THE FENDER ELECTRIC INSTRUMENT LINE greatly impacted music throughout the latter half of the 20th Century. Sensible, highly practical, and truly durable, Fender guitars, basses, and amplifiers were made available to both professionals and amateurs alike, and were embraced by players within all musical genres. Clarence “Leo” Fender made all of this happen with the able help of a handful of dedicated and musically minded people that shared his vision, and one of his closest associates through the years was George Fullerton. Among his many achievements, George’s musical, electronic, engineering, and woodworking talents helped birth the iconic Fender Telecaster and Stratocaster guitars, and the revolutionary Precision Bass.
George William Fullerton was born on March 7th, 1923, in Hindsville, Arkansas. He was one of six musically inclined kids. His family moved to the town of Fullerton in Southern California just before World War II, and George became a machinist for Consolidated Aircraft during the war. He also enjoyed artistic endeavors such as oil painting, poetry, and playing guitar, mandolin, and piano.
George had already been leading a busy life when he became acquainted with Leo Fender at age 25. He was running his own radio repair business, playing music on weekends with the Gold Coast Rangers, studying electronics at night school, and doing some part-time work with a furniture moving company. Leo had his radio repair and record shop on Spadra Road, and provided public address systems for events around Orange County. They spent time together and helped each other out in various ways.
Leo teamed up with former Rickenbacker associate Doc Kauffman in 1945, to build the K&F brand steel guitars and amplifiers. Doc eventually began thinking he might lose his shirt as the company’s expenditures piled up, and so he left the business, but Leo continued building his Fender Musical Instruments products, and soon moved to a new location on Pomona Ave. Although Leo had spoken to George various times about coming to work for him, George wasn’t sure at first if he wanted to get involved with the instrument business. Then, one day at lunch, Leo began telling him about a new guitar project he had in mind, and talked him into spending a few days around the new shop. They soon became closer friends, and George decided to get involved in the new guitar’s development, officially coming onboard on February 2, 1948.
At first, George spent his time repairing steel guitars and amplifiers that had been returned under warranty, but soon he shifted to the development of a new solidbody Spanish guitar, which was sorely needed due to the feedback problems associated with amplifying hollowbody guitars. Fender’s solidbody steel guitars had already proved themselves in this regard, and with a professional wood shop, metal fabricators, and painters already producing nice Hawaiian guitars, why not? George would sketch out their ideas, cut various sizes of plywood forms to fashion prototypes, and play the resulting instruments for evaluation. His dad, Fred Fullerton, was an experienced woodworker who also started working for the company, along with George’s brothers Bob and Ray.
During 1949, George hand-crafted the first prototype Spanish guitar neck out of maple— simply dotting the top and side position markers on with a matchstick tip and black paint—and created electronics that combined the Fender Champion steel guitar pickup with three bridge pieces in an all-inclusive bridge plate. Next, they designed a comfortable body shape much like the rounded waist of a dreadnought acoustic, but only 13 inches wide and 1.5 inches thick. The final trick was adding a functional cutaway for easily reaching the higher frets.
That first prototype Fender Esquire guitar made of pine and maple worked well, and in early 1950, a few dozen samples evolved that featured a second pickup for rhythm playing, and a reshaped pickguard that covered the area on both sides of the strings to protect the finish. The iconic headstock with six tuners on one side for straight string pull was also finalized, and a detachable neck was devised so that it could easily be replaced if it became worn out or warped.
When they took the new Esquire to the big music trade show of 1950 it made quite a splash, but generated more controversy than immediate sales. The country & western boys, however, were in love. Leo and George made a point to visit venues like the Riverside Rancho to share their new guitars and amps, and superpicker Jimmy Bryant became the first popular artist to feature the radical Fender guitar while performing with steel guitarist Speedy West.
After the Esquire was fitted with a trussrod for greater stability later that year, the guitar was renamed the “Broadcaster,” because it could broadcast sound like radio waves. It retained that name from October 1950 to March 1951, at which point Gretsch complained that they were already using the name “Broadkaster” for their products. Fender simply cut the name off the decals between April and August of 1951, and then Fender’s Don Randall came up with the name Telecaster.
