The Early Days…
Few people ever have the chance to make an enduring impact upon popular culture. When Clarence Leonidas (Leo) Fender left his job as an accountant at a tyre distribution company, to pursue his interest in electronics, he could have had no idea that he would be one of them.
Leo opened his Fender Radio Service in Fullerton, California in 1939. As well as selling phonograph records and sheet music, Leo would build and repair amplifiers for local musicians. At the time, most electric guitars were of the ‘lap-steel’ or ‘Hawaiian’ variety, made popular by Rickenbacker, who made the first commercially-available electric instruments.
In the early 1940’s a local musician, Doc Kauffman, brought an amp in for Leo to repair. Doc had worked for Rickenbacker, and Leo was already thinking about building his own line of electric guitars. The war intervened, but in 1945, in a tin shack at the back of the radio store, the first K&F electric lap-steels and amps were being built. However, Doc parted company with Leo in 1946, worried that the new venture was too risky.
Fender Guitars – The Big Idea…
Leo’s big idea, setting the fledgling Fender Electric Instrument Co. on its path to glory, was to electrify the “Spanish” guitar (as opposed to the lap-steel). Others, notably Gibson with their arch-top jazz models, had already attempted this, but the idea had not caught on. Leo’s vision was to design a guitar that could be built using the mass-production techniques of the automobile industry. They were to feature bolted-on necks, simple finishes (sourced from automobile body-shops) and machine-made hardware. Many prototypes later, in 1950 the Fender Esquire (later to be called the Broadcaster, and subsequently changed for legal reasons to the Telecaster) went into production.
In 1951, Fender launched the first-ever mass-produced fretted electric bass, the Precision Bass – so called because the fretted fingerboard enabled any guitar player in a band to play bass with precise intonation, a skill previously the preserve of the stand-up double-bassist.
The 2-pickup Telecaster was followed in 1954 by the Stratocaster. As well as an innovative vibrato (aka tremolo) system, it had six bridge saddles (rather than the Tele’s three) and three pickups. The Strat completed a dynamic duo of guitars that would see the Fender name, along with the distinctive body and headstock shapes, become legend in the decades to follow.
The Rise of the Fender Guitar
The rise of Fender’s solid-body electric guitars coincided with the boom in television, youth culture, and the early days of rock ‘n roll. The sight of Buddy Holly, wielding a sunburst Strat in grainy black and white, must have influenced thousands of would-be rockers to head for their nearest Fender stockist. Hank Marvin (who modelled his look on Holly’s) had much the same effect on the youth of Britain.
Over the years, Fender have introduced many models, mostly following the solid-body + bolt-on neck + single-coil pickup template. Though some have achieved cult status, the Mustang, Duo-Sonic, Musicmaster, Jaguar, Jazzmaster, Bronco, Swinger and Maverick amongst others have met with varying success. Forays into the world of semi-acoustics, such as the Coronado and Montego, serve only to demonstrate where Fender’s true strengths lie.
In 1965, Leo Fender sold his company to the CBS Corporation. Opinions differ on the effect that the change had on the company’s products (including the larger variation on the classic Fender headstock). A management buy-out in 1985 saw the end of the CBS era.
Fender Guitars Now
As well as the USA, Fender now has factories in Japan and Mexico. Competition from Japan and China in the 1980s led Fender to launch Squier, their ‘second line’ of more affordable instruments. Squier guitars, manufactured in the Far East under strict Fender quality controls, have become legendary instruments in their own right.
The Fender Custom Shop was founded in 1987, to offer limited runs and one-off hand built guitars.
More than 50 years on, the mighty Fender Stratocaster and Telecaster, along with the Precision Bass and Jazz Bass, still form the backbone of the Fender range, available from Dawsons. There are myriad variations on these popular guitars, including artist-endorsed ‘signature’ models, and re-issued replicas of classic models from years gone by.
Go to a gig, turn on the telly, listen to the radio; you’ll not have to wait long before you see or hear someone playing a Fender guitar. Rock, pop, punk, blues, country, jazz – whatever your style, Dawsons have a Fender for you.