Beaches, Stages and the Silver Screen: A History of Fender Acoustic Guitars
From Elvis Presley's famous Kingman to the current California Series, learn about Fender's acoustic models through the years.
By Jeff Owens
Fender’s rich acoustic guitar history dates back to the early 1960s, when the company injected a much-needed dose of modernity and youthfully exuberant Southern California sun-and-fun culture into the old world of acoustic guitar design.
A Fender acoustic guitar was not one for which you dressed formally or that you displayed as a valuable relic. It wasn’t for the hushed classical concert stage or for hanging over the fireplace. A Fender acoustic guitar was for throwing in the car and hitting the beach. It was for coffeehouses and campfires. Fender acoustics were good-sounding, cool-looking and solidly built instruments, as seen in the classic Fender advertisements of the 1960s. Most of all, Fender acoustic guitars were fun.
And back in the day, some pretty heavy hitters used them, from rock strummers to country pickers—artists such as Johnny Cash, George Jones, Buck Owens, Tex Ritter, Wanda Jackson, Charley Pride, Ray Davies, Robbie Robertson and Elvis Presley.
After the phenomenal success of Fender electric guitars, basses and amplifiers in the late 1940s and throughout the 1950s, it seemed only natural that rapidly growing Fender would turn its attention to the acoustic guitar world. Folk music was booming in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and acoustic guitars remained an integral part of rock, country and pop.
Several inexpensive acoustic guitar models were offered in the late 1940s by Radio-Tel, the Santa Ana, Calif., distributor run by F.C. Hall and Don Randall that was the predecessor of Randall’s future Fender Sales organization, but it would be well more than a decade before acoustic guitars bearing the Fender name would appear.
The acoustic chapter of Fender history begins in earnest with the early 1962 arrival of master luthier Roger Rossmeisl, a former Rickenbacker guitar designer and builder, who quite literally showed up one day at Leo Fender’s office, as author Richard Smith recalls in Fender: The Sound Heard ’Round the World:
Confident he could make a job for himself in Leo’s expanding universe, Rossmeisl had already moved to Fullerton. He told Leo, in essence, “I’m here, and I’m going to start working for you.” Leo liked Roger’s cocky self-assured manner, admired his work, and saw the opportunity to put the Fender mark on acoustic guitars. Leo hired him on the spot.
The son of a renowned German luthier, Rossmeisl immigrated to the United States in 1953, bringing his flamboyantly innovative design sense and peerless expertise in archtop guitar construction with him. After a short stint at Gibson, Rossmeisl moved to Rickenbacker, where, from the mid-1950s through the early 1960s, he created many of the company’s most famous designs, including several acoustic/electric models, the “cresting wave” body and headstock shape, and the 4001 bass guitar model.
Rossmeisl set about work immediately, and Fender’s first acoustic guitars — the King, Concert, Classic and short-lived Folk — debuted in summer 1963. They were attractive flat-top instruments with electric guitar features such as bolt-on necks, Stratocaster-style headstocks and screwed-on pickguards. Apart from a couple hundred very early guitars, all four models had an unusual internal bracing system in the form of a 1”-diameter rod of aircraft aluminum that ran parallel to the strings from the front to the back of the body. This “broomstick” stabilizing mechanism absorbed the enormous pressure placed on the top of an acoustic guitar by string tension.
These four acoustic guitars were produced at the already crowded Fender factory at 500 S. Raymond Ave. in Fullerton, Calif. Within months, however, the new Fender Acoustic Instrument plant was completed at 1560-1580 Missile Way in nearby Anaheim, and it was there that acoustic guitar production was moved in January 1964. Later that year, in December, the small-bodied Palomino acoustic was introduced.
The mid-1960s positively abounded with Fender acoustic guitar models. The budget-priced Malibu and Newporter models were introduced in April 1965, followed that July by two 12-string models, the Shenandoah and the smaller, less expensive Villager, both of which featured Fender’s new “hockey stick” headstock design. In summer 1966, the Classic was discontinued and the King was renamed the Kingman.
Although there was little innovation in Fender acoustic guitar design after CBS bought Fender and took over in early 1965, one notable exception was the Rossmeisl-designed Wildwood series, which was introduced in summer 1966 and based on the Kingman. These guitars came in half a dozen dramatic dyed-wood colors — called Wildwood finishes — created by injecting various dyes directly into growing beech trees before harvesting. The Wildwood acoustics were distinctively attractive instruments, but they never really caught on.
Fender’s final U.S.-made acoustic model of the decade, the Redondo, was introduced in summer 1968, and Japanese-made F-Series acoustic models were introduced in summer 1969.
