The Guitar Man : Inventor: Leo Fender went from fixing radios to creating a legendary instrument that revolutionized rock ‘n’ roll. At 80, he’s starting over.


Fender Avenue runs for only a few blocks through a nondescript industrial neighborhood in Fullerton, two miles and 45 years or so from Leo Fender’s old radio repair shop.

The city razed the shop a few years ago and replaced it with a parking garage. Some people--guitar players, mostly--thought it should have been made a shrine.

Leo Fender is somewhere around the place, this tan one-story building just off Fender Avenue. This is where he works now.


On this warm afternoon, a visitor is asking to see the man who invented the first and arguably best guitar ever to come off an assembly line and in doing so changed popular music forever.

Fender is 80 now and unable to talk clearly much of the time because of a muscle disease. Getting to see him is a little like trying to see the president of a large corporation, which he decidely is not, although he once was.

The guitars made Fender wealthy, one of the first people to get rich on rock ‘n’ roll. But Fender had a downfall as spectacular as any rock star’s, for getting rich cost him control of his creations.

So now, Fender works at his new company, G&L; Musical Products, a small guitar manufacturing firm that he came out of retirement 10 years ago to start with some of his former employees.

Every morning, Dale Hyatt--who started on the assembly line at Fender in 1946 and is now vice president and general manager of G&L;’s distribution operation--picks up the maestro at his home in Fullerton about 11:30. They have lunch, then Fender works for about four hours.

Although the company barely makes a profit--the furniture in Hyatt’s office has enough dings, dents and shiny spots to seem at home in a frat house--and could use the publicity, Hyatt is adamant. He will allow no pictures to be taken of Leo or his guitars for this article because it will mention Fender’s old company, the legendary manufacturer that still bears his name.

“I don’t want to give them any more publicity,” Hyatt says. “All that stuff is in the past.”

Orange County, 1950: a few miles south and several decades behind Los Angeles; before the freeways and the boxy glass office towers and the traffic jams; a place of orange groves and John Birchers and spiffy new subdivisions full of wholesome families.

Hardly the place to find a man about to become a rock ‘n’ roll legend.

Yet here he is, a middle-aged inventor in a dingy radio repair shop, not even a speck of greatness about him. With the dark hair combed straight back from a receding hairline and the thick glasses, he looks more like a high school science teacher than a seminal figure in modern music.

He was born not far from here, on a small farm in Anaheim, on Aug. 10, 1909. He has no formal education beyond high school but talked his way into a job as an accountant at the state Highway Department. When he lost that job in 1935, during the Depression, he became a radio repairman.

For years, guitar players had been bringing him their new-fangled amplifiers for repair. Most of them were country-Western dudes with rhinestone studs in their shirts and shiny cowboy boots. Fender looked their amps over and decided he could build better. And maybe, while he was at it, a better guitar, too.

The guitar wasn’t played widely in America until the second half of the 19th Century, when suddenly just about anyone could buy an inexpensive model from the Sears, Roebuck catalogue. Black musicians in the South bought guitars to play reels and dance music and later a new music called blues. Hill folks in the South had a plaintive music called country and western.

The music--and the instrument--weren’t hard to play. A singer could easily learn a few chords and accompany himself.

Problem was, a guitar was harder to hear than a horn or a piano, typical lead instruments of the day. Since the 1930s, jazz musicians had played amplified traditional hollow-body guitars. But when played too loud, those instruments emitted an electronic shriek called feedback.

The solution was to make a new instrument with a solid body, a gadget that wouldn’t depend on the traditional guitar’s hollow “box” to resonate and amplify the strings’ sound.

A Los Angeles manufacturer named Rickenbacker can plausibly lay claim to patenting the first solid-body electric guitar in 1935. But it had problems. To start with, it didn’t look like a guitar. It was a short, plank-shaped instrument that performers held on their laps. And it didn’t sound like most guitars. Musicians slid a glass tube along the strings to play Hawaiian music, the craze in the 1920s.

Rickenbacker tried to mass-produce more traditional-looking guitars with solid bodies, but they didn’t catch on. (He later moved to Orange County, not far from Fender, and made modern electric guitars that were hot sellers when the Beatles played them.)

Some musicians, like country star Merle Travis, got tired of waiting for a cheap, good-quality guitar to come off somebody’s assembly line and had their own solid-body guitars custom made.

It was these people Fender thought of as his market in the late 1940s. Rock ‘n’ roll, of course, had yet to be invented. But Fender, tinkering in his shop, was bringing it closer.

What he did was to combine ideas and technologies that had been around for years. Take pickups, for instance, the devices on an electric guitar that use a magnet and a coil of wire to create a magnetic field around a string. It’s the basic technology behind all electric guitars. When the string vibrates, the magnetic field generates an electric signal that can be amplified.

Fender invented a better pickup, better frets and tuning pegs and necks. He fashioned them into something that was far greater than the sum of its parts.

In 1950, it initially was called the Fender Broadcaster. But Gretsch, a competitor, already made a drum kit of the same name, which had been copyrighted. So Fender, mindful of the new medium of television, renamed his guitar the Telecaster.

With one finger, a guitarist could now sound like a roomful of horns. But the Telecaster had technical problems and a clunky way of hanging from the guitar player’s strap.

It wasn’t until 1954 that Fender finally brought out the Stratocaster, a near-perfect fusion of electronics, ergonomics and technology--and design and aesthetics.

It was made of wood but painted in sparkly colors. It was streamlined curves with a long, graceful neck. And it was designed to be easy to manufacture. It had, for instance, a neck that was bolted on, which made it easier to produce and repair. It was revolutionary and sold well.

