Do you know what Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Steve Harris, Buddy Holly, John Lennon, John Mayer, Bonnie Raitt, and Sting have in common (besides a talent for music)?
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.
And of course, they all favor the legendary Fender instruments conceived by a late-blooming accountant named Clarence Leonidas Fender (1909-1991).
The Life of Leo
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 in order to make 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.
The “Henry Ford of Electric Guitar”
One day, a lap steel guitar player named “Doc” Kauffman wandered into Leo’s shop to have his amp repaired. Kauffman once 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 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.
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.
The Eternal Innovator
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 of dollars, 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 a detour to accounting, 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!
- Wired.com: This Day In Tech (8/10/2009)
- Opening image: The Guitar Player by Paul Gauguin (1894)