On September 26, 1944, Leo Fender and Clayton Orr
"Doc" Kauffman filed an application for a patent on an electric
guitar pickup modelled after an early phonograph pickup. They
mounted their device on a crude one-piece solidbody guitar thrown
together in the back of Fender's Radio Service.The awkward and
almost unplayable radio-shop guitar looked like a high school
project at best, yet it heralded the beginning of a
legacy unequalled in guitar making history. In less than
ten years, Fender followed with the Telecaster, Precision
Bass and Stratocaster - the most successful and most
copied electric instrument designs in history. Fender
guitars and amps changed the way guitarists played and
sounded, paving the way for modern guitar and musical
In 1993, Joe Felz, director of the Fullerton Museum Center and a closet guitarist, conceived a retrospective exhibit that celebrated 5 decades of Fender guitars and their impact on music and culture. Leo always considered Fullerton his hometown. The original Fender factory once stood at the corner of Santa Fe and Pomona Avenues, three blocks away from the museum; Leo's G&L factory still operates nearby. Furthermore, the new Fender company, now headquartered in Scottsdale, Arizona, maintains it's main guitar factory and Custom Shop in Corona, which is close to Fullerton.
5 Decades Of Fender: 40's | 50's | 60's | 70's | 80's
Dive To Bottom
|The museum show opened on December 10,
1993 and closed April 2, 1994. The exhibit, made possible
in part by a generous contribution by Fender Musical
Instruments, broke all attendance records for the
Fullerton Museum Center, topping an earlier show
featuring relics of the Titanic. It included over 70
guitars and amplifiers that Leo designed for the pre-CBS
and CBS-era Fender company, Music Man and G&L.
Visitors saw the first Radio Shop guitar and the six-string
bass that Leo worked on the day before he died in 1991.
George Fullerton loaned his Fiesta Red Jazzmaster to the
exhibit. Lab assistant Freddie Tavarez' Jazz Bass, which
came with an unusual ebony fingerboard like Fullerton's
Jazzmaster, was hung in the museum's '60s section along
with Forrest White's prototype King acoustic model.
Exhibit highlights included early K&F guitars and
amps from John Sprung's collection, the original telegram
that Gretsch sent to Fender to cease the use of the name
"Broadcaster", a special section dedicated to
the Stratocaster's 40th anniversary, the first Fender
violin a one-of-a-kind Stringmaster steel, a prototype
mandolin, a dozen G&L guitars (including the popular
Broadcaster and L-2000 Bass), and a James Burton
signature model and the prototype Stevie Ray Vaughan
signature guitar from Fender's current custom shop.
Fender amps were sprinkled throughout the show. A special section explained their significance to modern sound reproduction and displayed the evolution of the Princeton amplifier from 1946 to 1964. A large photo mural of surf-guitar legend Dick Dale depicted him playing Showman amps in 1963 to a throng of young people, and pointed out the importance of the teenage guitar market in Fender's early days. The show also featured a comprehensive collection of important Fender-related letters, catalogs, and memorabilia. Video monitors displayed rare TV clips and videos featuring performers with their Fenders, including Buddy Merill on Lawrence Welk's show, James Burton with the Shindogs, and Jimmy Bryant with Speedy West. A large monitor in a side room played a previously unseen mid-'80s video interview with Leo. At least 18 individuals, the Fender company' and G&L graciously provided pieces from their collections and inventory to make the multimedia exhibit possible.
The Fender revolution sprang from a quasi-partnership called K&F (Kauffman and Fender) Manufacturing. Doc Kauffman, who Leo had first hired to repair phonographs, accelerated Leo's interest in musical instruments, as Fender would later acknowledge. Kauffman, more to the point about those early days, once quipped, "Yeah, I helped Leo start a thirteen million dollar business!" Buoyed by the success of K&F's early lap steels and amps, Fender saw his chance to fill the void left by guitar companies put out of the music business by World War II. Kauffman, leery of risk with the Depression still fresh in his mind, left Leo in early '46.
