Leo Fender

Leo Fender, inventor, innovator and savvy businessman

Clarence Leonidas “Leo” Fender was born in 1909 and grew up in California. His parents Clarence Monte Fender and Harriet Elvira Wood, were owners of a successful orange grove located between Anaheim and Fullerton, California. Leo showed an interest in tinkering with electronics at a very early age. His uncle, who ran an automotive-electric shop was a big influence on him. Leo was fascinated with radios and soon began repairing them in a small shop in his parents’ home.

After graduating from Fullerton High School, Leo attended Fullerton Junior College where he studied to be an accountant. He continued to teach himself electronics, and tinker with radios and other electrical items. Leo never took any kind of formal electronics training. He later became a bookkeeper and learned a bit about running a business. While working as an accountant, a local band leader asked Leo if he could build a public address system for use by the band at dances in Hollywood. You could not drive over to Guitar Center or Sam Ash in those days. These were not “off-the-shelf” items. Fender was eventually contracted to build six of these PA systems.

Leo married his fist wife, Esther Klosky in 1934 and took a responsible job with California Highway Department in San Luis Obispo. However, his government job was eliminated due to cut backs. After losing another job as an accountant at a Tire company due to downsizing after only six months, Leo had enough with balancing numbers.

Inside the Fender Radio Shop, circa 1949

Inside the Fender Radio Shop, circa 1949

Outside the Fender  Radio Repair Shop, circa 1949

Outside the Fender Radio Repair Shop, circa 1949

In 1938, with a borrowed $600, Leo and Esther returned to Fullerton, and Leo started his own radio repair shop, “Fender Radio Service.” This is where the Fender story begins. He opened up his small shop to repair radios, phonograph players, home audio amplifiers, public address systems and musical instrument amplifiers. In the late 1930’s they were all based on vacuum tubes with the original designs based on research developed and released to the public domain by Western Electric which made telephone company equipment.

Fender Public Address Service

Fender Public Address Service

Leo’s store front business also carried records for sale and the rented self-designed PA systems. Leo began building amplifiers based on his own designs or modifications to designs, that he felt improved their quality and usefulness. The Fender Radio Service was one of the few places around Fullerton to buy records or get a radio repaired. Leo was a smart businessman and provided whatever items or devices out of his little business that could possibly make a profit. Local musicians and band leaders began coming to Leo for PA systems, which he built, rented, and sold. They also visited his store for amplification for acoustic guitars that were beginning to be seen used in big band and jazz music, and for the electric “Hawaiian” or “lap steel” guitars that were becoming quite popular.

"Doc" Kauffman

“Doc” Kauffman

During WWII, in the early 1940’s Leo Fender met Clayton Orr “Doc” Kauffman who was a musician and formally the chief designer of electric guitars for Rickenbacker, which had been building and selling lap steel guitars for a decade. Doc Kauffman invented and patented one of the first mechanical vibrato units, Vibrola (sometimes called “Kauffman Vibrola” or “Kaufman vibrato”) in 1935. He soon became Leo Fender’s business partner and they founded the K & F Manufacturing Corp to design, manufacture, and market electric instruments and amplifiers.

Kauffman Vibrola

Kauffman Vibrola

K & F began production in 1945 with Hawaiian lap steel guitars (incorporating a patented pickup) and vacuum tube (or valve) amplifiers sold as sets. By the end of the year Fender became convinced that manufacturing was more profitable than repair and he decided to concentrate on that business instead.

K&F Lap Steel and "woody" amps

K&F Lap Steel and “woody” amps

It is important to realize that this was at the end of the great war and Kauffman had already seen failed attempts at profits at Rickenbacker. Kauffman was unconvinced at the prospects with Leo and was afraid of losing the money he still had. Kauffman and Fender amicably parted ways by early 1946. At that point Leo renamed the company the Fender Electric Instrument Company. The original service shop remained open until 1951, although Leo Fender did not personally supervise it after 1947.

Fender/Kauffman Patent Diagram

Fender/Kauffman Patent Diagram

So this was the point when ‘Fender’ as a company was actually born. A custom lap steel guitar made in 1946 for his friend Noel Boggs was thought to be the very first product sporting the now familiar Big “F” logo.

Leo Fender

Leo Fender

In 1948, engineer George Fullerton was hired by Leo, beginning a partnership and friendship that would last for over 40+ years. George worked with Leo on many guitar and amp designs. He was also a big part of Fender introducing colors to the guitar models. The first one was known as “Fullerton Red” named for George Fullerton.

Two other people that played a large part in Fender’s early success were musician/product engineer Freddie Tavares and marketing genius Don Randall. Rickenbacker was the exclusive distributor for Fender’s Hawaiian lap steel guitars and amplifiers in the early days. Don Randall assembled what Fender’s original partner Doc Kauffman called “a sales distributorship like nobody had ever seen in the world.” It was Don Randall that suggested that Leo, design a Spanish style guitar to complement the Hawaiian style lap steels Fender was selling around 1948. Leo started working on the design.

Don Randall

Don Randall

No one knows just how much influence Doc Kauffman, Les Paul, Don Randall or Paul Bigsby’s Merle Travis guitar had on Leo’s early design of Fender’s first solid body electric guitar. It is likely that Leo was well aware of Bigsby’s solid body as they knew each other socially and were both based in California. Leo Fender was not a guitar player. This may have been a disadvantage, but also likely allowed him to “think outside the box” in what he thought his design of the guitar should be.

Merle Travis with Paul Bigsby Solid Body Guitar

Merle Travis with Paul Bigsby Solid Body Guitar

Leo spent a great deal of time talking to local Country & Western musicians that he knew. He rented PAs to many of them. Fender had ben making lap steel guitars for a few years. Leo developed a good idea for what they wanted in an instrument. He determined that many of the players back in those days, owned maybe one guitar. If the guitar was damaged or the frets wore out, the repairs would be costly and time consuming. If their guitar was being repaired they could not earn a living. Working musicians would appreciate a guitar that was inexpensive, plus easy and quick to repair.

Many small combos were now playing boogie-woogie, rhythm and blues, western swing, and honky-tonk in roadhouses and dance halls which Leo realized created a growing need for louder, cheaper, and more durable guitars. Since Leo rented PA equipment, he was well aware of the feedback issues that a hollow body electrified guitars had. Leo was out to design what he thought was a better guitar for working musicians.

First Prototye - Snakehead model

First Prototye – Snakehead model

Second Prototype - Broadcaster Model

Second Prototype – Broadcaster Model

Fender Museum with some original instruments

Fender Museum with some original instruments

Leo Fender could look at something and immediately discern the simplest method of doing whatever had to be done,” said Les Paul. “He was a good, honest guy who made a straightforward guitar.

1950 Fender Announces Esquire (in black with white pickguard)

1950 Fender Announces Esquire (in black with white pickguard)

After a few prototypes and having some players test and comment, then eventual improvements, Leo was ready to launch Fender’s first solid body guitar. The first guitar was the 1950 Fender Esquire, so named as it sounded regal. The Esquire had a single pickup, 25.5 inch full scale and no truss rod. The early one shown in the 1950 Fender catalog was actually painted black with a white pickguard. I guess this fit the “regal” theme. Even though Esquire magazine was popular at the time no one complained about the name. Leo had felt the rock maple he was using for necks would be strong enough and a truss rod would not be needed. This proved to be a false start as some of the necks had issues with warping. Only about fifty were likely made. What followed was a more refined model.

