It's hard to imagine American popular music without the Fender
Stratocaster. Last month, the favorite of Jimi Hendrix, Stevie
Ray Vaughan, and Eric Clapton turned fifty years old. So who
was Leo Fender? And how did the legendary Strat come to be?
Thirteen years after he was born on August 10th, 1909, in
his parents' barn on their ranch in Fullerton, California,
Clarence Leonidas Fender became an electronics hobbyist. In
1921, his uncle sent him a storage battery and discarded automobile
electronic parts. A year later, Fender visited his uncle in
Santa Maria and saw a homemade radio he had put on display
in front of his shop. The music blasting from that speaker
made an impression on young Fender. Before he knew it, he
was building and repairing radios for friends.
In 1928, Fender graduated from Fullerton Union High School
and went on to study at Fullerton Junior College where he
majored in accounting. After that, he worked as a delivery
man for the Consolidated Ice and Cold Storage Company in Anaheim,
then as the bookkeeper. Throughout this period, he continued
to work with electronics, repairing radios at home.
In 1932, Fender met an orchestra leader who promoted dances
in Hollywood. He soon hired Fender to build the first of several
PA systems. (In the early thirties, Fender also met Esther
Klosky and married her in 1934.) Then Fender went to work
as an accountant at the State of California Highway Department
in San Louis Obispo. Several years later, he moved on to work
for a tire company. Six months down that road, in a shakeup
of the accounting department, Fender found himself unemployed,
so he borrowed six hundred dollars, returned to Fullerton,
and opened a radio repair shop: Fender Radio Service.
Soon Fender found himself working with more than just radios
when his guitar-playing customers brought in their external
pickups for repair. At the decline of the big band era, on
the eve of rock and roll, Fender began making custom guitars
and amplifiers. Starting where Electro String, Vivi-Tone,
and other manufacturers left off, Fender invented an improved
electric guitar, and by the mid forties, he started the K
& F company with "Doc" Kauffman, who had helped
design some of Rickenbacker Electro's guitars. Then in1946,
Fender went on to start The Fender Electric Instrument Company.
In 1948, he partnered with George Fullerton, designing the
solid electric Broadcaster, renamed the Telecaster. Soon to
follow were the Precision Bass guitar in 1951, freeing musicians
from the cumbersome upright instruments, and the legendary
Stratocaster in 1954. The revolutionary Strat featured a new
contoured, double-cutaway body, a string-bending (tremolo)
unit, and three (as opposed to two) single-coil pickups.
In the mid sixties, Fender became ill and sold his company
to CBS for thirteen million dollars. After his health improved,
he worked at CBS/Fender for a few years before resigning in
1970. In his later years, he had several small strokes and
progressive degeneration from Parkinsons disease, but he still
continued to work on improving the tools of music until the
day he died, Thursday, March 21, 1991.
For more than fifty years, Fender electric guitars and amplifiers
have affected the way musicians compose and play music. As
jazz musicians began to experiment with amplifying traditional
hollow body guitars and bumped into feedback problems, Fender
and his partners created solutions, inventing one of the most
important instruments in rock and roll, the Fender Stratocaster.