In 1947 the Fender Blectric Instrument Co. line included the fabled wooden cabinet amplifiers and hardwood steel guitars. Fender's exclusive distributor was Santa Ana's Radio & Television Equipment Company (Radlo-Tel), owned by EC. Hall and managed by Donald D. Randall. Hall provided the necessary cash to save Fender when the business floundered that year. Then Leo caught the wave of postwar prosperity As the '40s drew to a close, many players considered Fender the leading innovator in instrumentdesign. But endorsements from western swing bands and steel guitarists - Leo's biggest promoters-carried little weight on the East Coast. in 1950 Randall's East-Coast salesman, Mike Cole, wrote to his boss, "The people here in New York don't know who [steel player] Leon McAuliffe is." Leo's guitars had few advocates, except for radio star Alvino Rey, with nationwide stature.
Fender started work on the most obvious addition tohis catalog - a standard guitar. He borrowed design ideas from '30s Rickenbackers and the Merle Travis/Paul Bigsby solidbody made in 1948. Fender and George Fullerton, the factory's production foreman, made a single-pickup prototype.Though Fullerton remembers working on this guitar in1948, records, including letters written by Don Randall in 1949,indicate that the instrument was still incomplete by the summer of 1949. Potentiometers inside the guitar date from the 31st week of 1949. After making a second prototype with the more familiar Telecaster-shaped headstock, Fender felt that he was ready to build guitars.
Radio-Tel introduced the single-pickup Esquire model in April 1950, and a two-pickup version in May Leo fashionedthe body from laminated pine; the guitar's hardrock maple neck had no truss rod. Meanwhile, Don Randall dealt with damage control as unfilled orders stacked up - Leo was not ready to start production. Fender added a cement-block building to his factory in May 1950, and acquired tooling to produce the new guitars.
The black, dual-pickup, non-truss rod Esquire that appeared at the museum dispels any lingering notion that Fender had introduced a Broadcaster in 1948. (Leo and George's mistaken memories had perpetuated this error for years.) Fender's long-forgotten records show that he purchased the dies for making the Esquire's second pickup on June22, 1950. Race & Olmsted, a tool company, billed Leo for the rhythm pickup cover form and blank dies on July26 and August 21, respectively. Production of non-truss rod single- and double-pickup Esquires was limited to less than two dozen instruments, perhaps fewer. After showing two at the summer trade shows, Don Randall feared that the unreinforced necks would bow, and implored Leo to stop production and fix the problem.
Leo designed a truss rod, and the dual-pickup guitar went into full production as the Broadcaster model by November. It first appeared on a December 1950 price sheet. The factory produced the model through the third week of February 1951, when Randall dropped the Broadcaster's name at the request of Gretsch, who was manufacturing a line of drums with that name. The single-pickup Esquire went into full production with a truss rod in January 1951.
After Fender introduced his standard guitars, he invented the Precision Bass, another true milestone in musical instrument design. More than just a new model or a new brand, Leo's bass embodied a new class of musical instrument: a fully electric, fretted bass that was held and played like a guitar. The term "Fender bass" subsequently became generic for all electric basses, regardless of the manufacturer. Though other manufacturers seized Leo's idea, the Fender Precision Bass and the Jazz Bass, in various incarnations, became the most popular electric basses ever made. The excitement that the Precision Bass created among serious players-including jazz great Monk Montgomery-helped the Fender company make further inroads into the realms ofjazz and popular music and dispelled the cowboy age that stuck like gum to a boot heel.
To meet the growing demand, Fender, Randall, Hall, and salesman Charlie Hayes formed a streamlined organization, Fender Sales, Inc., that replaced Radio-Tel for marketing Fender instruments in 1953. Fender moved his factory to three new industrial buildings at 500 5. Raymond Avenue in Fullerton where he introduced the Stra-tocaster, a fancier model that was designed to compete with Gibson, Epiphone, and Gretsch. Though Leo might have scoffed at the notion, the Stratocaster represented the high point of his life as an inventor.
