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Open for Visits: The Fender Visitor Center

One of the world’s biggest guitar makers opens its doors to the public for the first time ever with a new Visitor Center and factory tours—a symbol of the musician-friendly leadership new CEO Larry Thomas hopes to bring to the company.

“I’m the first musician to run Fender,” CEO Larry Thomas told me proudly after the cameras had stopped rolling on our private tour of the company’s new 8,600-square-foot Visitor Center. Though not quick to discuss himself—it was the first time he’d shifted focus from the new facility during our visit—it’s clear that leading Fender from a guitarist’s perspective is important to Thomas. And opening the Visitor Center and public factory tours was one of the first big projects on his radar. Thomas, who worked his way from salesman to CEO at Guitar Center prior to taking the reigns at Fender in 2010, told us that this is just the beginning. “We now have over 500 products in R&D … we’re working to get to market so much quicker than ever before,” he explained.

Though Thomas’ statements are resoundingly forward-looking, the company remains grounded in the legacy created by the past. This is evident in the Visitor Center, which serves as a tribute to the designers, luthiers, musicians, and songs that made Fender famous throughout the past 60 years.

The center opened on September 19, 2011, following two nights of grand opening celebrations. The first night was a party thrown for Fender’s employees and their families. More than 2,000 people attended—including Eddie Van Halen and Steve Miller—and enjoyed a night of live music headlined by Los Lobos. The second night was a sneak peek for media and VIPs. Fender players like John 5 and Duff McKagan mingled with guitar-industry notables like Phyllis Fender, Janie Hendrix, and Seymour Duncan, while Dave Mason, Raphael Saadiq, and Buddy Guy with 12-year-old protégé Quinn Sullivan provided the tunes. Fender even had a surprise preview of new Eric Clapton signature amps on hand.

Now that the center has opened to the public, visitors to Corona, California, can stop by any weekday, except Wednesday, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and take in the sights and sounds of Fender heritage with no admission charge. Every guitar hanging on the wall can be played in an amp-filled sound room, and visitors can even design their dream guitar and have it built in the very factory they tour. The factory tours, offered at 10 a.m. and 11:30 a.m., are also free, but visitors must be age 9 or older and be wearing closed-toe shoes to participate.

While we’ll have to wait and see what comes of Fender’s beefed-up R&D, the Visitor Center is here now—and it’s bound to become a Mecca for guitarists. Enjoy this look inside, then watch our video tour,guided by CEO Larry Thomas, along with a tour of the Fender amp factory (not open to the public) and demos of thenew Eric Clapton signature amps.

1. As you enter the Visitor Center, you are immediately greeted by a wall of Custom Shop replicas of some of the iconic instruments used by the musicians who put Fender on the map: Buddy Holly, Buddy Guy, Jeff Beck, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Ritchie Blackmore, David Gilmour, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Kurt Cobain.

2. Across from the Fender Legends entrance is the Fender Hall of Fame. Plaques pay tribute to the most influential people and bands in Fender’s history, including the company’s founders and notable company employees over the years. The white Strat in the center is signed by all of the living Hall of Fame members.

3. The Birthplace of Innovation wall displays photos of the early factory as well as informational tidbits. We particularly loved the lower-left photo of an employee demonstrating the strength of Fender necks by standing on one balanced between two chairs. In a small theater at the opposite corner of the facility, visitors can view a loop of four films that provide a closer look into the company’s early days and influence.

4. Immediately to the right of the main entrance is a tribute to Leo Fender encased in glass. It’s packed with early Fender-built instruments and candid photos of the man who built the company. (Inset) One of Leo’s first ever instruments, a lap steel baked in his oven.

5. Visitors to the center could spend all day trying out different guitar-amp combinations in the sound room, which is packed with nearly every guitar and bass amp Fender offers. There are a variety of Fender, Jackson, Charvel, Gretsch, and EVH models in the room (including some lefty versions!), but visitors can bring any of the display guitars in for a test drive as well.

6. For anyone who has wished they could customize every option to create their dream Fender, the company has answered that request with the American Design Experience. Inside, visitors can feel and choose different neck shapes and wood configurations, see a wide variety of finish options, and select the pickup-pickguard-switching configuration of their choice. The guitars are ordered right then and there, put into production, and delivered to the buyer’s home in less than a month. The flame maple Tele on the bench serves as one of the examples of what can be ordered.

1. The farthest wall of guitars features examples from Fender’s many American series—along with explanations of the difference between American Vintage, American Standard, American Deluxe, and American Special lines—and photos and posters representing associated musicians. The top third of every wall lists songs written or recorded with Fender instruments, from the early days of rock onward.

2. There are a few displays of Fender signature artist models, which, like every guitar not encased in glass, can be picked up and played by visitors. This wall features John Mayer, Robert Cray, Eric Johnson, and Jimmie Vaughan Strats, a GE Smith Tele, a Sting Precision Bass, and a Roger Waters Jazz Bass. Jeff Beck, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Mark Knopfler instruments are in the glass display case.

3. In addition to the signature models hanging on the walls, the main floor has standing displays for artists in all genres, like this tribute to The Boss. Fender amps are also on display throughout the main floor, with playable versions in the sound room.

4. Previewed first at the Fender Visitor Center events, this 5-watt Eric Clapton Vibro-Champ is one of three new amps bearing Slowhand’s stamp of approval. The line features the 12-watt Tremolux and the 40- watt Twinolux. All three are handwired and feature tube-bias tremolo circuits and a switchable power attenuator, per Clapton’s request.

5. The EVH brand has Wolfgang guitars on display, in addition to this painstaking replica of Eddie’s most famous axe. The 2007 Custom Shop replica has every detail, down to the year of the quarter and the loosely hanging trem bar.

6. The Visitors Center does not limit the displays to Fender instruments. Also included are displays of the other brands under the Fender Musical Instrument Corporation banner, like this wall of Jacksons. The models on display include production and artist signature models, as well as Custom Shop renditions like the replica of Randy Rhoads’ Concorde V.

7. Of course, if visitors want to leave the center with something to remember the trip by (and can’t afford that dream guitar just yet), Fender has plenty of swag to choose from. Shirts, books, art, strings, cables, and other accessories are among the items visitors can take home with them.