Not Made in the USA: Fender Stratocaster

By Justin Rohrlich  SEP 25, 2009 7:10 AM

No place says "classic rock" like Mexico.



Guitar aficionados might be surprised to learn that not every Fender guitar is lovingly crafted by American hands the way Jimi Hendrix's Stratocaster was. Many models by the iconic guitar manufacturer are now made in Japan and Mexico.

In the 1940s, California inventor Leo Fender decided to solve the problem of the hollow-bodied electric guitar. The empty interior made playing with other musicians problematic: Without amplification, the sound was drowned out. Add a pickup for amplification, and the guitar would feed back horribly.

Though Les Paul is widely credited with creating the world's first solid-body electric guitar, the Fender Esquire was the first commercially successful solid-body, thereby revolutionizing the guitar industry.

In a short amount of time, Fender became the industry standard and the company’s Telecaster and Stratocaster models were the choice of legends from Jimi Hendrix to Eric Clapton to Keith Richards and Bruce Springsteen.

In declining health, Leo Fender sold his company to CBS (CBS) in 1965 for $13 million. Fender sales tripled, but quality suffered.

In 1985, CBS divested itself of all non-media properties and a group of former Fender employees bought the company back. According to its website, Fender had to rebuild itself from scratch at that point, since no buildings or machinery were included in the sale. It repurchased just the name and intellectual property, along with "some leftover parts." A loyal group of Fender employees and supporters "set out to rebuild an American icon."

At first, the "new" Fender imported its guitars from overseas manufacturers that could deliver affordable, well-made instruments, but an "American icon" deserved to be manufactured in America. This, along with an eye on strict quality control, led to the construction of Fender’s flagship factory in Corona, California. The company's priciest, high-end guitars are built there.

To service the "value" portion of the market, a second manufacturing facility was opened in Ensenada, Mexico two years later. It subsequently opened facilities in Japan, Germany, and several other European countries.

The Ensenada facility turns out Fender’s popular “Road-Worn” line of guitars.

As the company points out to prospective buyers:

“The worn finish, dings, pockmarks, yellowed plastic parts -- even rust stains on the bridge saddles and springs -- all simulate proud battle scars that show this axe has proven itself in countless gigs, it’s as if you were playing Keef or Bruce’s favorite Tele, the Strat slung by Slowhand or Rory, the Jazz Bass that catapulted Jaco to legend, or the P Bass Sting used to pump up The Police. Each Road Worn electric guitar and bass is shipped in perfect playing condition though it wears the scars of life on the road. As with the battle-scarred favorite guitars of artists like Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Bruce Springsteen, Keith Richards, and Mike McCready, the distressed finishes and parts used in Road Worn instruments suggest countless gigs and years spent under hot stage lights. Fender steeps each of their five Road Worn models -- that include 2 Stratocaster® models, a Telecaster®, a Precision Bass®, and Jazz Bass®--with this soulful vibe."

However, the guitar's “soulful vibes” and “battle scars from countless gigs” actually come Mexican laborers, much like pre-weathered jeans haven’t really been to hell and back. They just look that way.

Making iconic American guitars in Mexico has proved successful for Fender. The Road Worn series was such a success, the Corona manufacturing facility decided to take things a step or three further with the Fender “Tribute Series," which actually goes so far as to duplicate the actual wear-and-tear found on your favorite artists’ guitars, via a “labor-intensive process of going ding-for-ding with these storied guitars.”

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