Leo Fender Biography

Clarence Leonidas Fender was born on August 10, 1909, to Clarence Monte Fender and Harriet Elvira Wood, owners of a successful orange grove located between Anaheim and Fullerton, CA.

From an early age, Leo showed an interest in tinkering with electronics. When he was 13 years old, his uncle, who ran an automotive-electric shop, sent him a box filled with discarded car radio parts, and a battery. The following year, Leo visited his uncle's shop in Santa Maria, CA, and was fascinated by a radio his uncle had built from spare parts and placed on display in the front of the shop. Leo later claimed that the loud music coming from the speaker of that radio made a lasting impression on him. Soon thereafter, Leo began repairing radios in a small shop in his parents' home.

In the spring of 1928, Leo graduated from Fullerton Union High School, and entered Fullerton Junior College that fall, as an accounting major. While he was studying to be an accountant, he continued to teach himself electronics, and tinker with radios and other electrical items. He never took any kind of electronics course while in college.

After college, Fender took a job as a deliveryman for Consolidated Ice and Cold Storage Company in Anaheim, where he later was made the bookkeeper. It was around this time that a local band leader approached Leo, asking him if he could build a public address system for use by the band at dances in Hollywood. Fender was contracted to build six of these PA systems.

In 1933, Fender met Esther Klosky, and they were married in 1934. About that time, Leo took a job as an accountant for the California Highway Department in San Luis Obispo. In a depression government change-up, Leo's job was eliminated, and he then took a job in the accounting department of a tire company. After working there six months, Leo lost his job along with the other accountants in the company.

So, in 1938, with $600 dollars he borrowed, Leo and Esther returned to Fullerton, and Leo started his own radio repair shop, known as "Fender Radio Service". Soon thereafter, musicians and band leaders began coming to Leo for PA systems, which he began building, selling and renting, and for amplification for the amplified acoustic guitars that beginning to show up in the southern California music scene, in big band and jazz music, and for the electric "Hawaiian" or "lap steel" guitars becoming popular in country music.

During WWII, Leo met Clayton Orr "Doc" Kauffman, an inventor and lap steel player, who had worked for Rickenbacker Guitars, a company that had been building and selling lap steel guitars for a decade. While with Rickenbacker, Kauffman had invented the "Vibrola Tailpiece"...the precursor to the later "vibrato" or "tremolo" tailpiece. Leo convinced Doc that they should team up, and they started the "K & F Manufacturing Corporation", to design and build amplified Hawaiian guitars and amplifiers. In 1944, Leo and Doc patented a lap steel guitar, that had an electric pickup already patented by Fender. In 1945, they began selling the guitar, in a kit with an amplifier designed by Leo.

By the beginning of 1946, Leo had decided that building and selling musical instruments and amplifiers would be much more profitable than repairing them. Doc was unconvinced, pulled out of the company, and they parted ways. Leo changed the name of the company to "Fender Electric Instrument Company", and specialized in Fender lap steel guitars, and amplifiers.

Early in WWII, it was clearly shown that electric circuits had to be rugged to withstand the rigors of military use. Leo realized that amplifiers should be similarly rugged to withstand the abuse they would receive by traveling musicians, so he designed Fender amplifiers to be extremely rugged. During 1946, Fender designed and began manufacturing the Deluxe, the Professional, and the Dual Professional, along with the Princeston, a 4-watt practice amp. Pushing from 18 to 45 watts, these were easily the most powerful amplifiers commercially produced. With heavy steel chassis, chromed control plates, and heavy pine cases covered with tweed fabric, Fender amps caught on immediately. In 1948, Fender began the "Champion" series of practice amp, which eventually was called "The Champ" and became the most popular amplifier built.

Also in 1948, engineer George Fullerton was hired by Leo, beginning a partnership and friendship that would last for more than 40 years.

By this time, all commercially available amplified "spanish style" (non-lap styled) guitars were acoustic guitars with pickups added. Rickenbacker had designed a spanish styled guitar made of bakelite, a predecessor to plastic, in 1935, and surely Leo was aware of its existence from Doc Kauffman. 15 miles from Fullerton, inventor and guitarist Les Paul was experimenting with a solid body "spanish neck" electric guitar he eventually called "the log". But, it pretty much has been accepted that Leo got the idea for designing a solid body spanish styled electric guitar from country guitarist Merle Travis, who had designed a solid body electric guitar and had one built for him by Paul Bixby, another southern California lap steel builder.

In 1948, Leo Fender began work on a solid bodied spanish style electric guitar. In the spring of 1950, the first commercially available, mass produced, solid bodied spanish styled electric guitar was introduced, the Fender Esquire. The Esquire had one pickup; the body was one solid piece of ash wood; the neck was one solid piece of maple wood without a truss rod inserted, and was bolted onto the body instead of the traditional method of gluing the neck to the body; the tuning heads were located all on one side of the neck, and were designed in a way that the strings were parallel to the body of the guitar from the tuning head to the bridge. The Esquire had a tone selector switch, a volume knob, and one tone knob. It was available it two colors, black with a white scratch plate, and semi-transparent "butterscotch blond" with a white scratch plate. Most early models were of the latter color.

In June, 1950, Fender added a two-pickup model of the Esquire, and in November, it acquired a neck truss rod, and was renamed the "Broadcaster". In early 1951, Gretch Musical Instrument company sent a telegram to Leo, complaining of his use of the name "Broadcaster", as Gretch had a line of drums called "Broadkaster". Fearing legal action, and being a newcomer to the musical instrument industry, Leo immediately stopped putting the name label on the Broadcasters until he could come up with a suitable new name. The guitars manufactured in this interim period are now known as "nocasters" and are rare and extremely desired. In late 1951, Leo changed the name to "Telecaster", to relate the guitar to the new and increasingly popular medium of television.

