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Fender: The Legacy, The Man, The Guitar

Introduction

This is a term paper I researched and wrote for a University 300 level music course, approximately 2 years ago. Like all American Universities this was one of those courses which you are forced to take in order to make you “better rounded”. It was one of those classes which you say to your college buddy, “this is gonna be a cake-walk, how hard can a course on the guitar be?” But let me tell you, and I speak from lots of experience in these well rounded classes, there's so much to the guitar - so much history, so much science and so much technology wise that if one goes into such a class unprepared you're gonna get hit with the biggest, fattest F you ever saw. Good think I realized in the first week this class was going to actually be a learning experience and when it was all said and done I was actually glad I was forced to take it because I learned some truly interesting and amazing things about the guitar and music in general.

This class made me wish I were a musician but the only instrument I have ever played in a band, and good enough to play solo, was the Mandolin, and that was back in the old days, from when I was around 10 1years old to about 2 years old. And let me tell you, playing an instrument is nothing like riding a bike, if you don't pick up your mandolin for a couple decades you will forget absolutely everything you learned when you were a child. I wish someone had told me back then because it's one of those talents or skills which is difficult to gain and once you lose it it's gone for good unless you have the time, effort and energy to relearn it. Had I known and realized at the time, the importance of knowing how to play and instrument, and play it well, I would have definitely worked at keeping myself at least up to par on the mandolin. But seeing how my parents were fresh off the boat peasant immigrants working 16 hour days, while going to school at night to learn English, just to make ends meet and care for six children, they really didn't understand much more than me about these finer things in life, but I am glad at least I learned a lesson, albeit the hard way, so that now my small children will have one more lesson they can learn the easy way…well, assuming they're the kind of kids who listen rather than insist they learn things on their own skin.

That said, here is everything you wanted to know about Fender and I do apologize for not being able to upload the images, diagrams and pictures (although you can see some of them if you click on the links on the last page at the very bottom of this webpage, under the “Sources” section) which really do add more color and help in telling and illustrating the full story. Hopefully I'll soon get clearance to upload pictures and then I will go back to all of my work and update them with the missing graphs, diagrams and pictures. Thanks for reading and enjoy.

Fender


I have always been fascinated with the Fender electric guitar, even though I have never played a guitar and I am not a music major or even musically inclined for that matter. Perhaps it’s the aura, an almost mythical quality the Fender guitar possesses. I have heard of other famous guitars, such as the Gibson, but none seem to stick out in my memory as much as the Fender. It’s also a possibility that I lived in California for almost a decade and then in the Northwest, and the Fender guitar is obviously the preferred electric guitar on the west coast, while the East coast reportedly prefers Gibson electric guitars. These guitars are all expensive master pieces so I have no doubt that a musical amateur, such as myself, could never tell the difference in sound quality coming from these two innovative pieces of work.

That said, and given that I have a near zero knowledge of music and musical instruments, I had a difficult time choosing a topic to write about. I simply chose Fender because the name has always peaked my interest every time I heard the name on a TV show or during a conversation. In addition, I personally really like the sound and look of the name, it just looks like a cool name which belongs on a cool rock and roll guitar, so perhaps that bias had something to do with it as well.

What added to the difficulty of choosing an interesting topic was the fact that the topics were fairly limited and I noticed numerous individuals in the class picking the same exact topic to write about – including fender. I would have preferred to have written about something completely unique but between my lack of musical knowledge and expertise and the limited number of subjects to choose from I simply chose a topic which I found most interesting. I am excited to research and write about something which I have liked for many years but knew very little to nothing about it.

