1909 – Leo Fender, founder of Fender Guitars, is b…

1909 – Leo Fender, founder of Fender Guitars, is born.

Clarence Leonidas Fender (August 10, 1909 – March 21, 1991), also known as Leo Fender, was an American inventor who founded Fender Electric Instrument Manufacturing Company, now known as Fender Musical Instruments Corporation, and later founded MusicMan and G&L Musical Products (G&L Guitars). His guitar, bass, and amplifier designs from the 1950s continue to dominate popular music more than half a century later. Marshall and many other amplifier companies have used Fender instruments as the foundation of their products. Fender and inventor Les Paul are often cited as the two most influential figures in the development of electric instruments in the 20th century.

1950 to 1965: the Golden Age

As the Big Bands fell out of vogue toward the end of World War II, small combos playing boogie-woogie, rhythm and blues, western swing, and honky-tonk formed throughout the United States. Many of these outfits embraced the electric guitar because it could give a few players the power of an entire horn section. Pickup-equipped archtops were the guitars of choice in the dance bands of the late-’40s , but the increasing popularity of roadhouses and dance halls created a growing need for louder, cheaper, and more durable instruments. Players also needed faster necks and better intonation to play what the country boys called “take-off lead guitar”. Custom-made solidbodies such as Les Paul’s home-made “Log” and the Bigsby Travis guitar made by Paul Bigsby for Merle Travis evolved from this need, but these were beyond the means of the average player.

[edit] Guitar

Fender recognized the potential for an electric guitar that was easy to hold, easy to tune, and easy to play. He also recognized that players needed guitars that would not feed back at dance hall volumes as the typical archtop would. In addition, Fender sought a tone that would command attention on the bandstand and cut through the noise in a bar. By 1949, he had begun working in earnest on what would become the first Telecaster (which was called the Broadcaster in its earlier years) at the Fender factory in Fullerton, California.

Although he never admitted it, Fender seemed to base his practical design on the Rickenbacker Bakelite. (Smith, Richard (May). History of the Fender Telecaster. ) One of the Rickenbacker’s strong points — a detachable neck that made it easy to make and service — was not lost on Fender, who was a master at improving already established designs. Not surprisingly, his first prototype was a single-pickup guitar with a detachable hard rock maple neck and a pine body painted white. (Smith, Richard (May). History of the Fender Telecaster. )

[edit] Esquire

Don Randall, who managed Fender’s distributor, the Radio & Television Equipment Company, recognized the commercial possibilities of the new design and made plans to introduce the instrument as “The Esquire Model”. Fender supported the Esquire name, saying that it “sounded regal and implied a certain distinction above other guitars.”

In April 1950, Radio-Tel started promoting the Esquire — the first Fender 6-string officially introduced to the public. The company prepared its Catalog No. 2, picturing a black single-pickup Esquire with a tweed form-fit case. Another picture showed Jimmy Wyble of Spade Cooley’s band holding a blond Esquire. These debut models, with a planned retail price of $154.95, exhibited the shape of thousands of Fender guitars to come.

Randall’s primary marketing ploy was to establish the Esquire in music instruction studios, reasoning that the affordable, practical guitar would be a hot commodity in those circles. In addition, a healthy response for the one-pickup version would prime the market for the more expensive two-pickup model that Fender already had in mind.

[edit] Broadcaster

The factory went into full production in late 1950, initially producing only dual-pickup Esquires. Fender’s decision compromised Radio-Tel’s earlier marketing strategy, forcing Randall to hold orders for the single-pickup Esquire and come up with a new name for the two-pickup model, eventually naming it the Broadcaster. Dealers who insisted on Esquires had to wait until the single-pickup guitars went into full production in January 1951 and were delivered the following month.

Musical Merchandise magazine carried the first announcement for the Broadcaster in February 1951 with a full-page insert that described it in detail. The guitar was described as having a “modern cut-away body”, a “modern styled head”, and an “adjustable solo-lead pickup” that was “completely adjustable for tone-balance by means of three elevating screws”.

[edit] Legal problems – “Broadcaster” becomes “Telecaster”

Fender sold 87 Broadcasters on the guitar’s initial release in January 1951. Many people took note — including Gretsch, who claimed the Broadcaster name infringed on the company’s trademark “Broadkaster”, which was the name of a model lineup of drums. Reacting to this, Randall informed his salespeople on February 21 that Radio-Tel was abandoning the Broadcaster name and requesting suggestions for a new name. On February 24 he announced that the Broadcaster had been renamed the “Telecaster”.

The Broadcaster-to-Telecaster name change cost Radio-Tel hundreds of dollars, and derailed the initial marketing effort. Brochures and envelope inserts were destroyed, and the word “Broadcaster” was clipped from hundreds of headstock decals. For several months, the new twin-pickup guitars were marked only with the word “Fender.” These early-to-mid-’51 guitars would eventually be referred to as “No-casters” by guitar collectors.