1951 Fender Esquire

1951 Fender Esquire

In 1951, Fender offered the first mass-produced solid-body Spanish-style electric guitar, which had two pickups and a truss rod. One issues was the early pre-orders were actually for the one pickup Esquire which was a bit cheaper to manufacture. So the solution was to give the new two pickup model a new name and discontinue the Esquire one pickup model. Radio was a king in those days and Leo was a radio repair guy, so the name reflected this, as it was called the Fender Broadcaster.

The Broadcaster was introduced to the public by Fender in 1951, with a price tag of $169.95 plus $39.95 for the case. Featuring the addition of an adjustable truss rod and was the first Fender guitar officially released with 2 pickups (although some transitional 2-pickup Esquires exist). BUT it was short lived… the name was soon changed. There are estimates that anywhere from 50 to 500 Broadcasters were built, though most experts agree there were probably no more than 200 instruments produced in the six months or so during which the Broadcaster name was used

1951 Fender Broadcaster

1951 Fender Broadcaster

Almost immediately, Fender was contacted by the Gretsch Company from Brooklyn, New York by telegram. Gretsch informed Fender that they had a trademark on the name, Broadkaster that was used for their drums. Fender being a young company, recognized this dilemma and knew they needed a quick name change. Leo Fender was a guy who lived through the Great Depression and was quite frugal. So to save money and not slow production, he had the factory workers simply cut Broadcaster off the decals so the guitar just said Fender. Collectors later nick-named these guitars “no-casters.”

Fender "no caster" headstock

Fender “no caster” headstock

Fender Champion Lap Steels that Leo was making as early as 1948, shared a lot of design cues for the Fender Broadcaster. The early lead pickups on the Fender Broadcaster where identical to the Fender Champion Lap Steel.

Early 1950s Fender Champion Lap Steel

Early 1950s Fender Champion Lap Steel

It is not uncommon to find many of the vintage Champions Lap Steel missing their original pickups, knobs or pots as players where able to buy these in pawn shops for low prices in after the late 1960’s.

Soon the guitar was renamed. Many people where buying televisions for the first time, so the name chosen was Telecaster. With the Telecaster, Leo was out to change the guitar world forever. The Telecaster was a fully solid body guitar with a bolt on rock maple neck. Idea was if the frets wore out or the neck was damaged, you could swap out the neck with a new one with four screws.

The body was made from ash, after Fender had tried out other woods. The prototype bodies where made from pine, but dented easily as pine is a soft wood. Ash was likely used as it is a harder wood that has a nice grain that could show through the finish and was easy for Fender to acquire. The body was routed for the pickups and the control plate that could easy allow access to the electronic parts. The Telecaster, was a solidly built guitar that could be used to stop a bar fight and still stay in tune!

Once the Telecaster was introduced, the Esquire became marketed as a lower-cost version. It came with one pickup, but most had the body was routed for two pickups and covered by the pickguard. The Player could always add a second pickup later if desired. The Esquire’s sales eventually declined and the model was discontinued in 1969. It has been reissues several times however.

1952 Fender Telecaster

1952 Fender Telecaster

Some may argue who actually created the first solid body electric guitar. What we know for sure, is that Leo Fender greatly improved earlier designs that could be mass produced and would not require highly skilled luthier’s to build. Leo wanted to produce these guitars in mass and he built a factory to achieve this. Other builders, like Paul Bigsby had no desire for a factory and only did custom ordered hand-build guitars. One of the main differences between Bigsby and Fender was their business models. Leo, had a factory with employee payroll to meet. This surely helped dictate how the Fender Telecaster was designed and built.

Fender manufactured most all the parts for the Telecaster in its own factory. Good part of Leo’s genius was being able to “tool” the factory and design the build process utilizing a local labor force. There were no “master builders” at Fender in those days. Many of the workers in the factory were women and migrant workers that were trained inside the factory. Leo did make a deal with V.C. Squier Company to supply strings for his new electric guitars around 1950.

Jimmy Bryant and Speedy West

Jimmy Bryant and Speedy West

Jimmy Bryant was one of the early endorsers for the Telecaster. He was a top country player that was quite popular along with Speedy West (on pedal steel that was actually custom made by Paul Bigsby). Jimmy was an early “guitar-hero” and other players were quite interested in this new Fender guitar he was playing. Jimmy Bryant was used in the early Fender sales literature.

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The Telecaster which looked a bit crude, as compared to traditional guitars, was called many names, like canoe paddle, plank, etc. However, the Telecaster was a hit pretty much from the start, but Leo did not stop here.

The early Fender Esquire, Broadcaster, “no-caster” and Telecaster are known as Blackguards as they all share a black pickguard from 1950 to 1954. Late in 1954 the Fender Telecaster goes Whiteguard.

1952 Fender Precision Bass with a 1952 TV front Fender Bassman 1x15 combo amp

1952 Fender Precision Bass with a 1952 TV front Fender Bassman 1×15 combo amp

In 1951, Leo invented the first mass-produced solid body electric bass, the Precision Bass (P-Bass) with a 34-inch scale. Leo understood the problems experienced by players of the acoustic double bass, who could no longer compete for volume with the other musicians. Carrying a big “dog house” bass around was no easy task as they are large and bulky. The Precision Bass was named to reflect the fact that it was fretted allowed bassists to play with “precision.” Fender also introduced a bass amplifier, the Fender Bassman, a 25-watt amplifier with one 15″ speaker (later updated to 45 watts and four 10″ speakers and often adopted by guitar players).

This early success sure got Gibson’s attention. Gibson had passed on the idea of solid body electric guitars, but soon realized they must respond quickly. No longer would the name calling matter.

Gibson contacted Les Paul, who had been trying to shop the idea of the solid body guitar for a number of years. Les Paul was a top notch player with hit records. Gibson introduced the 1952 Les Paul Gold Top fully solid body guitar in 1952. This endorsement deal with Les Paul has been one of the longest and successful deals in the guitar world.

Les Paul had shown Gibson his “log” created from a 4 X 4 piece of solid wood that had “wings” added to it from a standard archtop guitar body to make a recognizable guitar shape that allowed it to be played sitting in the early 1940s. O.W. Appleton also pitched his APP Guitar to Gibson in 1943 sure looks a lot like an early Gibson Les Paul. Gibson had no interest in a solid body guitar. After Fender’s Telecaster, Gibson had to finally take solid body guitars serious.

In 1954, Fender responded with a completely new design that Leo felt would replace the Telecaster. The Fender Stratocaster was designed by Leo Fender, Bill Carson, George Fullerton, and Freddie Tavares.

Freddie Tavares (who also helped design the classic Bassman amp). Tavares was a talented Hawaiian musician and inventor who actually played the lap steel swoop on the beginning of the Looney Tunes theme. He was a good guitar player and a virtuoso on the steel guitar, playing on many hundreds of recording sessions, radio broadcasts and movie soundtracks before working for Leo Fender.

1954 Fender Stratocaster

1954 Fender Stratocaster

The Stratocaster had a unique space age “double-cutaway” body shape that featured body contours for the player’s comfort and was well balanced. The Fender Stratocaster was the first guitar to feature three pickups and a spring tension tremolo system. The tremolo system is actually mis-named as it is actually a vibrato (Fender later called the tremolo on their amps a vibrato). The Stratocaster’s double cutaways allowed the players easier access to higher positions on the neck. The new spring tensioned tremolo would keep the guitar relatively in tune when used. The Fender Stratocaster is still the most popular and copied electric guitar in the world.

