He couldn’t play a lick, but his guitars rocked the music world
By Marty Paule
That’s right. The guy couldn’t play a note on any of the world-beating guitars or basses he designed, but he certainly knew how to listen. An abiding love of music coupled with a relentless innovator’s curiosity and attention to what musicians wanted led Leo Fender into the world of guitars, basses, and amps. More than six decades later his name graces one of the world’s largest manufacturers of musical instruments and most of the models with which he is most closely associated are still produced today—a testament to Leo’s visionary thinking.
With Musician’s Friend celebrating the 60th anniversary of his most iconic guitar, the Fender Stratocaster, it’s fitting we take a closer look at the life and times of Clarence Leonidas “Leo” Fender.
Born in 1909 in Anaheim, California, on a small farm, Leo’s penchant for experimenting with electronics developed early on. What initially was just a hobby was sparked by a box of old radio parts and a battery given him by an uncle who operated an auto electric repair shop in Santa Maria, California.
Going beyond radio
A visit to his uncle’s shop helped seal the deal. Young Leo was fascinated by a radio the older man had constructed using spare parts. On display in the front of the shop, Fender recalled years later that the music pouring out of the radio’s powerful speaker made a lasting impression. The trove of old parts he had been bequeathed led Fender to open a small radio repair shop in his parents’ home. Entirely self-taught, his formal education focused on accounting at Fullerton Junior College. After a stint as a bookkeeper at a local ice company, Fender landed an accounting job with the California Highway Department in 1934. But the job was short-lived; the Depression was on and Leo’s job was eliminated.
With a loan of $600, Leo started a repair shop called Fender Radio Service in 1938. Located in Fullerton, California, he soon found a niche by building, repairing, and selling PA systems, pickups, and amplifiers for the pickup-equipped acoustic guitars that were starting to turn up in swing and jazz bands of the era. The Southern California area was also experiencing a boom in electrified lap steel guitars in the country music arena, and Fender found equipping those guitarists was a steady source of income too.
Getting into guitars
In 1944 Fender partnered with Clayton Orr ”Doc” Kauffman, a lap steel player, and like Fender, an electronics tinkerer. A former Rickenbacker Guitar employee, Kauffman had been involved in the company’s lap steel guitar production and also invented the Viola tailpiece—a forerunner to the modern tremolo bridge beloved by today’s dive-bombing guitarists. The pair formed K & F Manufacturing to build electric Hawaiian lap steel guitars and amps. That same year they patented a lap steel model which incorporated a pickup previously designed and patented by Leo. The company began selling the guitar in kit form together with an amplifier Leo had designed.
In 1946 Fender and Kauffman went their separate ways with Fender putting his focus into reinventing the guitar. Tuned in to the Southern California dancehall scene, Fender recognized the need for an electric guitar that was loud enough to be heard in such settings while also being resistant to the feedback that plagued amplified archtop guitars. Guitarists were also looking for an instrument that was durable and easy to tune.
Enter the Tele
By 1948 he was developing a guitar to answer these needs. Built from a single slab of wood, a cavity in the body housed a single-coil pickup. The initial model dubbed the Fender Esquire was introduced in 1950, followed by a two-pickup model in 1951 initially called the Broadcaster. The name was then changed to Telecaster due to a conflict with a Gretsch drum set marketed under the same name. Quickly adopted by country western players, the Tele would also soon become the de facto choice of rockabilly guitarists. Telecasters built today are essentially unchanged; a tribute to Lester’s design chops.
Check out the current Telecaster model lineup and learn much more about its development and lore with our comprehensive Telecaster Buying Guide.
Leo addresses the bottom line
Fender next turned his attention to the problem of an electric bass. Tough to transport, fragile, and incapable of competing with the ever escalating volume levels of modern music styles, the standup bass needed a serious rethink. By 1951, Fender had its replacement: the Fender Precision Bass. Incorporating much of the technology and design expertise developed in the making of the Telecaster, the P-Bass with its single-coil pickup could cut through the louder mixes of the day. It’s fretted neck was easier to master than the fretless fingerboards of double basses, and as with its Telecaster sibling, the P-Bass was an immediate success.
As he had done earlier with his lap steel, Fender designed an amp expressly for the Precision Bass. The 45-watt Bassman with a single 15” speaker delivered enough sonic oomph to handle louder music mixes. Fender would later equip the Bassman with four 10” speakers giving the bass more punch and cutting power. Along with the P-Bass it would become the mainstay of bassists everywhere. The rock-solid thump of the P-Bass and Bassman amp would become a sonic signature of country, rock, and especially Motown and Stax soul during the 1960s and beyond.
