This Day in Music History: 1909, Leo Fender is Born

Leo Fender

Leo Fender in his lab.

From an early age, Fender 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, California, 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 1938, with a borrowed $600, Leo started his own radio repair shop, “Fender Radio Service.” Soon, musicians and band leaders began coming to him for PA systems, which he built, rented, and sold. They also visited his store for amplification for the amplified acoustic guitars that were beginning to show up on 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 World War II, Leo met Clayton Orr “Doc” Kauffman, an inventor and lap steel player who had worked for Rickenbacker, which had been building and selling lap steel guitars for a decade. While with Rickenbacker, Kauffman had invented the “Vibrola” tailpiece, a precursor to the later vibrato tailpiece. Fender convinced him 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 with an electric pickup already patented by Fender. In 1945, they began selling the guitar, in a kit with an amplifier designed by Fender.

As the Big Bands fell out of vogue towards 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 arch tops 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 players called “take-off lead guitar.” In the late 1940s, solid body electric guitars began to rise in popularity, yet they were still considered novelty items, with the Rickenbacker Spanish Electro guitar being the most commercially available solid body, and Les Paul’s one-off home-made “Log” and the Bigsby Travis guitar made by Paul Bigsby for Merle Travis being the most visible early examples.

Fender Esquire

Fender Esquire

Fender recognized the potential for an electric guitar that was easy to hold, tune, and play, and would not feed back at dance hall volumes as the typical arch top would. In 1949, he finished the prototype of a thin solid-body electric; it was first released in 1950 as the Fender Esquire (with a solid body and one pickup), and renamed first Broadcaster and then Telecaster (with two pickups) the year after. The Telecaster, originally equipped with two single-coil pickups and widely used among country and western players, became one of the most popular electric guitars in history.

Fender Stratocaster, one of the most recognizable guitars.

Fender Stratocaster, one of the most recognizable guitars.

Instead of updating the Telecaster, Fender decided, based on customer feedback, to leave the Telecaster as it was and design a new, upscale solid-body guitar to sell alongside the basic Telecaster. 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, assisted by draftsman Freddie Tavares, began designing the Stratocaster in late 1953. It included 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.

During this time, Fender also tackled the problems experienced by players of the acoustic double bass, who could no longer compete for volume with the other musicians. Besides, double basses were also large, bulky, and difficult to transport. With the Precision Bass (or “P-Bass”), released in 1951, Leo Fender addressed both issues: the Telecaster-based Precision Bass was small and portable, and its solid-body construction and four-magnet, single coil pickup let it play at higher volumes without feedback. 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 (although initially with one 15″ speaker).

fender-pbass-001

Fender P Bass

1954 saw an update of the Precision Bass to coincide with the introduction of the Stratocaster. Incorporating some of the body contours of the Stratocaster, the update also included a two section nickel-plated bridge and a white single layer pick guard.

In June 1957, Fender announced a redesign of the Precision Bass. The remake included a larger headstock, a new pick guard design, a bridge with four steel saddles that could be individually adjusted and a new split single coil pickup. This proved to be the final version of the instrument, which has changed little since then. In 1960, rosewood fingerboards, wider color selections and a three-ply pick guard became available for the P-Bass.

Fender Jazz Bass

Fender Jazz Bass

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.

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