1991 – Leo Fender dies this day in rock.

Leo Fender and the Stratocaster

1991 – Leo Fender dies this day in rock.

Leo fender is a true veteren innovator in the field of music. His most famous creations include the Fender Stratocaster and the Fender Telecator. These guitars, although are not the his only creations, set the tone for we now know as Rock n Roll and all the successive genre’s that came to follow. The Stratocaster is the most copied guitar in history and is a true icon. We cannot think of rock without thinking of this one iconic guitar.

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From Musician’s  Friend, YouTube, GuitarGearHeads.com,


Clarence Leo Fender came into the world on August 10, 1909, at the family ranch in California. His parents ran a succesful orange grove, located between the cities of Anaheim and Fullerton. Leo became interested in electronics around age 13, most likely from his uncle, who had built a radio from parts.

Leo began dismantling and repairing radios himself as a hobby, never afraid to tinker with electronics to see what the result would be. In 1928, Leo enrolled in junior college as an accounting major. Leo was sharpening the business acumen that would serve him well throughout his career.

Two events in the early 1930’s would change Leo’s life. One was when, in the early 1930’s, he was approached by a bandleader to construct a PA system for use at dances. The second, around the same time, was when Leo met Esther Klosky. Esther became Mrs. Leo Fender in 1934.

Trying the safe route first, Leo hired on with the State of California as an accountant. In 1938, he took a chance and opened the Fender Radio Service in downtown Fullerton. Soon, musicians began coming to Leo in search of improved guitars and amplifiers. Fender began K & F Manufacturing with fellow inventor Doc Kauffman (who designed guitars for Rickenbacker) in a shed behind the radio shop where, in 1945, he unveiled his first electric guitar.

In 1946, Leo opened the Fender Electric Instrument Company in Fullerton. It was there that he created the legendary Telecaster and Stratocaster — arguably, the most popular and successful guitar designs in history.

Fender moved the small factory to 500 S. Raymond Ave. in Fullerton, and, in 1965, sold it to CBS Musical Instruments.

Although, by his own admission, he “could not play a note,” Fender went on to be inducted into both the Rock and Roll and Country Music halls of fame — recognition of the tremendous impact he had on contemporary society through his musical inventions.

After the non-competition clause expired in the CBS sale agreement, Leo began designing guitars and basses for Music Man. The Sting Ray and Sabre are two Fender designs. In the 1980s, Leo opened the G&L business on Fender Avenue (named for him) in Fullerton. He continued to work there every day until his death on March 21, 1991, from complications from Parkinson’s Disease.

From Wikipedia:

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 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 Bigsby for Merle Travis evolved from this need, but these were beyond the means of the average player.

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 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. )

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.

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”.

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”. 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.

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 Freddy 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.

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.

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 on stage and in the bands music videos.

Bass
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.

1970 – Music Man and G&L
Some of Fender’s most widely known and loved contributions to music were developed in the 1970s, when Leo Fender 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 Instrument Corporation, is now one of the largest musical instrument conglomerates in the world.

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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