Fender, Clarence Leonidas (“Leo”)

views updated

Fender, Clarence Leonidas (“Leo”)

(b. 10 August 1909 in Anaheim, California; d. 21 March 1991 in Fullerton, California), inventor who developed some of the most popular electric guitars, the first fretted electric bass, and improved amplifiers.

Fender was born to the farmers Clarence (known as Monty) and Harriet Fender in a barn on their ranch between Anaheim and Fullerton. He attended Fullerton Union High School, graduating in 1928, and went on to attend Fullerton Junior College, where he majored in accounting, and completed his studies in 1930. Though he would eventually achieve fame as an inventor of electrical instruments and amplifiers, he received no formal training in electrical engineering. Electronics had been a hobby of Fender’s since age thirteen when his uncle John West had shown him a homemade radio. Upon leaving college Fender took a bookkeeping position with Consolidated Ice and Cold Storage in Anaheim. He married Esther Klosky in 1934. They remained married until her death from cancer in 1979. In 1980 Fender married Phyllis Dalton. He never had children.

While still in high school Fender began building and repairing radios and amplifiers in a small home shop. Throughout the 1930s he continued to do repair work in his spare time and built several public address systems, which he rented out for dances. When Fender lost his job as an accountant for a tire company due to a management switch in 1939, he decided to turn his hobby into his career and opened up a full-scale radio repair shop, Fender Radio Service, in Fullerton. He soon expanded the shop into a retail outlet that, as his newspaper ads stated, specialized “in every branch of sound” and sold radios, phonographs, guitars, and public address systems. Fender also expanded his workforce, hiring the guitarist, street performer, and fellow inventor Clayton (“Doc”) Kauffman to help with repairs. Due to the loss of an eye in a childhood accident, Fender was not called for military service in World War II. This allowed him to continue his ultimately revolutionary “tinkering” with sound amplification. In 1943 Fender and Kauffman made their first electric guitar. Kauffman left the company in 1946, the year that Fender began to work full-time at manufacturing guitars and amplifiers. The next year, he changed the name of his company to the Fender Electric Instrument Company.

Fender did not invent the electric guitar. In the early 1930s various jazz musicians and instrument makers experimented with amplifying guitars so that they could “hold their own” in big band ensembles. Most of these guitars were traditionally handcrafted hollow-body guitars with pickups added, though a few instrument makers had experimented with solid-body guitars. Fender, who wanted to make instruments that everyone could afford, decided that he would make solid-body guitars. The solid body not only reduced troublesome feedback problems that occurred with traditional hollow-body electrics at loud, dance-hall volumes, but it also reduced manufacturing time and cost. In the wake of World War II as big band music began to decline in popularity and smaller guitar-based ensembles playing country and blues were on the rise, Fender created a durable, inexpensive electric guitar with a tone that would become classic.

In the 1940s Fender primarily manufactured electric steel guitars and amplifiers, which were in demand by the increasingly popular Western swing bands such as Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. As important to Fender’s success as his ingenuity were his close ties to musicians. Although Fender never learned to play the guitar, he used musicians who lived and played in southern California as a sounding board, giving them prototype guitars and amplifiers to test in the field. He would often bring guitars and amplifiers straight from his workshop to the dance halls. Fender’s willingness to work with musicians during his design process was a key reason for his success.

In 1948 Fender hired George Fullerton to manage the company and oversee production, allowing Fender to spend more time in his lab. The same year he began designing what would become the first commercially successful solid-body electric guitar, the Telecaster. With the Telecaster, Fender finally achieved the clean, bell-like tone that he had been seeking. Its tone had distinct highs and deep lows without much mid-range, which he felt muddied the tonal quality. The Telecaster pickups formed the foundation for the Fender sound. The Telecaster went on the market in 1950. Though derisively nicknamed “the canoe paddle” by Fender’s competition, the Telecaster was soon a commercial success.

Never content to rest on his laurels, Fender continued his advances in instrument making. In 1952 he released the Precision Bass, perhaps his most innovative accomplishment. Some earlier attempts had been made to develop electric basses and fretted acoustic basses, but all had retained the upright style of the traditional stand-up bass. Fender turned the music world on its ear by producing a fretted, electric bass shaped like an oversized guitar. The resulting instrument provided the strong sound and ease of playing that made it a cornerstone of postwar bands.

In 1954 Fender began production of what would become the most commercially successful electric guitar design in history, the Stratocaster. The Stratocaster improved on the Telecaster’s design in several ways. At the urging of musicians, Fender added contours—a scooped out cut in the back of the guitar and a beveled section in front under the player’s arm. These modifications allowed the guitar to fit more comfortably against the musician’s body and gave it a unique look. Perhaps the most important addition was a new type of vibrato, or tremolo. Earlier vibratos tended to cause tuning problems. The Stratocaster vibrato sustained notes better than previous designs and allowed the guitarist to vary the pitch more widely without causing tuning problems. Though Fender probably did not foresee it, this quality allowed for the screaming, dive-bombing musical runs popularized by musicians such as Jimi Hendrix Rock and roll was beginning to make its presence felt in 1954, and the Stratocaster became inexorably linked with the new music. By 1995, Fender had produced more than 1.4 million Stratocasters. In addition to his commercial success, Fender received recognition from both country and rock and roll musicians. In 1981 he received the Academy of Country Music’s Pioneer Award and in 1992 he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland.

In 1965 Fender sold his company to CBS and started a consulting firm, CLF Research. He acted as a consultant for CBS-Fender and in 1971 began designing instruments and amplifiers for Music Man. In 1980 Fender and his old friend George Fullerton founded G&L Music Sales.

Fender continued to work on improving guitar and amplifier designs for the rest of his life. His hands-on, empirical style of invention and his willingness to listen to practicing musicians joined with his natural insight to create the instruments that helped define a new musical generation. At the age of eighty-one Leo Fender died at his Fullerton home, possibly from complications of Parkinson’s disease. He is buried at Fairhaven Memorial Park in Santa Ana, California.

The best overview of Fender’s career is Richard R. Smith, Fender: The Sound Heard ‘Round the World (1995). Two longtime associates of Fender’s have written personal accounts of the Fender Company: Forrest White, Fender: The Inside Story (1994), and Bill Carson with Willie G. Moseley, Bill Carson: My Life and Times with Fender Musical Instruments (1998). See also George Fullerton, Guitar Legends: The Evolution of the Guitar from Fender to G&L (1994). An obituary is in the New York Times (23 Mar. 1991).

J. Christopher Jolly