Many Happy Returns
Leo Fender was born in 1909 in Anaheim, CA, the son of a farmer who never made it past the third grade. Young Leo worked the fields with his father as soon as he could walk, and it was there, in Mother Earth's dusky womb of carrots, cabbage, and corn, he heard Music. God's Own Music. The plaintive Southern crowing of Jimmie Rodgers on a radio turned up loud enough so all the farmhands could hear it set young Leo Fender's heart afire, and it was this music/fieldwork association that forever bonded Leo Fender to the black slaves who would later take Leo's futuristic and wonderful electric guitars and basses and, to the world's utter astonishment, make unearthly sounds emanate from them.
Leo soon had a reputation as a pretty handy fella with tools, and local musicians brought him their early hollow-body electric Gibson, Epiphone, and Rickenbacker guitars to repair. While not a player himself, Leo possessed a keen and intuitive mind for things of a physical nature, and he soon saw these early electric guitars for what they really were: poor and misguided adaptations of existing acoustic guitar topology. Yes, the "artisans" and "luthiers" sipping imported Belgian espressos and slapping horseshoe-magnet pickups onto hollow-body Spanish guitars had succeeded in transducing the vibrations of the guitar strings into AC voltage signals suitable for electrical amplification, but their rigid and parochial adherence to classical stringed instrument design kept their designs hopelessly and pitifully Earthbound.
As pioneers before and after him were apt to do, Leo Fender disregarded all that had come before him with the contempt of the pure punk spirit. F-holes? Piss on F-holes; they look effete anyhow. Ebony and rosewood fretboards? Piss on them too; maple's cheaper, plus it sounds brighter and twangier. Three-on-a-side tuners on a semi-rectangular headstock? Piss on that; we'll put all six tuners on the same side, and have the strings pass through the nut in a perfectly straight line, thus eliminating tuning problems. But most important: Hollow bodies? Drink 18 gallons of Doc Sully's Marvel Tonic and piss on that, too; we'll make ours with bodies of solid swamp ash, which'll not only make 'em much simpler to produce, but the notes will sustain ten times as long!
Leo introduced the world's first production electric solid-body guitar, the Fender Broadcaster, in 1948, and the response from the guitar establishment was outright hysteria:
"They're not GUITARS!! They're WEAPONS OF SATAN!!"
"Look at the white fretboard; only a communist would design such a thing!!"
"How can you call this, this thing a 'guitar'?! It's too easy to play!!"
But from musicians, the words were "GO DOG GO"; by the time Leo rechristened it the Telecaster, it was the rage of the music world. Every player wanted one, and every girl wanted a player who wanted one. The Tele's twangy, piercing tone cut the balls off of every guitar that came before it, and it soon became the de rigeur sound of country and pop music.
The Fender Stratocaster
But Leo wasn't through. While his newly-rich colleagues farted through silk and chased high-priced hookers around the bandsaws, Leo sat down and designed a second electric guitar; a guitar with all the pros of the Tele and none of the cons; a guitar with three pickups instead of two, so players could have three (and, inadvertently, five when later on they discovered the 1&2 and 2&3 positions between the selector switch detents) distinctly different tones; a guitar with two sexy cutaway horns, and a contoured body to better conform to the player's ribs and arm; a guitar with a revolutionary vibrato assembly built into the bridge, so players could increase and decrease the string tension and thus raise and lower pitch with a flick of the twang-bar; and, most revolutionary of all, custom colors like aqua-green, candy-apple red, sky blue, and salmon pink! Dupont car paints that sparkled like rare jewels! Cool cartoon colors that all but screamed ROCK AND ROLL!! A guitar that would, in the hands of Jimi Hendrix, CHANGE THE SOUND OF MUSIC FOREVER.
1954 saw the introduction of the Stratocaster, and Leo Fender's manufacturing plant in Fullerton, CA was kicked into overdrive. Demand far outstripped supply. Workers kept the bandsaws buzzing round the clock, and hosed them down with liquid nitrogen every few hours just to keep them from melting. Strats and Teles flew out the door, along with the fabled Fender amplifiers Leo had adapted from the RCA Receiving Tube manual schematics.
The Precision Bass
But still Leo kept chipping away at his Galatea, deaf to the ministrations of his friends who implored him to leave a good thing alone. "Begone, foul distracters!" Leo shouted, and banished them from his workshop. For Leo wasn't chained to the murky antfarm of mere mortal thought; he'd already solved the electric guitar equation. What he was pondering now was an instrument that had never before been conceived of, much less attempted. This was...the electric bass.
