Someone broke into Mike Dirnt’s home when he was 15, stealing the young punk rocker’s guitars. Luckily Dirnt's bass was over at friend Billie Joe Armstrong’s house. “That sealed the deal. I was now a bass player for good,” Dirnt recalls now.
Almost 30 years and millions of Green Day albums sold later, Dirnt has his own signature Fender Road Worn Precision Bass model. Dirnt worked with Fender for two years on the design of the bass, which launched in 2013.
And when Green Day plays their sold-out Oct. 17 Hollywood Palladium show, it will be easier than ever for Dirnt, who resides in Oakland, to meet with Fender artist relations and product developers. The iconic music instrument company’s new offices, at 1525 and 1575 North Gower Street, are a block away from the Palladium. The company will also maintain its Scottsdale, Ariz., offices, a small artists relations office in Burbank, and a manufacturing facility in Riverside County.
“I think being able to physically sit down at Fender headquarters and go over details and specifics of the gear that we are using is really important,” Dirnt writes via email. “Every type of musician you can think of either exists in Los Angeles, or travels through Los Angeles/Hollywood. I think Fender relocating opens up a lot of possibilities to connect with musicians of all genres.”
Of course, Fender has a rich Southern California history. The company launched in the early 1950s in Fullerton, where former radio repairman Leo Fender invented a series of guitars and basses that changed the direction of music forever. Among his products: the Telecaster, Precision Bass and Stratocaster.
Growing up in Fullerton, Ethan Kaplan, Fender’s chief digital product officer, often saw the plaque marking the original Fender building. “Fullerton and Los Angeles and this region were always a hub of innovative thinking. If you’re looking for what California’s always stood for, it’s thinking differently. It’s really the home of the electric guitar down here.”
Interestingly, Leo Fender did not play guitar. Still, his modular, durable and tuneful bolt-on designs have been favorites of greats like Eric Clapton, Dick Dale, Jimi Hendrix and Bonnie Raitt for decades.
Just as media consumption has become all about customization — think Spotify, Netflix and social media feeds — learning how to play guitar and guitars themselves are headed that way, too. At least that’s Fender’s take. The move to Hollywood represents a significant turning point for the company, with an increased focus on digital innovations — including an app made specifically to teach new players how to tune their instruments — as well as instruction.
“Everyone wants to learn something different,” Kaplan says. “So if you’re a 16-year-old that just got a [Fender] Mustang and you like Twenty One Pilots, you don’t want to have to wade through an old dude teaching you Iron Maiden licks. There should be a pathway in there where the instructor, instrument and the song choices are contemporary and relevant.”
According to Fender CEO Andy Mooney, 90 percent of people who start playing guitar abandon the instrument in the first year, often in the first 90 days. But Mooney, who speaks with a Scottish accent, says, “That 10 percent that makes it through the first year really commits to the instrument for life … if we reduce the abandonment rate by only 10 percent, we have the potential to double the industry.”
Fender recently launched Mod Shop, which allows customers to choose from 65,000 different component combinations to create their own customized Strat, Tele, Jazz Bass or P-Bass. Kaplan says, “The more personalized the instrument is, the more individualized the sound and tone is and the more likely you are to pick it up, because it’s something you actually had a hand in designing.”
Fender’s Hollywood digs were built on the former site of CBS West Coast. Supersized depictions of Leo Fender’s Bassman amp schematics and Strat patents decorate the airy, open space, as do large-scale photos of notable Fender players like Flea and Courtney Barnett. The company is in the process of unpacking a drool-inducing vintage instruments collection, including Leo’s lap steel prototypes, the original Fender instruments produced in 1946.
Mooney says Fender relocated to Hollywood to be at the music industry’s epicenter and near top digital talent. He believes Fender’s future will include interconnected digital and physical products. That said, the company isn’t forgetting about guitarists who want a vintage Strat replica. For many fans, Fender isn’t just about guitars, it’s about pop culture. Hendrix’s “Star Spangled Banner” at Woodstock. Bob Dylan “going electric” in 1965. Current top selling Fender products include Strats, Mustang modeling amps, Jazz Basses and 351 picks, with recent growth in in-ear monitors.
But hasn’t Mooney read any of those reports about the reduced cultural influence of rock & roll and, by extension, all guitar-driven music? “You wouldn’t get that impression if any of those writers went to Lollapalooza or Coachella,” Mooney says. “Live music is very much alive and healthy.”
Kaplan says the guitar isn’t dying, it’s diversifying: “I’ve been to a Jay Z show and there were Fenders on the stage there.”
Every engineer’s desk at the Hollywood location has a guitar next to it. All told, about 100 Fender employees, including digital, marketing and product line managers, now work in the Hollywood offices, comprised of two buildings including the “bungalow,” which houses a rehearsal/soundstage area for beta testing guitars and amplifiers.
Fender artists like Rancid’s Tim Armstrong, Rob Zombie shredder John 5 and Slipknot’s Jim Root have already popped in, even before the building officially opens Friday. “Right away the discussion goes to products,” says Richard McDonald, Fender's executive vice-president in charge of product development. Colorful tattoos adorn his left forearm. “What’s working? What’s not? And then we just grab stuff off the wall, new things that we want to show.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, Fender is a company full of guitarists and music fans. McDonald spent around 20 years touring with Tempe world music band Morningstar. Kaplan started an R.E.M. fan site, Murmurs.com, as a teen. Mooney grew up admiring Deep Purple guitar hero Ritchie Blackmore.
As a kid, Dirnt got interested in Fender basses from listening to players like Queen’s John Deacon and The Wrecking Crew’s Carole Kaye. He played a Fender at Green Day’s first-ever Hollywood gig at the Coconut Teaszer in the early '90s, as well as on now-classic LPs like American idiot and Dookie.
Dirnt recently donated 12 of his signature Fenders to Los Angeles Unified School District, which promotes music education: “How is a kid supposed to know whether he likes an instrument or not if they have never put their hands on one?”
So is there a chance Fender’s next landmark instrument will be created on Gower Street? “Absolutely,” says McDonald. “If you were asking me why I came to Hollywood and brought my product team here, it’s for that reason.”