Remembering Leo Fender

In celebration of the 100th anniversary of Leo Fender’s birth (August 10, 1909 - March 21, 1991), Fender Musical Instruments Corp. is proud to share the story of the man behind the most creative surge in the history of electrical instrument manufacturing.
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Photo by Bob Perine

In celebration of the 100th anniversary of Leo Fender’s birth (August 10, 1909 - March 21, 1991), Fender Musical Instruments Corp. is proud to share the story of the man behind the most creative surge in the history of electrical instrument manufacturing.

There is a good chance that his office would have disappointed the lowest federal bureaucrat in Washington. It was a small room, sparsely furnished — no carpet, functional lighting, with a drafting table piled high with blueprints; the monotonic paint was vaguely institutional. A metal bookcase was crammed with speaker parts and catalogs from electronics suppliers. On the modest, metal-topped desk sat a Styrofoam coffee cup that, while disposable, was nevertheless being saved; it was labeled with a name carefully printed on masking tape in ballpoint pen: Leo. A side door opened into a large, concrete-floored room full of industrial drills and punch presses. There were no clues to the fact that the occupant of the office was a millionaire executive and a leader of his industry, though the absence of frills and the palpable air of utility and frugality befit the man who designed it, Clarence Leo Fender.

If historians can’t pinpoint the first solidbody electric Spanish guitar, it’s partly because of a lack of agreement on criteria that would define it. Was it a Hawaiian lap steel modified by some obscure soul who hammered frets into his guitar, tuned it to standard pitch and flipped it on its side? Was it Lloyd Loar’s short-lived, seldom seen Vivi-Tone of 1933, with its impractical pickup and oddball construction (sort of a full-length neck assembly with a guitar top attached to it)? Was it Rickenbacker’s Model B Spanish guitar of 1935, with an inconveniently small, chambered body of Bakelite, a short scale, and its frets and neck molded into a single unit? Or Slingerland’s late-’30s Songster Style 401, called by some the first “modern” solidbody with its full 25” scale, real frets, and wooden body?

Some point to Les Paul’s “Log,” a makeshift contraption consisting of a neck, hardware and strings attached to a 4x4” pine board with body “wings” stuck on the sides. There were more than a few drops of bad blood among various parties concerning a guitar designed by Merle Travis and built in 1948 by Paul Bigsby; my own contender for the “first modern solidbody” title, it had neck-through construction, a headstock profile that foreshadowed the Stratocaster, and a somewhat Les Paul-like body silhouette.

The Vivi-Tone, Rickenbacker, and Slingerland were innovative, to be sure, but aside from suggesting to anyone who was aware of them that the solidbody concept might be worth pursuing, it would be hard to document their influence on the pioneers who designed practical solidbody guitars. Although the ingenious Paul Bigsby almost certainly influenced Leo Fender to some degree, he never wanted to be a major manufacturer, and according to former Gibson president Ted McCarty, the time-honored Les Paul of 1952 was not so much a fulfillment of Les Paul’s request for a solidbody but rather a response to the Telecaster. As much as we might revel in the romance of a tidy, straight-line evolution traceable to some hallowed First Guitar, the story of the solidbody’s development is rather a tale of sometimes simultaneous efforts by independent builders, each with his own influences and insights. A few of their ideas are still with us every time we play or hear an electric guitar, but most are long forgotten. As with many species, the solidbody’s story is marked with more than a few evolutionary dead ends.

Debates about who influenced whom, however fascinating, sometimes obscure an essential fact: It was Leo Fender who put the solidbody on the map. He possessed something beyond a knack for mechanics, or foresight, or a belief in a dream: He could make it happen, and therein lay the singular genius of Fender. He designed an electric Spanish guitar with no discernible connection to the Vivi-Tone or the Slingerland, one that looked nothing like the little Rickenbackers or Les Paul’s ungainly “Log,” one that even Merle Travis admitted was superior to his own Bigsby, one that would later prove its practicality with continuous production over half a century (and counting). Mr. Fender’s next move was just as important but often overlooked: He developed a process by which the new instrument and its more glamorous sibling, the Stratocaster, could be profitably manufactured on a large scale. By any meaningful criteria, it was Clarence Leo Fender who was the father of the solidbody guitar.