Vibrato is a modulation effect that varies pitch. Tremolo is also a modulation effect, however it uses varying amplitude, or volume, of the signal. So technically, the “tremolo arm” on your guitar is a vibrato that varies the pitch of the strings and the vibrato as named on some amps, is actually a tremolo the varies the volume of the amplified signal.

True “vibrato” effects can be found on certain stompboxes and effects processors, but rarely built-into amps. Tremolo modifies the signal electronically so is not what is found on your guitar which uses a mechanical string system to alter pitch.

Buddy Holly with his iconic Fender Stratocaster

Buddy Holly with his iconic Fender Stratocaster

Dick Dale with a left handed Stratocaster

Dick Dale with a left handed Stratocaster

Hank Marvin and the Shadows

Hank Marvin and the Shadows

Early Stratocaster players that helped propel this model for Fender were Buddy Holly, Dick Dale and Hank Marvin of the Shadows (band that originally backed Cliff Richard) who played one of the first Strats brought into Great Britain.

John playing his first Strat

John playing his first Strat

In 1965, George Harrison and John Lennon acquired Stratocasters and used them for Help!, Rubber Soul and later recording sessions; the double unison guitar solo on “Nowhere Man” is played by Harrison and Lennon on their Sonic Blue Stratocasters. However the Beatles were no playing live in those days so few knew that had Strats in the studio. It was later that George Harrison turned his Sonic Blue Stratocaster into the iconic Rocky guitar when he painted his.

Before and After the Rocky paint work

Before and After the Rocky paint work

The Stratocaster features three single coil pickups, with the output originally selected with a 3-way switch (like the Telecaster’s switch). Player’s quickly discovered that by jamming a match book or another item into the switch they could get different sounds between the 1st and 2nd position (both bridge and middle pickups could be selected), and similarly, the middle and neck pickups could be selected between the 2nd and 3rd position. This has become know as the Stratocaster quack tone. In 1977, Fender finally added a 5-way selector switch making these pickup combinations easier.

The “quacky” tone of the middle and bridge pickups, have been popularized by players such as David Gilmour, Rory Gallagher, Mark Knopfler, Bob Dylan, Scott Thurston, Ronnie Wood, Ed King, Eric Clapton and Robert Cray.

With all these innovations and improvements, Leo had expected the the Stratocaster to totally replace the Telecaster, which looked crude in comparison. Nicknamed “the plank” it was a decent assumption. But players while greatly accepting the Stratocaster still wanted Telecasters and they were in great demand. The Telecaster and the Stratocaster have been in constant production ever since.

Late 1954, brought a updated Telecaster. This started what has been known as the Whiteguard Era.

1955 Fender Telecaster - Whiteguard

1955 Fender Telecaster – Whiteguard

Country artists like Buck Owens, Don Rich, Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings, Luther Perkins, Marty Stuart and Roy Nichols played Telecasters almost exclusively all during the 1960s. Buck Owens and Don Rich were seen on TV shows like Hee Haw and The Buck Owens Show regularly playing custom sparkle Telecasters that Fender built.

Fender Sparkle Telecasters on Buck Owens Show

Fender Sparkle Telecasters on Buck Owens Show

Buck Owens with his famous Telecaster

Buck Owens with his famous Telecaster

Johnny Cash and Luther Perkins

Johnny Cash and Luther Perkins

Rock and Blues artists loved the Telecaster also. Players like Jimmy Page, Keith Richards, Jeff Beck, Bruce Springsteen, Chrissie Hynde, Andy Summers, Nancy Wilson, Mike Bloomfield, Muddy Waters and Albert Collins played Telecasters.

Bruce Springsteen with modified ’50s Esquire on the famous cover of his 1975 classic, Born to Run.

Bruce Springsteen with modified ’50s Esquire on the famous cover of his 1975 classic, Born to Run.

Nancy Wilson with her Telecaster

Nancy Wilson with her Telecaster

Jeff Beck with iconic Esquire

Jeff Beck with iconic Esquire

George Harrison with his Rosewood Fender Telecaster

George Harrison with his Rosewood Fender Telecaster

Jimmy Page used Telecaster on Led Zeps first and second albums

Jimmy Page used Telecaster on Led Zeps first and second albums

The B-Bender was invented in 1968 by musicians Gene Parsons and Clarence White of Nashville West and The Byrds. Gene Parsons a drummer and mechanist worked with Clarence White to transform his 1954 Fender Telecaster. They added a string pull mechanism so by pushing down on the guitar strap the B string could be raised a whole tone (from B to C sharp). After Clarence’s untimely death, his guitar was purchased by Marty Stuart as his number one guitar.

Clarence White with the Byrds

Clarence White with the Byrds

Marty Stuart with Clarence White's original B Bender

Marty Stuart with Clarence White’s original B Bender

Forrest Lee Jr B Bender installed in a Fender Baja Telecaster

Forrest Lee Jr B Bender installed in a Fender Baja Telecaster

Fender Student Models Introduced

1957 Fender Musicmaster and 1959 Fender Duo-Sonic

1957 Fender Musicmaster and 1959 Fender Duo-Sonic

Fender Musicmaster and Duo-Sonic guitars were introduced in 1956 as student models. These models were requested by Fender sales department. Both models featured a bolt-on maple neck with a shorter scale that was thought to be great for younger, beginner guitarists and other players with smaller hands. The Musicmaster and Duo-Sonic had a 22.5 inch scale length and 21 frets.

Fender Delivers Newly Designed Offset Guitars

Fender American Vintage '65 Jazzmaster and Jaguar Guitars

Fender American Vintage ’65 Jazzmaster and Jaguar Guitars

In 1958, Fender introduced the Jazzmaster a high end solid body that was originally targeted to Jazz players. The offset design made playing the guitar while seated easier. This was the first Fender guitar that had a rosewood fingerboard and also the first one to have a larger headstock. The pickups featured fatter flat styled single coil pickups (a bit like a P-90) with a unique electronics to allow for the versatility of tones. Leo Fender totally expected the Jazzmaster to replace the Stratocaster with its new body shape and newly designed floating tremolo. It was Fender’s most expensive guitar to date. The Jazzmaster, never reached it’s target of Jazz musicians. Instead it soon became an instrument that Surf players loved.

The Ventures with Jazzmasters

The Ventures with Jazzmasters

The Fender Jaguar was introduced in 1962. Featuring a 24-inch scale (most Fender guitars are a full 25.5-inch scale). The Jaguar quickly became a popular with Surf bands that were in vogue. The pickups are more Strat like, but were better shielded for less hum. It shared a similar offset body and electronic switching. Fender also introduced the Duo-Sonic and the Mustang guitars.

Al Jardine of the Beach Boys playing a Jaguar

Al Jardine of the Beach Boys playing a Jaguar

Both these offset guitars where never as successful as the Telecaster and the Stratocaster. Especially, after Jimi Hendrix pushed the Fender Stratocaster into the Stratosphere in the late 1960s. Fender’s Stratocaster has been the favored model of such virtuosic guitarists as Eric Clapton, Buddy Guy, Jeff Beck, Bonnie Raitt, David Gilmour and Stevie Ray Vaughan.

Jimi Hendrix with his iconic Fender Stratocaster

Jimi Hendrix with his iconic Fender Stratocaster

The most enduring visual image of Jimi Hendrix is his stunt at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival when he lit his Fender Stratocaster on fire and knelt behind it, coaxing the flames to grow higher.

