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Fender guitar factory now playing to an audience

The Corona, Calif. facility, which had remained closed to the public for 65 years, opened its doors this week for hands-on tours in its new visitor center.

September 22, 2011|By Randy Lewis, Los Angeles Times
  • The new Fender visitor center's opening gala featured some brand-name entertainment, including blues artist Buddy Guy, above, as well as Dave Mason and Raphael Saadiq.
The new Fender visitor center's opening gala featured some brand-name… (Glenn Koenig / Los Angeles…)

It's taken 65 years, but guitar-loving kids are finally being allowed into the candy store.

In a move designed to amplify the emotional connection between music fans and iconic instruments created at the Fender guitar factory in Corona, Calif., the company's new chief executive, Larry Thomas, has opened the factory for tours along with a new visitor center he hopes will turn the facility into a major tourist destination.

"I'm a musician and a guitar player … so I can relate from the heart and the gut level what Fender is all about," Thomas, the former chairman of the Guitar Center retail chain, said last week during a preview of the new 8,600-square-foot facility where guitar heroes, including Rancid's Tim Armstrong, Guns N' Roses/Loaded guitarist Duff McKagan, Velvet Revolver's Dave Kushner and Rob Zombie associate John 5, poked around various displays.

"When they recruited me to come aboard," Thomas said, "first of all, I couldn't believe what they still did at the factory, and second of all, I couldn't believe they could build products made in America and sell them at a profit for dealers and the factory," he said. "I'm not that bright, but I figured I've just got to tell the world about it."

The visitor center, which opened Monday, encompasses a modest museum with exhibits on Fender legends such as Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Jeff Beck. Visitors also will encounter a salute to the company's founder, electric guitar innovator Leo Fender, on their way into a showroom filled with guitar equipment, accessories and memorabilia as well as a room where potential customers can create their own customized guitar on the spot.

Ringing the room are the titles of songs that were recorded with Fender products, running chronologically from seminal '50s hits such as Johnny Cash's "I Walk the Line," Buddy Holly's "Peggy Sue" and Dale Hawkins' "Suzy Q" through '60s, '70s and '80s rock classics, including the Beach Boys' "Surfin' U.S.A.," the Doors' "Light My Fire," Derek & the Dominos "Layla" and U2's "Where the Streets Have No Name," to more recent material such as the Red Hot Chili Peppers' "Scar Tissue" and Coldplay's "The Scientist."

In addition, free guided tours through the massive factory where Fender still turns out thousands of its signature Telecasters, Stratocasters, Precision Bass instruments, amplifiers and other equipment will be offered to the public for the first time in the company's 65-year history. Gibson Guitars, one of Fender's chief competitors, has long offered tours of its factory in Memphis, Tenn.

"As a brand, [Fender] is a part of all of us who are musicians," Thomas said. "It's a household brand, and there's not any guitar player — whether they play Fender or another brand — who doesn't have something special in their heart for Fender."

Leo Fender did not invent the electric guitar, but he developed solid-body designs that made it possible to mass produce quality instruments at affordable prices. His guitars and amplifiers helped revolutionize the sound and configuration of popular music in the postwar era when big bands were on the wane and rock 'n' roll was being born, and also were used by musicians exploring new directions in country, blues, R&B and jazz.

Thomas said that when he was tapped last year to take over as chief executive of Fender Musical Instruments Corp., whose corporate headquarters are in Scottsdale, Ariz., he assumed the factory in Corona was simply a place where assembly-line workers slapped finishing touches on products created overseas and shipped them out the door.

Instead, he found extensive handcrafting still going on at the company's California plant, located about 20 miles east of where Leo Fender started out in Fullerton in the 1930s. Corona also is home to the Fender Custom Shop, which has built up a strong business creating individually tailored guitars for high-profile professional clients such as Clapton, Brad Paisley and Prince as well as for amateurs who want something beyond what comes off the rack at a standard retail outlet.

Thomas decided it was about time the public could see the same thing that opened his eyes.

"I think it's great they've created a place where people can come in and put their hands on the instruments — it's very interactive," said Hendrix's sister Janie, who oversees her brother's legacy, into which Fender Stratocaster guitars figure prominently. She was another of the guests at the preview, where Buddy Guy, Raphael Saadiq and Dave Mason entertained invitees, including Leo Fender's widow, Phyllis Fender. "I really like the room where people can build their own guitars," Hendrix said. "It's a very nice touch."

Invited guests and visiting musicians have typically expressed enthusiasm at seeing the inner workings where planks of ash or maple are cut into the familiar shapes of the different Fender designs, where pickguards are stamped out of plastic, where and pickups are forged and wound. Customers might even get a glimpse of Abigail Ybarra, who was hired at Fender in 1956 and who still winds guitar pickups by hand the way she's been doing it for more than half a century.

"The best-case scenario is a year and a half from now, when you're tourist and you're in San Diego or Anaheim and you come out in the morning and look at that big [board] that says you can go to Sea World or Disneyland, that there's something that says 'Take the Fender Factory tour.' That's the best-case scenario: that some guy will say, 'We're going out to Corona today; I want to see the Fender factory.'"

randy.lewis@latimes.com

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