|Leo Fender in his factory.|
Clarence Leonidas Fender—the chief arms dealer to the Rock and Roll Revolution, was born in Anaheim, California on August 10, 1909. For obvious reasons he preferred to be called Leo. Others tinkered at, and even produced, solid body electric guitars before him, but Fender, who could not play a lick, made them cheap, loud, popular, and just in time to end up in the hands of a new generation of pickers.
Adding electric amplification for guitar had been tinkered with since the ‘20’s and there are several claimants as to who did it first. But in 1931 George Beauchamp of the National Guitar Corporation came up with a prototype and the next year he partnered with Adolph Rickenbacker and Paul Barth to form the Electro-Patent-Instrument Company--Ro-Pat-In—to produce the Frying Pan, a cast aluminum electric steel guitar for use as a lap slide guitar in Hawaiian music, then at the height of its popularity.
The first Spanish style hard body was produced in 1934 by Vivi-Tone which was a guitar-shaped body of a single sheet of plywood affixed to a wood frame. The following year Ro-Pat-In, now renamed Rickenbacker introduced a similar model with a Bakelite—an early plastic—body.
None of these early models achieved much popularity outside of Hawaiian music until Bob Dunn of Milton Brown’s Musical Brownies introduced the electric lap guitar to Western Swing in 1935, where it soon became a center-piece instrument. Most electric guitars in use in the ‘30’s were arch-top hollow bodies fitted with pickups. They were used in Big Bands where the large ensembles overwhelmed acoustic guitars, which were mostly used as rhythm instruments. Alvino Rey of the Phil Spitalney Orchestra, Les Paul with the Fred Waring Orchestra, George Barnes were among the early players to adopt amplification. In Chicago by the late ‘30’s Big Bill Broonzey, and T-Bone Walker started using electric guitars in stripped down blues combos.
But the arch top models had serious problems with feedback from the resonator box. Dissatisfied with existing models, most of which were better adapted to lap playing, musicians and tinkerers both continued to experiment with hard bodies. In 1940 Les Paul famously put together his Log Guitar, a simple 4x4 wood post with a neck attached to it and homemade pickups and hardware, with two detachable hollow body halves attached to the sides for appearance only. After World War II Richard D. Bourgerie made an improved electric guitar pickup and amplifier which he mad for George Barnes and Les Paul.
With the rapid decline of the Big Bands after the War, smaller combos desperately needed amplification to fill the ballrooms, theaters, and large nightclubs where they played. But there were still few mass produced instruments to fill the demand. That’s where Leo Fender came in.
Fender grew up on his parents’ prosperous orange grove located between Anaheim and Fullerton. In his early teens he picked up an interest in radio and electronics from an uncle who owned a body shop and tinkered with electronics on the side. His uncle gave him a box of used and assorted car radio parts to start building his own receiver. Soon he was proficient enough to start a small radio repair shop in a spare room of his parents’ home while still attending Fullerton Union High School. He enrolled at Fullerton Junior College in 1928 to study accounting, never taking any technical classes. Like many boys of the error he learned on his own by tinkering and reading magazines like Popular Electronics.
Upon graduation the young man dutifully set out on a business career as bookkeeper for Consolidated Ice and Cold Storage Company in Anaheim. But he continued to tinker on the side, taking a special interest in amplification. In 1932 a local band leader asked him to build a portable public address (p.a.) system for use in ballroom performances. Eventually Fender built six of them.
In 1933, Fender met Esther Klosky, and they were married the following year. About the same time he moved on up to be an accountant for the California Highway Department in San Luis Obispo. The young couple’s future looked rosy until budget cutbacks eliminated his job. He went to work for a tire company which laid off its entire accounting department only six months after he was hired. The Depression hit the Fenders in a big way.
Fender eked out a meager living doing radio repairs out of his home while perfecting his p.a. systems. Finally in 1938 he was able to borrow enough money to open a real shop, Fender Radio Service. Soon his main business was building, selling, and renting his p.a. systems.
Nearby Los Angeles was the center of the West Coast music scene with plenty of ballrooms, dance halls, night clubs presenting Big Bands and jazz combos. There was also a fast emerging country music and western swing scene fueled by the large numbers of Dust Bowl refugee who had flooded the state. Given Fender’s reputation for his work for the music industry, it was understandable that guitarists started seeking his help in amplifying their instruments, both the arch tops used in dance and jazz bands and the steel lap guitars of Western Swing. Individually adapting these instruments with electronic pick-ups and building small amplifiers for them became a regular part of his business.