Hendrix at Monterey in 1967

Hendrix at Monterey in 1967

Bob Dylan plugged in a Stratocater at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965 and turned American pop music upside-down.

Bob Dylan at Newport in 1965

Bob Dylan at Newport in 1965

However these Fender offset guitars found an entire new audience with Indy, Garage and Punk rockers as they began to play these funky uncommon looking Fender guitars. Jazzmaster and Jaguar were well built, quality guitars that could be purchased at pretty low prices as there was not much of a vintage market for these in the late 1970s through the 1980s. Once players like Ric Ocasek of The Cars, Tom Verlaine of Television and Elvis Costello hit it big using the iconic Jazzmaster, vintage prices started soaring. Finding a vintage model in good condition at an affordable price has become pretty hard. This prompted Fender to bring the reissues.

Elvis Costello playing his iconic Jazzmaster

Elvis Costello playing his iconic Jazzmaster

In 1960, Fender introduced a new Bass, a “Deluxe Model” of the Precision Bass. This model included features that Leo felt would appeal to jazz musician (like his Jazzmaster guitar would) The new Jazz Bass had a thinner neck and 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.

1960 Fender Jazz Bass

1960 Fender Jazz Bass

In 1964, following the release of the new Fender Mustang, both the Musicmaster and Duo-Sonic were redesigned using Mustang neck and body blanks. The Mustang body was larger and slightly offset. These models were now offered as 22 fret with 24-inch scale. A 24-inch scale is the same as the Fender Jaguar but a full inch and a half shorter than the Stratocaster and Telecaster (25.5-inch scale) and three-quarters of an inch shorter than the Gibson Les Paul. The Fender Mustang guitar was discontinued in 1982.

1956 Fender Musicmaster

1956 Fender Musicmaster

The Fender Mustang’s short scale, combined with a unique and extremely direct tremolo arm would make the Mustang a cult guitar later in the 1990s. Like the Jazzmaster and Jaguar, these models were inexpensive in the 1980s and could be found in pawn shops. After being picked up by players like Kurt Cobain, vintage prices rose and there was a demand again for the Mustang. Fender re-issued the Mustang in the 1990s.

Kurt Cobain with his modified Fender Mustang

Kurt Cobain with his modified Fender Mustang

In 2012, Fender brought out a Kurt Cobain Signature Mustang. This model is based on Kurt’s modified Mustangs that he played during the In Utero tour.

In 1966 Fender issued the Fender Mustang Bass. A new bass body was designed for this with a similar offset body style to the Mustang guitar, and a short (30-inch) scale was used.

Telecaster Still Quite Popular

Masters of the Telecaster feat. Jim Weider, G.E. Smith, Larry Campbell

Masters of the Telecaster feat. Jim Weider, G.E. Smith, Larry Campbell

The Telecaster is as popular as many believe that “Leo got it right the first time.” Players like Albert Lee, Danny Gatton, Roy Buchanan, Robbie Robinson, G.E. Smith, Vince Gill, Jeff Beck, James Burton, Brad Paisley, Mike Campbell, Tom Petty, Steve Cropper, Jim Weider, Jim Campilongo, Muddy Waters, Brent Mason, Luther Perkins, Jimmy Page, Keith Richards, Mart Stuart, Arlen Roth, Keith Urban, Chrissie Hynde, Johnny Hiland, Nancy Wilson, Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings, Sheryl Crow, Mike Stern, Joe Strummer, Pete Anderson, Sue Foley, Susan Tedeschi, Mick Ronson, Ted Greene, Prince, Ray Davies, Mike Bloomfield, Bruce Springsteen, Andy Summers, Ray Flacke, Larry Campbell, Tom Principato, Richie Kotzen, John Scofield, Billy Gibbons, Albert Collins, Wilko Johnson, Jerry Reed and John 5 have played Telecasters most of their careers. Many have been honored by Fender with a signature model.

Keith Richards

Keith Richards

Billy Gibbons playing Custom Shop Esquire at Fender Gala NAMM 2008

Billy Gibbons playing Custom Shop Esquire

James Burton with his signature Telecasters

James Burton with his signature Telecasters

John 5 with some of his huge Telecaster collection

John 5 with some of his huge Telecaster collection

G.E. Smith one of the popular Telecaster masters worked with Fender on his signature Fender Telecaster that brought Leo’s design full circle from its roots from the old Fender Lap Steel guitars.

G.E. Smith Siganture Telecaster was inspired by Fender Champion Lap Steel

G.E. Smith Siganture Telecaster was inspired by Fender Champion Lap Steel

Late 2006 G.E. Smith Fender Signature Telecaster one of the very early ones

Late 2006 G.E. Smith Fender Signature Telecaster one of the very early ones

G.E. acknowledged the pickup in the old Fender Champion Lap Steels as sounding great in a Tele. The G.E. Smith Signature Telecaster even shares the Champion Lap Steel fingerboard design.

Roy Buchanan a true Telecaster Master

Roy Buchanan was as influential to Telecaster players as Jimi Hendrix was to the Stratocaster

The core of Fender’s instrument line — the Telecaster (1950), Stratocaster (1954), Jazzmaster (1958), Jaguar (1962), Mustang (1964), Precision Bass (1951) and Jazz Bass (1960) — remains largely unchanged from the originals. Many variations at different price points are available from Fender and these models have also inspired many other makers for their “takes” on these classic models.

Fender's American Vintage Series tries to accurately recreate their original models

Fender’s American Vintage Series tries to accurately recreate their original models

With the introduction of its new American Vintage Series guitars, Fender offers accurate reproductions of Fender classics that look, feel, sound and play as close to the original models as possible. They represent what today’s Fender thinks these classic models were like when new and Leo was still running the company.

The AMPS

Fender being a company that build amps to match their guitars was a huge part of their early success. What is an electric guitar without a great amp anyway? Leo understood this from the beginning. Fender built amps that were rugged and sounded great from the start.

The military showed during WWII, electric circuits had to be rugged. Leo was a good student of circuit design understood that traveling musicians needed amplifiers that were well built and did not break down on the road. 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, these amplifiers were extremely rugged. They caught on with musicians pretty fast.

1946 Fender Model 26 Deluxe 1946 Woody Amp

1946 Fender Model 26 Deluxe 1946 Woody Amp

Fender Reissue Woody of Blues Junior

Fender Reissue Woody of Blues Junior

Fender “Woody” series amps, built in 1946 through 1948 – These early models were nick named called “woodies” for their uncovered wooden cabinets.

1946 Ford Woody

1946 Ford Woody

Woody cars were in vogue in the 1930s to the 1940s. Leo being very much into cars may have inspired him with the woody amp design or it could just been that coving up the wood was not thought of yet. Even radios were very much like furniture in those days.

1956 Bandmaster, 1959 Vibrolux, 1960 Deluxe, 1959 Harvard, 1960 Princeton, 1952 Deluxe, 1960 Champ

1956 Bandmaster, 1959 Vibrolux, 1960 Deluxe, 1959 Harvard, 1960 Princeton, 1952 Deluxe, 1960 Champ

Fender Tweed first used on amps in 1946 up to 1960 – Covered in the same kind of “tweed” cloth used for luggage at the time. The first cabinets had relatively small round-cornered speaker apertures, known as “TV fronts;” they were replaced in 1953 by top and bottom “wide-panels” and those in 1955 by the “narrow-panels.” The original tweed amp lineup comprised the Champion/Champ, Princeton, Deluxe, Professional/Pro and Super. The Fifties saw the addition of the Bassman (1952), Bandmaster and Twin (1953), Tremolux and Harvard (1955) and Vibrolux (1956).

