It’s hard to believe, looking at this primitive instrument, that the world’s largest guitar company started with such a crude prototype. The guitar pictured here is Leo Fender’s 1943 “log”—and although it doesn’t look like it, it’s one of the most historically significant guitars in the entire world.
While it resembles one of Leo’s early lap steels, this is a standard Spanish-style guitar with a round neck. Ergonomically, it’s a nightmare. The small body is uncomfortable to hold, and the pickup—with its string-through- magnet design—makes picking difficult and palm muting impossible. The neck itself is crudely shaped, and the intonation seems to be an afterthought. Despite all this, what would become the Fender Musical Instrument Company began right here.
Leo always maintained that this guitar was not intended to revolutionize the world—he merely needed an electric guitar to rent out to Western groups around Fullerton, California, where his company was based. Fender ran a radio repair shop, but also rented sound equipment and other gear for local music events and concerts.
Even by 1943, there were better-made solidbody electric guitars. Rickenbacker made their Bakelite Spanish-style solidbody “frying pan” as early as 1936, and the wood-bodied Slingerland Songster debuted in 1939. Leo’s prototype was similar to these small-bodied guitars, but much cruder in execution.
Seven years after Leo handcrafted his “log,” the Fender Company came out with their Esquire guitar in 1950. The pine-bodied Esquire was a major leap forward in design, both ergonomically and sonically. The Esquire would be renamed the Broadcaster for a short while, eventually becoming the renowned Telecaster in 1951.
The vaunted Tele design owed a debt to Paul Bigsby’s solidbody guitar made for Merle Travis. However, Paul Bigsby made expensive handcrafted guitars one at a time, and Leo Fender had his sights set on mass production and affordable guitars for everybody. In a few short years, after the company introduced the Precision Bass and the Stratocaster, Leo Fender had completely redefined guitar mass production, selling guitars so quickly that all the other companies were left in his dust.
We all have to start somewhere, as the saying goes. This guitar sure isn’t pretty, but it was the start of the biggest guitar revolution the world has ever known.