models being too similar. Not between each other, but similar through time.  The same guitars that were around and most popular in the 60’s, are largely the same guitars popular now.  My first choice in guitar was a Fender Stratocaster which is a model invented in 1954 – and it’s still the coolest one if you ask me.  

    So, when tasked with critiquing a logo redesign, instead of going on about a brand I couldn’t care less about, I decided to see if Fender had any recent logo redesigns.  Much to my disappointment, they did not… in fact, none of the brands did.  Fender hasn’t had a logo change since the late 60’s.  Gibson hasn’t had a major change since the 40’s.  Hell, Martin Guitars has had the same exact logo since the company was started in 1833!  While I always loved guitar logos, this was something I never noticed before and found it strange that while every other brand is constantly revamping their logos, these companies have remained unchanged.  Then as I thought more, it all began to make sense.  

    Looking at the Fender logo, it was first made in 1946 when the company was founded by Leo Fender, the guy who designed practically all the electric guitars they still use today.  The logo itself is just his signature of his last name with the “F” inverted.  And, well… that’s it.  There isn’t a story of a group of designers working tirelessly on it.  It’s just the founder’s signature. While they had a brief period in the 60’s where they had what is called the “transition” logo, they changed it back soon after to the normal “Spaghetti” logo.  So with Fender keeping such a consistent brand identity, it can start to make sense that the products they make are just as consistent.  As I said, the guitar models have remained largely unchanged over the decades.  When I think about myself and those I know in this guitar community, it fills in the last piece: the customer.  

When I go into a guitar store I can talk to complete strangers for hours about certain guitars, our favorite guitarists, and different guitar makers.  Guitars, still to this day, remain one of the main ways I can connect with my own dad.  This is because of that consistency.  The guitars I dreamed of owning when I started out playing were the same exact guitars my dad dreamed of owning, were the same guitars even my grandfather dreamed of owning.  The same guitarists that inspired the older generations I talk to are the same guitarists that inspire me now.  The Fender brand I know now, is the same Fender brand they knew then.  So when new players join in and criticize the “boring” consistency of the guitars, what they miss is that it’s not monotony or stagnation, it’s tradition.  

    With the brand and products staying consistent for generations of customers, it creates a certain kind of tradition that is passed on.  It creates a sense of community that wouldn’t be there if the brand was constantly changing.  If Fender had a period in each decade of the 20th century where they completely changed their branding, products, and identity, then it would break that tradition.  Those who grew up with each iteration of Fender as it changed would eventually feel alienated or estranged from the brand when it inevitably revamped.  Thus leaving behind a trail of people who want THEIR Fender back.  In that way the brand would become like a vampire going from generation to generation conforming to their trends to win their dollars until there is a slight shift in culture in which they would then throw away whatever generation they were bleeding dry to move onto the next. But when we all grew up with the same Fender identity, we can look at everything that they are or have been and feel like it is OUR Fender.  

    In this modern time of constantly changing the identity of brands, consistency is ironically so refreshing and new.  In this respect, Fender’s logo succeeds in representing a legacy passed on through the ages.  They represent the music legends of the past and help amplify the new legends to come.  So amongst the many contemporary issues within design today, I feel this constantly changing branding identity is a major one.  Eventually the constant shift in identity will result in a lack of identity as opposed to brands like Fender who stay the same because they don’t need to convince us to perceive them in any specific way.  In this way, the brand becomes a blank canvas in which we paint our culture through the ages onto the brand.  The brand isn’t the one selling us on a grand idea of how we should see them, but instead WE are the ones who assign that identity to them purely through our interactions with their products.  Their consistency allows us all to be able to choose for ourselves who we are as a generation instead of the brand trying to define it for us.  In the end, all Fender does is make big chunks of wood with some small metal bits attached to it. They only sing when we, the players, give them our voice.  

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