CORONA -- You come to the Fender guitar factory not on a whim, not some mere impulse stop along the Riverside Freeway on your way to Disneyland or other tourist hotspots.
No, you must be supremely motivated and driven. You must think yourself (or at least fantasize) a hard-core axeman, a shredder extraordinaire. You must rock. Rawk, rather.
That is to say, this place is not easy to find and needs patience and persistence. This temple of guitar gods sits amid the strip-mall, split-level-home, light-industrial blight of an entirely bland bedroom community, tucked into a miasma of concrete and steel office-park buildings, with the drone of freeway traffic ever present. Make one wrong turn, and you’re at a water treatment sewage plant.
But once you step foot inside the visitors center, which is only about a “Stairway to Heaven” Jimmy Page solo walk from the factory itself, you know that any hardship on the road to Corona is worth the effort. If you are a guitar player, or even just pretend to be in front of the bedroom mirror, it is sacred ground.
“That,” said tourist David Dale, of New Orleans, staring at Jimi Hendrix’s iconic white Stratocaster encased in plexiglass, “is the Holy Grail of guitars.”
Those around him nodded, solemn, pious, reverent.
“Awesome,” added Paul Fahey, from Edmonton, Canada.
Know what you’re thinking: It’s just a musical instrument, dude, and a fairly working-class one at that. We’re talking Stratocasters, not priceless Stradivarius violins. It’s just six strings and a slab of shaped alder or ash, not a biblical shofar, so don’t go worshipping false idols.
But you don’t understand. To these guys – and they were all guys waiting for the 45-minute factory tour on this morning, most tipping the far edge of middle age – the Fender name holds the same gravitas and grandeur as Harley Davidson does to bikers and Chateau Lafite Rothschild does to wine connoisseurs.
“Being here today is like a dream come true,” said Francisco Felix, 60, of Philadelphia. “It took me 50 years to get here. I’m serious. I’m originally from Puerto Rico, and I’ve been in places where guitars are made. But it was like, wow, wouldn’t it be great to go to Fender guitars someday?”
“It’s a pilgrimage,” Fahey added. When his questioner looked at him quizzically, he elaborated: “Why am I here? Fender is huge. It’s the guitar maker. I’ve got a lot of people back home upset with me that I’m here and they’re not. It’s about coming home, seeing where the electric guitar pretty much started.”
Though Leo Fender didn’t invent the electric guitar (the Rickenbacker family claims that distinction), for nearly 70 years his company namesake has provided the equipment that has launched a zillion Zippo-lighter guitar solo moments at concerts worldwide.
Just take a quick look around the visitors center: Guitars used by Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Buddy Holly, Kurt Cobain, Pete Townsend and Keith Richards are mounted and backlit, with oversized picks giving historical context for those who may not be as encyclopedic in their guitar knowledge as those present on this day.
As a half-dozen people waited for the factory tour to begin – a video of Buddy Guy jamming with the Stones serving as background music – smartphones were whipped out to take shots of classic images.
A reproduction of Hendrix’s guitar (white with embroidered blue flowers and red hearts) that he used and abused as the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival bore the legend “A Strat That Shook the World.” Why a reproduction? How naive of you to ask: That was the concert in which Hendrix doused his Fender with lighter fluid after a cover of “Wild Thing” and set it on fire before tossing the smoldering embers into the crowd.
Not far away stands a reproduction of Bob Dylan’s first electric guitar, a classic three-color sunburst, just like the one he used in public for the first time at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. (The original, it’s said, was stolen from Dylan’s airplane seat after the gig.)
Bass players, always an afterthought, get a nod, too. Fahey, the Canadian tourist, was smitten with a bass on display from Rush’s Geddy Lee.
“I’m a huge Geddy fan,” he said. “But I’m more excited to see how they’re built, understand the process and the materials, how they get the sounds and nuances and the feel.”
As excited as the tour group was to see the inner workings of the factory, their enthusiasm couldn’t surmount that of guide David Brown, who was nearly squealing like a wah-wah pedal as he showed off the metal shop, where pick guards and neck and back plate are forged and pressed, to the wood shop where heavy alder planks become the bodies and handsome hard-rock maple is shaped into necks, to the paint shop, where the wood cures for 10 days before being coated with polyurethane and then hand painted and buffed. Conversely, there are “heavy relics,” guitars purposely “distressed” with rubbed off paint and chips in the wood – “costs more, but popular with the kids today,” Brown said.
“It takes four weeks to complete the process,” Brown added, “from wood to finished product. We do about 400 guitars a day.”
He is quick to mention, though, that this is no assembly line. The workers seen bent over tables installing three-ply pick guards or cutting fret slots are artisans who can, if called upon, make custom guitars to satisfy any rock god’s whim – like the $100,000 gold-plated Stratocaster Prince commissioned a few years ago.
Some of the workers have been plying their trade for decades. Guitar gods such as Clapton and Eddie Van Halen often stop by and ask for a specific assembler by name who makes special models costing five figures. Sometimes, even reproductions of guitars used by the legends sell out. Fender, for instance, made 100 copies of Swedish shredder Yngwie Malmstein’s “distressed” model 1971 Stratocaster, right down to the teeth marks on the body. All 100 sold. Price: $12,500 each.
Brown is loaded with Fender lore, and the group hangs on his every word. When he points to a metal contraption behind the group in the metal shop and said, “Every Strat we’ve ever made has been made from that same dye set right there,” photos clicked off like paparazzi hounding a starlet. He also quizzed the group, many of which knew that an 11-screw pick guard was a Fender made in the 1960s, an eight-screw from the ’50s. The veneration reached its apex when Brown gave the group a sneak peek at a soon-to-be-released gold hardware Stratocaster.
“She’s a beauty,” Brown said. “You all know, right, that all guitars are known as ‘she?’ ”
Of course they do. What do they look like, newbies? No, these are people, after all, who found their way to Corona to appreciate a finely sculpted body.
Call The Bee’s Sam McManis, (916) 321-1145. Follow him on Twitter @SamMcManis