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Chicago area based Audio/Video management pro, guitarist for over 40 years - have seen and heard 1000's of axe-and-amp combos, and still hungry to hear more! I remain a student of the sound, and yet, have a lot to share!

Sunday, July 17, 2011

REVIEW: Fernandes ZO-3 Series Guitar (Japanese version of the US import Nomad)

I have always been distantly fascinated by the so-called "travel" or "practice" electric guitars.  These always appeared to be marketed as somewhat lower quality than the full-sized guitars we take on stage.  I would look at them in the catalogs or on the wall at a guitar shop, but I never desired to play one.  In my full-time band touring days, I would have loved to have had a high-quality guitar that was easy to play backstage or in a car.  Some travel guitars carry a prestige manufacturer brand name, but by the look and price, they are not the same quality of the main product brand line. The Fernandes Zo-3 is different, however.  It features good looks and high quality in a short-scale travel guitar.  In case you aren't aware, Fernandes is a Japanese guitar maker who started making guitars in 1969 and entered the US market in 1992.  We first saw their guitars as Les Paul and Strat copies in very fine detailed versions that caught a lot of attention.  They evolved into what we see today on their website, http://www.fernandesguitars.com/, and their Japanese site, http://www.fernandes.co.jp/.  They are a supurb guitar manufacturer with their own unique models. Fernandes owns a legendary status as a great guitar with an affordable price. Their quality rivals the top names.  They market one exclusive product, the Sustainer, that is available on many of their models, as well as in kit form for installation into other guitars.  Fernandes does not have the market penetration luxury that the big names do.  Even in the large Chicago market where I reside, the existing Fernandes dealers are small retailers with limited inventory. The large online dealers display nearly all models, so when buying a new Fernandes, this may be your better option until they gain a stronger local dealer base.

One particular model that has been quietly gaining attention is the Fernandes Nomad. It is similar but not identical to the Fernandes Zo-3 in Japan.  Fernandes ships only one Nomad model to the US, with 4 variances on the color and graphics.  In Japan, there are 8 distinct Zo-3 models, including Zo basses! 

Some of the early (pre-Nomad) Zo-3 versions made it over to the States, and I would like to introduce 2 identical versions of the Zo-3 to you, and I'll take you on a fun walk with this guitar!

Fernandes Zo-3, in original light blue (with matching Fender-style blue volume knob!)

The Zo-3 is a short-scale travel/practice electric guitar:
  • 24" scale
  • 22 frets
  • 14" flat radius fretboard
  • One humbucking Fernandes pickup
  • Single volume knob
  • Alder body
  • Fixed, string-thru body adjustable bridge
  • On-board 5 watt amplifier, 9v battery powered

  • On/Off internal amp switch
  • Built in 4" speaker hidden behind a black metal grille
  • Maple neck with mahogany fretboard
  • "Moon" fret markers on fretboard
  • Small side fret "dot" inlay markers
  • Single 1/4" output jack in bottom side portion of guitar (Les Paul-type position) with auto bypass of internal amp for use with outboard amplifier
  • Medium frets
  • Wedge-shaped padded gig bag

This particular model has a mahogany fretboard with a very dark wood, resembling ebony!

I had only read about the Nomad, but I did not prefer 3 out of the 4 finishes they offer in the US: Black, Flames, UK flag, US flag. (I like the look of the black finish over the other 3 finishes) My wish is that they would offer the US market the full Japanese line, as this guitar has multi-demographic appeal.  I discovered via Ebay and similar sites, that the Japanese version, the Zo-3, has been available in Japan for many years. 

The current Japanese only versions are:
  • Zo-3, basic single humbucker pickup
  • Zo-3A, piezo only pickup
  • Zo-3ST, one single coil pickup, tremelo, fender-style pickguard, maple fretboard
  • Zo-3 '11, single humbucking pickup, tremelo, NOMAD-style electronics (volume control/power switch, 2 way distortion control mini-switch)
  • Zo-3 Signature - Hello Kitty, Nakoi, Takuma,  etc
  • Zo-3 PIE, Piezo guitar and bass models
  • Digi-Zo ULT, a Zo-3 with multiple on-board effects
  • Digi-Zo Hyper, a Zo-3 with even more on-board effects
  • Each of these models has numerous finishes available for their Japanese buyers, from opaque colors to natural finishes and sunbursts, with and without body-edge binding.
My wife found an "original" Zo-3 in light blue, and another identical Zo-3 in light pink. We bought both of them, and I immediately discovered, upon holding the Zo-3 that this was no "student" or lower quality model. I also bought a newer Nomad US version in black.

This is a professional instrument that is truly designed as a backstage, easy access travel, practice or student guitar for anyone, from beginner to pro.  It will fit in an overhead airline compartment and the padded gig bag has shoulder straps, making this a very easy guitar to transport.  The quality of the fretwork, neck, and assembly is also impressive for the price of this guitar.  The action is very low and NO fret buzz.  The 14" radius fretboard assists the set-up with this low action capability. 

The unique headstock shape is set up with a single string tree for the 1st and 2nd strings.  I was wondering just what was on the minds of the designer of this model, as I didn't think the shape of the body and headstock were simply random.  It turns out that the name Zo means elephant, and a view from a few feet away confirms that this guitar does somewhat resemble an elephant in a kind of a Picasso-style of visual interpretation. The built-in speaker represents the eye of the elephant, and the neck looks like the trunk!

