A brief history of Fender guitars

Leo Fender’s crowning achievements have been with us for over seven decades – here’s the story of how they came to dominate the guitar world.

ATB guitars July Fender MusicMaster

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Fender is perhaps the most storied of all the guitar companies, with a remarkable ability to remain relevant and cool regardless of genre or changing tastes. Here’s a brief history of how it became the world’s favourite electric guitar brand.

Early days

Portrait of Leo Fender
Leo Fender at the drawing board. Image: Bob Perine

He might be one of the architects of electric guitar, but Leo Fender started his career as a radio repairman, and famously never actually played guitar himself – but he was good at listening to people who did play, and crafting equipment that suited their needs.

Born in California in 1909, Clarence Leonidas Fender showed a unique talent for electronics from early on in his life, tinkering with electronics and spare parts from his uncles auto-electronics shop at the age of 13. He trained to be an accountant but never stopped building and repairing radios and other audio equipment in his spare time, and in 1938 he set up his own radio repair shop in Fullerton – Fender Radio Service.

Soon Leo was approached by local bandleaders to create PA systems and other means of amplifying their stringed instruments – a challenge that sparked his creativity like never before. Then in 1943, Leo partnered with his friend, the former Rickenbacker engineer and inventor of the Vibrola tailpiece “Doc” Kauffman to create K&F Manufacturing Corporation to create Hawaiian guitars.

The next year the pair filed a patent for a lap steel guitar that used one of Fender’s magnetic pickups, eventually selling the guitar with an amplifier as a combo. In 1946 Doc pulled out of their partnership, but Leo opted to carry on alone, renaming the company Fender Manufacturing wanting to focus solely on guitar innovations, he sold his radio repair business and never looked back.

Get solid

J Mascis

In the late 1940s, Fender began developing the blueprints for a solid body alternative to the hollow body guitars that were popular at the time – it wasn’t the first solidbody, but the guitars were considered something of a gimmick or novelty in most circles. Leo would change all that forever.

The Esquire arrived in 1950, and was the signpost to a bright and glorious future – with its bolt-on neck, single-cut slab body and single pickup, it was a much more rudimentary instrument than what many guitarists used at the time, but that was its genius.

The solidbody guitar was less prone to feedback, it could be played louder and cut through the mix of increasingly loud bands. Without even realising it, Leo had created the perfect sound for the burgeoning sound of pop music.

In 1951 a double-pickup version would arrive, initially christened the Broadcaster, but soon renamed the Telecaster after a legal – the first mass-produced solidbody was born.
1951 was a good year for Fender – that year also saw the arrival of the Precision Bass, which soon become the first electric bass to really capture the imagination of low-end hounds. Another legend had been born, but Leo was just getting started

Enter the Stratocaster

Eric Clapton
Image: Gareth Cattermole / Getty

After the success of the Telecaster and P-Bass, Fender and his brain trust set out to again reinvent the electric guitar. After two years of research and development, 1954 saw the release of a new guitar, one whose space-age contours and inimitable sound would change the face of guitar music forever – the Stratocaster.

While the Strat sported similarities to the Tele, it offered quite a few key differences. It has a contoured, double-cut body, three single-coil pickups, and a synchronized vibrato system.
Much like Henry Ford did for the automobile, in the Strat Fender created a guitar that could be mass-produced and easily maintained with replacement parts. The versatility and durability of this design is why has remained relatively unchanged since the beginning – it remains the most recognisable guitar ever made.

But Leo wasn’t done yet – in the late 50s he began working on a more ‘upmarket’ guitar aimed at the jazz guitarists of the day, with versatile switching, chunky single-coil pickups, a revolutionary new vibrato system and a look that would polarise players for decades to come.

The Jazzmaster never really caught on with its intended audience, but the burgeoning surf guitar scene ate them up, just as they did with the short-scale Jaguar in 1962. Both guitars would continue to be divisive and misunderstood until grunge pioneers like Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr firmly placed Leo’s ‘offset’ guitars at the apex of cool.

