How Leo Fender Found His Groove

How Leo Fender Found His Groove

So what do these folks have in common?

  • Eric Clapton
  • Jimi Hendrix
  • Steve Harris
  • Buddy Holly
  • John Lennon
  • John Mayer
  • Bonnie Raitt
  • Sting

They span three generations, from Buddy Holly (born 1936) to John Mayer (born 1977). They’re not all guitarists. Sting and Steve Harris (of Iron Maiden) play bass.

Of course, they all favor the legendary Fender instruments conceived by a late-blooming accountant named Clarence Leonidas Fender (1909-1991).

How Leo Fender Found His Groove at
Leo Fender

Leo Fender was born in a barn not far from what would become Disneyland, California on August 10, 1909. His parents grew oranges.

Leo loved tinkering from an early age. At 13, he visited his uncle’s electronics shop. He became mesmerized by a spare-parts radio his uncle had built and the loud music playing from it. His passion was born.

Yet when the Depression started, he declared an accounting major. After graduation, Leo joined Consolidated Ice and Cold Storage Company as a deliveryman and eventually became their bookkeeper.

In 1933, he married and moved to San Luis Obispo. He got an accounting job with the California Highway Department. But after six months, with the Depression at its height, he got laid off. This happened a few more times before Leo borrowed $600 and headed home to open Fender Radio Service.

Then World War II broke out. Factories stopped making radios to concentrate on weapons. Old parts were plentiful, however, and Leo’s business boomed.

Plus people still wanted to hear music. Leo became known in big band circles for building acoustic guitar amplifiers and public address systems.

Although Leo profited from the War, his success takes on poignancy when you know why he couldn’t be drafted — he’d lost an eye in a farming accident as a child.

How Leo Fender Found His Groove at
Jimi Hendrix and his Stratocaster

“The Henry Ford of Electric Guitar”

One day, a lap steel guitar player named “Doc” Kauffman wandered in to have Leo repair his amp. Kauffman had worked for a local guitar manufacturing outfit and the two jawed about how to build a better electric guitar.

In 1944, Leo and Doc applied for a patent on a guitar pickup and formed a joint venture, partly funded by a design for a record changer they sold for $5,000. But after a few tough years working from a shack behind Leo’s shop, Doc left the business and returned to his Oklahoma ranch.

Leo kept innovating and soon dominated the industry. He didn’t invent the solid body electric guitar, but he improved it. He became the “Henry Ford of electric guitar” by automating its manufacture.

Leo’s signature electric guitar had several incarnations, starting in 1950. First there was the Esquire, then the Broadcaster, then the Telecaster and finally, the iconic Fender Stratocaster.

In August 1951, Leo started producing an electric bass. As bands got bigger and guitars got louder, upright bassists fought for volume on stage. Plus, the uprights were bulky and difficult to move.

How Leo Fender Found His Groove at
My hubby Dave with his P-Bass

Leo’s guitar-shaped Precision Bass and its amplifier solved those problems. Again, he didn’t invent the electric bass, but he was the first to make it widely available.

By 1964, Leo was ill and exhausted. He sold the Fender Electric Instrument Manufacturing Company to CBS for $13 million and signed a ten-year noncompete agreement.

An Innovator To The End

In 1974, Leo came out of retirement to head the Music Man Company. In 1985, he formed G&L Musical Instruments with George Fullerton.

He made millions, yet remained a humble inventor. His coffee “mug” was a styrofoam cup with “Leo” printed on it. He brought his lunch to work every day because “With the money I save eating these sandwiches, I can buy a handful of resistors.”

His employees loved him. He showed up at G&L every day until his death on March 21, 1991 from complications of Parkinson’s disease.

Despite losing his eye as a child and several accounting  jobs during the Depression, Leo Fender turned his teenage passion for tinkering into an empire. Almost every song seared into our hearts for three generations lives there because of Leo, who found his groove in his 40s.

And he never learned how to play, or even tune, a guitar!