1957 Fender Tweed Champ Amp

1957 Fender Tweed Champ Amp

In 1948, Fender began the “Champion” series of practice amp, which eventually was called “The Champ” and became one of the most popular amplifiers ever built. The Champ had the lowest power output and simplest circuit of all Fender tube amps. The Champ had only one power tube. Fender marketed it as a student and practice amp, but its three or four watts and the simple, good-sounding circuit made the Champ popular in recording studios.

At the other end of the range, the Twin came to use four 6L6 or 5881 power tubes to produce 50, and later a huge (for the time) 75 watts.

The 1952 Fender Bassman was intended as bass amplifier to accompany the new Fender Precision Bass. It was soon discovered by guitar players as a great amp for guitars. So like some other Fender intended models, found a bigger and different audience. The Bassman is STILL a sought after guitar amp with some players feeling it was the best ever made.

Interestingly, Leo Fender was striving for the cleanest, purest, most reliable amps he could produce. Pretty much he achieved this, but soon players discovered that when overdriving these pure tube amps a crunch and distortion was produced. This was certainly not the intention of Leo’s early designs. Eventually, overtones and distortion began to find its way into popular music. This of course changed everything!

Brian Setzer's 1963 6G6-B Fender Bassman Amps

Brian Setzer’s 1963 6G6-B Fender Bassman Amps

During 1952, the Bassman was introduced as a combo amp with one fifteen inch speaker (1×15), but in 1955 acquired its classic 4×10″ speaker configuration. Considered to be one of the best purest amps Fender ever built by some players, Ask Brian Setzer…

1961 Fender Pro Brownface Amp with Vibrato

1961 Fender Pro Brownface Amp with Vibrato

Fender Brownface series was introduced in 1959 and discontinued in 1963 – Fender moved from Tweed to Tolex coverings for the new “brownface” amps, so called for their brown, front-mounted control panels.

Fender actually produced blonde and brown amplifiers between 1960 and 1964, with a comprehensive redesign of circuitry, cabinets and control layouts. During this era, Fender introduced the Concert, Vibrasonic, Showman, and Vibroverb—and a completely new Princeton. Fender Blonde amplifiers were produced between 1960 and 1964.

Dick Dale's 1965 Fender Showman Amp at the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix, AZ

Dick Dale’s 1965 Fender Showman Amp at the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix, AZ

The Fender Blonde amps had an all new head-and-cab piggyback design (the Tremolux, Bassman, Showman, and Bandmaster) as well as a few combo amps, including the top-of-the-line Vibrasonic Most combos were brown, except for later Twins, which Fender changed from brown to blonde in 1961, and the Champ, which kept its tweed until 1964. They featured two colors of grill cloths—oxblood and wheat.

The Brownface generation included tremolo circuits on most models, and introduced spring reverb as a separate unit and in the Vibroverb. Fender also began using Oxford, Utah, and CTS speakers interchangeably with the Jensens. Jensens and Oxfords remained the most common during this period. Generally, they used the speaker they could get most economically and readily.

Fender vintage Brownface amps

Fender vintage Brownface amps

By late 1963, some Fender amplifiers moved to the start of blackface panels. Other 1963 model amps—particularly the Vibroverb, which was the first Fender amp featuring built-in reverb stayed brown.

Fender still offered the amps from 4 watts to 85, but the difference in volume was larger, due to the improved, clean tone of the 85w Twin.

Fender Blackface Amps - 1965 Vibro Champ & 1966 Princeton Reverb

Fender Blackface Amps – 1965 Vibro Champ & 1966 Princeton Reverb

Fender Blackface amplifiers were produced between 1964 and 1967 – moving to black Tolex covering, silver grille cloth, and black control panel. The first piggyback blackface amps (as well as the Princeton) had white knobs. After 1964 the amps had skirted black knobs.

By 1964, Fender changed the tremolo from the complex “harmonic vibrato” to a simpler and less expensive circuit based on an optical coupler, which required only half of one 12AX7 twin triode tube. Also in the blackface era, they added internal-reverb versions of several popular amps—including the Princeton Reverb, Deluxe Reverb, Super Reverb, Pro Reverb, Twin Reverb, and Showman Reverb.

Fender Blackface Amp collection

Fender Blackface Amp collection

Fender discontinued the blackface cosmetics in late 1967. They brought them back for a brief period in 1981, and discontinued them again the following year. These blackface amps are available again in reissues and some feel they are the best amps ever made.

Randall Smith founder of Mesa/Boogie Amplifiers noted that Blackface amps were “cleaner sounding” than previous versions, which inspired him to make “dirtier sounding” amps.

Note: Blackface amps do not necessarily mean that all of them are “pre-CBS” (Fender was sold to CBS in early 1965). The CBS company takeover actually took place on January 4, 1965—and Fender still made blackface amps up to 1967. After the buyout, Fender changed the front panels from Fender Electric Instrument Co. to Fender Musical Instruments. They made few substantial changes to the amps until the Silverface amps of 1968, where certain circuit changes made them less desirable to some players than the blackface amps. Some amplifier repair technicians have often commented on what they feel was a general slip in production quality of amps produced in the 1966-68 era—particularly in chassis lead dress and other subtle electronic details. Vintage pricing of these blackface amps reflect this with the early ones fetching higher prices.

Fender Deluxe Reverb drip edge amp

Fender Deluxe Reverb drip edge amp

Fender Silverface amplifiers were built between 1967 and 1981 – the earliest Fender Silverface amps as they transitioned from Blackface with Fender’s new corporate owner, CBS are sometimes know as drip-edge amps. The drip-edge is actually an aluminum trim piece that is attached to the edges of the front grill on some early silverface Fender amps, like a thin aluminum ‘frame’ around the grill cloth. Fender dropped the trim after the first couple of years. So it’s an easy way to identify an early silverface amp.

Fender Silverface Amps

Fender Silverface Amps

The Silverface Fender amps saw some changes on some models more than others. For example, the Twin Reverb and Super Reverb combos, along with the Dual Showman Reverb and Bandmaster Reverb “piggyback” heads were equipped with a master volume control. Other models, such as the Deluxe Reverb, were not altered very much except for the cosmetic changes.

Also during this time Fender introduced their first solid-state transistor amplifiers. CBS now in control spent an awful lot in time and money tooling up for that they thought was the future for instrument amplifiers. Who could blame them as the vacuum tube or valves had been around since the early 1930s. Solid-state amps looked to offer cheaper, more rugged and better amplifiers. But as we now know it didn’t really work out that way.

One reason is early transistor based amps do not distort like a tube amp, they tend to sound harsh and didn’t produce the nice overtones players were used to when pushed into higher volumes. They were also not as reliable as expected and fixing one on the road was tough. Even today, tube based guitar amps are super popular.

Fender’s first transistor amplifiers were introduced in 1966. At the time they were the company’s “flagship” range and aimed to make the tube-based designs obsolete. The amplifiers were given the traditional Fender model names, earliest including ‘Dual Showman’, ‘Twin Reverb’, and ‘Bassman’. Other products in the line were the ‘Solid-State Reverb Unit’ and the ‘Solid-State Public-Address System’. ‘Super Reverb’, ‘Pro Reverb’, ‘Vibrolux Reverb’ and ‘Deluxe Reverb’ amplifiers followed in 1967. In 1969 more transistor amplifiers were introduced, including the ‘Zodiac’ series and the Super Showman System.

