Photos by Robert Knight.
Fender Celebrates the New Visitor Center
By Chrissy Mauck, Posted on Monday, September 19
A private two-day grand-opening celebration of the new Fender Visitor Center in Corona, Calif., culminated on Thursday night with outstanding performances by the Dave Mason Trio, Raphael Saadiq and the legendary, mischievous and always amazing Buddy Guy.
With a gleam in his eye, Guy played the first few notes of “Hoochie Coochie Man”; quickly stopping, however, to admonish a photographer who prematurely shouted out an incorrect lyric.
“This is for Fender; I’m not going to let you f—k up that song,” he said.
Guy went on to own the blues standard and the audience, masterfully working his Strat with his nimble fingers and, at times even, his chest.
And although he told the appreciate audience, “You’re getting me so funky I could be here all night,” Guy had other plans in mind. To close out his set, the 75-year-old Fender signature artist welcomed 12-year-old guitar prodigy Quinn Sullivan and up-and-coming female guitarist Hayley McLean onstage. The three traded Jimi Hendrix riffs in a poignant demonstration of what the new Visitor Center is all about — honoring the past and celebrating the future.
The 8,600-square-foot Visitor Center, located near Fender’s historical Southern California birthplace, features museum-quality exhibits with interactive displays of modern Fender musical products, historic instruments, rare photographs and artifacts, a tribute to Leo Fender, the Fender Hall of Fame, video presentations on the evolution of the electric guitar (including rare archival footage), and displays presenting reflections on Fender by musicians throughout the history of modern music.
For instance, guests are immediately greeted with an entrance lined on one side with Fender Hall of Fame plaques honoring the company’s key innovators and musicians — from Leo Fender to Don Randall and James Jamerson to Jimi Hendrix; on the other, a glass case encases signature guitars of Fender legends from Guy to Stevie Ray Vaughan to Buddy Holly to Kurt Cobain.
The main room includes a retail shop where visitors can browse and purchase Fender apparel, accessories, collectibles and other items, and then tour a floor filled with overwhelming displays on important figures such as Leo Fender and Fender artists including surf guitar king Dick Dale; punks and post-punks such as the Clash, Chrissie Hynde, Green Day and Blink-182; country artists such as Vince Gill and Keith Urban; and classic rock stars such as Bruce Springsteen, Keith Richards and David Gilmour.
“I think the Fender Visitor Center is probably the most rocking visitor’s center on the planet, and there’s a little bit of something for everyone here,” said Raining Jane bassist Becky Gebhardt. “I think it might blow a lot of minds and hearts, and it’s just great to be here and feel the love of the Fender family.”
|Raphael Saadiq performing at the Fender Visitor Center.|
Leo Fender’s wife, Phyllis Fender, was on hand both nights to speak about her late husband’s far-reaching legacy.
Those guitars that went out the door were his children,” she said to an audience that included Fender artists Duff McKagan, Tony Franklin, Meg and Dia Frampton, Hunter Burgan (AFI), Tim Armstrong (Rancid), Chris Pontius (Jackass), Monte Pittman, Tommy Ratliff, Jenni Tarma,Eva Gardner, John 5, Jimmy Vivino and others. “He dreamed constantly of what could make your music better.”
A roster of Fender’s musical soundtrack is on display at the center, too; high upon the walls of the main room are the names of hundreds of famous songs recorded with Fender guitars, basses or amps, appearing by year: “Good Vibrations,” “Respect,” “Ring of Fire,” “My Girl,” “Stairway to Heaven,” “Layla,” “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” and a great many others.
“They are all great songs of different styles and genres,” remarked Fender Musical Instruments Corp. CEO Larry Thomas shortly after the Wednesday evening ribbon-cutting ceremony with Corona city officials. “That to us demonstrates the involvement that Fender has had within the fabric of popular music and culture.”
|Here’s Steve Miller in the sound room.|
The center also boasts a sound room where guests can plug in and test a variety of FMIC instruments — from Fender to Jackson® to Charvel®, Guild® and Gretsch®. There’s also the “wood vault,” where visitors can design and purchase their very own Fender American Design instrument.
Both these rooms proved hugely popular with Steve Miller, who performed Wednesday night with Fender Center Kids Rock Free band the Igniters. Afterward, Miller jammed for nearly an hour in the sound room, riffing on his first-ever Jazzmaster® before popping next door to the American Design Experience — where the smell of wood and sawdust reigns — and picking out his preferred neck, body and electronics.
“This might be the most innovative thing Fender has come up with in 50 years,” said Miller.
Noted guitar author and historian Tom Wheeler, who has written several highly acclaimed books about Fender, also spoke about the design experience.
“It’s a dream come true,” Wheeler said. “’What if?’ That’s the question. What If I could have this body and that neck but with these kind of pickups, but it has that kind of hand tremolo and chrome hardware, or gold hardware? They can do it right there. So you can literally make your dream come true. You can try all the necks, pick out your body and the circuitry, and they’ll put it together for you. That’s a dream machine right there.”
In addition to Miller and the Igniters, Wednesday night’s all-employee celebration also featured performances by Slacktone, Grammy winners Los Lobos and Delta Spirit frontman Matt Vasquez, who played a few songs before introducing his grandmother, Irene Vasquez, who was one of Leo Fender’s first employees.
|Los Lobos performing at the Fender Visitor Center.|
“He was just so special,” she remarked before sharing a few personal recollections of Leo Fender’s generosity, genius and attention to detail. “I absolutely believed in him. We knew he was going to go far.”
Leo Fender’s genius and craftsmanship still continue at Fender, and for the first time in the company’s 65-year history, Fender is now opening its doors to the public for a fascinating up-close look at the manufacturing processes for its iconic instruments and amplifiers.
“It’s a big step,” said Sergio Villanueva, Fender’s senior vice president of global manufacturing. “This has been a proprietary, closed factory for all the decades that it’s been here. So we are going to be very proud to show the world what we do.”
The Visitor Center will serve as the launch point for the free public tours of the adjacent manufacturing facility, allowing guests to watch as Fender staff in the Wood Mill, Metal Shop, Final Assembly and other areas practice their craft. Visitors will see actual instruments and amps take shape at each stage in their production.
“I think our visitors across the scale will be impressed with the amount of manual labor we have in our product,” said Villanueva. “I think there is a perception that it is very automated and that things are stamped out and pushed forward. I think what they’ll see, to their surprise, is so many aspects of hand-made parts.”
The Fender Visitor Center opens to the public on Monday, Sept. 19. For hours and additional information, click here.
Special thanks to the City of Corona, and to Fender historians Richard Smith, Dan Smith and Tom Wheeler for contributing special remarks during both nights of the celebration.
Enjoy photos from the Visitor Center’s Grand Opening celebrations below.