“Don’t judge your taco by its price…”—Hunter S. Thompson
It has occurred to us that some of you may be skeptical of our recent luv fest with ‘cheap’ guitars. It’s OK, we live in a sour and puckered culture of jaded skeptics… To quote Andy Rooney, “People will generally accept facts as truth only if the facts agree with what they already believe.” We haven’t heard as much from anyone — in fact, we have only heard from readers who are thrilled with their new ‘cheap’ guitars reviewed here, but we’ve been doing this long enough to have a feel for such things. You don’t have to be a genius to understand human nature. Some of us are perfectly happy trolling the doggie shelter for a grateful mutt, while others will settle for nothing less than an overbred pain in the ass with a documented pedigree. In no small way the things we choose to own define us, or at least offer a reflection of our self image, supposed good taste, and station in life. Why drive a Ford Focus when you can afford a Ferrari?
Guitars are different, though, equal parts art and instrument with a carefully designed form and function, yet costly beauty doesn’t always assure the promise of an exceptional experience. Just ask the regular patrons of the red light district in Amsterdam. We admire guitars as much as we enjoy playing them, and in this regard they are unique among most other musical instruments. It isn’t quite as easy to admire a clarinet or a tuba as art, and they lack the appeal of the guitar as an accompaniment to the human voice, or something you might enjoy playing in solitude for hours at home. Guitars are truly exceptional in their flowing form and their ability to calm and inspire restless souls. They are also objects to be made and sold at a profit, and within the past few decades certain aspects of the guitar market have begun to mimic the ridiculously over-hyped, high end designer hi-fi industry where fools with more money than sense fuel a dick measuring contest eagerly served by the upper crust among booteek hi-fi component and speaker designers. Whoa! Are we now waging a vendetta against expensive custom-made guitars? Of course not, but may we suggest that it is every bit as challenging and admirable to organize, staff and manage a guitar factory that produces consistently superior instruments at an affordable price as it is for one craftsman to build 40 instruments a year in his shop. Look, whether or not you are willing to admit it, the guitar business has changed dramatically in just the past few years. ‘Cheap’ is no longer crap. As guitar companies have continued to leverage their considerable purchasing power, experience and expertise, ‘cheap’ is more often than not damned good, and in some cases extraordinary. Of course we hold independent custom builders and their work in high regard, but who do you think is responsible for developing and managing the design specifications and manufacturing standards for companies like Fender and Gibson outside the U.S.? Senior designers and production managers with decades of deep, hands-on experience in all aspects of guitar building have been directing and influencing what we now see coming out of China, Indonesia and Mexico. Master builders at the Fender Custom Shop in Corona have been designing guitars that are exclusively built in Ensenada for years… These career guitar people are very deliberately building production guitars to a higher standard and level of consistency than ever before with state-of-the-art technology and an extremely well-trained and skilled workforce. They have upped the ante in terms of the quality of wood being sourced, finish quality and thickness, and the precise processes involved in achieving consistently superior workmanship. Granted, they may still skimp on the electronics and hardware to meet their price points, but these are comparatively minor issues that can be enhanced with very little time and money.
As much as we would like to see the return of manufacturing to the U.S. and more full time jobs created for the disappearing middle class, global economics are just that. Independent custom builders here in America will continue to craft exceptional instruments, and PRS, Fender and Gibson will continue to profitably build comparably priced limited editions… From our perspective, however, the most significant changes occurring in the guitar industry at this moment are happening beyond our borders, and those changes are far too significant to be ignored. To coin a phrase from the ‘60s, it’s where the action is in the manufacturing of acoustic, electric, and archtop guitars of increasingly high quality and exceptional value.
On the other hand, we will not ignore the work of smallproduction, independent craftsmen here at home. As a reviewer, the trick rests in getting one of their guitars in-hand for review. Most of these guys build to order, remain backordered and don’t keep a demo around to be shipped for a review article. If you happen to own a guitar made by one of your favorite builders and you’d like to see them get some ink in these pages, we invite you to send it to us for review. Just shoot us an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, tell us what you have and we’ll go from there. Meanwhile, it’s time you were introduced to the Cabronita…
Viva la Cabronita!
