The longest working Fender employee isn’t who you might think—she’s a pickup winder, Latina, and one of three sisters raised by a single mother in Fullerton, California.
In 1956, while looking for a means to support her family as a teenager, Abigail Ybarra walked into what was then a small 10-year-old factory called the Fender Electric Instrument Company. Fifty-six years later she would be coined the “Queen of Tone” for her handcrafted pickups, and considered a true staple of Fender’s legacy around the world.
While Ybarra’s story is without a doubt monumental on its own, it turns out she comes from a lineage of Latina pickup winders who were prominent during a time when the Fender company sought out women to work on the guitars. First there was Pilar Lopez (whom Ybarra apprenticed under), followed by Abigail Ybarra, and today—after three years of learning from Ybarra herself—Josefina Campos continues what we can seemingly consider a tradition.
Now, after retiring in 2013 at 80 years old, Ybarra resides in Redmond, CA where she continues to dabble in pickup winding. She Shreds had the honor of speaking with Ybarra on the phone to discuss some Fender history, beginning her own operation, and winding enough pickups to wrap wire 16 times around the globe.
She Shreds: How did you first get in touch with Fender?
Abigail Ybarra: Yeah, that’s a story right there. My cousin Corin used to work for Fender and she quit so then—maybe a couple of years later—she was looking for a job, so I decided to go with her, and for some reason they hired me but they didn’t hire her back. When I walked in the office I was given an application and right then and there they took me to the back and I was hired.
You said that your cousin used to work for Fender. What did she do?
She used to solder. She used to do some of the wiring and controls on the pickguards and guitars. That is actually what I started doing—and by the way, I was told that I was going to get 90 cents an hour and that in 30 to 60 days I would get another dime, and I thought that was great.
What did your parents do for work?
My father had died, and it was just my mother and two sisters. So, this was a job. I found out there was a place I liked being a Latina, and the pay was pretty good. It was a time [when] we had an incentive plan and we were earning more money in Fender than in other companies around there. I remember there was this girl that came in working in the office—when she saw our checks, she transferred into the factory.
So, you learned the back end of guitar building in general and not just pickup winding, even though that’s what you are known for.
That was where I ended up somehow over the years, when CBS bought the company from Leo Fender. They pretty much did not let people transfer up and down from one department to another, and there was not that many people who wanted to wind pickups all the time. But I always liked that—for some reason I was comfortable doing that, so I just stayed working on pickups.
What do you think it was about pickup winding they didn’t want to do?
Most of the girls would just say it was boring. I mean, you sit there and you wind. We did not do hand-winding for a long time . . . once CBS took over we got automatic coil winders, so even then the girls didn’t like running the coil winders. They had a lot of problems with wire breaking and somehow I just kind of took to it because I didn’t have that much trouble. So, for many years we did not do hand-winding until I came over here to Corona, California and they wanted me to do hand-winding pickups again.
It sounds like there were a lot of women in the factory. Why was Fender looking for women to work on pickup winding?
They figured that men’s hands were too rough, men just wouldn’t be able to handle such delicate work, so it was just women.
You retired in 2013. Is there a big difference between winding pickups in the ‘60s and in your last years at Fender? As the guitars evolved, how did the pickup winding evolve as well?
Well, by the time I retired I was doing hand winding again. When I started in pickups with Leo Fender, back in Fullerton, we were all doing hand-winding. He asked for and usually got superior work. I don’t want to say—I think it was better back then. Of course when I started doing hand-winding over here in the custom shop I tried to do what Leo Fender had expected us to do back then.
And what was that?
Perfect work. Really serious about what we were doing, taking pride in what we were doing—that’s what he always said. We were part of a great company. Leo always thought that we were the Cadillac of guitar making—in those days Cadillac was the best. So when I came over here to do hand-winding again in Corona, I tried to do the same thing. I was much more of an expert at winding, giving customers what they wanted.
Do you miss being in the shop every day and winding pickups?
I do. I miss the people. I miss the fact that we used to get reporters to come in here and talk to me. It was a fun place to be, I do miss that.
Was there any particular reason why you felt it was time to stop?
Not that I didn’t feel that I could still keep working, but it used to bother me that some people used to come up to me and say, “You’re what? You’re in your 70s and you’re still working? You should be at home.” And I thought maybe they’re right, here I am going on 80 years old and still working.
I feel like that’s what keeps us all alive, is to do what we love, right?
Right? Sometimes I regret that I’m not still there, still going to the NAMM shows.
What do you spend your days doing other than pickup winding?
Nothing, nothing! That’s why I’m telling myself I need to start working, I need to start my own thing, my own pickup.
When Josefina started her apprenticeship with you, what did you make sure to emphasize in the learning process for her?
I trained her exactly the way I was trained back then. I was trained by a girl that Leo Fender trained, and she is the one that trained me. Her name was Pilar Lopez. So when I trained Josefina, [I trained] her exactly the way my work ethic [is], I tried to pass that on to her.
Can you tell me a little bit of what that includes? Is your work ethic based on being authentic and committed to the work or is there something specific, technically?
I taught her, or tried to teach her, to do the job the way I learned to do it—even the soldering. I like to do that with a good pickup that’s gonna last for years. Working in a mass production, I really don’t think that those pickups are that great—seems to me that she needs to take the time to do the job right, not to think about how fast she is going to do it but what a good job she has to put out.
Is it important for you to inspire and encourage other girls to be a part of this kind of work?
My daughter is going to start working with me because eventually I plan to start my own business. I would encourage girls to do that.
How many pickups do you think you’ve wound? Per day or per week?
Leo never had us winding for eight hours. He would only have us do it for four hours because he thought for us to sit there for eight hours was too much. So in four hours we would do something like 15 or 16 pickups. With CBS it was different, we had automatic coil winders, we turned out hundreds on the coil winders. Hand-winding, you can’t wind too many—it’s a slower process.
We had people from Made In America come down to the plant in Corona—it’s a show on Discovery [Channel]. The one guy that was on the show figured out that I had wound wire—just the wire— around the world 16 times.
That’s an amazing fact.
That was so weird. Time just flew . . . by the time I was finished I could not believe it had been that many years. I guess time flies when you are having fun.