Fender TPD-1 Review

Posted by Adam Perlmutter

While Fender has long been celebrated for its solidbody guitars and basses—the Stratocaster, Telecaster, Precision bass, and Jazz bass, among others—not to mention its tube amplifiers, the company has also offered acoustic guitars since the early 1960s. With their six-in-line headstocks, bolt-on necks, and gold plastic pickguards, models like the Malibu, Kingman, and Newporter were visually striking. And while they were seen in the hands of legends like Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash, they didn’t fare as well with guitarists in general and were discontinued in the next decade.

In the 1980s, however, Fender began offering imported acoustics under the California, Gemini, and F series, and in the mid-’90s the company ventured into the high-end acoustic market, contracting a small team of skilled luthiers at the Apprentice Shop in Spring Hill, Tennessee, to build the Spring Hill series of handcrafted, all-solid-wood flattops. While Fender’s Chinese-, Japanese-, and Korean-made acoustic guitars remained in production, the Spring Hill line was phased out not long after Fender acquired Guild Guitars in 1995.  

Fender has had a custom shop for its high-end electric instruments since the late 1980s, but it only recently opened one for acoustics. The Fender Acoustic Custom Shop is housed in the same factory where US-built Guilds are made, in New Hartford, Connecticut. Overseen by master luthiers Tim Shaw and Ren Ferguson, the Fender Acoustic Custom Shop produces a range of small-production guitars, from updated takes on original models like the Kingman and Newporter to all-new designs, including the TPD-1 Traditional Pro USA Dreadnought, which is available with or without a cutaway and Fishman electronics. We checked out the more traditional of these: the non-cutaway, strictly acoustic model.

Classic Appointments, Outstanding Build

Aside from the script headstock logo, there is not much about the TPD-1 that is identifiably Fender. Rather, the guitar is a respectfully traditional interpretation of the classic dreadnought, with all-solid tonewoods and forward-shifted X-bracing. As would be expected on a guitar of its price, these woods are choice: the Engelmann spruce soundboard has even coloring and a fine grain pattern; the mahogany used for the back, sides, and neck has a warm, luminous brown coloring; and the ebony on the bridge and fingerboard is very black, with a minimum of brown streaks.

The TPD-1 is a tastefully appointed guitar. The headstock, fingerboard, and body are surrounded by cream binding, and the soundhole has a simple abalone rosette with an outer ring that is echoed at the perimeter of the soundboard. The fingerboard’s simple dot position markers are mother-of-pearl, and the end strip is mahogany. Gold Grover Rotomatic tuners give the guitar an elegant look, and a gold strap button is mounted on the upper left bout, like on a single-cutaway electric guitar.

The TPD-1 was clearly made with great skill and care. Its 20 frets are immaculately dressed and polished, and the bone nut and saddle are perfectly notched. Not a note of imperfection can be found in the gloss nitrocellulose lacquer finish, which feels desirably thin. The innards also exhibit fine craftsmanship, with the bracing and kerfing perfectly sanded and glued.

Diverse Performer

When I removed the TPD-1 from its deluxe TKL hardshell case, with an old-school textured vinyl covering and plush maroon interior, I found it to be an immediately likeable guitar. It feels lightweight but solid and the neck is at once traditional and modern with its streamlined V-shaped profile. At 1.7 inches wide, the nut is close to that of a standard dreadnought,making it hospitable to chords with thumb-fretted bass notes and flatpicking or fingerpicking.

Overall, the TPD-1 sounds full, round, and warm, likely owing to its mahogany back and sides, with an appreciable amount of headroom more characteristic of a rosewood body. The bass notes have a pronounced thump, the midrange has a sweet bark, and the trebles are crisp and clear. The guitar also feels very responsive to fretting- and picking-hand nuances, and a subtle natural reverb washes over all the notes.

The TPD-1 performs quite well in a raft of situations. As I played the Beatles “Blackbird,” built from those lovely fingerpicked tenths, the guitar rang beautifully, the bass notes perfectly balanced with the fretted notes on the higher string and the constant open G string, and it was still fairly loud even when picked gently. In a different direction, the TPD-1 responded in a punchy way to the strummed chord progression of Hank Williams’s “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.”

Although the TPD-1 is an excellent instrument for bluegrass and country runs, its resonance and articulation make it amenable to plenty of other styles. From straightforward blues to kora-inspired lines, the guitar has ample presence and projection. And with its comfortable neck and sleek action, the TPD-1 is an absolute pleasure to play leads on.

The guitar lost none of its brilliance when placed in tunings like open G, open D, D A D G A D, or a more unusual tuning like the one Michael Hedges used for “Breakfast in the Fields,” C G D D A E. On that composition, the guitar responded splendidly to extended techniques, such as a conventionally fretted chord being pulled off to natural harmonics produced by the fretting hand.

Superfine New Dreadnought

The TPD-1 is proof that the new Fender Acoustic Custom Shop is already producing guitars of superlative quality. In terms of build, playability, and sound, this mahogany dreadnought is absolutely first-rate. With its fairly generic design, the model might lack the iconic quality of a Martin dreadnought or the sexiness of a stylish boutique-made instrument, but it is a guitar worthy of the most formidable instrumentalist.

SPECS: Dreadnought body. Solid Engelmann spruce top with forward-shifted scalloped X bracing. Solid mahogany back and sides. Solid mahogany neck. Ebony fingerboard and bridge. 25.625-inch scale. 1.7-inch nut width. 2 3/32-inches string spacing at saddle. Gloss nitrocellulose lacquer finish. Gold Grover Rotomatic die-cast tuners. Fender Dura-Tone Coated 80/20 phosphor-bronze strings (.012–.052). Made in USA.

PRICE: $3,800 list/$3,040 street.

MAKER: Fender: (480) 596-9690; fender.com.

EDITORS’ IMPRESSIONS

TEJA GERKEN: Fender has built many excellent acoustic models over the years, but the TPD-1 clearly raises the bar for what a flattop with the famous name on the headstock can sound like. The guitar has the airy, bright, and lively quality one hopes for in a mahogany dreadnought, and it’s likely that the Engelmann spruce top plays a role in its tonal clarity and quick response to a soft touch. I found the TPD-1 to be satisfying to play both fingerstyle and with a flatpick, and its slim, rounded neck profile gave the guitar a very contemporary character.

SCOTT NYGAARD: It’s a little confusing to see the Fender name adorning such a lively traditional-sounding and -looking dreadnought (like seeing C.F. Martin and Co. on the headstock of a flame-top Les Paul), but Fender’s Tim Shaw and Ren Ferguson have no shortage of expertise in vintage instruments. The TPD-1’s bass is solid and punchy enough to drive a bluegrass band and the treble strings are bright and ringing with no hint of brashness or stridency. The long scale allows you to dig in but doesn’t put any excess strain on the fingers, and the sleek neck profile is a reminder that clubby vintage necks aren’t always the best thing for aging fingers. That playability coupled with an evenness of tone from top to bottom makes this a welcome addition to the current crop of high-quality US-made mahogany dreadnoughts.

Excerpted from Acoustic Guitar September 2013

See more Lucky 13: Thirteen Notable Guitars from 2013, Part 2 articles.

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