Aside from the murderous chaos that has infested Mexico in its role as America’s primary source of recreational weed, blow and exstasy, Mexico is a country steeped in myths, superstitions and mythical entities like the duende, chupacabra and onza. Should you search for an accurate Spanish translation of Fender’s Cabronita you’ll find nothing because the word simply doesn’t exist. Perfect! The word cabrón, however, can be defined, although in typical Mexican fashion literal translations are richly varied… Here’s what we were able to confirm: v The word cabrón refers to a cuckold, a man whose wife or girlfriend has been unfaithful without his knowing about it. Although the word also means ‘male goat’ and is inoffensive in that context, when used in slang it can be extremely insulting or offensive. In other words, cabrón can refer to something that is annoying, a man whose wife or partner has been unfaithful, a way of describing someone who is experienced, or someone with a bad personality, a man who is a coward and tolerates all manner of annoyances, or a pimp. As an interjection, ‘cabrón’ means something like bastard, asshole or dickhead. The Urban Dictionary advises that cabrón can mean almost anything — you can get a smile or stabbed – it’s all in the delivery.
Well, what were the creative minds at Fender really thinking when they dreamed up the name Cabronita? Did it simply have a catchy ring to it like ‘Velveeta’? Perhaps a vaguely feminized reference to ‘goat bastard’ was discussed over a round of Añejo tequila and cold Pacifico lagers. If anyone asks, feel free to be mysteriously vague in true Mexican tradition when describing your Cabronita depending on your mood and intent. In real terms, we believe the Cabronita is the most creatively unique and toneful Fender guitar design to have emerged from the company in 50 years. Somebody give that goat a raise.
Dancing on the goat trail…
You can spend as much as $5000 or as little as $299 for a Cabronita, and the name applies not only to Telecasterstyle guitars, but Cabronita ‘Boracha’ Jazzmasters and ‘Boracho’ basses. In this regard it is best to think of the Cabronita as la familia rather than a specific model. The most expensive versions are Custom Shop guitars featuring one or two TV Jones Powertron pickups, or a single TV Jones ThunderBlade in the Boracho. Models include the limited edition ‘Gato Gordo’ Jaguar and ‘Luchador’ Stratocaster Cabronitas with a list price of $5,400. Examples from a limited run of 500 ‘Telebration’
Cabronita Telecasters priced at $1800 can also be found loaded with TV Jones Filtertron pickups. Moving down the price list you’ll find ‘Fender FSR’ Cabronita Teles and Classic Players at $600 — $699 made in Ensenada featuring Fender ‘Fidelitron’ pickups. These models are available in surf green, candy apple red, 2-tone sunburst or black with alder body, or white blonde with an ash body. A Thinline version is also built in Ensenada in shoreline gold, sunburst or white blonde. At the bottom is the Squier ‘Vintage Modified’ Cabronita with basswood body in black with optional Bigsby, proudly crafted, as the tiny decal states, in Indonesia. And they should be proud…
We chose to begin our Cabronita adventure with the Vintage Modified Squier version, and we bought ours online for $299 shipped with no case or gig bag. The 22-fret, 25.5″ scale, 9.5″ radius maple neck on the Squier is comparable to the healthy C shape on the higher priced models, and the medium jumbo fret work is equal to other Squier guitars we have recently reviewed excellent. What do you know, or think you know about basswood? We surfed the Web for varied opinions and found the usual half-baked misconceptions in full bloom. A few people know basswood to be an excellent choice for solidbody guitars (ask Tom Anderson), while others seem to feel that basswood sucks because they think that’s what they are supposed to say if they want to sound credible. Our 7.5 lb. Squier basswood Cabronita is resonant to the extreme, happily vibrating long after the last chord is strummed, imparting a rich midrange timbre that can be felt and heard. We also love the single volume control and 3-way switch, string-through hardtail bridge plate and Stratocaster-style saddles. Stripped down and righteous, the Cabronita is one of the least fussy and coolest guitars imaginable, and our cheap Cabronita is a true rumbler. For you true guitar aficionados, feel free to decry the string ferrules on the back that are not set flush to the body, the non-traditional hardtail bridge plate with four corner screws, and the equally non-traditional double butterfly string retainers on the peghead. Best of all are the Fidelitron pickups… Fender really nailed them, and we asked Jason Farrell at Fender to share the story on how they were created:
The Fidelitron pickup was first developed as a neck pickup for two new Gretsch Acoustic guitars that will debut at NAMM 2014. It is based on a 1960 Filtertron and essentially uses the same general materials and specifications, but we went for a bit more sparkle for the acoustic neck version.The proto samples we received sounded so good that Fender decided to introduce them on the Mexico version of the Cabronita Guitar and Bass. So we developed a bridge pickup and bass pickup using the neck pickup as a jumping off point. They have proved to be a popular pickup and are now being used in the recently released Coronado Bass and Guitar.
