Instruments like guitars have helped artists from Eric Clapton to Jimi Hendrix find their voice in music. During the Billboard Latin Conference & Awards, presented by State Farm, this theme will be explored during the panel "The Essential Partnership: Artists & Their Instruments," featuring Sergio Vallin of Mexico's iconic rock band Maná.
 
The discussion, taking place at the JW Marriot Marquis in Miami on April 23, will also feature Sergio Villanueva, Fender Musical Instruments Corporation's senior VP of global manufacturing. The talk will take a look at why recording artists choose particular brands and what it means to their careers.
 
During his tenure at Fender, Villanueva has seen the marketplace evolve and grow with innovative products even during a challenging economy. The executive's Billboard.biz Q&A looks at his role at Fender and how instruments can help shape an artist's career.

Billboard.biz: What are your primary responsibilities as the senior VP of global manufacturing at Fender?
Sergio Villanueva: At the end of the day, I am responsible for the optimal operation of Fender Musical Instruments Corporation’s manufacturing facilities, and the outstanding products that they produce. That starts with our people. Their safety and well being within our facilities is paramount, and takes first place before the other basic requirements of manufacturing: competitive quality, costs, and delivery of our products.
 
What are some of the challenges Fender is facing in today's marketplace?
About seven to eight years ago we began to adopt some of the best (worldwide) practices. We're always interested in taking cost out, improving our quality and improving our flexibility in terms of what it is we produce. So I think there's a general trend of that we need to do, such as being more diverse in our product offerings or product variations in terms of colors, in terms of features, in terms of attributes of the specific models that we make. We're respectful of the product that we make because it's a very intimate [experience] in which people express themselves.
 
The guitar market is constantly shifting, and is impacted by the state of the economy, trends in music and more. What do you think has the biggest cool factor in the guitar market now, and why?
From what I can see, variation is the principal theme on the front end of the business. Variation on themes (Strat, Tele, P Bass, J Bass) as well as variation of body shapes, sound, colors, and woods. People seem to be looking for instruments that are familiar, but just a little bit different. That’s a challenge for manufacturing, but putting all kinds of different guitars into production on a daily basis is surely what keeps the day-to-day interesting.
 
Where do you see the company growing in the next five years in terms of manufacturing?
What we're seeing worldwide is that many companies are gravitating the manufacturing back to Mexico because of the closeness, because of the competitive rates and because of the opportunity to have better control over your processes. So in terms of that cycle, we've been here for 25 years. We've been strong and growing. Now Mexico is right back into the competitive mix. So I think the growth for our Ensenada facility is even more optimistic over the coming years as we look for opportunities to bring in not only additional guitar models and (digital) amplifier models, but perhaps branch out into some other musical instrument opportunities.  
 
Who buys your guitars?
An untold number of artists have gravitated toward Fender … they started out (with a Fender) and they connected. For many it was their first guitar or the platform, meaning the Stratocaster and Telecaster. They connected when they were young and learning. They have been very faithful to it ever since. Other musicians perhaps found us later, but have found the attributes in a Fender guitar that they are looking for in an instrument. The Fender guitars are very practical, very sturdy, very robust and for those amazing musicians the perfect outlet through this instrument. When someone finds their voice through our products we're humbled to be associated with them.
 
Can you speak about Sergio Vallín of Maná and his connection to Fender?
He has an arsenal of Fender guitars. He's the type of player who needs a whole variety. With a good percentage of his songs he has found the right voice with our Fender products. We're proud to be part of his arsenal, so to speak, of his guitars to be in there. We hope that the new generations as well will find their voice with our products.

Will we be seeing a Sergio Vallín guitar?
Sergio Vallín is an amazing guitarist and, of course, any guitar company would be honored to collaborate with him on a guitar. We've been in dialogue with him for some time, and some interesting work has been done to date. We'll speak more about it at the Billboard Latin Music Conference.

The Billboard Latin Music Awards is the longest-running awards show in Latin music and honors the most popular albums, songs and performers in Latin music, as determined by the actual sales, radio play, streaming and social data that informs Billboard's weekly charts.
 
The awards show takes place during the same week as the Billboard Latin Music Conference, presented by State Farm, April 23-25 at the JW Marriot Marquis in Miami, Fla. For more information about the Billboard Latin Music Conference, please go to BillboardLatinConference.com. Follow the conference and awards show at @Billboard with #BBLatin and facebook.com/Billboard.