The Stratocaster was the first guitar designed with both the player's comfort and playing ease in mind. Its built-in vibrato was Leo's attempt to top earlier efforts by Doc Kauffman and Paul Bigsby at putting shimmering sound effects at the player's fingertips. Unfortunately Leo's first design was a disaster. He desperately spent at least six months in 1953 trying to perfect it and lost several thousand dollars on useless equipment and tooling. Finally glving up the original design, he quickly re-thought the problem and finished what he called the new "hurry-up design" by the end of 1953. In a letter written in April 1954, Randall promised to ship the first Stratocasters on May 15. Several examples-which Forrest White calls prototypes or "guinea pig" test models rather than true production models - that were made during these weeks exist, including #0100, which was shown at the Fullerton museum.
White, who started working at the Fender plant on May 20, 1954, was just the industrial engineer and plant manager that Fender needed to make the company world class. According to Don Randall, "Leo was not a production man in the beginning. He was a thinker and a tinkerer. It took somebody [Forrest White] to go in there and organize things to make it go because it was kind of running by itself." White, Leo Fender's only plant manager, handled day-to-day operations, including factory expansion during Fender's fastest period of growth. By 1958 the company had nine buildings; by 1964 the number of buildings grew to 29. Despite a rough-and-tumble start, Fender's factory emerged as a model for the industry by the late '50s.
Fender developed several successful instruments alter the Stratocaster. Although the Jazzmaster, which was introduced in 1958, changed few minds in jazz circles, it found its way into the fabric of a teenage musical subculture, making a big splash with instrumental rock bands that emulated Dick Dale, the Ventures, and other bands. Other guitars and basses that Leo designed include the Jaguar, Mustang, electric 12-string, Bass Vi, Jazz Bass, and several acoustic guitars. Each instrument that Fender introduced represented a building block towards a complete line of instruments. He wanted to meet musicians' and music dealers' needs, even if that meant making some guitars with limited appeal.
Fender was by far the most important trendsetter in the early-'60s musical instrument industry. But being self-taught in electronics, he worried that the new transistor technology would put him out of business He also suffered a lingering strep infection that sapped his energy. Sometime in the early '60s, the inventor decided to sell his company. Randall and Fender - who had been sole partners in Fender Sales since 1955 - discussed selling Fender to the Baldwin piano company or becoming a publiccorporation. Finally, they sold the company to CBS for $13 million, effective on January 5,1965.
Retained by CBS as a consultant, Leo moved his lab to 1013 East Elm Street in Fullerton, starting his new company, CLF Research. He developed the Mustang Bass and patented a 12-string bridge, an acoustic guitar bridge, and a vibrato tailpiece for acoustic-electrics. Fender also designed his own advanced B-string bender, a pull-string gadget for playing steel guitar licks. Yet CBS protected its investment by using ideas that seemed commercially viable. Predictably, Fender felt unappreciated and shut out of decision making. White has sald that this was the saddest period in Leo's professional life.
Leo's contract with CBS expired in 1970. In 1972 Leo, White, and Tom Walker, a former Fender salesman and an amp designer, formed Music Man. Leo moved CLF Research to an 18-acre industrial park on Fender Avenue in Fullerton and tooled up to make Music Man's novel Sting Ray guitar. To Leo's chagrin, most '70s rock musicians wanted Telecasters, Stratocasters, and Gibson Les Pauls. Leo's Music Man guitars never found a niche. However, Music Man's Sting Ray and Sabre basses - with the trademark peghead designed by White- did receive the praises of many musicians in the late '70s.
By 1979, CBS-Fender was selling over 40,000 instru-ments a year - more a testimony to Leo's name than corporate competence, manufacturing skill, or quality control.Sloppy workmanship on the so-called three-bolt Stratocasters allowed necks to move back and forth laterally, thus changing the guitars' pitch. One former employee explained that Leo's prized factory tools had become too old and dull to make precision cuts. Throughout the '70s, CBS falled to reinvest in modern factory equipment. The painters replaced lacquer finishes with durable yet unmusical, almost sticky polyester finishes. in the '70s, a new Telecaster that was hanging in Fullerton Music had pencil marks and the word flaw visible under the finish. In the old days, the guitar would have received a stunning custom color. But CBS's managers lacked Leo's alchemist skills at turning lead into gold.
