Leo Fender, the electric guitar genius who barely knew how to play

By Sergio Ariza

Normally from Guitars Exchange we talk about some of the most mythical, and best, guitarists in history, people like Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan, David Gilmour and Jeff Beck. Today, however, we are going to speak of someone who wasn't even capable of tuning a guitar and who, even so, is a fundamental figure in this whole story, as well as the one responsible for all of the above finding the perfect instrument for their music. He is Leo Fender, the father of the Telecaster and Stratocaster, the most important guitar maker of all time and the main figure, along with Les Paul, in developing the electric guitar as we know it today. Thirty years after his death on March 21, 1991, we offer our small but heartfelt tribute.          


Clarence Leonidas Fender
was born on August 10, 1909 on a California farm. At the age of eight he lost an eye to a tumor, something that would later save him from being drafted for World War II, an event for which all electric guitar lovers are thankful. From an early age he had an interest in music, first playing the piano and then switching to the saxophone. But his main hobby was electronic devices, cars, radios, drums... At the age of 13 he was already repairing radios in his uncle's store.

Soon he would begin to be guided by a maxim that he would follow all his life: "If something is easy to repair, it is easy to construct" After graduating from college as an accountant Fender held several jobs and married his wife Esther in 1934 (they would be together until her death in 1979), but he did not find his true calling until 1938 when, with a borrowed $600, he opened his radio repair store in his native Fullerton. The store was called Fender Radio Service and was soon filled with musicians who wanted gadgets to amplify their sound, as well as Hawaiian electric guitars and lap steel.


Fender began to see a business opportunity and during World War II came into contact with Clayton Orr 'Doc' Kauffman, a lap steel guitarist and inventor who had created the Vibrola, one of the first vibrato systems, as well as having worked for Rickenbacker. Leo convinced him to go into partnership and they began designing their own models, changing the company name to K&F Manufacturing Corporation. In 1944 they created a lap steel with an electric pickup patented by Fender. In 1947 Kauffman left and the company was renamed Fender Electric Instrument Co. Esquire was just around the corner.

After the end of World War II Big Bands were going out of vogue and small groups were making their way onto the scene. These types of ensembles, whether country or R&B, were looking for a louder amplified sound and Fender saw the enormous potential that a guitar that didn't feed back or go out of tune and was easy to handle could have. That's how the Fender Esquire was born in 1950, the first mass-produced solidbody electric guitar; it had a single pickup, but that same year Fender introduced the Broadcaster, with two. The success of both models was immediate, and mobilized the other major companies who knew that a formidable rival had emerged. Thus, in 1951, Gretsch forbade Fender to continue calling their guitar this way, because of a drum set they had marketed under the name Broadkaster, there was no problem since 1952 Fender renamed it with its definitive name, Fender Telecaster.       


The second movement that followed the appearance of this model was much more important as Gibson contacted Les Paul, arguably the best known guitarist of his day, as well as an incredible inventor in his own right, to help his designer Ted McCarty make a solid body electric guitar. Les Paul had already designed such a guitar ten years earlier, The Log, a solid 4" by 4" block of wood, with a bridge, two pickups and a Gibson neck, which the company had rejected because it looked like "a broomstick with pickups", but in response to Fender's threat, Gibson gave Les Paul carte blanche and from this collaboration came, in 1952, the Gibson Les Paul, destined to make the Telecaster a basic and unglamorous model.

But Leo Fender had not stood still, because in 1951 he had begun work on the guitar for which he would always be remembered –the Stratocaster - and by 1952 he had already made many of the model's features, such as the three pickups and the bridge. To compensate for his inability to play his own instrument Fender worked hand in hand with a group of guitarists who were giving him tips to make it easier to play; among those guitarists were Freddie Tavares, Bill Carson and Rex Gallion. The design was futuristic and groundbreaking, but also totally practical, the Strat was the first electric guitar to break free from the physical limitations of acoustic or semi-hollow guitars, adjusting its shape to increase comfort and ease of playing, allowing the player to use the higher frets more easily, which opened up new ways of playing, and became the standard for future electric guitars.


The final cherry on top, the name, was the idea of Don Randall, Fender's sales manager and marketing expert, who decided to call it Stratocaster because he wanted those who played it to feel "as if they had been put in the stratosphere”.

Incredibly, the model was not an immediate success, although it gradually gained visibility, mainly in a genre that Fender had not thought of, rock & roll. Buddy Holly was one of the pioneers who introduced the model in the minds of many of its practitioners, as he performed on the Ed Sullivan Show on December 1, 1957, along with his 1955 Sunburst - and in the process made it the model to have. Soon after, in England, Hank Marvin would get one to lead the sound of the Shadows.


But after this great success Fender did not rest on his laurels and continued to innovate. Seeing how his instrument was becoming a rock & roll sensation, he became interested in the California scene and discovered a guy with a special energy. This was Dick Dale who told Leo that he didn't have enough money to buy a decent guitar, Fender gave him a Stratocaster and he was amazed to see how the left-handed Dale played it perfectly upside down. Even so, he made him a Stratocaster specifically for left-handed players, one of the first ever made, which would be known as 'The Beast' (Dale, who had learned to play this way, would put the strings on backwards to continue playing as he had always done) and not content with this, he used the guitarist's enormous power to revolutionize the world of amplifiers as well.

Seeing how Dale was destroying all the amps he was giving him, Fender and Freddy Tavares developed what would end up becoming the Fender Showman, one of the first 100-watt amps. Shortly before that he had also created several bass models, including the Precision Bass and Jazz Bass, two models that remain popular to this day.       


However in 1965, after a series of medical problems, Fender decided to sell his successful company to CBS. This was a shame because a couple of years later a being from outer space named Jimi Hendrix descended from the stratosphere and turned the Stratocaster into the definitive instrument of rock music, making it sound like no one before and turning it into the reference instrument for the genre. So much so that when you ask someone to draw an electric guitar it is highly probable that what they draw is the shape of the Strat. Leo Fender's design has wonderfully resisted the passage of time, and it is still being manufactured practically the same as the original model, and is one of the most used guitars today.   

Of course it is not for nothing that we are going to finish with a quote, to highlight its impact, from a guitarist, who is not especially known for using this model. This is Keith Richards, who usually prefers the Telecaster, but who recognizes quality when he sees it: "Leo Fender is like Leonardo Da Vinci.... An artist, an original. The Strat is sturdy and strong as a mule, but has the elegance of a racehorse. It has everything you need, and that's rare to find in anything. The guy made a real work of art." Little more can be added about one of the most important architects of our passion on this page, the electric guitar.