Leo Fender was the ultimate guitar man

On the 25th anniversary of Leo Fender’s death, Jonathan deBurca Butler looks at the legacy of a great guitar maker who had a huge impact on popular music.

Leo Fender was the ultimate guitar man

IN AN interview he gave in the 1980s, Leo Fender was asked how he came up with his most famous creation, the Stratocaster guitar. His answer said much about the Californian’s ethos.

“Twenty-four hours a day, I sat at home and thought about it,” he said. “A lot of times a musician would make a casual remark about how he wished he had this or he wished he had that.

“That’s how the guitar developed. I would [do things like] go through thousands and thousands of pickups hunting for the best possible way to make one.”

Fender’s hard-work ethic and insatiable curiosity has meant, that even now, 25 years on from his death on March 21, 1991, his creations are still the go-to instrument for any serious guitarist.

“Before him, it was big hollow-bodied jazz guitars,” says Owen McQuail, owner of Some Neck Guitars in Dublin. “If you tried to amplify them in a band setting they never really worked properly. They were fine if you were doing solo work but with other instruments, they’d just feedback too much. They were messy. His guitars were solid and simple, essentially just two planks of wood stuck together. They stayed in tune and were loud without distorting too much.”

Legend has it, and Fender did little to dispel it, that he was born in a barn on August 10, 1909, near Fullerton, Orange County, California.

He studied piano and saxophone but, according to himself, never had time to learn to play guitar.

Indeed, when he opened the Fender Radio and Record Shop in Fullerton, his focus was amplifiers, which local musicians began bringing him for repair. More often than not, he would try to amend them rather than simply fixing them and soon he began to build his own. A lifetime of tinkering and improving had begun.

“These new box amps were easily fixed, sounded better, and weren’t as big and cumbersome to lug around the place,” says McQuail. “You could turn up at a venue and the whole band could nearly plug into a Fender bass amp and do a gig. He had this concept of getting working musicians out there. They’d be able to plug in anywhere and play with little difficulty.”

In the mid-1940s, Fender built a solid-body electric guitar and, over the years, amended until, in 1950, he introduced what would eventually be called the Telecaster.

“I have my 1970s Telecaster 29 years,” says McQuail. “It’s like an extension of my arm. It’s the greatest guitar I’ve ever played. The Stratocaster is probably the most popular one. It’s been copied the most, It’s considered more versatile but the Telecaster is a working man’s guitar.”

SLOW TAKE UP

However, Fender’s guitars were not immediately appreciated. Sales reps were scoffed at by music shop owners who ridiculed the Telecaster’s simplicity and apparent lack of artistry. Fender and his team responded by finding the town’s best music clubs and putting the guitar in the hands of skilled musicians, who were awed by its chunky sound and power.

Orders would be placed on the night of a gig, and the next day salesmen would return to the local music shop offering the rights to sell something every musician now wanted. Soon it was impossible to own a music shop without Fenders, and the Tele quickly became a country music staple. As the Telecaster began to take off, Fender was ready to introduce another game changer.

“I think an even bigger deal was when he brought out the Precision bass in ‘51,” says McQuail, “because, up to then, all bass players were playing double bass, standing up and lugging this huge instrument around the place. It gave bass players a bigger sound too. That was a complete revolution.”

Adding frets to the bass also made it easier to play and opened it up to more people. It also meant that, as well as being able to move from venue to venue more easily, bassists were more mobile on stage. Simply put, they looked better. Legendary producer Quincy Jones said: “Without the Fender bass, there’d be no rock ’n’ roll or no Motown. The electric guitar had been waiting round for a nice partner to come along. It became an electric rhythm section, and that changed everything.”

STRAT ERA

Three years later, Fender’s now iconic Strat was introduced. It wouldn’t become the gold standard of guitars until the 1960s when artists such as Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, and, of course, Rory Gallagher exploited its potential and versatility.

Gallagher came across his first Strat in the shop window of Crowley’s Music Centre in Cork. Luckily for Gallagher, it was a very recent second-hand piece, having been handed back by the Royal Showband’s Jim Conlan, who wanted a different colour.

That made the guitar less expensive, if hardly affordable, but Gallagher managed to purchase the guitar of his dreams and he would go on to take the world by storm.

“I’ve been playing [this] Fender since 1963,” he once told a reporter in the early 1990s.

“I can’t endorse it more than that. Fender was a great innovator, there’s no two ways about it. He lived to be a legend in his lifetime, which says it all.”

Fender sold his company to CBS in 1965 for $13m. As a consequence, Pre-CBS has become a revered term among guitar collectors, and the instruments from that time command high prices.

Later, he founded G&L, and though he himself thought the guitars made under this name were superior, it was the Fender brand that everyone wanted to talk about.

Five famous Fender benders

Jimi Hendrix

Without doubt the most naturally gifted guitarist of all time, the Seattle-born maestro made the Stratocaster do things other musicians hadn’t even dreamed of until then.

Pete Townshend

The Who’s lead guitarist is better known as a Rickenbacher guitarist but he has used plenty of Fenders in his time and is keen on them today, partly because of their durability. “The necks never broke when I was doing my destruction routine,” he says.

Rory Gallagher

The Cork man had no fewer than four Fenders, all dating from the treasured pre-CBS period and all beauties.

Undoubtedly, his favourite was the 1961 Strat that he bought in Crowley’s (see main text). Over its lifetime, it was stolen, its neck had to be removed and dried out, it went out of tune and it was used so often that he wore down the paint on its body, but Gallagher loved it. “It was easy to play from the start,” he said at one stage, “and I’ve kept it ever since — in fact, it’s getting better.”

Eric Clapton

In the early 1970s, Clapton bought six Stratocasters for about $100 each. He gave one to George Harrison, another to Pete Townshend, and one to Steve Winwood. Nashville luthier Ted Newman assembled Blackie, Clapton’s favourite guitar, from the best parts of the other three.

Jonny Greenwood

Radiohead’s lead guitar man bought his first Telecaster from a teacher when he was 16. It was stolen off him at a gig in Leeds some years later. After experimenting with other brands, he replaced it with another Tele and has battered great tunes out of it ever since.

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