Leo Fender and the Electric Guitar

Clapton with his favorite Fender Stratocaster "Blackie" performing in 1978 Image: Chris Hakkens

Clapton with his favorite Fender StratocasterBlackie” performing in 1978
Image: Chris Hakkens

On March 21, 1991American inventor  “Clarence Leonidas “Leo” Fender passed away. Fender developed the first solid-body electric guitar to be mass-produced: the Fender Broadcaster in 1948. His Stratocaster (1954) should become one of the most favored model of rock guitarists.

Leo Fender was born on August 10, 1909. When he was approximately 13 years old, his uncle who ran an automotive-electric shop, sent him a box filled with discarded car radio parts, and a batteryFender began playing around with these electronics and when visiting his shop in California, was fascinated by the radio he had built from spare parts and placed on display in the front of the shop. Leo Fender also began repairing radios in a small shop in his parents’ home.

He received his education from Fullerton Union High School and Fullerton Junior College. He studied to become an accountant, but continued to teach himself electronicsFender took a job as a delivery man for a storage company after graduating and later became their bookkeeper. Around these years, a local musician asked Leo Fender to build a public address system for use by his band at dances in Hollywood. He was then contracted to build six of these PA systems. In 1938, he started his own radio repair shop “Fender Radio Service” with 600$ he borrowed. He built, rented and sold PA systems as well as amplifiers for the amplified acoustic guitars that were beginning to show up on the southern California music scene.

After World War II started, Leo Fender met the inventor and lap steel player Clayton Kauffman. They teamed up and started the “K & F Manufacturing Corporation“, designing and building amplified Hawaiian guitars and amplifiers. They also patented a lap steel guitar with an electric pickup already patented by Fender. In 1945, they began selling the guitar, in a kit with an amplifier designed by Fender.

By the end of 1945Fender (in contrast to Kaufman) was convinced that manufacturing was more profitable than repair and he decided to concentrate on that business instead. They parted ways in the next year and Leo renamed the company the Fender Electric Instrument Company. The first product of the new company was probably a custom lap steel guitar made in 1946 for his friend Noel Boggs.

The company was incredibly successful from the beginning, which Leo Fender also owed to his associates like musician and product engineer Freddie Tavares, as well as to the efforts of sales chief, senior partner and marketing genius Don RandallRandall worked closely with the immensely talented photographer and designer, Bob Perine. Their catalogs and ads were innovative – such as the “You Won’t Part With Yours Either” campaign, which portrayed people surfing, skiing, skydiving, and climbing into jet planes, all while holding Jazzmasters and Stratocasters. This early success is dramatically illustrated by the growth of Fender’s manufacturing capacity through the 1950s and 1960s.

Numerous rock, country and jazz musicians have used Fender guitars from 1951 to the present. Some notable Fender players, both past and present, include Eric Clapton, Kurt Cobain, Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Jimi Hendrix, Buddy Holly, Eric Johnson, Mark Knopfler, and Bruce Springsteen.

In the 1950sLeo Fender faced some health issues and decided to wind up his business affairs, selling the Fender company to CBS in 1965. However, he still remained consultant to the company. In 1979, Leo Fender and old friends George Fullerton and Dale Hyatt started a new company called G&L Musical Products. G&L guitar designs tended to lean heavily upon the looks of Fender’s original guitars such as the Stratocaster and Telecaster, but incorporated innovations such as enhanced tremolo systems and electronicsFender continued to produce guitars and basses for several years.

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