With the electric guitar in full revival thanks to the pandemic, the mythical Fender brand is reviving the glory days of rock and roll stars. Taking advantage of free time during lockdown, many Americans discovered their passion for the classic six-string.
CORONA — Kurt Cobain died 28 years ago, but you can still buy his favorite guitar. To mark the 30th anniversary of Nirvana’s classic album “Nevermind” last year, Fender reissued the so-called Jag-Stang. Fender invented the instrument in 1994 at Cobain's request by combining two different electric guitars, the Jaguar and the Mustang.
Or do you prefer The Pretenders to Nirvana? A brand new replica of lead singer and guitarist Chrissie Hynde's light blue 1965 Telecaster is also available. And if you still admire Eric Clapton (in spite of his anti-vaccine statements), you should know that his black Stratocaster, nicknamed "Blackie," is still made in Fender's California factory.
Founded in 1946 — also the year David Gilmour (Pink Floyd), Robert Fripp (King Crimson) and Robby Krieger (The Doors) were born — Fender Musical Instruments Corporation has just celebrated its 75th anniversary in an impressive shape. Its sales increased by 30% last year, and the turnover of the first American manufacturer of musical instruments should exceed $800 million for the first time in its history. Another sign that its products are in demand: the company raised its prices by an average of 10% last year.
Fender, like its historical rival Gibson, is facing a phenomenon that has taken observers by surprise: guitars, and in particular electric guitars, are back in fashion. Just five years ago, in a long and depressing article illustrated by the image of a Stratocaster consumed by flames, the Washington Post announced the "slow, secret death of the six-string electric." The author pointed out the steady decline in sales and the younger generation’s lack of interest. Instead, the last two years have seen a spectacular resurrection.
“For the past decade, the number of new guitars sold in the U.S. has been just under three million per year," says Brian Majeski, head of market research firm Music Trades. “For 2021, the figure is expected to be between 3.5 and 3.8 million. And that would have been even better without the shortages and logistical issues."
Soaring guitar sales
The main reason for the turnaround? The pandemic. In the spring of 2020, lockdown pushed thousands of Americans — and especially American women — to learn an instrument. Guitar sales soared and remained at a very high level in 2021.
"A lot of people are still telecommuting, spending less time in transit, going to restaurants, concerts or stadiums,” says Majeski. “That leaves them with time and money to play an instrument.”
Fender, which makes its electric guitars in California and Mexico, has benefited greatly from this return to favor. Closed in the spring of 2020 during the first wave of COVID-19, its factory in Corona, in the suburbs of Los Angeles, has since found its cruising speed. Nearly a thousand guitars are made here every day in a huge carpentry shop with a deafening noise. Everything is done on site, from drying the wood planks to making the electronic components and painting them.
Ramon Vega, production manager of the Custom Shop, which makes the most expensive models, says, “Producing a standard guitar takes about a month, half of which is spent on woodworking alone. For a custom guitar, it can take anywhere from 45 days to three months."
if Fender plays the nostalgia card, the company also claims an image of innovation
Most of the six-strings that come out of the California factory are based on the classic designs invented by Leo Fender in the mid-20th century. A self-taught engineer with a passion for electronics, Clarence Leonidas Fender (1909-1991) began his career in 1938 by opening a radio repair store in Fullerton, 50 miles southeast of Hollywood. Fender was not a guitarist, but he spent a lot of time with local musicians for whom he began building microphones and amplifiers.
At the time, bands were discovering electrification, and the first electric guitars, made of wood or metal, were based on the design of acoustic guitars. Soon, music became the main activity of Leo Fender's store, which he renamed in 1946 Fender Electric Instrument Co.
Along with a few pioneers, including the jazz and blues guitarist Les Paul, a star of the 1950s, Fender helped to create a new type of guitar. Instead of the hollow body of an acoustic guitar, through which sound resonates, Fender and Les Paul experimented with a solid body. It was originally a simple wooden board.
The sound of the metal strings, amplified directly by a row of electromagnetic sensors, came out much purer and the volume could be pushed to the maximum without risk of feedback.
Lockdown pushed thousands of Americans to learn an instrument
The origins of rock and roll
Fender was not the only one working on solid body guitars, but he was the first to industrialize manufacturing. He started with the Esquire, invented in 1949 and modified two years later to become the first best-selling electric guitar: the Fender Telecaster.
Fender’s Executive Vice President Justin Norvell recalls, “At the first trade show where Leo Fender introduced his guitars, people said they looked like they were from another planet, that no one would buy them. But it coincided with the spirit of the times. A new generation was looking for something new to create a sound and an image, and that gave birth to rock 'n' roll."
In 1954, Fender released a second model, the Stratocaster, with a more rounded shape. Rocking a “Strat,” the young Buddy Holly appeared on “The Ed Sullivan Show” in 1957. As for Les Paul, it was in collaboration with the competitor Gibson that he released a solid body guitar with his name in 1952.
Craig Inciardi, curator of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio, says that one of Fender's strengths was the sound of their early guitars, which was very distinctive.