Fender’s early transistor amplifiers had an extensive marketing campaign but in the end they proved to be a major disaster. Sloppy workmanship, early semiconductor technology designs failed due to thermal issues by insufficient cooling and the general lack of knowledge concerning “safe” power ratings of transistors caused many of the problems. Due to the very poor reputation for the transistor amps had the entire solid-state line discontinued in 1971. The poor experience keep Fender away from solid-state amplifier technology for the next ten years.

When Fender “Clean” went “Dirty”

After the Silverface era, Fender found the marketplace filled with competition that had beefed up guitar amplifier design to a huge wanting group of players. Music had changed drastically, loud distorted sounds dominated the radio.

Mesa-Boogie started with modifying small Fender amps into much more power combos that could make fantastic dirty sounds. Marshall had copied the early Fender Bassman circuit in the UK, to satisfy their local customers with a bigger more powerful amp. Marshall was now everywhere.

Fender found that many guitar players were less interested in “clean” country sounding amps and now wanted more versatile tone controls and, perhaps more importantly, greater amounts of distortion. Fender soon brought back some blackface amps that tried to fill some of these needs. Some of these amps where sold during the same time the silver faced amps were.

Fender Rivera Series Amps

Fender Rivera Series Amps

The II Series amplifiers were produced from 1982 until 1986 – The Paul Rivera Era saw the last Fender amps to be made at Fullerton. Paul Rivera was then the marketing director (before founding Rivera Amps on his own). Some amplifiers in the series such as the Deluxe Reverb II and Twin Reverb II. Many of these amps had the normal Fender clean sound and in addition a “switchable” mid voiced gain channel, designed to compete with the Mesa Boogie Mark Series series amps that had grown in popularity.The Rivera era also saw some Fender solid-state amps again including the Yale Reverb, Studio Lead, Stage Lead, London Reverb, Montreux, and a solid-state issue of the Showman.

Fender "red knob" Princeton Chorus Amp

Fender “red knob” Princeton Chorus Amp

The Red Knob amplifiers were produced from 1987 until 1993 – named for their bright red control knobs with black control panels with white lettering. The Red Knob amps, with their high-gain channels, had their own sound, not much like the older classic Blackface and Silverface designs.

In 1996, most Fender amplifier manufacturing moved to the Ensenada factory in Mexico. Today most all Fender amplifiers (and other mass produced brands) all use printed circuit board construction. No turret boards or old style point-to-point wiring is done making tube amps much more difficult to repair. This makes the amplifiers easier, faster and cheaper to manufacture. Many players also feel it changes the sound.

Fender amps are probably the most copied circuits by bouquet amp makers. With many of them using the old style point-to-point wiring schemes with no printed circuit boards used. Many bouquet makers add their own tweaks and “takes” to the classic designs. These amps will cost you a lot more, but there is an active marketplace for this quality product.

Fender Blackface Amps - 1965 Vibro Champ & 1966 Princeton Reverb

Fender Blackface Amps – 1965 Vibro Champ & 1966 Princeton Reverb

Like with Fender guitars, what is old is new again with the reissues as these classic designs seem to never go out of style with players. These reissues of the classic Fender amps are not clones, but are quite popular.

Fender Princeton Reverb '65 Reissue

Fender Princeton Reverb ’65 Reissue

Sold to CBS

Leo Fender was basically a work-a-holic that liked to spend all his time tinkering with new ideas and designs. But Leo was having health problems that forced him to rethink his life. He had contracted a chronic sinus infection. Not wanting to give up control of his company, he asked Don Randall to help sell the Fender Company. In early 1965, Don Randall helped Leo Fender sell his company to the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) for $13 million. This was almost two million more than they had paid for The New York Yankees a year before. So an amazing amount at the time.

Interesting, Fender acquired the V.C. Squire Company that supplied string for their guitars shortly before the CBS buyout. The Squier name was retired in 1975 and the strings were sold under the Fender name. In 1982, the Squier brand was reactivated to use for the lower priced versions of Fender guitars that were imported.

The time before the buy-out is known as the “pre-CBS era” to collectors with vintage models made during this time usually valued at the highest. CBS, made lots of changes at Fender almost right from the beginning. They did have some successes, but Fender in the hands of a large corporate structure where profits were all that mattered saw quality decline. Some collectors feel that Fender lost its soul during the CBS era.

As part of the CBS buyout deal, Leo Fender had to sign a non-compete clause and remained a consultant with Fender for a while. Shortly after selling the company, he changed doctors and was cured of his illness. After some travel and time off Leo decided he was ready to work again.

During the CBS era, Fender guitars and amps saw a lot of change. For most vintage guitar collectors, 1965 stands as the single most important year in the history of Fender. Fender guitars and basses from before 1965 are considered far more desirable than anything Fender has built since. This is not just nostalgia, as the models changed and quality was sometimes inconsistent. Overall, the CBS-era changes can all be described as a shift to a more mass-production style of guitar making. Things began to change in late 1964 and the period from then until the beginning of 1966 is usually considered the “transition” period. Some of the changes were gradual and some were immediate, but for collectors, they have never been considered changed for the better.

The new manufacturing methods yielded noticeably less curvaceous body contours on many of the guitars. Pickguard materials (switch was made from celluloid to ABS or vinyl) and finishes went to polyurethane from nitrocellulose. Polyurethane is thicker than nitro and has a generally heavier gloss. It does wear better, but with its thickness can change the tone of the guitar (especially noticed when played acoustically).

In 1959, Harold Rhodes and Leo Fender had agreed to manufacture the instruments together. The Fender Rhodes electric piano invented by Harold Rhodes, first model was released in 1965 (under CBS). It became particularly popular throughout the 1970s. In 1983, Rhodes was sold to CBS boss William Schultz, who closed down the main factory in 1985 and eventually sold the business to Roland in 1987.

The fingerboard inlays were switched from authentic clay dots to a pearloid material. In 1971, three bolt neck-plate replaced the earlier four bolt design. Also Fender changed the bridge and saddles hardware to a cheaper, heavier design, and introduced the ‘bullet’ truss rod system. All of these changes were implemented to reduce production costs.

The CBS era however were not without some successes. Some even interest collectors. The semi-hollowbody Thinline Telecaster, for example, launched in 1968. Fender also launched some new models to better compete with other makers like Gibson, like the Coronado and Starcaster.

Here are some of CBS Era Fender’s successes and misses.

1968 Fender Thinline Telecaster

1968 Fender Thinline Telecaster

The Fender Telecaster Thinline was designed by German luthier Roger Rossmeisl formally of Rickenbacker in 1968. This design was originally an attempt to reduce the increasing weight of the solid-body Telecaster guitar, which was becoming heavier throughout the 1960s due to the dwindling supply of the light ash wood Fender had formerly used. The added f-hole and reshaped pickguard are the most apparent changes. The basic shape stayed the same. The Thinline is not a hollow body guitar, it is only semi hollow as it is chambered.

