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Michael Hiltzik: California and the history of Fender guitars

November 11, 2009 |  2:36 pm

One can while away the hours debating what is California's best-known export. The avocado? The microprocessor? The Real Housewives of Orange County?

As my column for Thursday suggests, the Fender electric guitar deserves pride of place in this roster for its enduring position in the market for musical instruments. Leo Fender built the first model in the mid-1940s in his Fullerton workshop, precursor to the company's current facility in Corona.

Since then the company had had its ups and downs, including a 20-year stretch under the ownership of CBS Inc., but its executives today say they're in California to stay. Fender isn't immune to the travails that other California manufacturers complain about, including high costs and expansive regulations, but its executives say the state has compensating virtues for the firm -- a link to its history, a cachet all its own, and trained, loyal workers.

The column begins below.

The sound of California business success came to my ears the moment I stepped through the door of Fender Musical Instruments Corp.’s 3-acre manufacturing plant in Corona.

It reached me as riffs and scales on electric guitar, audible over the thud of metal stamping and the grind of band saws that one might customarily hear on a factory floor.

But this is no ordinary plant. The last step in Fender’s quality-control process requires an experienced musician to play every note on a finished guitar, listening for a stray vibration or tuning flaw to be corrected before any model, including the American Standard Stratocaster that is the plant’s bread and butter, reaches a dealer.

Fender’s Corona shop is a testament to how U.S. manufacturing -- California manufacturing, especially -- can survive in a world where even complex products such as microprocessors can be turned out by the millions by unskilled laborers overseas.

The secret is to marry assembly-line efficiency and hand-tooled precision. Much of Fender’s manufacturing process, including the rough cutting of the guitar body and the stamping of the metal parts (some still based on dies cut personally by Leo Fender, the company’s founder), is at least partially automated. But there’s no substitute for the hand-finishing, polishing and tuning of the hundreds of American Standard Stratocasters and Telecasters, along with other high-end guitars, produced each day by a workforce of 600 in Corona.

Read the whole column.

-- Michael Hiltzik