Guitar players from 1950s rocker Buddy Holly to ‘60s guitar heroes Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix to the guy you saw on MTV last night have used “Strats.”

“The electric guitar made bands smaller and more efficient,” says writer Richard R. Smith. “It made the small combo possible, where four guys could create as much noise as a 15-piece big band.

“Leo made the electric guitar useful, affordable and commercially viable, something nobody had ever done before,” says Smith, who’s writing a book about Fender. “He’s the Thomas Edison of guitars.”

But Leo Fender’s forte was not the business side of guitar manufacturing. He was a tinkerer, an inventor, a man who preferred puttering around in his shop inventing a new amplifier to doing the books or ordering parts, his friends say. He was also a gruff man who didn’t get along with some of his business partners at Fender and in the companies he started later, they say.

Forrest White, an industrial engineer Fender hired as the company’s general manager, describes one of his first meetings with the inventor: “I asked him how he knew when to reorder parts, and he took me down to this room and there were parts lying all over the place, all mixed up. And he points to a bin and says, ‘When it gets low, I reorder.’ I told him, ‘Leo, that’s all right for a junk shop, but it’s no way to run a factory.’ Know what he told me? ‘I don’t like a lot of red tape.’ ”

Fender was a paradox: He never learned to play the guitars he made and he never was really all that crazy about rock ‘n’ roll. He preferred big bands and country music.

Fender wore old clothes to work and encouraged his executives to do the same. Out for lunch in Fullerton, he was often mistaken for a factory worker. He wore a pouch on his belt for a screwdriver and pliers. One of the few times White remembers seeing Fender wear a suit--a Christmas Eve when Fender’s wife had persuaded him to don one--he was struggling to open a gift when he reached in his coat. There was the pouch; he extracted a screwdriver and opened his package.

The guitars--and Fender amps, which also set the industry standard--were so popular that the factory usually couldn’t keep up. According to Fender’s sworn statement in an old lawsuit, his firm’s sales grew from $100,000 in 1953 to $40 million in 1964.

By then, the Beatles were pushing the pop music of the early 1960s off the radio and Wall Street was doing its version of the Watusi. It was the time of the go-go stock market; the sky seemed the limit. The market’s most famous creature, the conglomerate, bought bakeries, hotel chains, insurance companies, liquor distillers--anything for sale and profitable.

To some of the big boys, guitar companies looked like a good buy. Sales of electric and “folk” guitars and other fretted instruments jumped from 400,000 in 1960, before the big boom in folk and rock music, to 2.5 million in 1972.

One firm looking around for something to buy in the early 1960s was CBS, which then was the cash-rich, No. 1 network. Forbidden to buy any more than five TV stations by federal regulations, CBS began to look for other investments.

In 1964, CBS began negotiating to buy Fender. Leo, who was ailing at the time, sold for $13 million.

Other guitar makers were swallowed. Gibson, Fender’s biggest rival in the electric guitar market, was purchased by Norlin Corp., which later lost more money on it than anybody had lost on an instrument manufacturer before.

The problem was that the conglomerates knew nothing about manufacturing guitars. At Fender, said Forrest White, the company’s former general manager, CBS brought in an aerospace engineer to design guitar amplifiers. “That guy had no idea what the musicians wanted,” White says.

But besides its headaches with keeping customers happy, the industry had worse problems coming: It soon was steamrollered by millions of foreign-made guitars, mostly Japanese. They soon captured the market. By last year, only 1.4 million guitars and other fretted instruments were sold in the United States, or a little more than half the 1972 total--with only 135,000 of them made in America.

“If the name hadn’t been as strong as it was, the company would never have survived,” says Hyatt, who left CBS Fender to rejoin his old boss.

Indeed, some people worried the company might even go out of business in the 1980s. Instead, in 1985--exactly 20 years after buying it--CBS sold Fender to the company’s managers for $12.5 million. CBS booked a $38-million loss on the sale.

Fender, the perfectionist, must have been mortified. For awhile he stayed out of the business. But in the 1970s, he came out of retirement to join some of his old employees in starting a company named Music Man. Fender bickered with another executive, though, and soon stopped designing guitars for the company. Without him, it fell apart.

“As near as I can tell, that man has filed more patents than all the rest of the guitar companies put together, not counting mine,” says Hartley Peavey, an amplifier builder from Mississippi who started in his basement and now employs hundreds. “I want to be remembered some day like a lot of people remember Leo Fender.”

Peavey dismisses most of the people making guitars these days as “caretakers and conglomerates.” Some of those conglomerates, he says, lust after his company, too.

“I’ve had offers from lots of hotshots,” he says. “But I keep remembering what they did to Leo, and it’s a good object lesson.”

Dale Hyatt eventually relents and takes the visitor on a short tour of the tiny Fullerton factory.

A few doors down from Hyatt’s office, the air is thick with the sweet smell of wood and the metallic tang of paint. Down here, in the small factory, G&L; turns out about 40 guitars a day. Many of the long-haired workers are young and look like rockers. Many are talented players.

In these little rooms, dull blocks of ash or maple come in one door and leave by the other as gleaming objets d’art. Through an unmarked door, in a windowless room where electronics equipment lies strewn about, sits Leo Fender, just a few steps from the factory floor.

Since selling Fender, he has obtained dozens of new patents for guitar parts, yet, here he is tinkering away.

His hair is thin and white, the body a little hunched. But the handshake is strong, despite the Parkinson’s disease that makes his speech difficult. He has a frozen smile. Fender was always shy and wary of interviewers but now, the people around him say, he’s become even more introverted.

The visitor--with many questions but unsure how to ask them--mumbles. Fender listens; the smile is unchanged. He waits patiently for a few seconds, then turns back to his work bench.