But suppose he had never developed the Telecaster, the industry’s first commercially viable solidbody and also its longest running success story. What if he had never designed the Stratocaster, the world’s most exciting, popular, and influential electric guitar? Suppose he’d never invented the electric bass, which, as Quincy Jones said, “came along and gave music its real sound.” Take away the Tele, take away the Strat, take away the Precision and Jazz Basses. Without these monumental achievements, what can we say then of the legacy of Leo Fender? In his own way, the farm-born, self-taught genius from Orange County would remain the preeminent figure in the history of electric instruments because of the amplifiers that sprang from his restless mind and from his first and perhaps deepest love, electronics. More than any other person, it was Leo Fender who gave electric guitarists our electricity.

“Leo was a deep, relentless thinker,” his friend and colleague Bill Carson recalled, “and when you got an idea across to him he could put it into being. He could figure the size of the screws, the amount of threads per inch — in his mind — and write it down on an envelope and then go out there and make it. In my estimation, the working musician never had as good a friend as Leo Fender.” If there was one other quality aside from mechanical genius that Leo Fender’s friends remembered him for, it was his legendary thrift. He was once asked by a co-worker why he ate canned spaghetti instead of buying a hot sandwich from the lunch truck like the rest of the factory crew. He replied, “Because for the difference in price between the spaghetti and the sandwich I can buy a handful of resistors.”

Fender’s radical guitars and their profound, even subversive effects seem all the more impressive given Mr. Fender’s low-key personality and the distinctly conservative tenor of the Orange County, California, surroundings where he grew up. But his calm demeanor diminished neither his passion for things mechanical nor his relentless inquisitiveness. He routinely annoyed representatives who sold him parts and supplies by grilling them about their own products and then explaining the answers in detail. He was ever curious, known to suddenly slide under a parked car to check out its undercarriage. According to the late Don Randall, “Leo liked machinery. He had very expensive and high-powered machinery that probably didn’t run more than five days a month, but he liked it, the big presses and everything. Leo designed all the equipment, which was unique, and he was a genius for figuring out the manufacturing process. A very clever man.” By his own estimate, Leo Fender owned up to 75 patents. Clever, indeed.

It’s difficult to overstate Mr. Fender’s impact on his industry. Almost like a glitzy trend-setter, he helped to alter the look, the sound, and the personality of American music, and yet it would be hard to imagine a man of plainer appearance or fewer affectations. The late Freddie Tavares said, “He never wore any kind of clothes that you’d expect a person in his position to wear. People didn’t have the slightest idea he was any kind of a wheel. I would have to point him out to someone who didn’t know him. ‘See that man over there? He owns everything.’ Leo never flew off the handle, never raised his voice. One time someone made a costly mistake, and Leo just said, ‘I wish they knew how often I made a mistake.’ With all of his stresses and strains, he still tried to keep everyone’s spirits up.”

A similar account, told by the late Forrest White, concerned a new employee who, not recognizing Mr. Fender, responded to some casual advice from Leo by saying, “Look buddy, you take care of your job, and I’ll take care of mine.” “Leo just sort of grinned and didn’t say anything,” Forrest recalled with obvious affection. “But that gives you an idea of what kind of man he was. He was easy to get along with because he didn’t have to impress anyone. He was a living example of what a successful man should be.”

Although Mr. Fender was not an outgoing individual, his offbeat sense of humor often entertained employees. One of his favorite techniques was the play on words; an example: “You know, everybody thinks we make custom instruments, but that’s because we make them so good that our competitors have always cussed ’em.” He liked a good car, meaning one that was mechanically sound, but he shunned most trappings of the successful executive. He rarely wore a suit, and was almost never without his leather holster full of screwdrivers. In his shirt, he kept a plastic pocket protector stuffed with pens, pencils, and a little metal ruler.

When someone did a job for Leo Fender, no matter how good it was, it rarely met his standards. He split hairs, he looked over shoulders, and he could be meddlesome (he offered employees much advice, solicited or otherwise, on subjects such as which new car they should buy). Yet his employees liked him; some practically worshipped him. Forrest White’s opinion — “I wouldn’t trade the years I spent with Leo for anything” — was not uncommon.

Leo Fender neither drank nor smoked and had few close friends. He had no children. “His guitars and amps,” one associate said, “those were his kids.” He was described by more than one associate as something of a recluse. While he dabbled in photography, liked to play pinochle on a Saturday night, and owned an expensive boat, his only true hobby, perhaps his obsession, was his work. He was a man of few words. He did not play guitar.

Excerpted from The Stratocaster Chronicles and The Soul Of Tone, by Tom Wheeler (Hal Leonard Publishing).