Fender’s first foray into hollow-body electric instruments was the highly distinctive Coronado family of guitars and basses, which debuted in early 1966 and, though never achieving significant popularity, remained in the Fender lineup for the rest of that decade.
Today, the Coronado instruments are regarded as an interesting if unsuccessful experiment in Fender history. They were quality instruments aimed at serious players, but they never escaped an air of aberration amid Fender’s own established solid-body primacy and the even longer-established identities of other mainly hollow-body makers; namely, Gibson and Gretsch (and, to some extent, Rickenbacker).
And while they were definitely Fender’s first attempt to make the hollow-body scene, by no means were they the last. Nonetheless, Coronado instruments routinely command high prices on today’s vintage guitar market.
On the face of it, it might seem puzzling. Fender was already well established by the mid 1960s as the world’s premier maker of solid-body electric instruments, ruling that province with what was basically impunity. The Telecaster, Stratocaster, Precision Bass, Jazz Bass, Jazzmaster, Jaguar and other solid-body Fender instruments, along with the company’s stable of acclaimed amplifiers, were ubiquitous by then, especially during the surf and instrumental rock boom early in the decade. Why would Fender even attempt to stray from its safe, tried and true identity when others so clearly dominated the hollow-body world?
Well, for one thing, Fender was a scrappy young West Coast outfit; a post-war David to East Coast old-world Goliaths such as Gibson.
For another thing, consider that by the mid 1960s, popular music in general on both sides of the Atlantic was still very much the province of hollow-body guitars and basses. The British Invasion dominated the decade after 1963, and for all it was, one thing it definitely wasn’t was especially Fender-y. At all. Apart from a Fender amp or two and maybe a Precision Bass here and there, the British Invasion was very much Rickenbacker, Gretsch, Höfner, Vox and little else. U.S. pop bands like the Byrds that duly took their cues from London and Liverpool followed suit, hitting the stage, studio and small screen with big, hollow guitars. Stax, Motown and country seemed to be the only chart-topping entities that fully embraced solid-body Fender instruments all along.
So when CBS acquired Fender in early 1965—right around the time when a Stratocaster first appeared on a Beatles song (“Ticket to Ride”) and just before the Byrds (signed to the CBS-owned Columbia Records label) made their first chart ascent with an electrified cover of Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man”—the giant parent company undoubtedly noted the continuing popularity of hollow-body instruments and the fact that its new acquisition out west didn’t make any. Yet.
Because of all this, and practically before the ink was dry on the takeover deal, CBS decided that Fender would enter the world of hollow-body instrument design. Indeed, as noted in The Golden Age of Fender: 1946-1970, it would be “the first time Fender appeared to be chasing after their main rival, Gibson.”
There was an inherent danger in this for the usually innovative young company; something that ran counter to Fender’s very identity and didn’t bode well for the effort ahead. Again, as aptly noted in The Golden Age, “For the first time since 1950, Fender looked like market followers, not market leaders.” And as corroborated in author Tony Bacon’s 60 Years of Fender, “Clearly, the company was being pushed by new owners CBS to compete with the successful 300-series thinline electrics marketed by the other big name in the guitar market, Gibson.”
Fender entrusted the task to Roger Rossmeisl, the noted German-born luthier who, after stints at Gibson and, most notably, Rickenbacker, arrived at Fender in 1962 and spearheaded the company’s entrance into the acoustic guitar arena. Fender’s hollow-body electrics would come from his facility, the Fender Acoustic Instrument plant on Missile Way in Anaheim, which opened in 1964.
Rossmeisl and his staff set about work on the new series in 1965, and the first public mention of the as-yet unnamed instruments came that November, when they were announced in issue No. 10 of dealer/customer newsletter Fender Facts as “New Fender Thin-Line Electrics.”
A name must’ve been settled on very soon after, however, because Fender’s Coronado semi-acoustic electrics debuted in January 1966.
The original Coronado lineup consisted of single- and double-pickup guitars (with and without tremolo), a 12-string that borrowed its “hockey stick” headstock from the Fender Electric XII model introduced several months earlier, and a single-pickup bass guitar. They were elegantly handsome instruments (as Rossmeisl designs always were), with bound double-cutaway bodies, large f holes, specially designed bridge/tailpiece combinations that included a distinctive new tremolo system, and single-coil pickups made by Rowe Industries (maker of popular DeArmond pickups). Despite the somewhat Gibson-like appearance of the instruments, a few signature Fender elements remained, most notably bolt-on necks (typically not seen on semi-acoustic guitars) and a Stratocaster-like headstock shape.