This part of his business brought Fender into contact with Clayton Orr “Doc” Kauffman, a former design engineer with Rickenbacker who had developed an improved tail piece for their guitars. The two decided to team up to produce their own line of electric lap guitars and amplifiers as K & F Manufacturing Corporation. In 1944 they patented a lap steel guitar with an electric pickup already developed by Fender. It went into production the following year and was sold as a kit along with one of Fender’s amplifiers.
Fender’s other customers, the ones getting their arch tops converted, continued to complain about feedback problems. He knew that a solid body guitar would eliminate the problem. By 1949 he had developed a prototype. The following year with Kauffman no longer associated the newly renamed Fender Electric Instrument Manufacturing Company came out with the Fender Esquire a solid body with one pickup. It went into limited production—fifty were made the first year. In 1951 Fender added a second pickup and re-named his guitar the first the Broadcaster and after a legal dispute over that name, the Telecaster which became the first mass produced solid body electric on the market. The guitar featured a sleek, modern look with a single cut-a-way and quickly became a standard instrument in country and western bands.
More than 60 years latter improved versions of the Telecaster are still in production. Millions have been sold making it the best-selling guitar model in history. It remains the introductory instrument to many would-be guitar wizards.
Fender followed up the immediate success of the Telecaster with the Precision Bass, the first electric bass guitar. Base on a Telecaster body it featured a single pickup and was sold with the Fender Bassman, a 45-watt amplifier with four 10 inch speakers. Almost overnight the easy to play, handle, and transport electric bass replaced the stand-up double bass or bull fiddle in most pop and country bands. And the Bassman became the inspiration for a whole new generation of amplifiers produced by both Fender and competing companies.
Of course, Fender did not have the field to himself for long. In ’52 Gibson introduced its popular Les Paul model. Rickenbacker introduced their lines as did other companies. Some of these guitars featured innovations and improvements over Fender’s basic Telecaster.
|Jimi Hendrix favored a Fender Stratocaster--which he played upside down because he was left handed.|
Fender and his chief draftsman Freddie Tavares began design work on a new model taking into consideration feedback from working guitar players. The result was the Stratocaster, a double-cutaway guitar, with an extended top horn shape for balance, contoured body for enhanced comfort over the slab-body Telecaster's harsh edges, four pickups, a vibrato unit that could be used in either direction and return to proper tuning, and a rounder and narrower neck. It was originally offered in a 2-color sunburst finish on a solid, deeply contoured ash body, a 21-fret one-piece maple neck with black dot inlays and Kluson tuning heads. Later models offered an alder body and five pickups.
The Stratocaster arrived just in time for the Rock and Roll era and became the ax of choice for the guitar driven sound. The flexibility of its tone made it perfect for the ax for the budding Rock God. Improved versions of it, too, are still in production and in demand.
Fender continued to innovate. In 1960 he introduced his Jazz Base, a sleeker instrument with a slimmer neck, and offset waist body and two single coil pickups. And in addition to overseeing improvements in his mass produced models, Fender and his designers also produced customized models to the specifications of many stars.
In the mid ‘60’s Fender had a health crisis—a severe streptococcal sinus infection that made continuing work nearly impossible. Reluctantly he sold his company to CBS in 1965 while staying on in a consulting capacity. He also signed a no-competition agreement with the new owners.
Subsequently Fender’s health improved when a new doctor developed as successful treatment for the infection. Fender ached to return to guitar production, but was hamstrung by the no-competition agreement. When it finally expired he became President of Music Man, a company producing bass guitars with advanced electronics. He had helped finance the startup Tri-Sonix company founded by two entrepreneurs, Forrest White and Tom Walker. By 1975 he had invested heavily in the company and assumed its management, changing the name to Music Man.
In 1979, Fender and old friends George Fullerton and Dale Hyatt started another a new company, G&L Musical Products, which produced guitars with enhanced tremolo systems and electronics.
Both of these companies were essentially boutique operations compared with mass production Fender, and served demanding, high level professional players. Fender kept a management had in both operations, despite suffering a series of stroke.
Also in 1979 Leo’s wife of more than 40 years died. He remarried in 1980 and his new wife Phyllis became honorary Chairman of G&L. In his final years Fender was disabled by Parkinson’s Disease. He died in March 21, 1991, a venerated music industry icon. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992 and was posthumously honored with a Technical Grammy Award in 2009 for, “contributions of outstanding technical significance to the recording field.”
His old company was bought from CBS by its officer and directors in 1985 and renamed the Fender Musical Instruments Corporation. It is headquartered in Scottsdale Arizona with principle production plants in Corona, California and Ensenada, Baja California, Mexico. It has acquired several other music companies and now produces as wide variety of instruments and amplifiers under various names in addition to the core Fender line still built around the instruments developed by Leo Fender.