The Precision Bass followed in 1951. With an extended upper horn for good balance and a detachable neck, the “Fender Bass” was basically a big guitar with a 34" scale length for extended low-frequency response. To make it work, Leo and George had to special order metal-wound strings and modify existing tuning machines to fit a smaller headstock. The basses got more rave reviews than the bands that used them, and George was there all along helping to bring this innovative concept to fruition.
The following year found them beginning work on a three-pickup guitar with a workable vibrato tailpiece bridge assembly and ultra-comfortable body contours. First, Bill Carson suggested relieved body cuts, and then Leo worked with several others to complete the idea. The original vibrato employed a spring mechanism, and they actually tooled up to make a production run in early 1953— but when George got the first guitar off the line it sounded like a bad banjo, and the embryonic Stratocaster went back to the drawing board.
Then, along came a very talented musician from Hawaii named Freddie Tavares, who helped Leo whip the vibrato into shape using a tilting fulcrum and long springs anchored to a cavity in the rear of the instrument. When they were finished with the final version in early 1954, they felt they had designed the best-playing guitar in the world—and the truth is they did. George’s wife Lucille came up with the phrase “Comfort Contoured Body,” which was printed on a little decal attached to the headstock. The instrument was widely popularized by Buddy Holly in 1957, and then again a decade later by Jimi Hendrix. The Strat was also given a boost in England by Shadows guitarist Hank Marvin, whose guitar was painted Fiesta Red, a color that George had personally mixed originally for his ’59 Jazzmaster.
Unfortunately, at that point Leo had had a reoccurring strep throat infection for quite some time and figured he should sell the company. Don Randall found CBS to be a willing buyer and let the company go for 13 million dollars in January of 1965. George remained there for another five years, but eventually went into temporary retirement. He advised Leo to try boating as a way to relax, and the Fender and Fullertion families spent many weekends enjoying fishing getaways together.
In 1973, George teamed up with the Ernie Ball Earthwood Company in Newport Beach, California, to make some unique walnutbacked acoustic guitars and flattop basses. Meanwhile, Leo began working behind closed doors with machinist Ronnie Beers at CLF Research. Two years later, MusicMan entered the marketplace. MusicMan amps caught a break when Eric Clapton began using them. MusicMan Sabre and StingRay guitars also sold well, and their line of basses was especially popular.
In late 1979, George and Leo named their new company G&L. George served as vice president, and eventually took charge of running production, while Leo continued research and development, specializing in pickups. New designs included the Dual- Fulcrum Vibrato, Magnetic Field Design pickups, Bi-Cut necks, and the Tilt-Neck mechanism patented by Fullerton. George took me for a guided tour, showing me how the guitars were built, and introducing me to many of the employees—dedicated people who really loved their jobs and admired the men they worked for.
Leo succumbed to Parkinson’s disease in 1991. Proud of their long association and history of service to the world of guitars and amps, George and fellow G&L teammate John McClaren steered the company into the 21st Century. George made a beautiful signature model featuring a soft V-shaped neck and special treble roll-off pickup controls that was available beginning in 1995.
Recently, George also reestablished his ties with Fender, working with the Custom Shop to produce the 50th Anniversary 1957 George Fullerton Stratocaster Masterbuilt Closet Classic in November 2007. The guitar features all the best attributes of the ’50s-era models, including an all-maple soft V-shaped neck, a nitro finished vintage sunburst alder body, and ’50s-style pickups hand-wound by Abigail Ybarra, who wound the originals.
Throughout his many highly productive years, George spent long hours getting musical products ready for mass production, while still making time for his wife and family. His son Geoff, who worked with him at G&L building guitars, now works with the Fender Custom Shop. Shug Atkinson, George’s sister, also worked at G&L, assisting with pickups.
Within two months of his wife Lucille’s passing, George began having heart complications. He died on July 4th at St. Jude Medical Center in Fullerton, California, at age 86. He is survived by his two children, Geoff and Diane, and his three grandchildren. Memorial services were held at the Crystal Cathedral Arboretum in Garden Grove on July 25th. Hundreds of people attended and there was a special concert and a display of equipment and other items celebrating his accomplishments. But to many who knew and loved George, his legacy is as much about being a special person who helped people make and enjoy their music as it is about guitars and amps.
Robb Lawrence counted George Fullerton among his closest friends. Lawrence is a former GP columnist, as well as the author of The Les Paul Legacy, with major works on Fender and Gibson to be published shortly.