The stock Fender Fidelitron humbuckers are absolutely magnifico, leaning more toward a classic Gretsch sound, yet different in the Cabronita Tele body. If you are concerned about the lack of a tone control, don’t be. We considered installing a concentric 500K pot with a tone cap, but on reflection it seems to us that the tone of the Fidelitron doesn’t require it. The bridge pickup is bright and clear, but not in the style of a typical Telecaster… Measuring 4.30K neck/5.04K bridge, the Fidelitrons produce beautifully detailed harmonic chime and overtones, but we can’t imagine wanting to roll off treble and lose that captivating sparkle. Both pickups sound louder and stronger than the resistance readings might indicate, clean tones are beautifully clear, and the Fidelitrons sound equally good through an overdriven amp or pedals. Don’t expect the same vibe as a big, brash Tele, but the Cabronita sounds much more lively, toneful and interesting than any Gretsch solidbody we have played, perfect for just about any kind of music you can imagine short of metal. The Fidelitrons rock. Granted, the Ping tuners on the Squier aren’t the best, and we chose to replace them with an excellent set of vintage-style nickel Klusons using nickel replacement bushings, all from WD Music. As with our Squier Tele Custom, we also slightly enlarged each of the six holes for the tuner posts in the peghead with our reamer. We’re not sure what the difference may be between the Fender stamped Strat saddles used in the Squier versus the Cabronitas made in Mexico, but we replaced the Squier saddles with Callaham Vintage Style Strat “CG” saddles for a 2 1/16 spaced bridge (guitars made in Mexico). These fine steel saddles will fit both the Squier and made in Mexico Fender Cabronitas. They make the task of intonating the guitar at full string tension much easier, and the tone of the basswood Cabronita seemed to open up a bit with the Callaham saddles. We also acquired a CTS 500K mini pot from WD Music to replace the original Alpha pot that measured 225K. We recommend 500K pots for all versions of the Cabronita for maximum treble presence. The Squier Cabronita is simply one very cool guitar with not one raggedy patch on its ass. Trust us when we assure you that you won’t believe just how good it is, cabrón…
We were so impressed with the Squier that we felt compelled to check out another Cabronita model on your behalf. Trolling eBay we found a new alder Thinline in shoreline gold listed by a Fender dealer as ‘used’ for $599.00. We love Thinlines… always have since our first early ‘70s model, and the Thinline Cabronita from Ensenada is an impeccably built and incredibly cool guitar. Weighing just 6.4 lbs., you might think the tone would be a little thin and lacking power, but not so. Compared to the solidbody Squier Cabronita, the Thinline has a little more bite and clarity, but it retains the full, rich tone of the Fidelitrons and sustain is persistently intense and robust. The maple neck shape is very similar to the Squier with perhaps a bit more shoulder, the fret work is perfect and the Thinline is a great, great player. Fit, finish and fine details are absolutely flawless throughout, and the combination of the light amber-tinted maple neck and shoreline gold Thinline body are classic cool. By the way, the finish on the Cabronita Thinline is so thin that you can just see the alder grain peeking out from beneath the paint on the back when viewed at the proper angle and light.
Resistance readings on the Thinline Fidelitrons were nearly identical to the Squier – 4.41K neck/5.03K bridge, and the stock full-size Alpha pot measured 494K. Still, we chose to replace it with a CTS pot from WD measuring 570K for maximum sparkle. We will keep the Fender Schaller knockoff tuners for now but replace them with the same vintage-style Klusons sooner than later. The vintage-style hardtail bridge plate and Fender Strat saddles seem fine. We can’t imagine the Thinline being more resonant no matter what you might do to it. Where the basswood Squier nicely pushes the midrange frequencies a little harder, the Thinline and Fidelitrons seem perfectly matched to produce one of the coolest electric guitar tones we have ever heard – not ripping and in your face, but smooth and complex, beautiful played clean and uniquely aggressive cranked without losing fidelity and clarity. All we can say is, you really need to get your own Cabronita now. If you can’t conveniently play one in a store, there are plenty of online retailers and Fender dealers who will send you one with a no questions asked liberal return policy. Respect the goat, and Quest forth…