With that being said, I will attempt to set my term paper apart from everyone else doing a write-up on Fender (the guitar), by planning to focus more on the characters which helped shape the man, Leo Fender, and the wild and sustained success of his electric guitars. Also, I plan on focusing my time and energy delving into the adolescent as well as mature life of the man (Leo Fender) that revolutionized the guitar industry in an attempt to better understand both, the secret of his success and Leo Fender himself, with the hopes that I will have a better understanding of his mind, innovative ideas and how one can apply the same techniques and strategy to create the next big thing. I also plan to touch on the critical breakthroughs and patents which helped elevate Leo Fender and his guitars to the forefront of the competitive electric guitar market. That was a very small, niche market at the time with little information on how to create an electric guitar that would allow one person (a guitar player) to stand above the rest in any orchestra and to perform, for the first time, a guitar solo before a large and loud fan base. Needless to say – the electric guitar changed the dynamics of bands and individuals players alike, cutting them down to as little as 1-5 band members, from the enormous bands of the 20’s and 30’s, when the likes of Benny Goodman dominated the scene with his large entourage of talented musicians. Finally, I will look into how the electric guitar changed popular music itself – going from the famous Jazz player and electric guitar phenomenon, Charlie Christian, to T-Bone Walker, who took the electric guitar with his new style ( R&B) and techniques to finally, Jimi Hendrix, who changed it all and pushed the limits of the electric guitar straight into Rock & Roll, with his famous (mostly solo) Woodstock performance, playing the Star Spangled Banner in a way that nobody had ever seen or heard before.

Fig. 1 : Source (2) – Leo Fender’s Sketch of a Lap Steel Guitar with the Guitar Pickup.

Source (2) – United States Patent Office – Leo Fender’s Sketch of a Lap Steel Guitar with an emphasis on the guitar Pickup.

The above pictured (Fig 1), Lap Steel Guitar, (Please see link (source 2) in the source section on the last page below) patented by the brilliant Leo Fender does resemble, at least to me, the flying guitar made by Rickenbacker. The Rickenbacker Electro Hawaiian, also known as the Frying Pan was designed by the Electro String Instrument Corporation in Los Angeles, California around 1931 (7). This first prototype was cast out of a single solid piece of wood but later was made out of cast-aluminum which was officially called “the frying pan” due to the fact that it resembled a frying pan. George Beauchamp, working for Rickenbacker, filed his first patent for the frying pan in 1932, which was the first successful electric guitar with the crucial and newly invented electromagnetic pickup, which is now used on all electric guitars today (as opposed to the electrostatic pickup which was on the earlier prototypes which were a failure, thus never making it to production). Even though Beauchamp filed for his patent in 1932, not one, but two successive patent examiners questioned whether or not the guitar was operational. To finally prove the worthiness of the patents and the revolutionary instrument, Adolf Rickenbacker sent several guitarists to perform for the examiners in Washington DC, at their patent office. Unfortunately, for Rickenbacker, these delays were costly because the necessary patents were not granted until much later, in 1937, by which time numerous competitors had enough time to copy or improve on the frying pan – electromagnetic design and thus designed, manufactured and marketed equally good or better electric guitars of their own. One of these companies was of course, Fender. Tragic for Rickenbacker who could have gone down in history as the Fender or Gibson of the Guitar industry, but once again, timing and chance proves to be of crucial importance. But we can at least credit Rickenbacker and Beauchamp for taking the guitar into a different direction, putting it on the right path and altering the mindset of the other innovators in the field who immediately saw the potential and capitalized on it in a very quick and profound manner (7).

Fig 2: Source (3) (Please see links below, in the Sources section, for pictures and diagrams)The Original Fender Telecaster, Today the Stratocaster is the Best selling Guitar (8) Source (3): US Patent Office – The Original Fender Telecaster

