The company’s stature is made clear when you walk the company’s grounds. After finishing up in the visitor center, guests are led to the factory. Walking through it and seeing the creation process highlights the meticulous work and care that one might ordinarily associate with an obsessive artisan in a private workshop rather than a company capable of mass production.
Visitors are taken through the lumber room, where watchful eyes are always on the humidity gauge. They are then led through the areas where the wood is cut and sanded. Nearby, stately metal presses churn out bridges and other parts, grooves for frets are cut into necks on a one-of-a-kind machine and then pressed into place, and paint is applied. Hanging from the ceiling are thousands of colored guitar bodies undergoing the curing process. And finally, the payoff: racks upon racks of finished Fender guitars, ready to be boxed and shipped to Fender’s own distribution center in Ontario, Calif., and from there to retail stores.
But the true pièce de résistance is saved for last. In a secret chamber inside the factory’s inner sanctum lies the custom shop, where we watch as specialists toil on instruments with unique and sometimes odd color, shape and mechanical specifications for artists like Clapton, John Mayer, Jimmie Vaughan, Jeff Beck, Mark Knopfler and many others. Here we see a rare “White Chicken” — Fender’s answer to Gretsch’s lionized White Falcon — that sells for a hefty $25,000. Abigail Ybarra, a longtime Fender craftswoman who has been with the company since 1956 and whose hand-wound pickups are still in demand by elite players for about $300 to $500 each, is a custom-shop fixture.
On the way out, visitors can peruse the selection of T-shirts, coffee mugs, guitar strings and other merchandise in the gift shop, and they’re welcome to linger in the visitor center long past their tour — and many do. After all, it’s a lot like your favorite music-equipment store, just with a wider selection — and a higher chance of bumping into a guitar legend as he or she pays homage to a favorite brand.
Like, say, blues maestro G.E. Smith. The lead guitarist for Hall & Oates and Saturday Night Live’s longtime musical director recently visited the Fender facility and described it as “pretty much what Leo Fender? envisioned in the late ’40s: real people making great guitars, just on a much larger scale.” Smith has his own Telecaster named after him among Fender’s “Artist Series” — tribute models made to the specifications of each noted player — which also includes names like Clapton, Beck, both Jimmie and Stevie Ray Vaughan, Eric Johnson, Yngwie Malmsteen, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, James Burton, Kurt Cobain and others. Naturally, Smith says he owes much of his success to the number-one name in guitars. “If I hadn’t gotten that Fender Telecaster when I was a kid,” he says, “I wouldn’t be me.”