Daryl Hall is a fan of the Fender Thinline Telecaster

Daryl Hall is a fan of the Fender Thinline Telecaster

In 1969 the Thinline was updated with a pair of Fender Wide Range humbucking pickups that were designed by Seth Lover, formally of Gibson were he created the first Humbucker pickups. The Fender Wide Range were meant to sound more like the Fender single coils with less noise. In fact, they had a sound that was all their own and unlike P.A.F humbuckers. The Bullet truss-rod and 3-bolt neck came to the Thinline in 1972.

Seth Lover-designed Wide Range humbuckers with “Cunife” (Copper/Nickel/Ferrite) rod magnets in the place of pole-pieces yielding a brighter and clearer sound more similar to that of single coil pickups. They were wound with approximately 6,800 turns of copper wire, yielding a DC resistance of approximately 10.6 kΩ (compared to a standard Gibson P.A.F. humbucker typical DC resistance of 9 kΩ). The 2004 reissue version of the pickup was redesigned by Fender employee Bill Turner with the absence of cunife magnets. They look almost identical to the original 1970s version, but featuring an alnico bar magnet underneath non-magnetized pole-pieces. Basically, an ordinary humbucker placed in the larger Wide Range Humbucker casing, and the gap is filled with wax. This is one important reason the reissue Deluxe sounds different from the original guitars. Another reason is the use of 250kΩ volume and tone pots, while the original used 1 MΩ pots. Using 250kΩ pots with very hot humbuckers results in a dark and muddy sound; a common remedy is to replace the controls with 500kΩ pots, which is generally agreed to improve the sound of the reissues. (These same reissue pickups are used for the current 1972 Custom and Thinline Telecaster Reissues.)

Fender Deluxe Telecaster

Fender Deluxe Telecaster

The Fender Telecaster Thinline was followed by the Fender Telecaster Deluxe originally produced from 1972 to 1981 (reissues came in 2004 as the ’72 Telecaster Deluxe). Heavy rock was in vogue and the Seth Lover designed humbuckers were there to supply a thicker or fatter sound. Different from the Fender single coil pickups. The Deluxe features an enlarged headstock and jumbo sized frets. Also featured the “Micro-Tilt” angle adjustment device located in the heel of the neck. The body had a “belly cut” contour a bit like a Stratocaster.

fender-custom-1972

The Fender Telecaster Custom was released around the same time as the Deluxe Telecaster. The main difference is that a standard Telecaster single coil pickup was used for the bridge pickup and a the Wide Range humbucker used in the neck. Also the headstock is smaller and like a standard Telecaster.

The Fender Coronado is a double-cutaway thin-line hollow-body was another Roger Rossmeisl design that was a radical departure for Fender. This was an attempt in 1965 to better compete on the increasing popularity of semi-acoustic guitars, such as the Epiphone Casino used by The Beatles. Three versions of the Coronado were produced by Fender between through 1972.

Fender Coronado II

Fender Coronado II

The Coronado was a true hollow-bodied electric guitar like the Gibson ES-330 and Epiphone Casino. It was not semi-hollow with a central solid wood block in the body like the Gibson ES-335. Coronado’s pickups were made by DeArmond; a company whose pickups were more usually found on Gretsch guitars, and the bridge was a free-floating, non anchored, ‘tune-o-matic’ style bridge, with a suspended tailpiece. Tremolo tailpieces were also available at extra cost. The wiring harness used in the Fender Coronado line was manufactured by Rowe Industries of Toledo, Ohio and delivered as a completely pre-assembled set. Not your typical Fender guitar for sure.

Elvis in Speedway with Fender Coronado

Elvis in Speedway with Fender Coronado

Elvis Presley used a Fender Coronado in the 1968 film Speedway, performing the song ‘There Ain’t Nothing Like a Song’ with Nancy Sinatra. Despite this, the Fender Coronado was not all that successful. No surprise really, but The guitar like all hollow body guitars, was prone to feedback at high volumes. The Fender style bolt-on neck, failed to appeal to purist jazz guitarists (like the Jazzmaster), who would make up a large part of the market for a hollow-bodied electric guitars. It has become a guitar collectors like for its unique sound and oddball design as compared to the Fender guitars.

1972 Fender Montego designed by Roger

1972 Fender Montego designed by Roger Rossmeisl

During Rossmeisl’s time designing for Fender he also designed the lesser known Fender Montego, a jazz box style guitar which shares the Coronado’s fixed F tailpiece; and the 1967 Fender Wildwood which shares the Stratocaster headstock.

Fender Montego is a pretty rare model with probably less than 100 made. They easily fetch high dollars in good condition with collectors due to the scarcity.

The Wildwood was a Fender acoustic guitar with unique color patterns were achieved by injecting living beech trees with dye prior to being harvested to make the veneer for the back, sides, top and headstock. They had bolt-on necks. Charlie Pride played a green Wildwood II onstage during the height of his career in the late 1960s. The “Wildwood” Fender Coronado, was an electric guitar with the same veneer option, adding “Wildwood” to the model name (often noted on the pick guard).

1968 Fender Wildwood guitar

1968 Fender Coronado Wildwood guitar

Rossmeisl’s Fender-creations were also used by Elvis in a separate film ‘Clambake’ where the Fender Wildwood is seen in two scenes.

Fender Starcaster

Fender Starcaster

The Fender Starcaster iwas designed by Gene Fields to be a high quality instrument in 1976, during a time when Fender’s standards had lowered considerably. The Starcaster was a semi-hollowbody electric guitar in an attempt to compete with the Gibson’s ES-335. The Starcaster used the Fender’s three-bolt neck design, instead of the set neck of a Gibson 335. It was commercial failure and never made a dent in the popularity of the Gibson ES-335. Fender later used the Starcaster name or a range of “value-priced” Fender guitars, basses, and drums unrelated to the original Starcaster of the 1970s. These guitars are not all that sought after by collectors.

Music Man

Leo was not a guy that could sit still. In 1971, Forrest White and Tom Walker formed the Tri-Sonix company based in Santa Ana, California. Walker and White went to Leo to help finance their company. Leo and George Fullerton It evolved into ‘Music Man’, a name Leo Fender preferred over their name, Tri-Sonix. White had worked with Leo in the very early days of Fender Electric Instrument Manufacturing Company as the plant manager and stayed on after the company was sold to the CBS Corporation, but had grown unhappy with their new management. Tom Walker had worked as a sales rep at Fender. The name was changed to Musitek, Inc. by 1973 and in January 1974 the final name, Music Man, appeared.

Leo Fender owned and ran a consulting firm called CLF Research (Clarence Leo Fender) in Fullerton, California. By 1976, Leo, along with George Fullerton, built a manufacturing facility for musical instruments and was contracted to make Music Man products. In June 1976, production started on guitars and in August basses followed.

1977 Music Man Stingray Bass

1977 Music Man Stingray Bass

The StingRay bass was an early innovative design. The body shape borrowed heavily from the Precision Bass, the StingRay is considered the first production bass with active electronics. Music Man was also making amplifiers. Some similar to early Fender designs with some improvements.

CLF Research and Music Man were separate companies. The instruments were made at CLF, and shipped to Music Man for distribution and sale. A rift developed between CLF and Music Man over payment and the direction of the business. So Leo and George decided to market guitars under another name besides Music Man. G&L was incorporated May 1980. “G” for George and “L” for Leo.

Music Man was later sold to Sterling Ball and is owned by the Ernie Ball family.

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

G & L

George Fullerton and Leo Fender founded G&L in 1979 as they had a factory and had a falling out with the partners at Music Man. They set out to improve Leo’s earlier designs. G&L instruments are similar to the classic Fenders, but with some modern innovations. They are built at the same facility on Fender Avenue in Fullerton, California that produced the early Music Man instruments.