[edit] Stratocaster

Leo Fender regularly sought feedback from his customers, and, in preparation for redesigning the Telecaster he asked his customers what new features they would want on the Telecaster. The large number of replies, along with the continued popularity of the Telecaster, caused him to leave the Telecaster as it was and to design a new, upscale solid body guitar to be sold alongside the basic Telecaster instead. Western swing guitarist Bill Carson was one of the chief critics of the Telecaster, stating that the new design should have individually adjustable bridge saddles, four or five pickups, a vibrato unit that could be used in either direction and return to proper tuning, and a contoured body for enhanced comfort over the slab-body Telecaster’s harsh edges. Fender and draughtsman Freddie Tavares began designing the new guitar in late 1953, which would address most of Carson’s ideas and would also include a rounder, less “club-like” neck (at least for the first year of issue) and a double cutaway for easier reach to the upper registers.[1]

Released in 1954, Fender named his new creation the Stratocaster to invoke images of the high flying, supersonic jets filling America’s skies in the 1950’s. The Stratocaster (or “Strat”) has been in continuous production ever since.

[edit] Other guitars

Other significant developments of this period include the Jazzmaster and Jaguar, significant departures from the Strat and Tele in their introduction of complex pickup selection switches and volume controls. Although unsuccessful at their introduction, both would become popular with Surf Rock musicians due to their clean, bright, and warm tone. They became popular again, (to a much larger extent), in the early 90’s due to their use by alternative rock artists such as Sonic Youth’s famous horde of vintage Jazzmasters and Kurt Cobain’s (of Nirvana) use of a heavily modified 1965 Jaguar

[edit] Electric bass guitar

During this time, Fender also conceived an instrument that would prove to be essential to the evolution of popular music. Up until this time, bassists had been left to playing acoustically resonating double basses, also known as “upright basses”. As the size of bands and orchestras grew, bassists found themselves increasingly fighting for volume and presence in the sound spectrum. Apart from their sonic disadvantages, double basses were also large, bulky, and difficult to transport. With the Precision Bass (or “P-Bass”), released in 1951, Leo Fender addressed both of these issues. Unlike double basses, the Telecaster-based Precision Bass was small and portable, and its solid body construction and four magnet, single coil electronic pickup allowed it to be amplified at higher volumes without the feedback issues normally associated with acoustic instruments. Along with the Precision Bass (so named because its fretted neck allowed bassists to play with ‘precision’), Fender introduced a bass amplifier, the Fender Bassman; a 45 watt amplifier with four 10″ speakers. Neither were firsts; Audiovox had begun advertising an “electric bass fiddle” in mid 1930s catalogs, and Ampeg had introduced a 12 watt “Bassamp” in 1949, but the P-Bass and its accompanying amplifier were the first widely-produced of their kind, and arguably, the P-Bass remains one of the most popular basses in music today.

1960 saw the release of the Jazz Bass, a sleeker, updated bass with a slimmer neck, and offset waist body and two single coil pickups (as opposed to the Precision Bass and its split-humbucking pickup that had been introduced in 1957). Like its predecessor, the Jazz Bass (or simply “J-Bass”) was an instant hit and has remained popular to this day, and early models are highly sought after by collectors.

[edit] 1970 – Music Man and G&L

Some of Fender’s most widely known and loved contributions to music were developed in the 1970s, designed guitars, basses and amplifiers for the Music Man corporation, and in 1976 designed and released another innovative instrument, the StingRay. Though the body design borrowed heavily from the Precision Bass, the StingRay is largely considered to be the first production bass with active electronics. The StingRay’s 2-band active equalizer, high output humbucking pickup and smooth satin finished neck went on to become a favorite of many influential bassists, including John Deacon and Tim Commerford. Later on a 3-band active equalizer was introduced. In 1979 he and old friends George Fullerton and Dale Hyatt started a new company called G&L (George & Leo, later Guitars by Leo)[citation needed] 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 enhaced tremolo systems and electronics. Despite suffering several minor strokes, Leo Fender continued to produce guitars and basses. While he continued to refine the fundamental designs he had created decades earlier, he also earned many new patents for innovative designs in magnetic pickups, vibrato systems, neck construction, and other areas. Nevertheless, he never learned how to play the guitar.

A friendly, modest and unassuming man (his “coffee mug” was a styrofoam cup with the word “Leo” inked on it), he had the lifelong admiration and devotion of his employees, many of whom have remarked that the best working years of their lives were spent under Leo Fender. He died in 1991 from complications of Parkinson’s disease. His pioneering contribution to the genre has been recognized by the Rockabilly Hall of Fame. The company which bears his name, Fender Musical Instruments Corporation, is now one of the largest musical instrument conglomerates in the world.

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