Justin Norvell is a lifelong musician who has worked for Fender for a quarter century. As executive vice president of product, he's tasked with a seemingly impossible challenge: How do you keep innovating a heritage product, one that consumers strongly identify with? Fender's most famous electric guitar, the Stratocaster, debuted on the market in 1954. Today, it's essentially unchanged.
Norvell began working for Fender shortly after graduating from college, while pursuing making music professionally as a guitarist. Eventually, what he once considered a day job became his real job. In a recent phone interview, he got emotional describing the unique relationship between guitars and the musicians who play them.
"You sit behind a set of drums at a distance. You sit behind a keyboard at distance, even a laptop or sampler," he pointed out. "But a guitar you wear, put on your body, and hold against yourself. It's a fashion decision, it's a statement of who you are. It becomes more a part of you than any other instrument... I think that's a magic thing that the guitar does."
Many people are under the impression you have to be an expert to come up with a novel innovation. In reality, that could not be further from the truth. Non-experts are able to see and envision what experts are often too close to. For example, look no further than Fender's founding.
Leo Fender did not invent the first electric guitar, nor the first solid-body electric guitar. (At the time, hollow-body electric guitars were favored by jazz guitarists.) He was the first to modernize electric guitars, ushering guitar-making into the 20th century.
"He really looked at the guitar and thought, I want something to work, to be easy to manufacture, and easy to fix, Norvell explained. "He famously said, 'If I have 100 bucks to make something, I'll spend $1.00 making it pretty, and $99.00 making it work.' That was his ethos, and literally he kind of Henry Ford-ized the idea of the guitar-making process. Because until then, it was much more artisanal."
In other words, Fender created the idea of the mass-produced electric guitar. The fact that he was not a musician (let alone a guitarist) is no coincidence. A radio repairman by trade, Fender disrupted the guitar-making industry by approaching everything from a serviceability standpoint, and not that of a typical luthier. For example, he attached the neck of the guitar to the body with screws, defying conventional wisdom, and in the process, solving the problem of neck warping. The result was no less than groundbreaking.
"When guitarists saw the first Stratocaster, they thought it looked like it was from space, because it had that futuristic, mid-century, auto-inspired look," Norvell said. "It was all curvy and contours, and eventually, it was produced in the bright car colors of the day. To them, it was such a different thing -- so different from what a guitar was supposed to be."
To be clear, many aspects of manufacturing Fender guitars at its production facility in Southern California involve human hands. Technologies like laser cutting and CNC machining are employed to ensure consistency, but incredibly, Norvell estimated there are about 150 processes executed by hand in every guitar Fender makes.
Fitting a Fender guitar together is not merely a matter of assembling the right parts in the right order, he clarified. According to Norvell, there's still so much that is "ergonomic and feel-related.... Like the way the tremolo is reacting, how much relief is in the neck, how tall the frets are, and the string tension. All of that really has to be worked out by hand." From beginning to end, the average Fender guitar takes about a month to make, not counting the time required to appropriately condition wood.
Given the legacy of its most popular guitar, I asked Norvell about Fender's approach to innovation. The answer in a nutshell? It's subtle. Because the silhouette of the Stratocaster is so beloved, Fender asks itself, "What else can we change inside of that?" Using different materials is one way the company continues to make improvements.
"A lot of what we do, innovation wise, is solving for eliminating variables and tolerances," Norvell revealed. As an example, he pointed to the new noiseless pickups on its American Ultra series, which hit the market just last week. Fender pickups are known for emitting a 60-cycle hum when they play, Norvell told me. Because they're single-coil, and they're not hum-canceling, they hum a little bit. So, Fender solved for that.
"We really just break a guitar down into its simplest parts, look at the whole system, see how it works together, and how we can make it better. We don't change it for change's sake. It's got to matter. It's got to affect the playability."
The proposition that guided how the company designed its new American Ultra series was, "What if we made the most modernistic and contemporary version that's still of our DNA and family of electric guitars?" Feedback from artists has been crucial to Fender's product development process from the beginning. For example, the Stratocaster's iconic design was the result, in part, of Leo Fender taking the words of musician Bill Carson to heart. He told Fender his first electric guitar, the Telecaster, dug into his ribs and that he wished it had another pickup and some additional options. Fender listened and evolved its design accordingly.
To perfect the American Ultra, a couple dozen artists were solicited to share their feedback. Bands regularly visit Fender's headquarters on Sunset Boulevard to borrow amps, Norvell added. The company is wide open to hearing from artists and non-players alike about their ideas for new products. After all, good ideas come from all kinds of different places, Norvell said.
I couldn't agree more. Great innovations can come from anyone and anywhere. But coming up with a great invention is not enough. You have to actually commercialize it, like Leo Fender did. From manufacturing processes, valuable innovations often evolve.
For well-known brands, the question of how to keep innovating is a persistent one. For independent inventors and companies alike, the value of engaging your audience is indisputable. What are they looking for? What are their needs? You need to be in constant communication. The body design of the Ultra series includes new contours, an evolution that stemmed directly from players' demand for easier accessibility on higher notes. As a result, playing these notes is now possible for a larger variety of players.
That's how you leap forward while keeping an eye on the rearview mirror.
To stay on top, never rest! Always keep innovating.