Fernandes Super Grade (Les Paul) Guitar

Bob Leggitt | Tuesday 25 October 2011
Fernandes Super Grade Gold Top

I bought this Fernandes Super Grade guitar on 4th February 1995. It was a shop demo guitar going cheap, but the instrument was mint other than the tiniest dink in the back of the neck near the headstock. That’s still the case.

The history behind these particular Gibson copies is interesting and worth investigating in more depth if you’ve got time. Essentially, they emerged in the mid ’70s as reasonable but not astounding replicas, then improved, then improved more, and by the arrival of the ’80s they were absolute behemoth rivals to Gibson. Finished in cellulose lacquer, carrying blinding pickups, and accurate to the last screw, these Japanese rock machines were among the ‘lawsuit’ models targeted by the big US manufacturers.

The Fernandes brand was applied across the range (including Fender copies) here in the UK, and apparently across Europe. But in Japan and the US, the brand Burny was used on Fernandes Gibson copies. So, in some countries, this same model would be known not as a Fernandes Super Grade, but as a Burny Super Grade. Amusingly, the manufacturer has paid such great attention to scripting the capitals of the words Super Grade into the Les Paul style on the headstock, that the uninitiated may conclude that the model name is Luper Prade!

By the ’90s, the early cellulose finishes were long gone, but the dazzling quality of construction and authenticity were still immediately apparent. This example is a ’56 Les Paul gold top replica, with cream-covered P90 ‘Soapbar’ pickups. One of the things Fernandes became renowned for with their Gibson copies was the virtually indistinguishable sound of their pickups as compared with vintage Gibsons. I wouldn’t say that this Super Grade sounds exactly like a ’56 Les Paul, but the age difference will have a lot to do with that, and these ‘P90s’ are certainly of a very high calibre indeed – of equal quality, in my view, to premium brand replacement units. The aesthetics of the guitar are flawless, and the binding on the fretboard lips itself over the fret edges like a real Gibson. Replica rivals Tokai didn’t take attention to detail quite that far.

In fact, one of the rising debates in this particular market is whether the Tokai really should be favoured over the Japanese Fernandes/Burny output when it comes to Gibson copies. I can’t find a fault with this guitar, and I remember that this wasn’t the case with a Tokai Love Rock (Les Paul) I borrowed in the late ’80s. There may be some Japanese Fernandes Super Grades which aren’t as classy a job as this one, but going by this example alone, I’d say the Tokais are very fortunate to have earned their reputation as the premier Gibson copy.

From shortly after this guitar was made, Fernandes began hiving off manufacture of the Super Grades to Korea and China, and this saw a noticeable decline in quality. So the Super Grade name per se is not a guarantee of spectacular quality. Maybe this shift in production has had a detrimental impact on the Fernandes brand in relation to Tokai. I remember at the time I bought the Super Grade, Fernandes had a reputation at least on a par with that of Tokai (and a number of mags were handing Tokai/Fernandes shoot out reviews to Fernandes), so the scales seem to have tipped in favour of Tokai in the interim. But the relatively poor recognition of the Japanese Fernandes/Burny quality could be of great benefit to the guitarist. Japanese Super Grades can still go for relatively low prices.

In use, this guitar has pretty much everything a single-coil Les Paul player would want. In all honesty I haven’t played it in, so it’s a bit lacking in what some might describe as ‘mojo’. It’s basically stayed in its case for approaching 17 years, so expecting it to have what an extensively-gigged ’50s Les Paul has would be totally unrealistic. That said, this is one of those guitars that does things exactly as you want it to. The neck pickup is bluesy with great bass end response, the bridge pickup is rocky and beautifully creamy with the tone backed off a bit, the legendary Les Paul sustain is there… Nickpicking is near impossible.

I suppose if I was purely a collector rather than a guitarist, I’d have left my Gibson flametop in its case all those years, and played this one. Being a guitarist, however, I’ve done the opposite. You only live once, so I’ve played the Gibson and kept the Fernandes as a backup instrument. Doing this retrospective, however, has enabled me to get to know the Fendandes a lot better and form a bond with it. It’s nice to have the extra bite of the ‘P90’ pickups, and I’m finding the change refreshing. For now, the Fernandes is, for the first time in its life, in use as my main Les Paul.

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