In 1948, an aspiring Toronto restaurateur named Joe Brown opened his dream dining and dancing establishment at the top of Spadina Avenue. He named it after his favorite haunt, Mocambo, in California. Brown hung an imposing 22-foot sign off the front of the building — a giant palm tree with the neon-lit letters of “El Mocambo” beneath the cascading white lights of its moonlit leaves.
A couple of decades (and several changes in ownership) later, the El Mocambo was converted into a rock ‘n’ roll venue, and it wasn’t long before the neon palm became a beacon for musicians and music lovers the world over. The El Mocambo was the place to play in Toronto, if not Canada. For many up-and-coming acts, landing a gig “under the neon palms'' was a sure sign that you’d arrived.
Few venues can lay claim to such an illustrious past, and even fewer are still in operation. The El Mocambo is something of a living legend.
One of the patrons that experienced this historic venue was Fender Principal Master Builder Ron Thorn.
The Toronto native was in attendance for several of El Mocambo’s most prestigious shows, including Edgar Winter and Jeff Healey. That’s why when the opportunity to create a series of instruments with wood from the Mocambo came around, he jumped.
“It’s a great history for rock, especially Canadian acts,” he said. “It’s a great venue to be a part of and play.”
The limited-edition El Mocambo Stratocaster and Telecaster are built from timbers taken directly from the rafters and floor joints that have recently been refurbished. These are the boards tread by the likes of Ronnie Hawkins, Elvis Costello (who recorded his acclaimed live album, Live at the El Mocambo), The Cars (who released an album of the same name), U2, Hall and Oates and countless more luminaries.
Clearly, the spirits that were embedded in this wood inspired Thorn.
“When this project came up, it was a gift,” he said. “I had to do it.”
Thorn thought about adding a yellow-and-green paint scheme to the guitars, but after seeing the timbers, he thought he’d let the grain do the talking for him, aesthetically speaking.
“Once we got into the lumber and just how much character there was in it, it just seemed like a shame to cover that up,” he said. “We don’t need any color, it’s just beautiful exactly how it is.”
But he also paid homage to the vibe of the eral with hand-wound ‘60s-era pickups from the Custom Shop’s venerable Josefina Campos, African blackwood fretboards and quartersawn canadian maple necks, and gold mother-of-pearl inlays — complete with a palm tree in the fretboard.
“These are definite rock guitars,” Thorn said. “They’re special guitars. And where the timber has been for the last 80 years, it just makes it a little extra special.”
For the Canadian Thorn, who has helmed innumerable Custom Shop projects over the years, basing one off one of his favorite clubs was a thrill.
“I still feel like it’s even more a part of me than anything I've built here so far,” he said. “But I’m proud and extremely proud of the instruments, too.”
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