As the 1960s waned, so did Fender’s interest in acoustic guitars. All flat-top Fender acoustic models — the Concert, Kingman, Shenandoah, Malibu, Villager, Newporter, Wildwood, Palomino and Redondo — were discontinued by late 1971. Rossmeisl returned to Germany early in the 1970s and passed away there in 1979 at age 52. As Fender chafed under CBS rule throughout the decade, only the Japanese F-Series acoustics remained, to no particular acclaim. They too were eventually discontinued, in 1979.
The story of Fender’s early-1980s brush with oblivion, mid-decade rescue and gradual re-emergence is well-documented. Happily, the company’s return to prominence for the remainder of the ’80s and throughout the 1990s included a vigorous emphasis on acoustic guitars that harkened back to its early-’60s sun-and-fun models and image. By 1990 the revitalized Fender once again offered an extensive line of acoustic guitars with its California, Gemini and F-series instruments. SX and Telecoustic series acoustic guitars were introduced in 1993; DG and Spring Hill models in 1995. By 1996, Fender offered a broad selection of DG, CG, JG, BG and GC acoustic guitars, and its first acoustic bass guitar model, the BG-29.
Fender thus entered the new millennium with the widest selection of acoustic instruments in its 54-year history. This expansion continued as the decade unfolded—Grand series acoustic models debuted in 2002; the Global Design series and the unusual J5 signature acoustic (named for shredder “John 5” Lowery) appeared in 2004. The Ensenada series, Classic series and redesigned California series debuted in 2006. Limited-edition Tiki-themed art acoustics were released in 2007, and the Tim Armstrong (Rancid) and Dick Dale signature models were introduced in 2009 and 2010, respectively.
During this modern era, Fender acoustic guitars were augmented by an array of folk and world music acoustic instruments, including mandolins, banjos, resonator guitars, ukuleles and other instruments.
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Fender had always dabbled in mandolins (the first of which, a solid-body electric model, appeared in 1956); 1998 saw the introduction of two teardrop-shaped FM series acoustic mandolins, the A-style FM-53S and similar but electrified FM-52E. Half a dozen mandolin models were offered by 2001, including the F-style FM-63S. The line also included a specialty instrument called the FMO-66 octave mandolin — a sort of Celtic-style “bass” mandolin tuned an octave lower than standard models — from 2004 to 2008.
Fender introduced its own banjos in 1968 with the well-regarded Concert Tone, Artist Series and Allegro models; these were followed by the F series in 1969 and the “Leo” models of the mid-1970s. Fender discontinued its banjos in the late 1980s but resurrected them a decade later with the late-1990s introduction of the FB series, which remains in the Fender acoustic family today.
In the late 1960s, Fender had actually distributed a baritone ukulele made by Regal, but it wasn’t until ukuleles underwent one of their periodic popular resurgences in the 2000s that Fender produced its own models. Three instruments, dubbed Ukulele Hau’oli, Ukulele Nohea and Ukulele Pa’ina, were introduced in 2009. The Ukulele Mino’Aka concert and Ukulele U’Uku soprano models appeared in 2011, while the California Coast Series of ukuleles debuted in 2017.
Fender also introduced a handful of resonator guitars starting in the early 2000s. At the more exotic end of the spectrum, it even produced a bouzouki model (FBZ-66) that was nearly identical to the FMO-66 octave mandolin, but with a longer scale. Like its cousin the FMO-66, the FBZ-66 was only in the line from 2004 to 2008.
Starting in the later 2000s, Fender began introducing artist-model acoustic guitars. Many of these combined vintage 1960s-era instrument styles with modern design touches by the artists themselves; these included the Dick Dale and Jimmy Dale signature Malibu and Kingman models, the Tim Armstrong Hellcat Acoustic, the Duane Peters Sonoran SCE ’61 and the distinctive Alkaline Trio Malibu. Fender introduced its Elvis Kingman, based on the model Elvis Presley played in 1967 cinematic romp Clambake, in 2012; the guitar featured Presley’s signature on the headstock and a recreation of the mid-’60s Wildwood finish.
Today, Fender offers a full range of quality acoustic instruments for everyone from beginners to hobbyists to professionals, including the striking California Series. This family of guitars defies acoustic guitar conventions with a visible look and feel of Fender's famous electric guitars - from the Stratocaster headstocks and vibrant colors, to the distinctive Fender body shapes that mark players as visionary artists.
The eye-catching finishes of the California Series include Electric Jade, Cosmic Turquoise, Arctic Gold and Belmont Blue, while the body styles are classically Fender, with the Redondo, Malibu and Newporter rounding out the line.
In all, Fender boasts a comprehensive family of acoustic models, with everything from full-size dreadnought and jumbo guitars to orchestra, concert and parlor-size models; from nylon-string classical guitars to long-scale acoustic basses; and from artist signature models to special limited editions and specialty folk and world music instruments.
As they always have, Fender acoustic guitars continue to evoke the sun and fun of their ’60s-era Southern California ancestry, delivering great sound and value and ensuring a truly resonant future.