G&L Comanche guitar

G&L Comanche guitar

G&L guitars are well made and have many of Leo’s and George’s later innovations. The G&L Comanche which has a body shape similar to a Stratocaster was introduced in 1987 with Magnetic Field Design Z-Coil pickups designed to improve tone with less hum by Leo Fender.

 1986 G&L ASAT/Broadcaster from the first weeks production

1986 G&L ASAT/Broadcaster from the first weeks production

Fender was the one complaining to Leo about the Broadcaster name this time. Although, Fender STILL did not have the rights to the “Broadcaster” name, they claimed it would confuse buyers. So Leo dropped Broadcaster for the ASAT name. Fender FINALLY in 2010, did use the Broadcaster name for a 60th Anniversary Limited Edition Custom Shop guitar after getting permission for Fred Gretsch. To celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Telecaster these guitars are limited to 60 total for worldwide.

Leo Fender and George Fullerton created improved designs over the years, with the most advanced being featured in G&L instruments:

  • The Magnetic Field Design (MFD) pickups use a ceramic bar magnet in combination with soft iron pole pieces with adjustable height, instead of the traditional Alnico magnet, and allow a player to set the pickup output per string, as opposed to the entire pickup as a whole in traditional single-coil pickup designs. MFDs are known for their distinctive tone, which combines clarity, high fidelity and power with an airy “sweetness”.
  • The Dual-Fulcrum Vibrato has two pivot points. The design aims to improve tuning stability, and according to some has a sound that is more mellow than a traditional bridge. It allows the player to bend notes up as well as down. See also Tremolo arm. The G&L Saddle-Lock bridge utilizes a small Allen screw on the side of the bridge, to reduce side-to-side movement of the individual string saddles. The design, and the bridge’s beefy dimensions, aim to prevent loss of sustain due to this sideways motion by locking the saddles together.
  • The Tilt Neck Mechanism designed and patented by George Fullerton. This feature is no longer used, and was a carryover from Music Man production.
  • The Bi-cut neck design involved cutting the neck lengthwise perpendicular to where the fretboard is later installed, routing a channel for the truss rod, then gluing the two neck pieces back together. As G&L moved production to CNC machines, this method was phased out.

Leo, always dedicated 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.

Leo Fender at his work bench

Leo Fender at his work bench

After the death of Leo Fender in 1991, Fender’s second wife, Phyllis Fender, passed the management of G&L to John C. McLaren of BBE Sound. Leo 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!

George Fullerton and Leo Fender

George Fullerton and Leo Fender

George Fullerton remained a permanent consultant until his own death on July 4, 2009.

The Telecaster, Precision Bass, Stratocaster, and Jazz Bass are true testaments to the innovation of Leo Fender. These instruments are STILL extremely popular, and modern versions have changed very little from Leo’s original designs. They are all been in constant production all these years. They are probably the most copied guitars on earth.

Leo’s “Tweed” amplifiers are still considered by many to be 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). Not to mention the Blackface amps that Leo was involved with. The Blackface Fender Vibro Champ and Princeton Reverb are still iconic to players.

Copies of these amps are also very popularly built by do-it-yourselfers, and kits are available of these circuits by several companies. Not many inventions have had this much impact and are still being purchased in their original form.

Fender After CBS

The 1980s were not good times for US guitar makers. Fender as well as Gibson were being run by big companies. They were being hurt by cheaper imports and lost a lot of their former quality. In 1985, in a campaign initiated by then CBS Musical Instruments division president William Schultz to take Fender. The Fender Electric Instrument Manufacturing Company employees purchased the company from CBS and renamed it Fender Musical Instruments Corporation (FMIC). Behind the Fender name, FMIC has retained Fender’s older models along with newer designs and concepts.

The sale put the Fender name back into the hands of a small group of dedicated people committed to regaining the prior reputation by creating great quality guitars and amplifiers that the players demanded. Supported by a core group of loyal employees, dealers and suppliers (some of whom had been with the company since Leo Fender founded it), they set out to rebuild an American icon. They also learned to compete with the inexpensive imports that were flooding the market.

The new Fender Musical Instruments Corporation (FMIC) had to start from scratch—there were no buildings or machinery included in the sale. Among other things, FMIC purchased the name, intellectual property and some leftover parts. The sale did not include the old Fullerton factory; FMIC had to build a new facility in nearby Corona.

There was a short period of time were no U.S. made Fender guitars were manufactured as the new management team worked hard to get the new factory up and running. The new Fender initially imported its guitars from offshore manufacturers with proven ability to producing quality guitars. These guitars were quite good especially the ones from Japan thankfully, for Fender to survive and rebuild the brand and their reputation.

In 1985 saw Fender open its flagship U.S. factory in Corona, Calif. A second modern manufacturing facility opened in 1987 in Ensenada, Mexico. Fender Custom Shop opened in 1987. In 1991, FMIC moved its corporate headquarters from its Corona location to Scottsdale, Arizona. These successes put Fender back on the map and to prosperity.

Fender Factory Entrance

Fender Factory Entrance

Fender Custom Shop

The Fender Custom Shop was started in 1987 by John Page and Michael Stevens housed within the Fender headquarters in Corona, California. The Custom Shop produces special-order guitars, creates limited edition guitars, builds limited edition amplifiers, and does some research & design for Fender. Some of their designs end up as production guitars in the main factory.

The primary intent of the Fender Custom Shop was to create instruments in the tradition of Leo Fender, making guitars for famous endorsers and other discerning players who wanted the accuracy, detail, and quality—as well as customization and personal touches—that were widely perceived as omitted during the CBS era. In 1991, the Fender Custom Amp Shop was created in Scottsdale, Arizona.

40th Anniversary Telecasters

40th Anniversary Telecasters

In 1988, the Custom Shop introduced the 40th Anniversary Fender Custom Shop Telecaster first limited production run of 300 guitars. These “numbered” guitars (1 thru 300) came in Sunburst, Red and Natural finishes. Eric Clapton was so impressed he wanted one, but they were sold out. So the Fender Custom Shop created one for him and numbered it 0 of 300.

Fender Today

Today, Fender manufactures its highest quality, most expensive guitars at its Corona factory in California and manufactures a variety of other mid-to-high quality guitars at its Ensenada factory in Baja California, Mexico. Fender also contracts Asian guitar builders to manufacture Fender guitars and the economy priced entry-level Squier guitars. They offer quality guitars and all the price points in the market.

Fender factory

Fender factory

Fender is building guitars today that are high quality and can compete with all the classic vintage guitars of their past. Fender is the largest guitar maker in the world and own or distribute many other brands.

William Schultz died on September 21, 2006. He was the CEO of Fender Musical Instruments Corporation, and is credited as the “man who saved Fender.

In 2007, Fender announced bought Kaman Music Corporation, owners of Hamer Guitars, Latin Percussion, Toca, Ovation, and Genz Benz amplifiers, along with many others, and exclusive distributor for Sabian cymbals and Takamine Guitars). Today Fender brands also include Gretsch, EVH, Jackson, Squire, Chavel, Olympia, Orpheum, Tacoma Guitars and Brand X amps. Fender has sold some of these companies and assets.

Fender has become one of the world leading guitar and amp makers by meeting the needs of musicians and creating quality products. Their future looks bright.