Leo Fender: His Contribution Struck a Chord Around World : Music: The innovator, who died in Fullerton Thursday, perfected the electric guitar, which became essential to the development of blues, R&B;, rock and country. His gift cannot be overestimated.


In his later years, Leo Fender, who died Thursday in Fullerton at age 81 from complications of Parkinson’s disease, enjoyed recounting a night in the late 1940s when he drove out to Riverside with something new in the trunk of his car.

Once arrived at the Riverside Rancho dance hall, Fender handed this new thing to the now-legendary country guitarist Jimmy Bryant, who unobtrusively joined Little Jimmy Dickens and his band onstage and began to play as a large crowd danced.

“Pretty soon,” Fender recalled in a 1984 interview, “the band stopped, everybody on the dance floor stopped, and they all gathered around Jimmy when he played.”


For the next hour, Bryant held all concerned spellbound with a new sound. The modern electric guitar had arrived.

As transfixed as that audience may have been by the sound of what was to become Fender’s Telecaster guitar, none could have suspected what a pervasive revolution Fender was unleashing on the culture of the world from his Fullerton factory.

The electric guitar has come to dominate and shape the popular music of this century’s second half, music that often has been at the forefront of social and political change.

Aside from Richard M. Nixon, no son of Orange County has had so profound an effect on the world at large as Leo Fender, and, given that company, it can well be argued that none has had a more beneficial effect than Fender.

The instruments and amplifiers he introduced in the ‘50s became standards in the music business. Those original instruments now command prices of up to $12,000, and the present-day Fender company continues to successfully market virtually unchanged models of those instruments. There are also literally hundreds of shameless copies, or minor variations on Fender’s designs being marketed.

Fender’s Telecaster and Stratocaster guitars and electric basses (an entirely new realm of instrument he pioneered) enabled and defined much of these past decades’ country, blues, R&B; and rock innovations. It would be far easier to list the artists in those fields who didn’t rely on Fenders than to count the scores who did. More recently, those instruments have gone on to revolutionize the sound of African styles and other world music.

Fender’s instruments were inexpensive enough that they were among the first instruments owned by such players as Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck. They were expressive enough that each of those players eventually went back to playing Fenders after his success had allowed him to own any other instrument he desired.

And whenever musicians have pushed the electric guitar into new realms of expression--be it James Burton’s pioneering rockabilly picking, Dick Dale’s sonic replications of the surfing experience, Jimi Hendrix’s whammy bar-propelled excursions through the galaxy or Jaco Pastorious’ redefining of the jazz bass--it most often was a Fender instrument that facilitated those journeys.

According to Fender historian and Guitar Player magazine columnist Richard Smith of Fullerton: “It was ‘the people’s guitar.’ It was the roots musicians who were the first ones to play Fenders, the Western swing guys, the country guys, the blues musicians in the early 1950s. It wasn’t a jazz or high-class guitar; it was a working-class instrument. Rock ‘n’ roll and popular music today owes a good deal of its origin to those forms of music and that culture that these instruments fueled.”

Country star Buck Owens’ association with Fender stretched from the early ‘50s to a show three weeks ago attended by the ailing Fender at the Crazy Horse in Santa Ana, where Owens was presented with one of Fender’s custom-made G&L; guitars (Fender’s company for the last 12 years. He sold his original company in 1965). Owens echoed Smith’s assessment: “I think the Telecaster has a lot more to do with a lot of people’s music and careers than a lot of people know about. Because you absolutely could not in those days duplicate it with other guitars.”

The roots artists’ expressions of individuality and creative freedom, made louder and clearer by Fender’s instruments, shouldn’t be underestimated in the ambassadorial effect they served. At times, such as the McCarthy or Vietnam eras, when American ideals seemed tarnished, the music was still spreading a common humanity and hope to the rest of the world.

Soviet musician Vasily Shumov, speaking at UC Irvine last year, said it was the sound of rock ‘n’ roll that represented the West to the Soviet youth, a view darkly echoed by Kremlin officials when they likened the music to a sexually transmitted disease invading their country.