Under “specifications”, at the US Patent Office, Mr. Fender describes in great detail the brilliant and revolutionary design concepts of the above telecaster. He calls it “Tremolo device for stringed instruments.” Mr. Fender further describes that one hand is in the region of the bridge of the guitar where the where the tremolo arm can also be found, and is designed to easily fit in the palm of your hand. Secondly, the tremolo device is arranged so that it only has limited movement so that the tension applied to the strings can be readily varied in order to have the desired tremolo effect. This patent application goes on to specify that the preferred body for this guitar is to be a solid body. On that note, there were a number of renowned electric guitar players that elevated the electric guitar to new levels. Among the greats was the first man to truly master the electric guitar, Charlie Christian, hence the moniker “BC and AC”. Charlie Christian was followed by a number of excellent players such as West Montgomery, but the one that stood out the most, and took the electric guitar to the next level was T-Bone Walker, who’s R&B style was very different and unique than Charlie’s Jazz style. The next player to come along, who was the first to play the solid body electric guitar and who elevated this music to the next level of Rock and Roll, was Jimi Hendrix, with his famous Woodstock performance of “The Star Spangled Banner.” Like all west coast players, Jimi Hendrix played using a Fender while the east coast players preferred the Gibson. Both were great and innovative guitars where in the end most chose the one they felt in their hearts was close to home.

Alas, Jimi Hendrix, being from Seattle, naturally chose the Fender (as did the entire West Coast) and he played it to its max potential and in the process changed rock history, through his unique style of using his body to control the feedback between his guitar and the amp. None of these advancements in music history and the elevation to the next greatest thing in the evolution of music and revolution in innovation of instrumentation development and techniques would have been possible without brilliant forward thinkers like Leo Fender and his timeless designs of the electric guitar (Stratocaster) as well as other electric stringed instruments which are not as well known or discussed.

Fig. 3: Source (5) – Leo Fender as a young boy (See link in Source section below for picture of Leo Fender as a young boy).

From an early age, Leo showed an interest in tinkering with electronics. When he was 13 years old, his uncle, who ran an automotive-electric shop, sent him a box filled with discarded car radio parts, and a battery. The following year, Leo visited his uncle's shop in Santa Maria, CA, and was fascinated by a radio his uncle had built from spare parts and placed on display in the front of the shop. Leo later claimed that the loud music coming from the speaker of that radio made a lasting impression on him. Soon thereafter, Leo began repairing radios in a small shop in his parents' home. In the spring of 1928, Leo graduated from Fullerton Union High School, and entered Fullerton Junior College that fall, as an accounting major.

While he was studying to be an accountant he continued to teach himself electronics, and tinker with radios and other electrical items. He never took any kind of electronics course while in college (4). In my mind, this makes Fender’s vision, dedication, ambition and success that much more unbelievably amazing. I say this because he was facing tough competition from the likes of Les Paul, Gibson, Rickenbacker and others - many of which had a formal education in engineering or were famous and rich enough to hire the necessary highly trained and educated talent to potentially leapfrog Fender. But of course, we now know this never occurred: which is one reason why Fender’s success is so intriguing and nothing short of an inspiring, rare and true American success story.

Fig 4: Source (6) George Fullerton (left) and Leo Fender (right) examine a guitar at their Manufacturing Plant.

Source (6) – George Fullerton and Leo Fender Examining an Electric Fender Guitar at one of their facilities.

In the late 1940s, various guitar makers (i.e. Les Paul – Gibson, Rickenbacker) were experimenting with ways to amplify the sound of a guitar to allow it to be heard in larger dance halls and ballrooms that featured live music. As the race between different brilliant innovators and East and West Coast heated up, Fender wasn't the first to come up with a solid-body electric, which could handle a much greater degree of amplification without the sound feeding back, but his innovations in design allowed the instruments to be mass produced affordably – something no one else had quite figured out at that time, which evidently put Fender on the map, especially on the west coast where in the 60’s surf music really took off. One of the major problems with the first prototypes was that they used electro-static pickup with did not give a clean sound, therefore they never went into production. It wasn’t until the electro-magnetic pickup that the electric guitar was able to be used with great success – and mass production.

