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From the August 2018 issue of Acoustic Guitar | BY GREG OLWELL

Born in mid-century Southern California’s sunny climes, Fender has long associated itself with idyllic images of the area’s beach-centric lifestyle. Though long loved for its playable, dependable electric guitars, often finished in lively custom colors like Fiesta Red and Lake Placid Blue, the company’s acoustic line was—let’s be honest—not originally its strength. However, in a market with strong acoustic and faltering electric sales, Fender has refined its acoustic line and is now making perhaps the best steel-string guitars yet to carry the company’s name.

Fender has also added a few compelling features to appeal to modern guitarists who may be just getting started on the instrument, electric players branching out to the acoustic, or players who simply dig the looks of these player-friendly instruments. The new California Series is the latest expansion of Fender’s line of well-built and great-feeling acoustics—guitars that feature eye-catching finishes, impressive appointments, and convenient onboard electronics.

The series rolled out with three different body styles, spread across three different lines: the dreadnought-sized Redondo and a pair of smaller-bodied guitars, the Malibu and the cutaway Newporter. For our test, we received a Redondo from the mid-level Special series and a Malibu Classic from the top of the California line. Both the Classic and Special lines feature all-solid-wood bodies, while instruments in the basic Player line, not reviewed here, have solid tops and laminated backs and sides.

Fender skirts the troublesome rosewood issue by fitting these guitars with viable, sustainable alternative woods that feel more like an opportunity than a compromise. The Classic and Special series have fingerboards and bridges made of pau ferro, a rosewood substitute also known as morado or Santos rosewood, while the Player guitars use walnut, a common and sustainable North American wood. Each of these guitars comes equipped with strap buttons and a sturdy, plush-padded gig bag with abundant storage pockets. Plus, you also get Fender’s iconic six-on-a-side headstock, painted to match the top’s finish, and access to Fender’s new online guitar lessons.

Fender Redondo Special

Redondo Special

With a flat-black finish covering its body, back of the neck, and headstock, the Redondo looks like trouble—or maybe just the walls of a rock club. The maple binding and rosette ring around the soundhole are striking additions, giving the Redondo a photonegative look. Like so many black finishes, though, it shows smudges and fingerprints easily.

With its 16-inch-wide lower bout, the Redondo is a little broader than a dreadnought, but it delivered much of the feel and response I expected—think big, ear-filling basses and sparkling trebles, flying from a large body that cranks out the volume. The tone is also strong in the low mids, which gave it a thick sound. The Redondo impressed me with its acoustic tone and is a good-sounding guitar in this price range.

Thanks to its slender neck with large frets, the Redondo feels very much like an electric guitar neck transplanted on an acoustic body—more noticeable on this large instrument than on the smaller Malibu. I liked the familiar feel, and kept going back to the Redondo, though it took my fretting hand a little while to get back to the electric roots that I’ve pretty much left behind.

The Fishman/Fender electronics system features a nickel-sized volume knob surrounded by smaller bass and treble controls, and a small screen for tuning and notch-filter controls. Using a Fishman Loudbox Mini Charge (see review July 2018), I found my favorite tone by very slightly boosting the bass and trimming the treble, resulting in a rotund tone for strumming that was free from piezo quack.

At this price, there is a lot of competition for players’ attention and if you’re looking for a guitar that visually stands out from the crowd, the Redondo Special might be it. Feature-wise, it’s an especially appealing choice for guitarists who plan on getting onstage, either immediately or once they’ve got a set full of songs ready to go.


Redondo Special

BODY Spruce top with scalloped X-bracing; mahogany back and sides; maple binding and rosette; matte black finish

NECK 25.6″-scale mahogany neck with “slim C” shape; 20-fret pau ferro fingerboard with maple dots; 1.69″-wide bone nut; nickel-finish sealed tuners; matte black finish

ELECTRONICS Fender-and-Fishman preamp and pickup, with volume, bass, treble, tuner, and phase controls

OTHER Pau ferro bridge with compensated bone saddle and ebony bridge pins with mother-of-pearl dots; chrome strap buttons; Fender Dura-Tone Coated 80/20 bronze (.012–.052 gauge) strings; padded gig bag

PRICE $699 MAP  |  MADE IN China

Fender Malibu Classic

Malibu Classic

It’s hard to say what stops you first when you see the Malibu Classic—the headstock that looks like it was taken from a mid-’60s Jazzmaster or the luminescent Cosmic Turquoise finish on the top and matching headstock. The visual effect is enhanced by the metallic finish’s contrast with the tasteful koa binding and rosette and pau ferro fingerboard, and the natural-finished mahogany back and sides. It really seems like a guitar that players could take from bedroom songwriting sessions straight to the stage.

At about 13 inches wide, the body’s petite size and svelte C-shaped neck made the Malibu easy to play, especially if you’re on the smaller side or you’re more comfortable with electric-guitar necks. Players who find their hands sticking to gloss finishes are bound to love the neck’s satin finish. The setup and finish work were flawless throughout the Malibu and the only thing left to do was to play.

Played acoustically, its tone is good, though a little boxy and not as responsive as some of the more lightly built guitars in this price range. Hit hard with a pick, though, the tone compressed nicely, focusing into an impressively loud output for a small-bodied guitar, with a strong midrange-y tone. When plugged into a Fishman Loudbox Mini, the onboard Fishman/Fender electronics offer no surprises, just good, clear tones.

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At under $800, the Malibu Classic is built to take on the real-life rigors of plugged-in gigs and deliver dependable performance—all in a striking package with a lot of great features, including an appropriately good acoustic tone. 

Malibu Classic

BODY Sitka spruce top with scalloped X-bracing; mahogany back and sides; koa binding and rosette; gloss polyurethane finish with Cosmic Turquoise painted top and natural finished back and sides

NECK 24.1″-scale mahogany neck with “slim C” shape; 20-fret pau ferro fingerboard with maple dot inlays; 1.69″-wide bone nut; nickel-finish sealed tuners; satin finish

ELECTRONICS Fender-and-Fishman preamp and pickup, with volume, bass, treble, tuner, and phase controls


OTHER Pau ferro bridge with compensated bone saddle and ebony bridge pins with mother-of-pearl dots; chrome strap buttons; Fender Dura-Tone Coated 80/20 bronze (.012–.052 gauge) strings; padded gig bag; also available in Hot Rod Red Metallic

PRICE $799 MAP  |  MADE IN China


This article originally appeared in the August 2018 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.