Coronado instruments came in standard Sunburst and Cherry Red finishes; custom colors joined the fold in October 1966. Two-pickup Coronados had block fingerboard inlays; single-pickup Coronados and the Coronado Bass had pearloid dot fingerboard inlays.
They were fairly expensive for Fender instruments, although they were priced just below their closest competitors. A dual-pickup Coronado guitar originally retailed for $319.50—$25 higher than a custom-color Strat, but slightly less than dual-pickup rivals such as the Gibson ES-330 ($325) and the Rickenbacker 330 ($339.50).
It was an interesting situation, if not unfortunate timing. Despite Fender’s attempts to get Coronado guitars into as many high-profile hands as possible (as evidenced by the company’s publicity materials of the time), they simply didn’t catch on even though they were intended as well-made pro-level instruments. As noted in The Golden Age of Fender: 1946-1970, the guitars “failed to gain acceptance with musicians who were set in their ways, expecting hollow-body instruments to feature set (glued-in) necks. Although the standard of workmanship was high, the instruments felt cheap and somewhat flimsy by Fender standards. They were more akin to the Asian copies that were starting to flood the market than the home-grown, workmanlike Fender instruments players were used to.”
If you look hard enough, however, you can find some notable Coronado users during the 1960s. Elvis Presley briefly grabbed a dual-pickup Coronado during “There Ain’t Nothing Like a Song” from 1968 cinematic romp Speedway. Coronados were also seen in the hands of Dave Davies (Kinks), John Phillips (the Mamas and the Papas), Kenny Rogers (with the First Edition) and bassist Steve Walmsley (Lemon Pipers).
Fender soon added to its Coronado lineup after the first series of instruments. Colorful “Wildwood” finishes had been developed for several Fender acoustic guitar models in 1966; created by injecting colored dye into beech trees before harvesting them and applying the resulting thin veneers to guitar bodies. This method was eventually applied to new Coronado family variations that were introduced in summer 1967—Wildwood versions of the six- and 12-string guitars. A dual-pickup Coronado Bass was also introduced that summer, in standard and Wildwood finishes.
One particularly interesting Coronado version was the result of making lemons into lemonade, so to speak, at the Fender factory. Some Coronados suffered unsightly burn marks during the delicate process of applying body binding. Rather than discard these instrument bodies, Fender craftsmen covered the burn marks created during binding by adopting an unusual new sunburst-style finish in which a grayish-brown white graduated to a darker gray-brown at the edges. This most distinctive look was called an “Antigua” finish, and it salvaged many damaged instruments. Coronado models with Antigua finishes were introduced in October 1967 with a lineup that included the dual-pickup Antigua II guitar, Antigua XII 12-string, and dual-pickup Antigua Bass II.
The Antigua-finish instruments were the final Coronado models. Fender stayed with the instruments throughout the remainder of the 1960s, but eventually acknowledged their lack of popularity and discontinued the Coronado lineup in 1971. The company would not venture into hollow semi-acoustic design territory again until 1976 with the short-lived Starcaster guitar.
Like many of the more esoteric Fender instruments of the 1960s and ’70s, Coronado guitars and basses have enjoyed an extremely hip resurgence in modern times; particularly in U.K. alternative rock. Notable players include Blur’s Graham Coxon (“She’s So High”), Thom Yorke and Colin Greenwood (see Yorke play Greenwood’s sunburst Coronado Bass on “Harrowdown Hill”), Kasabian’s Sergio Pizzorno (see live version of “Underdog”), Yo La Tengo’s Ira Kaplan (see a live version of “Stupid Things”), Jimmie Vaughan (see “Jimmy Reed Highway” from a 2007 Austin City Limits performance), Soul Coughing’s Mike Doughty (see a live version of “Circles”), Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard (see the “You are a Tourist” video), and the Dandy Warhols’ Courtney Taylor (see the “Bohemian Like You” video). Other Coronado players include Simon Tong (Verve; the Good, the Bad & the Queen), James Huggins (Of Montreal, James Husband), Josh Klinghoffer (Red Hot Chili Peppers), Steve Kilbey (the Church) and Grant-Lee Phillips.