The company had additional problems. Other companies had always emulated Fender designs. In the '70s, some copies, especially the much-improved Japanese imports, were better and less expensive than CBS-Fender guitars. Moreover, the U.S. entered a deep economic recession and interest in guitars dropped; teenagers bought computer games instead of music gear. One of the few bright examples from the '70s Fender company was the 25th Anniversary Stratocaster.
Leo considered it regression to copy his old guitars, even though it may have been an easy path to success. Paradoxically whlle he designed new models with unproven features, Eric Clapton, Mark Knopfler, and many others burned the old-Fender snarl even deeper into the collective consciousness. The fusion of jazz, country, rock, and blues reached new levels and found common ground in the sound of Leo's vintage guitars. Collectors appreciated even more how Leo Fender had changed music history and how Fenders had become cultural icons - symbols of American ingenuity and the spirit of freedom. Admired and played worldwide, Fender guitars contributed to the globalization of Western democratic values and culture, especially in Communist Eastern Europe. Writer Jim Washburn suggests that Leo Fender did more to bring down the iron curtain than Ronald Reagan.
Surprisingly, Leo Fender did not realize how important and popular his early guitars had become when he founded G&L in 1980. (G&L first stood for George Fullerton and Leo Fender and later, Guitars by Leo.) His new models sported novel bodies, bridges, vibrato units, neck construction, and pickups. Leo thought that his new guitars were the best he had ever made. But during the 'BOs, Leo supported G&L out of his pocket. Despite Dale Hyatt's tireless devotion to sales efforts, the rise in imports and the historic down-turn in guitar sales continued. (The Los Angeles Times reported that the music industry sold 1.4 million guitars and fretted instruments in 1989, a littie more than half the 1972 total. Only 135,000 of these instruments had Made In USA labels.)
CBS finally saw that Fender needed fixing and recruited a new management team headed by John McLaren from Yamahas American division. (After Leo's death, McLaren would head G&L.) William Schultz became Fender's president. By 1982, Fender returned to Leo's original pre-CBS headstock shapes and began making vintage reissues based on the original specifications. Schultz embarked on a much needed but belated factory modernization program. Unfortunateiy it disrupted and delayed production while copies produced in Japan further wore away the company's worldwide profits. Work continued at the Fullerton factory, where employment had dropped from an historic high of about 1,100 employees to 90. By 1984 CBS decided to sell the company. A group of investors headed by Schultz bought Fender's name and distribution for $12.5 mIllIon in March1985. CBS reportedly lost $38 million. Until Fender's new owners could establish a new factory, the company sold imports and old stock.
The Fender company soon set up shop in Corona and focused on quality rather than quantity. It introduced the American Standard models: first a Stratocaster and then a Telecaster. Fender's image, tarnished by CBS, started to shine again. As the new plant increased its capacity, foreign exchange rates moved to favor American-made exports. In a remarkable turn-around, the business thrived. What started as a 14,000 square-foot area devoted to guitars in 1985 became an 80,000 square-foot facility by 1990. Furthermore, the new Fender Custom Shop headed by John Page started setting new standards of excellence.
When Leo applied for the patent on his first guitar 50 years ago, he had little idea of where his work would lead. Rock and roll music, long-playing records, much less digital CDs, did not exist. Bands all had horns, and no one wore earplugs at concerts. The unforeseen, unpredictable consequences of electric guitars reached beyond anyone's prior experience. Today, few people doubt the influence Fender had on the progress of electric guitars, modern music, and culture. While the Fender show was perhaps the first and last time many of these important Fender-designed guitars would be to gether on display, Leo's legacy lives in instruments enjoyed by millions of players and listeners. He designed and created high quality, affordable guitars, that are, as he used to say, "tools for musicians." Helping define the music of all generations born alter World War II, Fender guitars will influence musicians for many years to come.
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