Riffs: My Fender University Diary

Two Blocks North Of The In Famous 91 freeway in Corona, California, sits a rather unassuming building called the Fender Center. Today, a banner bearing the “Fender University” logo was draped over a railing. It was 8:45 AM, August 23—day two of the university’s inaugural threeday class session. For Fender, the weekend marked the culmination of two years of planning to debut its “higher learning” experience—a program based on the many “fantasy camps” where average Joes get to hang with, and learn from, rock stars or major-league athletes. For a tuition of approximately $6,500, 20 students from around the world received lessons from Yngwie Malmsteen, Dweezil Zappa, John 5, Frank Bello, and other stars; a tour of the company’s factory and the Fender Custom Shop; VIP treatment at local concerts; and their very own Fender American Standard guitar or bass, emblazoned with a commemorative Fender University neck plate and pickguard, and set up to their individual preferences.
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At 9:00 AM, the students filed into the Fender Center’s Rhythm Lounge for a performance by Anthrax bassist Frank Bello, who also provided tips on warming up and evolving as a player. At 10:30, it was time to go to class. The professors included guitarists Greg Koch and Jeff Kollman, and bassists Reggie Hamilton and Tony Franklin. I was in Kollman’s class, where students plugged their guitars into Fender G-DECs and absorbed a lecture on picking versus pulling off, note and chord compatibility, and phrasing.

During the lunch break, Koch led a jam session, and Kollman played a set with his band, Cosmosquad. After we ate and listened, Fender’s Nick Bowcott grabbed the mic to tell how a young John 5 sat in on a session with Les Paul and earned the respect of the master. When John 5 plucked, picked, and shredded his way through metal mayhem and the styles of Chet Atkins and Jimmy Bryant, it sounded like an 80-pound rooster picking a barnyard fight with a bull. How does so much sound come out of one guy?

Finally, Yngwie Malmsteen took the stage in full concert regalia—black satin shirt, leather pants, and studded boots. After a mind-blowing display of guitar technique and musicality, a student asked if there were any shortcuts to being able to play so fast. Malmsteen shook his head, and said, “No. It’s all blood, sweat, and tears.” At day’s end, there was a sincere, almost childlike happiness that radiated from all the students. This university truly rocks!