Fernandes isn’t exactly in the top bracket of major guitar brands these days. Yet, with 2019 marking the company’s fiftieth anniversary, their gear has had both a global reach and impact across genres of modern rock. So what flashes of flame kept Fernandes going for the last half a century?
The story of Fernandes begins in 1969. The company launched at a time when Japanese brands were gaining steam with what would become “lawsuit” guitars that cloned the best of Gibson and Fender guitars built stateside. Fernandes, however, carved out their niche in a far less controversial corner of the market: flamenco guitars.
With an interest and a need to expand, Fernandes quickly diversified their instrument offerings to include acoustic guitars, both bass and six string solid body electrics, and amps to complete the ensemble. This deeper catalogue was ideal for landing an attack on the shores of California. In 1992, Fernandes set up shop in Los Angeles to ride the growing wave of alternative rockers needing quality yet economical instruments.
The most impacting outcomes of Fernandes in the California scene, however, aren’t exactly what you would expect.
First, while their USA custom shop built specialized instruments with exceptional craftsmanship, one of their biggest innovations was the Fernandes Sustainer pickup system. As the name suggests, this pickup system adds a natural, nearly unending harmonic sustain to both notes and chords. By using pickups that not only receive sounds via magnetic fields but also cause string vibration, the sustainer circuit literally transforms the sonic potential of your instrument.
Though a proprietary piece of California innovation, the Sustainer pickups met its match and took centre stage in iconic Brit rock acts. Though the Edge reportedly used an early Sustainer system in recording “With or Without You,” Ed O’Brien of Radiohead is the most avid proponent of the endless ambient potential of the system. Sure, these Brit rock soundscapes of Radiohead are a far cry from the early MIJ Flamenco roots of Fernandes, but it shows the diverse and deep impact of Fernandes designs.
Second, not far away from Fernandes Los Angeles plant, a rather non-descript Fernandes Strat-type guitar was gifted to a young angst-ridden pre-teen in Oakland. The guitar was quickly adorned with stickers, rerouted for some DIY customization, and took on the affectionate name “Blue.” The lad who received this gift was Billy Joe Armstrong. For decades after this, Armstrong and his punk rock three piece, Green Day, used that guitar for all things studio and stage. In the process, they defined a generation of modern punk. Eventually, some of the songs crafted with Blue landed on the score of their own Broadway show, American Idiot (2010).
So why does this all matter for the Fernandes story. Well, you could argue the Fernandes company history is pretty straightforward, their impact moderate. Yet their innovation, creation, and eventually collaborations, provided the tools for some of the more forward-thinking and controversial song writers of modern rock and roll. Not bad for a company whose original vision was building better flamenco instruments!