Fender's guitar factory now plays to audience

CORONA, Calif. — It's taken 65 years, but guitar-loving kids finally are being allowed into the candy store.

In a move designed to amplify the emotional connection between music fans and iconic instruments created at the Fender guitar factory in Corona, the company's new chief executive, Larry Thomas, has opened the factory for tours along with a new visitor center he hopes will turn the facility into a major tourist destination.

"I'm a musician and a guitar player ... so I can relate from the heart and the gut level what Fender is all about," Thomas, the former chairman of the Guitar Center retail chain, said last week during a preview of the new 8,600-square-foot facility where guitar heroes, including Rancid's Tim Armstrong, Guns N' Roses/Loaded guitarist Duff McKagan, Velvet Revolver's Dave Kushner and Rob Zombie associate John 5, poked around various displays. "When they recruited me to come aboard," Thomas said, "first of all, I couldn't believe what they still did at the factory, and second of all, I couldn't believe they could build products made in America and sell them at a profit for dealers and the factory," he said. "I'm not that bright, but I figured I've just got to tell the world about it."

The visitor center, which opened Monday, encompasses a modest museum with exhibits on Fender legends such as Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Jeff Beck. Visitors also will encounter a salute to the company's founder, electric guitar innovator Leo Fender, on their way into a showroom filled with guitar equipment, accessories and memorabilia, as well as a room where potential customers can create their own customized guitar on the spot.

Ringing the room are the titles of songs that were recorded with Fender products, running chronologically from seminal '50s hits such as Johnny Cash's "I Walk the Line," Buddy Holly's "Peggy Sue" and Dale Hawkins' "Suzy Q" through '60s, '70s and '80s rock classics, including the Beach Boys' "Surfin' U.S.A.," the Doors' "Light My Fire," Derek & the Dominos "Layla" and U2's "Where the Streets Have No Name," to more recent material such as the Red Hot Chili Peppers' "Scar Tissue" and Coldplay's "The Scientist."

In addition, free guided tours through the massive factory where Fender still turns out thousands of its signature Telecasters, Stratocasters, Precision Bass instruments, amplifiers and other equipment will be offered to the public for the first time in the company's 65-year history. Gibson Guitars, one of Fender's chief competitors, has long offered tours of its factory in Memphis, Tenn. "As a brand, (Fender) is a part of all of us who are musicians," Thomas said. "It's a household brand, and there's not any guitar player — whether they play Fender or another brand — who doesn't have something special in their heart for Fender."

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