Changing hands

Kingfish with fender starcaster outside church
Image: Rory Doyle

Due to health issues, in January of 1965 Fender sold his company to CBS. While nothing is black and white, and plenty of great guitars were made after the sale, in the eyes of many guitar players, the CBS era was the end of the ‘Golden Age’ of Fender guitars.

Undoubtedly, CBS’s ownership led to a reduction in quality and consistency as costs were cut in myriad ways. But it wasn’t all bad. New models were introduced, including the Thinline Telecaster, the Tele Deluxe and Custom, and the semi-hollow bodied Starcaster and Coronado, the former of which broke from semi tradition with a bolt-on neck and a new model of “Wide Range” humbucker pickups designed by Seth Lover.

One of the most notorious cost-cutting changes that CBS made to Fender guitars in the 70s was the change from a four-bolt neck join to three. It was claimed that this change would make neck adjustments easier, and it does have some fans, but the reason the three-bolt neck didn’t really take off was due to the aforementioned quality control issues which led to issues with playability, tuning stability and intonation.

Fender went back to using four bolts for the Strat’s 25th anniversary in 1979. Another tell-tale sign of this era is the size of Strat headstocks, which were enlarged in order to make the decal bigger.

Into the 80s

Jeff Beck
Jeff Beck. Image: Michael Putland / Getty Images

After the tumultuous 70s, the next decade brought significant changes to Fender’s operations and products.

Fender introduced the student Bullet line. It came in two variations and would later become a staple of Fender subsidiary Squier’s roster. They started offering alternatives to more traditional models with unique combinations of colors, pickups, and tone woods. Between ’79 and ’82 the Lead series was released.

The concept behind them was to make a more affordable guitar that would appeal to fans of the Strat. It was based off of a lot of the specs from the original 1954 model. Though their production run was only a few years, they found their way into some very famous hands and have become a collector’s item on the vintage market.

In this period CBS brought leadership Yamaha to run things, and it would end up being a hugely significant moment for Fender. Firstly, Fender Japan was created in order to enable the company to compete with the quality affordable instruments that were being produced in Asia for the US market by the likes of Yamaha, Fernandes and Ibanez.

In 1985, Bill Schultz and a group of Fender execs engineered a management buyout, but this didn’t include the Corona factory – the result was a brief period where the only Fender guitars being made were in Japan, while the reborn Fender established a new facility down the road in Corona, California and set about getting the company back to making guitars that more accurately reflected the quality and features of its 1950s and 60s heyday.

Two years later another major change would arrive when Fender opened its first Mexico factory in 1987. The same year that Fender would open the Custom Shop, employing master guitar craftsmen to build instruments that channeled the brilliance of those early Fender guitars, while also creating signature models for the likes of Yngwie Malmsteen, Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, and scores of others in the decades that followed.

Fender in the modern era

Fender Acoustasonic Player Telecaster
Image: Fender

In the years since the management buyout, Fender has gone from strength to strength and is now unquestionably the world’s largest and most famous guitar company. In addition to facilities in the USA, Mexico and Japan, the big F has expanded elsewhere into Asia, making Fender guitars accessible to every price point while managing to maintain a level of quality control that would been unbelievable 30 years ago.

The company has also continued to innovate, creating popular new guitar designs such as the Meteora, the Cabronita and perhaps most boundary-pushing of all, the Acoustasonic series, which blur the lines between electric and acoustic guitars.

Perhaps uniquely of all the guitar companies, Fender has also managed to diversify itself without ever losing its identity – you’ll see Fender guitars in the hands of heavy rockers, neo-soul poppers, grungey alt-rockers and country kings and nobody will bat an eyelid.
Seven decades since Leo Fender’s first electric democratised electric guitar, Fender remains a brand for everyone.

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