GP Classic Interview: Leo Fender, September 1971

Leo Fender, one of the pioneers of the electric guitar and founder of Fender Musical Instruments, was born on a ranch in Anaheim, California in 1909. He attended public schools for 16 years, centering his studies in the fields of

Leo Fender, one of the pioneers of the electric guitar and founder of Fender Musical Instruments, was born on a ranch in Anaheim, California in 1909. He attended public schools for 16 years, centering his studies in the fields of math, science and business. While in school in the mid-Twenties, Mr. Fender began studying the saxophone and piano. In1922 he began experimenting with radio and other electrical and mechanical gear, and by the late ’20s, he had a ham radio station, W-6·00E.

His inquiring and technical mind led to the creation of his first acoustic guitar in 1925, for he was by nature a tinkerer. After the establishment of amplification equipment in the U.S. market, Leo Fender began building his own amplification systems, and from 1930 to 1947, he kept three separate P.A. systems quite busy at political, sporting and entertainment events.

It was in 1939 that Mr. Fender began building electric guitars. He had, from 1931 to 1947, also operated a radio, music and record store where he spent much of his time building arid repairing electric guitars, reed pianos, and violins. Although Mr. Fender seemed sold on the idea of amplifying instruments, he didn't actually start manufacturing guitars and amps in quantity until the fall of 1945, his first guitar being patented two years before. Since that time, Mr. Fender has established patents for record changers, electric violins, reed pianos, amplifier designs and amplifier circuitry. His most recent registered patent was applied for just last January.

Since his company's sale to CBS Musical Instruments in the mid-Sixties, Mr. Fender has not only been acting as consultant to the firm, but has also occupied his time traveling around the world. His hobbies include boating and fishing on his 52-foot sedan cruiser.

When did you decide to get into the music manufacturers’ business?
About 1942, because I liked developing new items that people needed. Working with tools and equipment was more to my liking than retail sales.

How did you begin? Did you have other associates come in with you in this venture?
During World War II, my radio and music store employed eight repairmen. We took care of most of the northern Orange County in California. We had lots of contacts and were well equipped, so it was natural that we would be doing custom work for musicians. It was during this time I became acquainted with a party named C.O. "Doc" Kauffman. One day he came into the store and saw some new pickups I had made and installed on a customer's guitar. We struck up a relationship wherein Doc helped in model making and design that led to patents in guitars and record players. Building items during this time was difficult because of war restrictions, so we mostly had to use scrap materials. When the Armistice was signed in the fall of 1945, Doc and I started manufacturing in a small way, building for Pacific Music Supply Company and a chain of guitar schools. As the venture grew, it required more investment and Doc became worried about the risk so he withdrew early in 1946. His worry was right. We had quite a few hard years ahead. Later in 1946, I began exclusive distribution through Radio and Television: Equipment Company. In order to expand our distribution, in about 1952 we formed Fender Sales, Incorporated, with four equal shareholders. Fender Sales, Inc. was the exclusive distributor for the Fender Electric Instrument Company of which I was full owner. Later, due to deaths and other reasons, I also became half owner of Fender Sales.

Who were some of the artists who first endorsed Fender products?
It would be difficult to remember who all the early endorsers were, but some of the early users were Noel Boggs, Speedy West, Buck Owens, Roy Lanham, Herb Remington, Bob Wills, Tex Ritter, Eddie Miller, Johnny Cash Group, Lionel Hampton, Wes and Monk Montgomery, Hank Thompson's group, Billy Gray, Alvino Rey, Buddy Merrill, Neil LeVang, Tiny Timbill in Harry James' band, Les Paul and Mary Ford, Hank Penny, The Gallion Brothers, Cliffie Stone, Wade Ray, Charlie Aldrich and Marty Robbins, and a great many others, all very dear to me.

What did Fender products have to offer over the main competitors at the time of beginning production?
Originally my work was design, modification, repair, and custom building. This gave me a wide acquaintance with competitive products and users' needs. Since my work encompassed more than musical equipment, I knew of benefits I could apply to the musicians' gear. I guess you would say the objectives were durability, performance, and tone.

What prompted the sale of Fender to CBS?
Due to a prolonged case of strep infection, I didn't feel I could continue the hard routine. So I felt it advisable to sell, and CBS seemed the most suited. About 1968, I found a doctor who knew the appropriate treatment for the infection and I haven't been bothered with it since.

Just one last question, whose idea was it to have the tuning gears located on one side of the peghead?
Well, that's a very old idea that has been around for thousands of years. The Croatians, near Poland, have several instruments with tuning pegs located on one side of the guitar and they invented this years ago.

From Guitar Player’s September 1971 “Pro’s Reply” column