The Fender facility, comprised of two separate buildings just a short walk from each other, is located in Corona, Calif., which is 50 miles east of Los Angeles. Nestled in an office park just a few minutes off the 91 freeway, the structures are white and boxy and don’t outwardly suggest grandeur. But they’re a little like a plain guitar case: All the majesty is hidden inside.
The tour begins in the 8,600-square-foot visitor center, the walls of which boast a visual jukebox of photos of artists, their Fender guitars and cherished moments in time. Banners around the building bear the names of songs that feature a Fender instrument in them — everything from the Eagles’ “Hotel California” to the Temptations’ “My Girl” to “London Calling” by the Clash. The Fender name has always been associated with greatness, and it still is to this day.
“One of the reasons I wanted a [Fender] Stratocaster is because Buddy Guy had one on his album cover,” Vaughan remembers. “There was a picture of him with a sunburst Stratocaster on his album cover, and I wanted to be like Buddy Guy, so I went and got me one as soon as I could.”
Several hands-on attractions beckon throughout the space. Players can take any guitar in the house, plug it into any amp and dial up enough volume to register on the Richter scale. All the brands that Fender makes — most notably Gretsch, Jackson and Eddie Van Halen’s EVH line — are up for grabs. Four short films about the history of Fender show in another room. In the gallery off the main space, concert movies play on a big screen (during my visit, a Led Zeppelin film), which leads to occasional outbreaks of air-guitar spasms.
Glass cases hold shrines to Fender pioneers, like Freddie Tavares, an inventor, musician and all-around utility player for the company; he performed the glissando you hear in the Looney Tunes theme on a lap steel guitar. Musical artifacts as well as early stringed gems and electronic gadgets are on display around photos of Leo Fender and trusted staff members such as Don Randall, who came up with many of the product names like Telecaster, Stratocaster, Esquire and Champ. Replicas of celebrity-owned guitars with historic significance are also there to behold, including Eric Clapton’s “Blackie” Stratocaster, a white Strat played by Jimi Hendrix and Jeff Beck’s Esquire.
If seeing such wondrous axes leaves you feeling envious, take a trip to the American Design Experience room, where you can design your own custom guitar. For a starting price of $1,599, visitors can choose this neck, that body and these pickups to create their very own Frankenstrat — complete with a personalized nameplate on the back and a certificate of authenticity — that will be delivered in three weeks’ time.
With so much to do, see and play with at the visitor center, the experience can be a bit overwhelming for some. Dave Brown knows this firsthand. He is the visitor center’s manager and lone tour guide (although at the time of this writing, tour demand was so high that hiring a second guide was under consideration). Brown is a walking, talking, goatee-sporting hard drive crammed with every infinitesimal detail of guitar making. If he were any more attuned to the guitar, he’d have frets and strings.
“The visitor center is very eye-opening to most people who take the tour,” he says. “For some it’s more like a religious experience.”