The Esquire, Broadcaster, and Telecaster caught on quickly, mostly with country music guitarists...probably because country music was extremely popular in southern California at the time. Within a year or two, the Chicago based blues guitarist Muddy Waters could be seen playing one. Its distinctive "twangy" sound became a standard for country music, and remains so today. The Telecaster of the 2000's is relatively unchanged from the original Telecaster.

The "upright bass" or "double bass" was a problem for most bands. It is large, unwieldy, hard to successfully amplify, and is easily damaged. The first solid bodied fretted electric bass guitar was introduced by Audiovox in 1935. It really never caught on, obviously due to the lack of proper amplification. In late 1951, Fender introduced the Precision Bass, a single-pickup solid bodied bass guitar with a 34" scale. With a fretted neck, and a double-cutaway body, the bassist was able to play "with precision", hence the name. In early 1952, Fender introduced "The Bassman" amplifier, a 35 watt amplifier designed for the Precision Bass. Author's note: supposedly, the Precision Bass caught on immediately. This early popularity was obviously in Jazz bands, because electric bass isn't found in pop, blues, or rock and roll until 1955-1956. In blues and the earliest rock and roll, the upright bass often served as a percussive instrument as well as a stringed instrument.

Despite the immediate popularity of the Telecaster, there were many guitarists that didn't really care for its signature "twangy" sound, and many guitarists complained of its sharp edges uncomfortably biting into their sides while playing for long periods of time. To answer these complaints, in 1954 Fender introduced the Stratocaster. With three pickups instead of two, a modern shaped, contoured body, reminiscent of the "wings" that were beginning to appear on cars, a "vibrato tailpiece" that allowed the guitarist to "bend" notes, and a name that made one think of outer space, the "Strat" was an instant hit, and eventually became the single most popular electric guitar. The Strat's contoured body style followed over to the Precision Bass.

The Bassman amp went through several changes through the 1950's. In 1958, Fender began using the circuit design designated "5F6-A", and this particular circuit was used through 1960. Though a mediocre bass amp, guitarists loved the tone and power of this amp, and it became much more popular for guitars than basses, Many people considered it to be the perfect guitar amp. In the 1960's, many amplifier manufacturers designed guitar amps based off of this circuit...including Jim Marshall. An amplifier based on the 5F6-A with a few modifications launched Marshall Amplification.

In 1960, Fender introduced the "Deluxe Model" of the Precision Bass. Leo felt that a thinner neck would appeal to jazz musicians, and aid in the transition from upright to electric bass. The body was less symmetrical than the Precision, more like the recently introduced Jazzmaster and Jaguar guitars. The two pickups opposed to the single split pickup on the standard Precision Bass gave it a totally different sound.

The Telecaster, Precision Bass, Stratocaster, and Jazz Bass are testaments to the innovation of Leo Fender. All four instruments have remained extremely popular, and modern versions have changed very little from Leo's original designs. Likewise, Leo's "Tweed" amplifiers are considered by many the best amps ever made, and the originals fetch huge sums of money. Also, in the late 1990's, mostly due to the internet, and the renewed availability of quality vacuum tubes, a new industry began to spring up, boutique amplifiers. Boutique amps are high quality hand built copies of classic amps, and the most popular are the 5F6-A Bassman, the 5F1 Champ (designed by Fender in 1955), the 5E3 Deluxe (also 1955), and the 5E8-A Twin (also 1955). Copies of these amps are also very popularly built by do-it-yourselfers, and kits are available of these circuits by several companies.

Leo worked feverously into the 1960's. He was a workoholic, usually working late into the night, and often working seven days a week. He worked both on the business and R&D sides of the company. By early 1964, he was totally exhausted, and his health was failing. In late 1964, he was approached by Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS), who was looking to get into the musical instrument business. At the end of the year, Leo sold his beloved company to CBS for $13 million. Part of the agreement between CBS and Leo was a "non-compete clause". Leo agreed that he would not participate in the musical instrument industry for 10 years after the sale.

In 1971, Leo, Forrest White, and Tom Walker, formed a new company called "Tri-sonics, Inc". Leo and Tom began designing amps, and Forrest began designing guitars, all carefully designed not to be confused with CBS Fender instruments. Later, they changed the name to "Musictek, Inc", and by January 1974, to "Musicman, Inc". During this time, Leo did not take an active role in the company, and did not until 1975, when it was officially announced that he had been elected president of the company.

Musicman was fairly successful in the beginning, but the late 1970s was a hard time for guitar and amplifier manufacturers. They made rugged amplifiers, and functional guitars with enhanced electronics.

In 1979, Leo's beloved wife Esther died of cancer. He remarried in 1980.

By 1985, the performance of the company was bad enough that Leo left, and the company was sold to Ernie and Sterling Ball.

After leaving Musicman, Leo once again teamed up with George Fullerton, and they formed G & L Guitars. G&L Guitars were styled similarly to Fender's original guitars, with some cosmetic differences, but had much more modern electronics and tremolo systems.

Leo continued to refine the designs he had originally created, and received many patents for his later designs of pickups and tremolo systems, and neck designs.

Leo worked at G&L every day...he actually went to work the day before his death on March 21, 1991...despite having several small strokes and Parkinson's Disease. He remained the same man he had always been, hard working to near obsessive, friendly, unassuming...his coffee cup was a styrofoam cup with "Leo" written on the side with a black marker. This man, who singlehandedly changed the music industry, and did more than any other one person to create the modern electric guitar, though he had taken piano lessons as a child, and played saxophone in the high school band, never learned how to play guitar.

Article written by Frank Stroupe

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