“When you listen to recordings from the 1950s or 1960s, by Buddy Holly or the Beach Boys, for example, you immediately identify the sound of a Fender," says Inciardi.
Another distinguishing feature was that Fender's look was more modern than those of American luthiers like Gibson and Gretsch, which had been making acoustic guitars for decades.
Inciardi says, "Fender took the style, spirit and color of cars and adapted it to his instruments. He used the same paints that car manufacturers use, which was a very good idea."
And according to Inciardi, Fender was one of the first to opt for an industrial approach in a market that had been dominated by craftsmen: "Fender guitars were designed to be mass-produced and therefore relatively affordable. But, at the same time, they were of high quality: the design, the workmanship, the sound were excellent."
Seventy years later, the Corona factory still uses some of the machines Leo Fender bought, "some of which were used to make Jimi Hendrix's guitars," says Executive Vice President Norvel. The founder, believing himself to have an incurable disease, sold the company in 1965, but his shadow looms over the brand's catalog. Stratocasters and Telecasters still make up the bulk of the production, along with other classics designed by Fender, such as the Jazzmaster (1958), the Jaguar (1962) and the Mustang (1964).
Most of the models are listed in three versions. The entry-level models (under $500), made under the Squier brand, are outsourced to China and Indonesia. The mid-range (between $500 and $1,500) comes from Mexico, where Fender opened a factory in 1987 in Ensenada, less than 200 miles south of Los Angeles.
The Corona factory supplies the most expensive guitars. The majority are mass-produced, but a special, more artisanal production line is reserved for the 60 or so custom guitars that leave the factory each day.
"All the people who work in this part have at least 20 years of experience in the factory," says production manager Vega.
The younger generation still loves music from 50 years ago
From the first cut to shipping, these models are accompanied by an individual sheet, called a Traveler, with every specification. Part of the workshop is dedicated to artificial aging, simulating the ravages of time. A 1956 Stratocaster can be requested in a "new old" version, as if it had just come out of the factory, "closet classic," a little old but very well maintained, or "heavy relic," with the traces of wear and scars from years of playing in bars and concert halls.
"We use pieces of metal to pound the wood, and sand to scratch the paint,” says Vega. “We also have different chemical processes to make the metal look aged or rusty, and we can make stickers the old-fashioned way."
But if Fender plays the nostalgia card, the company also claims an image of innovation.
“People often think that Stratocasters or Telecasters haven't changed since the beginning, but in fact, they've evolved over time," says Norvell. “It's a design principle we call 'coloring within the lines.’ We don't innovate for the sake of innovating, and the changes have to be subtle."
The modernity is much more visible on the amplifier side. The latest models can be connected to a computer's USB port and they incorporate digital cards to generate effects inspired by the sound of the Police, Pink Floyd or U2.
Last year, Fender released the Mustang Micro, a matchbox-sized amp designed to be connected to headphones, a tablet or a wireless speaker. The group also just acquired Presonus, a home studio specialist, which provides software and recording equipment (microphones, mixing boards, etc.) to amateur and professional musicians.
Leo Fender and early guitar models at the Fender Guitar Factory Museum
Appealing to female guitarists
Under its new CEO, Andy Mooney, a Nike and Disney alumnus who arrived in 2015, the group began its shift toward data and entertainment. In 2017, based on the realization that 90% of new guitar buyers abandoned their instrument after a year, it launched a video guitar lesson offering, Fender Play.
The lessons, in the form of short modules, showcase the full range of guitars in the lineup and are often presented by women. This demographic is usually overlooked by music stores, but according to Fender's figures, it accounts for nearly one in two buyers.
In the spring of 2020, when America was largely confined, the company made Fender Play available for free for three months. It was a hit: nearly one million people signed up, and 250,000 followed up with a paid subscription.
In an interview with Business Insider, Mooney said, “What we really learned from the pandemic is that now that people have more time to invest in themselves, learning music, guitar in particular, it's just a fundamentally good investment of their time and self-development, or relaxation, mental health.”
The internet is also a good way to teach guitar to boys and girls who could be the grandchildren of Keith Richards or Patti Smith, and who do not hesitate to film their first solos for Instagram stories or Tik Tok videos.
"The younger generation still loves music from 50 years ago," says Craig Inciardi of the Rock'n'Roll Hall of Fame. “Artists like Pink Floyd, The Beatles or Queen still top the charts in music sales and streaming. Young people are rediscovering these bands and looking for the same kind of instruments."
At the same time, Fender is partnering with current teen icons like Billie Eilish — a ukulele with her name on it was released in 2020 — and her songwriter brother Finneas is one of the brand's ambassadors. Mixing nostalgia and technology, legendary models and online lessons, Fender is doing everything it can to appeal to this new wave of guitarists.
“We don't spend our time looking in the rearview mirror; we continue to innovate and invent new things," says Norvell. “But ultimately, it's about inspiring the people who will write the next 'Smells Like Teen Spirit.’”