While Fender was an accountant by education, his self taught electronics allowed him to experiment, coming up with improvements in guitar design that led to the creation of his revolutionary Telecaster and Stratocaster electric guitars; however, Leo Fender could not play any music, let alone a song, so he often sought individuals who also possessed musical talent as well as a passion for music, in addition to design and manufacturing skills. Fullerton was the perfect partner who complimented Fender well, due to his musical credentials and technical expertise, and thus, successfully made Fender’s innovations practical for mass production in their Orange County factory that opened in the late 1940s. Nearly 1,000 people were working there when Fender sold it to CBS in 1965. At its height before the sale to CBS, Fender was turning out a guitar a minute from its 27 buildings in Fullerton and Anaheim (4).

Fender said he never regretted the sale but he did not like the idea of leaving many of his associates behind. Fullerton, however, stayed on for about five years, but was immensely disappointed by what he considered the new owners' short sighted, profits first mentality. A self centered and greedy, bonus driven corporate disease which would plague and destroy many great American companies in the decades to come.

“Quality issues were always at the forefront of his mind,” Geoff Fullerton said. “The people at CBS would tell him 'We can save a nickel by doing this,' and his response would be 'Yes, but you'll screw the guy who's playing it.' So immediately there was a conflict there.”

“Leo's domain was the lab: innovation and getting ideas together on the conceptual level. George's domain was the shop,” said Richard Smith, curator of the Leo Fender Gallery at the Fullerton Museum Center and author of “Fender: The Sound Heard Round the World.” Fullerton “made the machine that threaded the guitar necks. He came up with the neck shaper and all these unique tools they used. If Leo had problems, [Fullerton] needed to solve them.” And it was due to this cohesive working relationship that Fender and Fullerton were able to work together and do it so well and successfully for so many decades.

It is not often that you can find two or more individuals that can set aside their differences and pride to reach a common goal. In this case, Fender’s and Fullerton’s reward was earned and I believe they deserved all of the fame and riches they had coming to them. Another fact I noticed during my research, was the focus and pride in the quality of the Fender products. I think this is indicative of owners of a company. Just like when Fender sold out to CBS, the quality went down due to the fact that large company executives answer to shareholders on a quarterly basis so they are in essence trained to focus on short term results and it is this short sightedness which influenced executives at CBS to cut costs in order to improve the bottom line and as a result they were no longer putting out the same quality products as when Fender was running the operation. Leo had a vision and an inner force to build quality instruments, even though he was not a musician himself, in order to help musicians play better music and most of all, change the entire landscape and elevate music to a whole new level. For a man to do this, nearly single handedly, when he’s not even a musician, is nothing short of unbelievable. When I sit and think about the competition Mr. Fender had and the technological, financial, competitive and marketing hurdles and challenges he had to surpass and conquer I am left utterly speechless. Today, the company is privately held and Mr. Fender and Mr. Fullerton have passed away but it’s interesting to see what heights of success Fender has reached. Because the company is privately held, management does not have to publish units sold, revenues or net income. But after scouring the internet I got some raw data. First, out of every ten Fender guitars sold, it is estimated that 6-8 of them are their most popular brand, the Stratocaster. In the US, the total yearly market value for Electric Guitars is nearly $500 Million and Fender is estimated to claim approximately 30% of this market (8). This is very impressive given the age and humble beginnings of Fender and also the fact that so many companies have had decades to come up with something better. The lasting design and innovation, in my opinion, is Leo Fender’s legacy.

It is this type of passionate and fearless innovation that has made America what it is today. I hope the field for innovation remains the same, in America, for many years to come and the rewards for those who risk it all and succeed, even though they may fail at first, remains unabated so that our children and grand children may have the opportunity to someday become the next Fender. For me, the Fender story is not just about a breakthrough technology that changed the dynamics of musical bands and groups and popular music itself, but also about the man and the talent he possessed and risks he undertook to insure that history, as we know it today, was being made. How wonderful it must be – to wake up every morning with an incredible feeling of fulfillment, and success to boot, knowing that you are about to alter history and do so while working at something you truly love.

- Maximilian Wilhelm

Sources


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