All of this is probably much more than Leo Fender? could have ever envisioned when he began tinkering with radios in the 1930s. An interest in amplifiers led him to guitars, and he eventually established the Fender Electric Instrument Manufacturing Company at its original location in Fullerton, Calif. (The company headquarters moved to Scottsdale, Ariz., in 1991 after being bought out by former Yamaha executive William Schultz, who changed the company name to the Fender Musical Instruments Corporation; they moved again to their current Scottsdale location this past February.)
The company’s legacy is built on the creation of the Telecaster in 1951, which had innovations like a detachable neck and simple controls. But more important, it became the first mass-produced, solid-body electric guitar. That same year, Fender and his merry band of wire-happy wizards went on to create the Precision Bass, the world’s first electric bass guitar, as well as the Stratocaster (1954), the Jazzmaster (1958) and the Twin Reverb amplifier (1963). Not bad for a man who was tone deaf and didn’t understand the rock ’n’ roll craze.
Larry Thomas was keenly aware of every Fender product before he took over as CEO of the company almost two years ago. A dedicated ax wielder himself, Thomas was a Guitar Center executive for 30 years who, after retiring, was lured to Fender to be a board member and was eventually coaxed into playing ?lead. Opening the factory to the public and creating a visitor center were his ideas, although competitors like Martin and Gibson have offered such access for some time.
“Once I became CEO, I went to the factory on my own time, without guides, and walked around,” Thomas says. “The factory had been closed to the public forever. You had to be someone special to get in there. I had always assumed it was an assembly house — that Fender outsourced all the parts and just bolted them on. But when I walked through, I was blown away to see that the guitars were being made the same way they were as in the time of Leo.”
Thomas acted quickly, instructing the board, “This is a story we need to be telling.” Fender bought out the tenants in a neighboring building to create the visitor center. And when it came time for the grand opening last September, Thomas made sure the factory workers were there for more than just sanding and polishing.
“People were very shy when I first started going there,” he recalls of his early visits to the factory. “They were timid and kept their heads down. I started living in the factory. The first night we opened the visitor center — we had around 1,500 to 1,600 people — we told the workers to invite their families to see the kind of work they do. We brought in food trucks and had Los Lobos playing in the parking lot.
“Fender is everybody’s company,” he adds. “It is Americana.”