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Leo Fender at 100

Leo Fender at 100
An essay on Fender’s founder and a legacy that, a century after his birth, is stronger than ever


Leo Fender.
Photo by Robert Perine

Monday, Aug. 10, 2009, marks the 100th birthday of Leo Fender (1909-1991). Perhaps alone among the names of great 20th century instrument makers and innovators, his is well known even to a great many who don’t play guitar (as in fact he didn’t). His life and work have been documented in exacting detail in many volumes, and his very name has become a cultural icon. Hence, while Leo Fender certainly needs no introduction, consider the following a centennial appreciation …

Seldom can worldwide cultural shift be attributed to a single individual, but such is the case with Leo Fender.

Clarence Leonidas “Leo” Fender, born Aug. 10, 1909, in a barn on his parents’ ranch straddling the border between Fullerton and Anaheim, Calif., founded the Fender Electric Instrument Company in 1946 in Fullerton. From 1946 to 1965 he led what was perhaps the most brilliant creative streak in the history of electric instrument design and manufacturing.

Among his many monumental accomplishments, he designed the first commercially successful solid-body electric guitar, the Telecaster®; invented the solid-body electric bass guitar (by itself an instrument that transformed popular music) and introduced the most influential of all electric guitars—the Stratocaster®. His amplifiers set the gold standard for tone and reliability against which virtually all amps are still judged well more than half a century later.

Leo Fender’s ideas have had an incalculable effect on popular music of all styles and on the much broader fabric of popular culture. His instruments and amplifiers helped change the way musicians work with their tools, facilitated new sounds and techniques, and helped revolutionize the way the entire industry designs and builds instruments. Most significantly, they helped ignite entirely new and tremendously exciting styles of music. More than fine musical instruments, Fender guitars and amps are powerful cultural icons recognized in every corner of the world.

Leo’s enormous effect on popular music worldwide leads, in fact, to the realization that music simply would not sound the way it does today without his inventions. As elegantly enduring and revered design classics, the Telecaster, Stratocaster, Precision Bass® and Jazz Bass® guitars transformed the way that music was performed, recorded and perceived by the entire world such that their very existence fueled not only musical revolutions, but also cultural revolutions.

Ironically, the shy, somewhat introverted inventor wasn’t a guitar player. But Leo Fender was hard working, driven, creative, tenacious, methodical and meticulous, with a talent for electronics, research and development, problem solving, product design and manufacturing. He was a perfectionist. He was destined to make something; it happened to turn out to be electric guitars, basses and amps. After tinkering with all manner of sound products for years, his first steel guitars and amplifiers started appearing in 1945, and his first solid-body electric guitars appeared in 1950.

Notably, the Fender Telecaster, Stratocaster and Precision Bass guitars predated the form for which they are most famous—rock ‘n’ roll—by several years. Leo Fender was building and selling first amps and then guitars for a decade by the time rock ‘n’ roll artists discovered that much more could be done with these instruments—much more, in fact, than Leo and his staff would have envisioned in their wildest dreams. Remarkably, and in great testament to their original essential rightness, Fender instruments have now existed largely unchanged for more than half a century. Perhaps even more remarkable is that exciting new life is found in them time and again as the boundless creativity of each new generation of players comes to light.

In view of his phenomenal accomplishments, it’s tempting to mythologize Leo Fender as being somehow more towering than in real life, in which he was in fact exceedingly modest. Aug. 10, 2009, marks his 100th birthday, and were he here to celebrate it, Leo would undoubtedly dismiss any fuss in favor of getting back to work in his shop. The company that still bears his name, the Fender Musical Instruments Corporation, is 63 years old at the time of his centenary birthday. Leo himself helmed it for roughly the first third of that span—the first of more than one golden age, as it has turned out—but he continues to loom large over the company, the industry, the electric guitar community and worldwide pop culture in general.

The music he powered continues into a very bright future. Somewhere, right now, Eric Clapton is getting ready for a show. Somewhere, right now, someone is listening to The Dark Side of the Moon. Somewhere, right now, a country band is rehearsing a Buck Owens cover. Somewhere, right now, a musician is using a Precision Bass on a recording session for a TV commercial. Somewhere right now, a guitarist is using his Telecaster to give voice to the original tune in his head that could turn out to be a hit. And somewhere, right now, a kid is thrilled because he just got his first Stratocaster and is learning his first chord.

Thanks to Leo Fender, we’ll all be hearing a lot more from that kid in a few years …

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