Before 1951, bassists had two choices: hump a huge, unwieldy acoustic bass around to gigs, or get a tuba. When Elvis, Scotty, and Bill barnstormed the South in their pre-RCA days, they had to lash Bill's big stand-up bass to the roof of the car where the sun, the elements, and the pigeons all laid it to waste. Leo Fender heard the silent scream of bassists everywhere and set about designing a solid-body electric bass that would offer bassists a rocket-ride into the future like he had with the Strat. The Precision Bass, introduced in '51, did that and more. For the first time, a bass could be carried in a case not much larger than a guitar's; for the first time, a bass could be plugged into an amp or PA, creating a thundering, powerful sound never dreamed of by generations of acoustic bassists; for the first time, a bass was available with frets on the fingerboard, allowing perfectnay, precision intonation no matter how drunk you were. For the first time, a bassist could get his instrument up off the floor and wear it perpen-dick-ular to his torso to get that subliminal phallus effect that drove the unwitting babes crazy with jungle lust, just like guitar players had been doing since the dawn of man.
And so Leo Fender brought guitars and basses into the 21st century. And just as guitar traditionalists had been horrified by the Tele and Strat, so were acoustic bassists filled with outright contempt for Leo's Precision Bass. And just as Teles and Strats quickly replaced other guitars on the bandstand and in the studio, the Precision banished stand-up basses overnight. Leo Fender singlehandedly invented a whole instrument category, and other manufacturers were quick to jump on the electric bass bandwagon and just as quick to crap out; esteemed, holy, mother-of-all-classic-guitar-makers Gibson has yet to build a decent electric bass [AmenEd.]
The Sale to CBS
Fender Sales Inc. dominated the industry. The world clamored for Fender guitars, basses, and amps. Leo had the world quite literally by the tail, and still he drank his coffee from styrofoam cups. Ever the common man unencumbered by the luxuries of the nouveau riche, Leo performed that commonest of common-man rituals: every year, he punched out early (even though he owned the clock) on a bright summer day in July, and cheerfully went down to Dr. Fleischman's for his yearly physical.
In 1963, Doc Fleischman asked Leo to cough, went over to his abacus, and said, "Leo, you have a year to live." Panic-stricken, Leo put the word out: Fender Sales Inc. was up for sale, ASAP!
Now, I'm not for one moment suggesting that kindly ol' Doc Fleischman had any connections with the broadcasting conglomerate CBS, but the company swooped down from out of nowhere and bought the entire operation, lock, stock, and barrel in 1965. And while Leo Fender crawled off to find an honorable place to lay his burden down, the executives at CBS took out their slide rules and got down to work.
"Tavares, just why do you boys use nitrocellulose lacquer for the guitar finishes? It's costing us over a dime an instrument!"
"Well, Mr. Smithers, it's the only finish flexible enough to allow the wood to vibrate; it sounds the best."
"Well, from now on you'll use polyester. It's only a nickel."
"But, Mr. Smithers, polyester's too hard...it inhibits the vibra"
"TAVARES. Didn't your wife just have another baby? Little girl, wasn't it?"
"Why, yes Mr. Smithers, but..."
"I sure would hate to see the kid go hungry, just because her daddy got his butt canned...comprenday?"
"Yes, Mr. Smithers."
And Leo? In '67, he went to get his regular "It'll be any day now" speech from Doc Fleischman, but the good doctor wasn't in. So Leo went off to find another sawbones, and find one he did. This doctor took one sniff of Leo's amber sample and declared him a misdiagnosis! Several days and massive injections later, Leo walked out a cured man. But he was a King without a Kingdom.
I wish I could wrap this up by telling you of Leo's triumphant return to Fender, but alas, it was not to be. Leo formed his own, separate guitar company called G&L Instruments, and put out his own similar versions of his early masterpieces the Tele, Strat, and P-Bass. But the fire was gone; these instruments, while certainly decently manufactured, lacked that certain magic that made the classic Fenders so coveted by players and collectors alike. Like Dylan, it seemed Leo Fender had a finite capacity of genius, and by the time he put G&L together, he was already tapped out.
But screw all that! Leo Fender's story is not going to end on a flat note, not if I have anything to do with it. While the Gibsons were jazz boxes made to perform double-duty as pop guitars, Fenders were rock guitars. The Gibsons' mellow, rolled-off, smooooth tone was replaced with the brash, cutting, twangy scream of the Fenders. And even if Leo had never brought out the Tele and Strat, his place in history would be ensured by the P-Bass and great amps like the Twin, the Bassman, and the Champ. It's not stretching things to call Leo Fender the Father of the Rock And Roll Sound.
Leo Fender passed away on Thursday, March 21st, 1991. He is survived by loving family, friends, numerous copycat companies from the Mysterious East, countless Fender rip-off designs from every major and minor American guitar firm since 1954, the largest musical amplifier company in the worldMarshallwhich started off by directly ripping off the Fender Bassman circuit, and Fender-wielding musicians of all ages, colors, and musical genres.
Requiescat in pace, sweet Leo. We will not see the likes of you again.Corey Greenberg