25 Responses

  1. David Goldman
    | Reply

    Really great story. I am not a guitar player, but I love the music that was played on the Fender guitar. It’s kind of a mythical instrument to me. My daughters are interested in the guitar and I have tried explain to them the significance of the Fender.
    Cool that his birthday is today, August 10. That is my anniversary (my birthday was last week), and my brother-in-law’s birthday.
    Thanks for the great stories. It really inspires me to be a later bloomer. I am now starting on a writing career. I have also seen you post in the Forum on the A List Blogger club (you even answered some of my questions).
    David Goldman

    • Debra Eve

      Hey David, congrats on the start to your writing career. I’m right (write) there with you! A-List is a fantastic place to meet folks and learn blogging. I haven’t been there recently because I’ve been focusing on my fiction. Thanks for stopping by!

  2. Lindsay
    | Reply

    My favorite quote: ““With the money I save eating these sandwiches, I can buy a handful of resistors.”
    These are the words of a man in love with his work.
    Here is a line from Spoon River Anthology that just popped into my head: “The earth keeps some vibration going / There in your heart, and that is you.”

    • Debra Eve

      Thanks so much, Lindsay. That quote is stunning and so very apt, considering Leo might have been tone deaf.

  3. florence fois
    | Reply

    I grew up with a music-obsessed-guitar-loving older brother and I know who this man was and I know the history of string instruments from guitars to violins. Learned about who plays what and of course about Gibson and it was the same brother who introduced me to classical guitar music.

    Great post, thanks 🙂

    • Debra Eve

      Hey Florence, I think anyone growing up in the ’60s or ’70s has deep memories of songs played on Fender guitars, the way Stradivarius is associated with violins. I thank my hubby for turning me on to Leo. He’s obsessed with the Precision Bass!

  4. David Stevens
    | Reply

    That’s Amazing Elle B,
    Great story and he never learned to play or tune a guitar!
    be good to yourself

    • Debra Eve

      Thanks, David. I didn’t include this because I couldn’t verify it, but some of his coworkers thought he was tone deaf! Which makes his accomplishments all the more astounding.

  5. Mary Jo Gibson
    | Reply

    Hi Elle! Thanks for the great post on this lengendary individual. I want the fender app for my phone, but have to wait until i get an i-life. It just shows what you can do with your life if you keep moving forward to find what you love.

    • Debra Eve

      Oh, oh. Didn’t know about that app! You’re not the only one without an i-life. Now I’ve got to decide whether or not to tell my bass-obsessed hubby… Thanks for stopping by, Mary Jo!

  6. Michael Walden
    | Reply

    Yet another great post about one of the most fascinating people! It’s been a little while since I stopped by, just been very busy writing 🙂

    • Debra Eve

      Thanks, Michael. Always like hearing from you. I’ve been busy writing, too, so I’ve been recycling a few stories. Just keep going!

  7. Your X Classmate
    | Reply

    OK – So this blog is about one of my favorite worlds….

    Leo Fender was a genius, clear and simple. It has been said that without Leo and his wonderful musical instruments, there would be no Rock & Roll, because he gave us all the tools of the trade. The way I see it he was a brilliant electronic engineer (pocket protector included), who’s calling obviously was to create these fine instruments by which so much wonderful music has been , and will continue to be crafted…. right down the road here in beautiful Fullerton California.

    I am the proud and most fortunate owner of both an original (well ,mostly the body is all original, but the neck has been replaced with a 67′ replica that was built in the Fender Custom shop about 1999) black 1969 Fender Stratocaster that I have had since I was 18 or so (I am 53 now) and an original (again mostly – the speakers were replaced with Jensen Cn12 repros) 1967 Fender Pro Reverb Amp that I have had for 5 years or so…. I took up the guitar at about 15 and have been playing steadily and collecting vintage guitars and amps, sans one (big mistake) 10 year gap or so, ever since. Leo built his amps and his guitars as matched sets and I can tell you from firsthand experience that when one is seeking a clean tone with perfect reverb there are none better than this particular combination. The Strat plugged straight into the 67 Pro Reverb , no effects….. Ahhh.. a bit of heaven on earth. This is the tone we all grew up on and have been listening to all of our lives – laid down on so many of those old great recordings, and some of the new ones …. It is part of our souls and a great source of musical pleasure for us all…. of course there are others, but this one is one of my favorites.

