Sunshine, Surf, Girls, Hot Rods, and Guitars!

January 10, 2007

Leo Fender’s uncanny knack for solving musicians’ problems was only one factor in his company’s success. He had plenty of help—sometimes from people whose talents and personalities were very different from his own. For example, when it came to takin’ care of business, Fender turned to Don Randall. The dynamic, even dashing World War II veteran shared with Fender a background in electronics and a tireless commitment to work. Otherwise, the two men couldn’t have been more different.

The history of the music industry has no shortage of good ideas that were insufficient to guarantee success by themselves. Products must not only work, they must be packaged, advertised, marketed, and sold. Don Randall was personable and engaging, and he had a zest for getting out among the public. In other words, he was the perfect complement to the introverted, lab-bound, almost reclusive Leo Fender.

Randall worked for the Radio & Television Equipment Company—or Radio-Tel—distributor of products by Leo Fender and other manufacturers. He played a significant role in the success of Fender’s revolutionary Broadcaster/Telecaster of 1950. In 1953, a new organization was established to distribute Fender amps and guitars exclusively. Called Fender Sales, it was located in Santa Ana, and headed by Randall. By then, Fender was developing his next masterpiece—the Stratocaster—and, once again, Randall was instrumental in bringing the new guitar to the marketplace.

While Fender was apparently content to evolve the early version of the “Fender guitar” (the Telecaster) into its next incarnation (the Strat), Randall insisted on having an entire line of guitars and amps—another incalculable contribution to the company’s success. In fact, it’s hard to overstate Don Randall’s influence. In Fender: The Sound Heard ’Round The World, author Richard Smith addressed the unique 2x10 tweed Twin amplifier, and observed, “It shows how Leo experimented with different configurations. Randall decided which ones to sell.”

The New Look

By the early ’60s, Fender literature surged with vitality, youth, and splashy colors. A couple of the brochures from 1960 and 1961 feature different cover photos of four people posing with their Fender gear. They seem to embody the ideal nuclear family celebrated across American culture and commerce. Two of the four are female—which, in itself, sets these brochures apart from virtually the entire body of professional-level guitar literature up to that point. With occasional exceptions (Mary Osborne, Mary Kaye), women were portrayed in other high-end catalogs as props, if at all. On these Fender covers, however, the most prominent person is a girl who looks about 11 years old. This bold departure revealed another aspect of the new message: Fender amps and guitars are for serious professionals, sure, but they’re also for anyone excited about making music with stringed instruments—families, amateurs, and even youngsters.

The late Robert Perine was another essential contributor—one who lived in Southern California, and dug electric guitars, but otherwise was far removed from Fender’s circle of radio buffs, electronics engineers, and western-music aficionados. He was an artist whose watercolors are displayed in more than 200 collections worldwide, as well as in several museums. He was also a graphic designer, art teacher, and author. One of his books details the history of his alma mater, the prestigious Chouinard Art Institute. By the early 1930s, Chouinard was acclaimed as one of the nation’s most progressive art schools, and as a student and instructor there, Bob Perine rubbed shoulders with cutting-edge critics, painters, and designers—several of whom gained international acclaim as leading influences on the development of Modernism.

Yet another of Perine’s talents was photography. Although he apparently considered his work with a camera almost as a sideline, his photos were indispensable to Fender’s public image. Perine enlisted his three daughters—who recruited some of their fellow students from Laguna Beach High School—to participate in catalog photo shoots. He posed the teenagers in board shorts and bikinis on nearby beaches, put guitars in their hands, and used surfboards and his own ’57 Thunderbird convertible as props. These images helped inject Fender squarely into the mythos of Southern California as America’s Shangri-La—an earthly paradise evoked by surf music, beach movies, palm-tree postcards, and sports-car culture.

Just as remarkable as Perine’s oceanside tableaux were his studio photos, which reflected his lifelong background in fine arts. In Fender catalogs of the early ’60s, guitars were posed like paintings on artists’ easels or alongside ornate picture frames and sleek designer chairs of molded plastic. Through Perine’s lens, Jazzmasters and Showman amps seemed perfectly at home among beatnik sculptures, paint brushes, tubes of oil paint and semi-abstract portraits reminiscent of LeRoy Neiman. Suspending some of the guitars in mid air added a dreamy, gravity-defying element to the art-gallery ambiance. Compared to the stuffy bowtie and brown wingtip vibe of other companies’ brochures, the image of a blonde piggyback tilted skyward on skinny chrome legs looked like a Salvador Dali.

