Review: Fender Highway Series Acoustic Guitar
It’s time to hit the road with Fender’s new slimline acoustic guitars.
Highway Series follows in the footsteps of Fender’s Acoustasonic lineup. Released in 2019, Acoustasonic blurs the lines between acoustic and electric guitar design, feel and function.
After spending a few minutes with Highway Series, it clearly borrows from Acoustasonic’s design, but it’s also clearly less of an attempt to be an acoustic/electric guitar hybrid. These are unashamedly acoustic guitars, and the only thing that could make you think otherwise is their thinness and the location of the tone and volume knobs. Otherwise, the playing experience feels like an acoustic, it resonates like an acoustic, and when plugged in, sounds like an acoustic.
However, it’s still smaller than a ‘real’ acoustic guitar. According to Fender, this design decision was to make Highway Series more attractive to guitarists who spend a lot of time on stage, desiring a more comfortable and ergonomic instrument without sacrificing acoustic tone in a live situation.
Fender sent AT a Highway Series Dreadnought acoustic guitar. Dreadnought is one of the larger acoustic guitar shapes, but don’t let that fool you into thinking the Highway Series guitars are large. Upon arrival I couldn’t help but notice that, although the shape of the top is indeed dreadnought, the thin profile makes the guitar beautifully ergonomic. The contoured back makes the instrument sit neatly against the body much like a Stratocaster.
Manufactured in Fender’s facility in Ensenada, Mexico, Highway Series is a beautifully designed guitar. The body is a 5.7cm-thick hollowed out piece of mahogany with its wavy woodgrain pattern glistening under the matte finish. A mahogany neck is overlaid with an Indian rosewood fingerboard with micro-tilt adjustment and a Strat-style headstock and tuners. An understated railroad binding on the solid Sitka spruce top gives it a vintage vibe. The bridge and knobs are a matching ebony-coloured wood.
Both the Dreadnought and Parlor models that form the Highway Series do not have cutaways. Whether that’s a dealbreaker or not is a personal choice, but I imagine a cutaway would slightly compromise the resonance you might get out of the small body – and resonance is a key priority for Fender when designing these guitars.
NEED TO KNOW
Fender Highway Series
The bolt-on mahogany neck with a slim profile felt buttery smooth and eminently playable
IN THE HAND
Let’s talk about expectations vs reality. I knew the Highway Series wasn’t going to project sound the way my Martin does. That didn’t keep me from holding a tiny hope that it would sound more like a ‘proper’ acoustic guitar than it does. What I’m saying is, even if you try to manage your expectations before strumming a first chord on a Highway Series guitar, you probably won’t be blown away by its natural acoustic voicing.
But I let the guitar sit in the living room for a few days where I knew I’d pick it up at random and hopefully bond with it. Slowly but surely, it grew on me. I began to appreciate the confident resonance and balanced tone radiating from the floating X-braced body which undoubtedly sounds bigger than it is. The bolt-on mahogany neck with a slim profile felt buttery smooth and eminently playable. Dynamically, the guitar responded with ease to being strummed vigorously with a hard plectrum, or gently fingerpicked at low volume. Of course it doesn’t have the luscious low end of a full-size dreadnought or jumbo, but I was increasingly convinced the Highway Series’ comfort and versatility gives it a place in a guitarist’s collection.
Noodling on the sofa is one thing. Playing live is another. Fender assures us that Highway Series is right at home on stage. That’s largely thanks to the interesting black pickup that curves around the neck-end of the soundhole. Fishman Fluence is a family of pickups designed mostly for electric guitar, but Fender and Fishman worked together to custom-design the version in Highway Series, specifically for Highway Series. That’s right – you won’t find this pickup in any other guitar on the market.
Most notably, Fluence isn’t a piezo system. Piezo pickups are the traditional choice for acoustic guitars but Fender treads a different path here.
Like a piezo, Fluence is still powered by a 9V battery accessed at the back of the guitar body. The pickup has a warm tone with abundant low end thanks in part to its strategic placement. Being a smaller body, there’s a proclivity for the reduced resonance potential of Highway Series to result in a strident and harsh tone if the pickup sat near the bridge, closer to where a piezo system would be. This is offset quite effectively by situating it right at the base of the neck, delivering a much deeper and richer plugged-in sound. Through a nice PA, the Fishman Fluence sounds the business with a big, lush and enveloping richness. I noted how little nasal honk was present compared to the piezo pickups typically installed in acoustic guitars where I often carve out a big chunk around 1kHz. Fluence also sounds less ‘dry’ to my ears than a piezo system, and responds favourably to compression, reverb and delay.
Controls on the Highway Series are analogue, as opposed to Acoustasonic with its onboard DSP. There’s a simple Volume knob and a secondary Tone knob that sounds like a basic mid scoop. Extra tone sculpting control would be useful, and this is one area where Highway Series could be easily improved. A basic three-band EQ, for example, is fairly standard on a piezo pickup system and in the case of Highway Series would be of much value to a performing guitarist. The single tone knob means, if you desire to shape your tone with more nuance, you’d want to run the guitar through an EQ pedal. If anything, the plugged-in sound of a Highway Series guitar is at risk of being over-enthusiastic in the bass frequencies, especially in a sub-heavy PA environment. Again, nothing an EQ pedal can’t fix.
LIFE IS A HIGHWAY
At first glance, Highway Series is a peculiar product (as was Acoustasonic), and the only way to make head or tail of it is to live with it for a while. Having spent a few weeks with the instrument, my conclusion basically aligns with Fender’s proposition: acoustic guitarists who spend a lot of time on stage – Highway Series is for you. Unless you have a particular affection for the bulk of a full-size acoustic guitar, Highway Series is more ergonomic and comfortable to wear, hold, and play for long periods. The Fishman Fluence pickup means the physical downsize doesn’t result in a sonic downsize. Fluence excels in a live setting. I only wish there was more tonal control.
And, on the occasion where you find yourself jamming on the tour bus or in a motel room, it’s nice to know the Highway Series doesn’t sound like it’s made of cardboard but can actually project its voice commendably. Still, I wouldn’t expect many people will buy one of these guitars for their acoustic tone, and you probably won’t reach for one in a studio recording situation. Fender has reimagined the acoustic guitar for ergonomics and live sound performance, and if you’re missing either or both of those things, then you owe it to yourself to take a look.