Fender Instruments: From Radio Repair to Rock ‘n’ Roll History

This 1962 Stratocaster model featured a contoured body, three pickups and a double cutaway.

Leo Fender became a rock ‘n’ roll icon quite by accident.

After a brief career as a bookkeeper, Leo opened a radio repair shop in Fullerton, Calif., in 1938, when he was just 29 years old. In 1938, the electronics industry in America was still in its infancy. The vacuum tubes that made amplification possible had been invented just 30 years before, and the First World War put radio into military use. The first radio broadcast licenses were issued in 1920. By 1933, two-thirds of American homes owned a radio and had the electricity to operate it. When he opened his shop, Leo Fender was on the cutting edge of the new electronics industry.

To supplement his income from repairing radios, Fender built, rented and sold public address systems to local music halls and musicians. A steady stream of musicians patronized Fender’s shop. The rudimentary amplifiers, microphones, speakers and guitar pickups of the day were always breaking down, and Leo was the “go-to” guy for getting them fixed.

According to Fender, a musician’s most common request was, “How can I make this louder?” To those of us who have grown up listening to “too-loud” amplified music, this may seem to be a strange request. Volume knobs have spoiled our generation. Can’t hear the T.V., radio or stereo? Grab the knob and turn it up. Too loud? Turn it down. But, it wasn’t too long ago that “turning up the volume” created more problems than it solved.

You see, amplification systems that are not set up properly are prone to “feedback.” You’ve no doubt heard amplifier feedback; it’s the piercing, squealing sound that comes out of a speaker cabinet. Speak into a microphone and the sound is amplified and comes out of a speaker. Place the microphone in front of the speaker and the mic picks up the sound coming out of the speaker and sends it back to the amplifier where it is re-amplified. This re-amplification loop creates the squeal we know as feedback.

Leo Fender started repairing radios, but his knowledge of electronics led him to become a rock-and-roll legend.

In the 1940s, amplified guitars were particularly prone to feedback. With few exceptions, the amplified guitars of the day were hollow-body acoustic guitars to which a pickup (working on the same principle as a microphone) had been attached. Guitar pickups “pick-up” vibrations, whether they originate from the strings or a guitar’s top. Hollow-body acoustic guitars were built to amplify sound of their own accord, so when a pickup was added to the vibrating surface of a guitar feedback was a common result.

Guitars were assuming a new role in popular music; they were moving away from being a strictly rhythm instrument and instead were becoming a solo instrument. But guitarists playing in a combo with a drummer, piano player, bassist, singer and horns could barely be heard over the other instruments unless they were amplified. Whenever amplified guitars turned up their volume, they would get feedback. When a guitarist punched up the volume to take a solo, he didn’t want to deal with feedback.

Fender was pressed to find a solution to the problem of guitar feedback. Two other manufacturers, Gibson and Rickenbacker, had partially solved the feedback problem by replacing the vibrating hollow body of a guitar with a less-sound-conductive solid block of wood. But, their guitars were heavy and difficult to keep in tune. Fender sought to build a guitar with the “dance hall” musician in mind; the guitar had to be thin, lightweight, easy to play and hold its tuning well.

In 1950, Fender released his first production model: the Fender Esquire, a solid-body, single-pickup guitar with a “cutaway” in the lower portion of the body that enabled a player to easily reach the guitar’s highest notes. The Esquire was soon renamed the Broadcaster, and a year later the Broadcaster was upgraded to two pickups and renamed the Telecaster.

The Telecaster has become one of the most popular guitars in history; its fame is recounted in the Arlen Roth book Masters of the Telecaster.”

This 1951 Fender Telecaster sold in June 2013 for $35,278.

Along with the Telecaster’s success came requests for custom changes to the guitar. Musicians playing club dates four or five hours a night found that the squared edges of a Telecaster dug into their forearms, and they asked for a guitar with a more streamlined body. Another frequent request was for the capacity to bend notes in a manner similar to a steel guitar. And, once again, guitar players wanted more volume without feedback.

Rather than redesign the Telecaster, Fender developed a new guitar that fit the musician’s demands. It had a chamfered top edge so that a player could comfortably rest his right arm as he played, as well as a contoured back. The guitar, named the Stratocaster, featured three pickups, a vibrato bar attached to the bridge for bending notes, a streamlined neck and cutaways at both the top and bottom of the guitar.

Rock ‘n’ roll music was built on the Fender Stratocaster; players of the instrument read like a “Who’s Who” of rock music: Buddy Holly, Dick Dale, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Buddy Guy, Stevie Ray Vaughn and countless others made their careers playing a Fender Strat.

But any discussion of the guitars that shaped rock-and-roll music must include the third early offering from Fender: the Precision Bass.

This 1953 Precision Bass was so named because it had frets so guitar players could find the notes.

Early combos in every genre of music usually included an upright acoustic bass. But, upright basses were fretless and required skill to play them accurately. There simply weren’t enough qualified upright bass players to fill all the positions available. But, there were lots of guitar players around. The shortage of bass players could be addressed by creating a bass instrument that could be played like a guitar. So, Fender added a long, wide, fretted guitar neck to a Stratocaster-shaped body, fitted it with four heavy-gauge strings and called it the Precision Bass (“precision” because it had frets and guitar players didn’t have to guess where the notes were as they would on a fretless upright bass).

Fender’s company, Fender Musical Instruments Corporation, operated under his direction from 1946 until he sold it to the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS of television fame) in 1965.

At the time, CBS was aggressively entering the music business, buying up such famous names as Fender, Steinway, Rogers drums, Gulbransen organs and others. For the next 20 years, the caliber of the instruments produced on CBS’ watch suffered from corporate cost-cutting. Across the board, the quality of the instruments went down so that stock dividends could go up. Today, players and collectors began to speak of Fender guitars in terms of “pre-CBS,” “CBS” and “post-CBS” models. Fender collectible models include any type of pre-CBS fender instrument or amplifier.

In 1985, CBS began to pull out of the musical instrument business. William Schultz, then president of CBS Musical Instruments, led a group of investors in purchasing the Fender Musical Instruments Division. Then new business assumed the name of the original, the Fender Musical Instruments Corporation.

Today, Fender operates from its headquarters in Scottsdale, Ariz., and it has satellite facilities in Europe, Japan and Mexico. They manufacture a variety of instruments and sound reinforcement equipment under a variety of brand names. Leo Fender died in 1991, and in 1992 he was inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame.

Wayne Jordan spent more than 40 years in the music business as a performer, teacher, repairman and music store owner. In 25 years of musical instrument retailing he has bought, sold, rented or repaired thousands of pianos, band & orchestra, combo, and folk instruments. Wayne is currently a Virginia-licensed auctioneer and certified personal property appraiser. For more info, visit Wayne Jordan Auctions.

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