The last days of Leo Fender

Leo Fender is perhaps the most important figure in the history of the electric guitar, but very little attention is given to his work after leaving the company that bore his name – but he kept working, and kept inventing right until the end. This is the story of the final days of an icon.

“It was a cold rainy day in March. Leo wasn’t doing well, so George [Fullerton] took him home early that day, which was unusual, because he would usually stay until three or four in the afternoon. That day he went home after lunch sometime,” says Eddy Sebest of the last time Leo Fender came into work at the company that bore both his and Fullerton’s names, G&L.

Eddy is the longest-serving employee to have worked at G&L, which like Fender and Music Man before it has carried on long after its legendary founder departed. Eddy ran the main G&L shop during the brand’s heyday from 1985 to 2005. His recollection of Leo’s final hours in March 1991 are poignant and reflective of the man Fender was.

“George drove him home and when they got to Leo’s house, he went around to the passenger side to help Leo get out of the car, as he would often do, and according to George, he just refused to get out of the car. Leo held on to the dashboard,” he explains.

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“So George went and got [Leo’s] wife Phyllis to help get him out of the car and they brought him into the house. They helped him into the house and made him comfortable on his couch and then George left. Later that evening, Leo died on that couch. George said, ‘It was like he knew he was going to pass away, and he just wanted to go back to his factory and die in his office.’”

Leo Fender
Image: G&L Musical Instruments / BBE Sound

Eddy Sebest started at the bottom, cleaning the shop, unloading the wood, milling and glueing up body blanks, eventually he got the full-time gig in the main wood shop doing it all from cutting out rough neck blanks, shaping, fretting, and finishing necks, to later on being promoted to head production manager.

This was an era when G&L was hitting its straps after old colleague Fender and Fullerton had got back together to recapture some of the magic in 1979. By the early 90s the brand was beginning to release the ASAT, SC3, and S-500 models and prototyping the new Rampage models.

Despite having suffered ill health for some years, Sebest remembers that the G&L production line was an authentic reflection of the blend of process-driven consistency and expert craftsmanship that had made Fender a trailblazer in the 50s.

“At that time, there were no CNC machines. All the machines that we used were designed by Leo and built by the guys in the machine shop,” he explains. “So they were all hand-made machines, made to accommodate each specific step in the building process. All that machinery at G&L was the same machinery from the original Fender factory – all the original Telecasters, Stratocasters, and Jazzmasters from the 1950s were made on those machines.”

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Leo Fender
Image: G&L Musical Instruments / BBE Sound

Doing it right

G&L was a much smaller-scale operation than the industry juggernaut that Fender Inc. had turned into. The few key production workers were focused and dedicated to keeping the quality high – arguably higher than what was being made by Fender at the time.

This attention to detail can be attributed to the care and reverence of some of the production line employees, one of which was a young Gabriel Currie, now a respected luthier in his own right with his Echopark Guitars brand. Gabriel started at G&L at the age of 18 and would eventually become Eddy’s right-hand man in the main production shop – gluing bodies, routing, sanding and learning the fine art of contour sculpting from Rafial Garcia.

“Those were the days,” says Gabriel of his time with G&L. “We made $4.50 an hour and built everything by hand. It was magical though. Just to be in the same space as the original founders and know that we were building instruments that were Leo’s refined visions. I’d take the bus from LA at 5am with no issue because I knew it was a sacred journey.”

Even though Leo’s health was failing at this point, he was still very hands-on, and was far more than a figurehead or a namesake. He never stopped working on new designs for guitars, pickups and components, and as Currie alludes, he remained obsessed with refining the designs he’d come up with in the 40s and 50s, and never stopped trying to improve them.

“He was very sick by 1990. He could hardly walk, and he could hardly speak, but if he shook your hand, he could crush it!” Eddy remembers. “He would write questions down on paper for you. He had one fake eye and was deaf in one ear, but he came to work in his lab every single day.”

Leo Fender
Image: G&L Musical Instruments / BBE Sound

At the very end, his consuming passion was new pickup designs.

“He was completely concentrated on pickups at that point,” Eddy affirms. “He was constantly winding pickups. He had these boards he would mount pickups with strings stretched out on them and he would check the tone out on that contraption for hours. He was experimenting with different wire gauges, magnets, and different pole materials. You’d hear him strumming in his lab every day. He couldn’t play [guitar], of course, so everything was just cranked. He never missed a day of work.”

This relentless pursuit of tone meant that Leo and George forged new sonic ground at G&L with innovations like Magnetic Field Design pickups, a saddle lock bridge, dual fulcrum vibrato, and a neck tilt mechanism all winning many fans over the years.

Furthermore, his hands-on approach served as a beacon of integrity and passion to all of his employees, which soon earned G&L a reputation amongst pro guitar players.

“We had the honor of building custom pieces for a ton of amazing players!” Eddy enthuses. “Will Ray of the Hellcasters was a favourite, as well as all the Chicken Pickin Bakersfield Kats. LA bands like BB Chung King and new bands like Alice in Chains had just started to emerge and reveal the power of the earlier Rampage models in a heavy format, while his basses were just starting to get the well-deserved attention of players like Tom Hamilton of Aerosmith.”

Leo Fender
Image: G&L Musical Instruments / BBE Sound

An unparalleled legacy

The tragedy of Leo’s passing permeated through the industry and his undeniable legacy and impact on the music industry will never be forgotten. The debt musicians owe to Leo Fender can, perhaps, only be repaid through the art that continues to be made on Leo’s iconic designs.

Strangely, his funeral service was attended by around 200 people on an oddly rainy day in Orange County, California. There were few outside the immediate family and employees who came to pay their respects.

In the aftermath of Leo’s passing, Phyllis (who had been made honorary chairman in the 80s) opted to pass the management of the company to John C McLaren of BBE Sound. Fullerton would stay on as a permanent consultant until his death in 2009, while Phyllis remained an Honorary Chairperson of the G&L until her death in 2020.

Perhaps understandably given his motivation for being there in the first place, Currie wouldn’t wait around to see what came next – a week after Leo’s passing he left to work under Tkakashi Hosono handcrafting custom instruments for mail order customers and ghost building for clients like Sadowski, Ibanez, and others in Los Angeles.

As for Eddy, he stayed on with G&L until 1995, when the McLaren family moved production to Indonesia – after that he went on to work with boutique guitar trailblazer Bill Collings in Austin, where he stayed until his retirement in 2017. It’s clear however, that he retains a special place in his heart for the work they did at G&L, and the privilege of being able to learn from a true icon.

“So many think that his legacy at G&L was all one guy,” Eddy explains, “But behind his direction and genius there was a tight little team – a few of us that knew it was important to be there, and we lived for it.”

The personal name, likeness and signature of Mr. Clarence Leo Fender are property of G&L Musical Instruments/BBE Sound, Inc. and may not be used in any commercial capacity without prior approval.

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