In 1954 Fender updated the Precision Bass design to mirror what he was doing with his game-changing Stratocaster by giving it deep body cutaways and a split-coil pickup. In 1957 the P-Bass would be further improved with more comfortable body contours. As with the Telecaster, the modern Precision Bass remains largely unchanged—one more testament to the staying power of Leo’s designs.
It wouldn’t be until 1960 that Fender introduced a substantially revamped bass model—the Jazz Bass— with a more slender, faster neck and dual single-coil pickups. It too is still being built along Leo’s original lines to this day.
Enter the Strat
As well received as the Telecaster was, musicians offered feedback that Fender took to heart in creating his next electric guitar, the Stratocaster. The hard edges of the Tele’s slab body were uncomfortable during extended sets. The bridge saddles made intonation difficult. Access to high notes was awkward. And guitarists were looking for more tonal versatility plus a tremolo bridge that would allow them to pull off exciting pitch-bending effects while staying in tune. Country players also wanted pitch bending that would allow them to imitate the licks of lap steels, and later, pedal steel guitars.
Introduced in 1954, the Stratocaster answered each of these concerns elegantly. The new guitar’s so-called Comfort Contour Body was beveled to nestle comfortably against guitarists’ ribcages. Deep cutaways granted easy access to the upper frets while the extended upper body horn contributed to shoulder-friendly balance. Individually adjustable bridge saddles made intonation much easier.
Listening to the musicians
Three single coil pickups with three-way switching gave the new Stratocaster more tonal options than the Tele. (The later five-way switches adopted on Strats grew out of guitarists jamming the original switch between its first and second positions using toothpicks and other shims so as to engage both the bridge and middle pickups simultaneously. This generated the “quacky” tone that became a staple of rock guitarists’ repertoires.)
The first Stratocasters were built with a rocking tremolo bridge that was securely fastened to the body with five springs. Some rock and R&B players—notably Jeff Beck and Ike Turner—began removing two of the springs and adjusting the claw screws that gave the bridge stability, allowing more radical whammy bar dive bombing effects. Conversely, some players who didn’t appreciate the trem bridge’s tendency to cause the guitar to go out of tune largely disabled the bridge’s ability to “float.”
Fender paid close attention to these aftermarket mods and many more tweaks that guitarists subjected the Strat to. Over the decades these modifications in one form or another have become available in various Strat models.
You can check out all those variations in our comprehensive Stratocaster Buying Guide that covers every model in current production as well as much more history of this iconic guitar.
The later Leo
In the mid-1960s Leo Fender’s health began to falter. Thinking that he might die soon and wanting to secure his family’s future, he decided to sell his business to CBS for $13 million; the broadcasting giant was then in an acquisitive mode. Though Fender stayed on as a consultant for time, the CBS years were marked by deteriorating quality in the company’s instruments and amps. Despite this, and because of the increasing popularity of rock music, Fender continued to grow. When CBS decided in 1985 to jettison its non-broadcasting businesses, a group of Fender employees and investors bought the business back.
Meanwhile, Leo, whose health had improved, went on to found several more music instrument businesses, some of them still in business to this today, again thanks to the future-proof designs Fender developed.
Leo Fender continued to be dogged by health issues later in life suffering from Parkinson’s Disease and a series of strokes. Upon his death in 1991 at age 81, he was remembered fondly by employees and musicians who held the tireless inventor in the highest regard.
During the Rolling Stones’ induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Keith Richards saluted him, saying, "Thank God for Leo Fender, who makes these instruments for us to play.'" Among the musicians most touched by Fender’s death was Dick Dale, king of surf guitar who had been a long-time friend and real-world consultant. It was Dale’s quest for bigger, more powerful amps that led to the production of the Fender Showman. Remembering Fender, Dale said, "We had a rapport, where he gave everything to me to experiment. He had a saying—'If it can withstand Dick Dale, it is fit for consumption on the market.' "
Two measures of the man were the respect and loyalty of his employees, and the unassuming, frugal lifestyle he lived. Once asked why he always brought his lunch from home (invariably egg salad sandwiches) instead of buying it from the lunch wagon that dropped by the factory, Leo response was telling: “With the money I save eating these sandwiches, I can buy a handful of resistors.”