“I never had time to do anything but build guitars I and listen to “em,” Leo Fender, father of the electric guitar, admitted in Rolling Stone. “If I could play ’em as good as some people, I’d do it for hours a day.” Fender revolutionized contemporary music with his electric guitar designs. Although no one knows who invented the first electric solidbody guitar, Fender was the first to design and produce one on a large scale. His company, Fender Electric Instruments, Inc., remained on the cutting edge for years, producing such enduring Fender designs as the Telecaster, the Stratocaster, and the Precision Bass. Fender’s innovations improved the range, durability, and affordability of the electric guitar, and his company set the standard of quality for the industry.
Fender’s vast success as an inventor and businessman belies his modest beginnings. He was born in his family’s barn in 1909, and, as most children of farmers do, he helped out on the family farm. More interested in the tools and machinery than the actual farming, Fender began his long career in musical-instrument design when he built an acoustic guitar at the age of 16. Although he worked as a bookkeeper through junior college and as an accountant for several years thereafter, he began repairing electric guitars as a sideline in the early 1930s. Responding to customer complaints about their instruments, he decided to design his own.
In 1945 Fender used the proceeds from a record-changer patent to start producing instruments with Doc Kauffman. Worried about the additional investments the resultant company would need, Kauffman sold his share to Fender the following year. The company, Fender Electric Instruments, had its first major success when it introduced the Broadcaster, Fender’s design for a mass-produced solidbody guitar. Soon renamed the Telecaster, the guitar, with its characteristic twang and durability, became a mainstay of country and blues musicians, including James Burton, Albert Lee, and Roy Buchanan.
In 1951 Fender introduced the Precision Bass, the first electric bass ever made. His invention significantly changed popular music by allowing the bassist to move up to the mike to sing. Perhaps even more influential than the electric bass, though, was Fender’s Stratocaster, used by such rock and roll greats as Buddy Holly, Eric Clapton, and Jimi Hendrix. According to Tom Wheeler of Guitar Player, “Rock and rollers liked the Stratocaster because compared to traditional ’guit-boxes1 it was curvacious and sensual, its vibrato was cool and functional, and the sound was hot and
For the Record…
Born Clarence Leo Fender, August 10, 1909, in Buena Park, CA; died after a lengthy battle with Parkinson’s Disease, March 21, 1991, in Fullerton, CA; married in 1934; attended junior college.
Worked as bookkeeper and accountant, late 1920s, and as guitar repairman, early 1930s; obtained patent on record-changing device, 1945; founded Fender Electric Instruments Inc., 1946; invented first mass-produced solidbody electric guitar, 1948; produced first solidbody bass guitar, 1951; introduced Stratocaster, 1954; sold Fender Electric Instruments to CBS, 1965, remained as consultant, 1965-70; founded CLF Research, 1965; designer and silent partner, Music Man, beginning in 1972; founded G & L Musical Products and G & L Music Sales, 1980.
Awards: Country Music Association Pioneer Award, 1981; inducted into Country Music Hall of Fame and Rock Walk of Fame.
jangly; plus it had three pickups and looked like it came from Mars.” Singer-songwriter-guitarist Lou Reed concurred, explaining in People, “Contemporary music would be unthinkable without a Stratocaster. Every musician’s inner ear has been shaped by the genius of Leo Fender’s instruments.”
The lab methods Fender developed early on would serve him throughout his career; he depended on himself rather than technology, using his ear, for example, rather than relying on a spectrum analyzer. He also kept no comprehensive written record of his experiments, trusting in his memory most of the time.
Fender also invented new and better designs for a variety of music electronics. In addition to his innovations for the guitar, such as his multi-spring vibrato, he developed amplifier designs. His tube amplifier, for instance, sold extremely well and set standards that are still followed by the industry. He also developed piggyback amps, the forerunners of the stack. Guitar Player’s Wheeler testified to the enduring nature of Fender’s amplifiers, reporting, “To this day, even metal-head Marshall [amp] maniacs rave about the tonal hugeness of a small Fender amp cranked to tube meltdown.”
Fender’s design abilities extended even to the equipment used to manufacture his company’s products. Don Randall, president of Fender sales for years, told Wheeler, “Leo designed all the equipment, and he was a genius for figuring out the manufacturing process.” Combined with his ability to develop better musical instruments, Fender’s manufacturing savvy helped make Fender Electric Instruments one of the most prosperous manufacturers in the industry.
The success of Fender’s company induced CBS to buy it in 1965 when a ten-year fight with strep throat forced Fender to retire. Fender’s retirement lasted about two months; once his health improved, he was unable to give up his work. He started his own design company, CLF research, and also returned to his old company as a design consultant. Still, without Fender at the helm, Fender Electric Instruments lost its sterling reputation. Hartley Peavey, owner of another guitar manufacturing business, explained to the Los Angeles Times, “[Fender] cared about his product, his employees and his dealers, and when he left, the company was still there but the catalyst who made it work was gone. . . . The corporate guys got it, and they ran it into the ground.”
Fender’s contract with CBS expired in 1970, but before he left he counted among his new patents a 12-string bridge, an acoustic guitar bridge, and a vibrato tailpiece for acoustic-electrics. In 1972 Fender became a silent partner and major stockholder in Music Man, founded by two former Fender employees. Fender’s designs for Music Man forged a new path, particularly in his pickup and preamp blueprints. The Sting Ray and the Sabre, two novel guitar designs, sported unusual features but were only modestly received because they lacked a vibrato. But the Sabre bass, with its two humbucking pickups, die-cast bridge, and standard active electronics, was very popular.
In 1980 Fender created G & L and G & L Music Sales to handle a new line of guitars and basses too extensive to fit into Music Man’s marketing strategy. Fender radically changed his pickup designs, abandoning his successful nonadjustable Alnico polepieces for fully adjustable soft-iron polepieces and improving the output of the coils. The tone spectrum, now remarkably wide and flexible, is what Fender said he had been trying to achieve for years.
Fender continued to produce archetypal designs throughout the 1980s, including his non-vibrato bridge, finely tunable vibratos, and new neck designs. At the time of his death, in 1991 after a long battle with Parkinson’s disease, he held roughly 75 patents. More significantly, Fender’s innovations had forever transformed the sound, look, and character of American music.
The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll, edited by Jon Pareles and Patricia Romanowski, Rolling Stone Press/Summit Books, 1983.
Guitar Player, July 1990; August 1991; September 1991.
Los Angeles Times, January 7, 1985; February 2, 1985.
People, April 8, 1991.
Rolling Stone, May 16, 1991; February 6, 1992.
—Susan Windisch Brown
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