Leo Fender

Posted: April 21, 2007 in Guitars

Leo Fender didn’t really play the guitar, he sort of fell into guitar design via his radio repair shop. Nonetheless, “His guitar, bass, and amplifier designs from the 1950s continue to dominate popular music more than half a century later.”

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He popularized the solid body electric guitar, and since he didn’t actually play the guitar, he was able to disregard some of the aesthetic issues other guitar designers grappled with (“How can we make this old hollow body arch-top design amplified without feedback?”), and follow his main guiding axiom: form follows function. Because function was in view, he followed both a design and a production model built on playability, efficiency, repair-ability, and economy. The process was similar to what Ford did with the assembly line, bringing down costs, and improving overall quality.

He designed the Telecaster, which soon took over country music and is still used across many genres, then he invented the Stratocaster, which is still the king of electric guitars. He also invented the Precision Bass, the Jazz bass, and later the Stingray. His amplifiers are still the industry standard and expensive boutique companies (like Victoria Amp Company) exist to simply recreate his original models from the fifties.

My personal favorites include the Bassman (which Jim Marshall’s amps were based upon; lots of blues guys enjoyed these), the Deluxe Reverb (my overall favorite), the Super Reverb (SRV used one), the Twin (loud and clean), and let’s not forget about Clapton’s little friend, the Champ (small “starter” amp, big saturated lead tone when cranked).

It would be hard to overestimate his influence on modern music, but this might illustrate: if you’ve ever listened to music on the radio besides classical music, you’ve heard Leo Fender’s inventions.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame says this about Leo: “…rock and roll as we know it could not exist without Leo Fender…Fender’s creation [the Telecaster] remains a mainstay of country and rock musicians who like its clean, biting sound. His Precision bass, introduced in 1950, brought a new sound and flexibility to the rhythm section of bands, liberating the bassist from cumbersome standup instruments. The bass-driven soul music of Motown and Stax would have been inconceivable without Fender’s handiwork. In 1954, Fender introduced the Stratocaster, a flashier instrument featuring a contoured, double-cutaway body, three (as opposed to two) single-coil pickups and a revolutionary string-bending (tremolo) unit. Fender’s Strat has been the favored model of such virtuosic rock guitarists as Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan.” I would add, “to name a few.”

Thanks Leo, for tinkering with a radio in your youth.

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