As soon as we saw the first La Cabronita – which emerged in single-pickup form sometime in 2008 before gaining a twin-pickup sister – we thought it was one of the most exciting guitars to emerge from the Fender Custom Shop in some time. Blending Fender features from various eras with a hefty dollop of Gretschiness, it’s the company’s way of showing they’re just as hip and up-to-the-minute as all the boutique builders who adopt the Telecaster format, refine it and beef it up with P90s, mini-buckers or Filtertrons.
Forget about strict vintage, though that’s a big part of the Custom Shop’s stock-in-trade: this is a hotrod guitar built with an open-minded mix-and-match ethic, and it’s designed for go as well as show. Fender begins with a solid alder body, routed to old-time specs with square edges and a router hump in the cutaway. At a shade under 8lbs it’s a few ounces over our desert island Tele weight, but it hangs super-solidly on a strap. The shade of the sonic blue nitro finish is a marvel of subtlety, not too bright nor too blue, but a mellow, greyish hue set off by an aged parchment scratchplate. Around the back there’s a control access plate, again in off-white plastic, shaped like a strip with rounded ends – a nice stylistic echo of the traditional Tele control plate.
Fender’s relicing work on the body includes forearm wear, edge chips, ultrafi ne overall crazing, some tummy-rub and a large wear patch in the belt-buckle position. There’s some heavy scoring on the back that displays the common syndrome of the relic’er using only one implement instead of several, but overall it’s a good effort. It’s a slightly mixed bag with the neck aging: the yellowed colour of the nitro lacquer is really superb and we’ve grown accustomed to this style of maple ‘fingerboard wear’ patches, but the strong dark shading surrounding each and every fret doesn’t really look like genuine finger-gunk or sweat-seepage, and we’d probably prefer it without.
The neck itself is a corker. With a deep C profile, it’s slimmer than a Nocaster but much beefier than a ’60s reissue; the 9.5" radius and wider, taller Dunlop 6105 frets make it a clever combo of mid-’50s heft and modern bendability. The neck pocket gaps look tight but fail the Rizla test, which is a let-down, but with the excellent set-up it’s a fast, smooth playing experience.
Up at the headstock we find a single ’50s-style round string tree and a sudden, surprising jolt of modernity in the form of a tight, efficient set of Sperzels with pearloid buttons. The bridge is another contemporary touch: it’s a US Standard Strat-type hardtail unit with a chromed brass baseplate and rectangular stainless steel saddles. You can’t fault it for practicality, but we might have chosen a chopped-off ashtray – like the one on the GE Smith Tele – with three staggered saddles... better suited, some might argue, to a relic Tele.
Finally we have a pair of pickups provided by the best-regarded of all Gretsch retro-fit gurus, TV Jones, and the controls are a simple knurled knob for volume (with a secret S-1 switch on the top, of which more later) and a three-way toggle giving pickups 1, 1&2 and 2.
While Teles and humbuckers are both undisputed greats, a marriage between them is not always an easy one. The most impressive thing about La Cabronita is that, astonishingly, it still sounds like a Telecaster. Articulate yet attacking, these Classics could be the perfect humbuckers for single-coil fans. Through a silverface Champ below 4 they’re pure enough for country, but moved up to 6 – the point at which a regular Tele would still be fairly clean – they’re edgy and growly. Trad tele fans won’t find true twang, but there’s real bite and boinginess on tap here. The neck pickup is rich, the middle position poppy, the bridge much, more edgy and committed. It’s a hairy one.
Dab the top of the volume knob and the Cabronita slips into Greasebucket mode. At first we missed having a regular tone pot, but the S-1 is fast (though not as fast as a sprung push-push pot would be). The system replaces the standard single polyester tone cap with two ceramic caps (.100uf and .02uf) and a metal fi lm resistor, and it’s designed to kill treble without adding bass or cutting gain.
It works differently on all three settings. On the neck pickup, there’s a little top-end roll-off; in the middle it has a stronger effect, a mellow, jazzy tonality; on the bridge it gives a choked, blocky sound a little like a half-cocked wah. Useful enough on a clean setting, these settings step into their own with overdrive, acquiring a stuffed-nose squonk that works on anything from gnarly Billy Gibbons to Buddy Miller’s trademark pawnshop tremolo blues. It’s also good for laying heavy distorted lines back in the mix, and with a touch of the S-1 you’re back to the Cabronita’s open-voiced braaang.
We think La Cabronita Especial is a stone cold winner. The RRP is very serious, but the street price is justifiable if this was your #1 guitar - and it easily could be. If this was our own custom order we might spec it slightly differently, but as it is it combines the bare-bones Tele approach with edge and power in a compelling way. With its delicious medium handful of a neck, that evocative sonic blue finish, the TV Jones shimmer and the Greasebucket grumble and grind, it's a decadent, rakish, bar-hopping sleazebag of an electric guitar. Even though it'll probably empty your fridge and then steal your car, you just can't help but admire its style.
£3227 (includes hard case).
For more information, visit www.fender.com