A whole generation of players got the message: These Fenders are not only works of art, but works of modern art. In some of the most significant literature of the entire electric guitar era, Randall and Perine rendered layouts that were fun, imaginative, and compelling.

“Putting these things together was a dual activity, you might say,” remembered Randall. “I worked closely with Bob and supervised him, but only up to a point. He did good work on his own. Fender and the other companies probably all looked at each other’s ads and brochures from time to time, but I just didn’t see much that impressed me. The whole point of those setups with the paintings and the art was to attract attention to the amps and the guitars—to do something different that set us apart. Bob always had those props—the sculptures and so on—because he had his hand in all sorts of art things. We were doing something different with our amplifiers and our guitars, and we wanted our catalogs to reflect that.”

Market Talk

Don Randall’s brilliance in marketing Fender guitars and amps through innovative ads and catalogs is well documented. Here, Randall discusses some of the methods and processes of marketing the Fender lifestyle.

When you set up Fender Sales in 1953, what was your approach to the marketplace?

There really wasn’t much going on with respect to the amplifiers and guitars. It was just getting started. My role—and the role of the people I worked with in sales—was the same with respect to the amplifiers as with the guitars, although it worked a little different in practice. We were always very interested in getting all the information we could, and we had quite a bit of discussion about the amplifiers, trying to get feedback from the field.

Would musicians request certain components, speakers, and those sorts of details?

Not so much. I was out in the field a great deal in the early days, and we didn’t get all that much feedback. The people we were dealing with were knowledgeable about music, of course, but not very knowledgeable about electronics. So my job was to listen carefully to everything they had to say and then convert it to the electronics end of things.

Did you get a different kind of feedback regarding the amps vs. the guitars?

Yes. Some of the musicians were pretty smart guys with useful ideas, but they didn’t get into the actual design, as much as they might with the guitars. With guitars, we would send a prototype out with a musician, and he might say, “Well, I’d like to have the volume control moved a bit,” and the guitar would go back out with someone else, and we’d do this six times or ten times or whatever it might be, and some of these ideas were very specific. It wasn’t like that with the amplifiers. For most of the players, if it just worked all right and sounded good, that was fine with them.

In the late ’40s and early ’50s, Fender amps had several different styles. Right about the time you started Fender Sales, the line acquired a consistent look, with most models having the same type of cabinet and overall appearance. Did you have anything to do with that evolution?

Well, I hate to say it, but I think I had a lot to do with it [laughs]. I pretty well developed that idea—a line that had a recognizable look throughout the whole spectrum. I felt it was important that you could see an amplifier on a stage somewhere, and know right away it was one of ours.

Your catalogs and ads were much different than those from your competitors. What was your strategy?

Simply to figure out a way of merchandising that was better than what we were seeing from other companies. We did have an emphasis on youth. Of course, our company was new. We were pretty young ourselves, and that probably had something to do with it.

Did your products sell themselves?

It was a tough racket—even back then. The problem was not the competition, or our own products. Our amplifiers were excellent. The problem was getting the word out. People hadn’t heard of us. They were used to the other companies that had been around a long time. That’s what made it tough to get our stuff sold. I would go out, sometimes for six weeks at a time, contacting dealers, just trying to get the word out, but it took time to get the merchandise recognized and accepted. We were new and different, and people weren’t used to the name.

How did you select names for the products?

I’d usually write down all kinds of names—jillions of them—trying to keep within a family of some kind. Then I’d start sorting and culling them out, seeing which ones have the best sound when they are said aloud—names that leave a feeling of what the item is supposed to be. I also tried to stay away from things like “student” or “beginner,” because nobody wants to be a student or beginner. Our first beginner’s amp became the Champ—again, on the principle that nobody wants to be a beginner. After you have a few, why, the names just kind of fall in line.

I named every amp and all of the string instruments, with the one exception of the Precision Bass. Leo had “Precision Bass” in his mind. He wanted that, so that’s what we called it. Otherwise, Telecaster, Stratocaster, Princeton, Champ, Vibrolux, Twin—I came up with all of them.

Was Leo Fender open to your marketing concerns and strategies?

I had lots and lots of knock-down, drag-outs with Leo on design. He was pretty hard headed at times, and amenable at other times, to what you were trying to do. He would go along with marketing suggestions—if he wanted to. My way with him was to let it come around as just an idea—nothing too astounding or blunt. I’d say something like, “You know, Leo, we were talking about this the other day, and your idea was pretty good [laughs].” And he’d say, “Yeah, we ought to try that.” So we’d dance around on that kind of deal for a long time, and things would go ahead and change.

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