    Leo was always running around the shop tweaking on things…. listing to his customers (who were some of the best musicians in the world) and making every effort to better his wares to their liking…. years of tinkering this way slowly but surely forged out some of the best tone in the world. The other really cool thing about him was he never lost himself, despite his great fame and fortune….. I don’t think the money did much for him, but his calling certainly did. God bless you Leo, you made life much richer for us all.

    Readers who want to really study Leo’s guitars and amps should get themselves a copy of “The Soul of Tone: 60 Years of Fender Amps ” and “The Stratocaster Chronicles: Celebrating 50 years of the Fender Strat” by Tom Wheeler. Best to shell out the extra $$$ for the hard copies, there are way too many great photographs of Leo’s work in them not to.

    Thank you Debra for your work. I greatly enjoyed your book and we are all holding you to your promise of the rest of the series…. although I lost track of you right after elementary school, I never really forgot about you. We did after all, share the same class room for eight years and grew up on the same street…. I always new you would do good with your life am I am extremely pleased to see that I was right. Running into your book gives me a great deal of inspiration towards what to do with the second half of my life. There have been period when I thought I was running out of time, but the future looks much brighter to me knowing it really isn’t all downhill from here.

    Take care,

    Greg Boone

    • Debra Eve

      Greg, it’s so nice to hear from you. I wouldn’t, however, want to get you and my husband together in the same room. He’s got two Fender P-Basses that he loves (not more than me, or so he says) and he inspired this post. He’s also visited the Fullerton facility. I think you two would talk for hours! I’m working on the second book now, hopefully to be released before the holidays.

      Thanks for your kind words. I don’t remember much before age 15 or so, but I do remember you fondly. Deb Pattillo contacted me a few days ago too. Amazing coincidence! Warmly, Debra

  8. Your X Classmate
    | Reply


    Nice to hear from you too…. Tell you husband he has an open invitation to bring his basses and amps and come over (the both of you of course) and jam with me …… We’ll play the blues….. My wife Jan and I (28 years) still live in Downey and I have a pretty cool home studio – and no bass player….. could be fun. email me and we can set it up

    Take care,

    Greg Boone

  9. Jennette Marie Powell
    | Reply

    I must’ve missed this before… I used to play guitar, still have my vintage Rickenbacker, but wow, the Fender Stratocaster was the quintessential axe of the classic metal I love. Thanks for sharing the story of the man behind the icon – very cool!

    • Debra Eve | @DebraEve

      I’m jeolous, Jennette. Yes, the Stratocaster defined a whole generation of music. I find it amazing that Leo never played the instruments he created!

  10. Charlene Soule
    | Reply

    My son has an assignment to read an autobiography or biography then report about it. He loves playing the guitar and really wanted to do Leo Fender. How Leo Found his Groove is great! Do you happen to have this in a book? He has to read a book to complete the assignment. He is ten years old. We are having a difficult time finding an audio biography or biography of Leo in a book form…any help would be greatly appreciated!! Thank you!

    • Debra Eve | @DebraEve

      Charlene, I don’t think anyone has written a biography of Leo Fender, which is amazing. Mine is just a short essay and I put it together from Internet sources. Sorry I can’t be of more help, but I wish your son the best of luck. Maybe he’ll grow up to be the first biographer of Leo Fender!

  11. Dave Leggett
    | Reply

    Great post Debra – definitely one of my favourites.
    Thank you for including me in the post and making me feel part of your writing community.

    As I read your blog post, I pictured a musical Mount Rushmore and could definitely picture both Leo and Les Paul being there as “founding fathers of modern electric instruments” if you will.
    I’m not sure who the others would be, but I definitely see them up there : )

    I really enjoyed reading all of the great feedback you got as well.

    I would like to say thanks to your old classmate Greg for the invite too.

    Keep up the great work.



    X X X

    • Debra Eve | @DebraEve

      Thank you, baby. As the featured P-Bassist in this piece, your feedback means a lot. Yes, we pretty much owe all our favorite music to Leo and Les Paul!

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