The sound of the Zo is typical of a single humbucker at-the-bridge position style guitar, with an acceptable, but not outstanding responsive sound through an outboard amplifier.  However, I cranked up my Zo through a Line 6 Flextone set on Mesa Boogie Rectifier, and this little guitar wailed with a Gibson-like 24" scale "yaw" sound in a distorted tone, and delivered a full chimey shimmer when playing cleaner chords. The Zo-3 has its guitar strap buttons at the base of the guitar and on the backside of the headstock. It is not balanced as it should be.  When the Nomad version became available in the US, the strap button was moved to the top of the body right behind the neck joint, and the balance while the player is in the standing position has been greatly improved.

The blue and pink Zo models are straight-ahead electronic set ups that are easy to work when using in practice mode, or through an outboard amplifier via the 1/4" jack.  The mini switch activates the internal amplifier and turns on the red LED to indicate you are on internal mode.  When you insert a cable into the output jack, the internal amp is automatically bypassed.  You operate the guitar like a standard electric guitar and use the onboard volume control to adjust the output level.  When you remove the back plate covering the internal speaker and electronics, you notice the selection of high-quality components. Fernandes also supplies some little assembly extras, such as foam pieces set around the speaker to avoid vibration and give added protection from the surrounding electronics.   

Fernandes offers a wide variety of configurations, and my black US Nomad has a slight variation as follows:  The volume control now has a off/on click  in the "0" position. Turning the volume control forward turns the internal amplifier to the ON mode, and the red LED lights to indicate power is on. The mini 2-way switch is now a distortion mode switch on this model, with a clean and overdrive selection.  Fernandes has 3 trim pots on the internal circuit board that can be adjusted to set the master volume, normal and overdrive modes.  The other change is the addition of a second 1/8" output jack that is intended for a set of headphones for private practice.  Perhaps it may be my version, but when you insert a 1/4" cable for play through an external amp, the volume control does not go to a full "off" mode, and basically stays in an amplified version of the practice mode.  Consequently, this guitar does not fully transform from a practice/travel guitar to a stage adaptable version with the same ease as the Zo Japanese original.  Of course, this guitar was designed with travel/impulse use in between sessions with your performance guitars.  I would assume that Fernandes was trying to continue to develop this guitar as an ultimate practice guitar, and not try and compete with the full size performance guitars.   

The sonic quality of the built-in amp on the Zo-3 is louder and cleaner than I expected - a good basic amp that will give the player a noise-free, clean, honest response with enough power that will not hide or color a player's style.  As a practice guitar set-up with the built-in amp, it's perfect for private practice sessions, or small gatherings where an outboard amp is not practical or available.  It does what was intended, with cool styling that will turn a lot of heads.  If I were to suggest any upgrade to the Nomad/Zo, I might suggest a second pickup for more tone variety - either a small single coil near the neck, OR the addition of a piezo pickup for some acoustic sounds and electric/acoustic blends!  In Japan, they offer magnetic pickups, OR piezo, but not both on the same Zo guitar. 

Seek out and consider adding this guitar to your collection.  The Japanese Zo-3 will have a strat-type volume control that matches the color of the body in most cases.  The American Nomad will generally use a smaller nickel chrome volume knob.  The Fernandes decals are also different on the Japanese and the American versions. (the Zo-3 headstock is pictured with a light blue color, and the Nomad is pictured with a black color finished headstock)
I play this guitar daily, and its small size makes it easy to leave out in a room to make a quick practice session very convenient.  Fernandes has also priced this guitar in an affordable range, less than $500 new, and used street prices find the Japanese Zo-3 guitar selling in the $150 to $200 range, while the American Nomad version sells in the $200 to $400 range  This is a much higher quality guitar than the price would indicate! 

As most musicians, I will continue the never ending quest of adding another guitar to my musical instrument collection. My goal for the future is to to obtain the full sized Fernandes Dragonfly with Sustainer.....(Hope my wife doesn't find out!)

John W. Sather
aka: jwsoundguy


  1. I have 90's fernandes revolver. they have great tone.
    and i like your wish about getting a new guitar without caught by your wife. it's really a guitarist thing :)

  2. Thanks for the article. I have the exact same blue ZO-3 and it's a great guitar. Think I paid less than 10,000yen for it in Kyoto a few years ago.

    I always saw the speaker as its ear and the led as its eye... ZO means elephant and 3 is pronounced 'san', which also means 'Mr'. So ZO3 = Mr. Elephant :)

    They seem to have a bit of a cult following in Japan, and there's a lot of sites about modding them.

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  7. Thanks for the article. I also have fernandes ZO 3 black. it have on/off switch volume controller and 1/4 audio jack. After reading your article i could figure out that my guitar dont have distortion option which i needed. but still i have a problem if you could help me. The 1/4 audio jack which is suppose to be output connecting to the amp. but its not so in mine. it does not give any output, instead it is input. when i connected it to my mobile headphone jack and played mp3 the sound came from the guitar speaker. i dont think this is normal. can this be fixed

  8. Thanks for this very detailed write up, guitartherapist! I just ordered a used MIJ ZO-3 from ebay (the version w/trem and a HB) and am looking forward to putting it through its paces. Your writeup helps a lot, as I had no idea there were a) so many Japanese models, or b) that the US models never completely switch the onboard amp out of the output circuit.

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  10. Thanks for the very indepth review and facts about these great little guitars. Just picked one up for £20 English pounds! I wondered about the distortion effect mentioned elsewhere, now I know that mine must be a Japanese version with just an on - off switch. Really like this guitar and would love to get the one with fx built in like the two Alesis ones my brother owns.

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  13. I read somewhere that some of the Nomads are made in China. Is this true and what are the indicators of this? Thx!

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