Czech President Vaclav Havel has said rock music spurred the cultural upheaval that eventually resulted in his country’s “Velvet Revolution.” The Estonian independence movement found its voice three years ago through a home-grown rockabilly band reviving national folk themes with Fender guitars.

All of which is a pretty far-reaching influence for a man who couldn’t play guitar and was born in a barn.

“I’ve been accused of (being born in a barn) a time or two, and it’s true,” Fender has remarked, and indeed it was in a barn housing horses, feed and the Fender family that Clarence Leo Fender was delivered on Aug. 10, 1909. The following year. the Fenders built a house next to the barn, located between present-day Fullerton and Anaheim. It was out in the sticks, but as Fender later noted, all of Orange County was out in the sticks then.

Though he studied piano and sax, Fender claimed he never had time to learn to play the guitar. He worked for a period as an accountant, but his inquisitive mind and tinkering habits were better served when he opened the Fender Radio and Record Shop in Fullerton on South Spadra Street (since renamed Harbor Boulevard. The shop was in a block now housing a sprawling pawnshop).

Local musicians began bringing their amplifiers to him to repair and, not pleased with what he saw, he began to build his own amps. In a brief partnership with Clayton O. (Doc) Kauffman, who died last year, Fender started making simple steel guitars for country musicians.

In 1944, he built a solid-body electric that he rented out to local players. In the years following, he designed what was to become his Telecaster (originally dubbed the Broadcaster until he found a drum-making competitor already using that name), a design so fully realized that it remains virtually unchanged more than four decades later.

Fender didn’t invent the electric guitar. That achievement had come decades earlier, by the Rickenbacker company (now also based in Orange County). But the idea of a solid-bodied guitar--as opposed to a compromised pairing of acoustic instruments and amplification--never caught on with musicians before the Telecaster. And it wasn’t until long after Fender’s lead that other companies, such as Gibson, followed into the new field.

The solid-body electric essentially was a West Coast design. Not bound by the generations of European guitar-making tradition on which East Coast companies relied, Fender instead looked at the electric as an entirely new instrument, based on the needs of the working musicians he knew.

Owens recalled: “I’d always go in and see Leo, and he’d ask all these questions about how his instruments worked for us, how his instruments could be better. He’d always be puttering around with his soldering iron and his stuff. It was the damnedest thing you ever saw. It always made me think, ‘I’ll bet that’s what Einstein did, never letting go of a problem till he had an answer, never satisfied that his work couldn’t be made better.’ I think he truly loved what he was doing.”

Dale Hyatt of Fullerton-based G&L; Guitars, who worked with Fender since 1946, said that probing spirit was a constant up to the end.

“He was in here working, like he was most days, til 5 o’clock Wednesday, the day before he went. He had that perseverance, continuing and continuing on a problem until the damn thing worked.”

Although mostly famous for his pre-’60s creations, Fender went on to patent dozens of other designs.

Assessing Fender’s motivations, historian Smith said: “I think that he was very hungry to succeed, not success for the sake of success, but he was trying to make a contribution. He really enjoyed music, and I think he saw what he did as a way to be in the ballgame. He enjoyed the attention of working with these great musicians. Not because they were famous: He dealt with musicians on every level--the guys that were playing in the corner bar and the ones who were international recording artists.”

He was similarly undiscriminating with his employees, listening to the ideas of everyone, from his sales staff to his factory hands, Hyatt said.

“Leo had a way of inspiring everyone, getting them so caught up in his enthusiasm that he wound up getting a lot of free work out of them. It was a first-name basis with everyone in the shop, and he always wanted to hear what they had to say.”

Fender and Hyatt wound up becoming enduring friends. Speaking Friday, Hyatt said he felt he’d lost someone who was both friend and family.

Fender’s guitars didn’t meet with immediate acclaim. Hyatt, one of the company’s earliest sales reps, recalls showing the Telecaster to music store dealers only to have them scoff, “Where’s the boat you’re going to row with that thing?”

Hyatt’s response was to seek out the town’s hot music clubs, put the guitar into musicians’ hands and let it sell itself. The next day, he’d walk back into the music store with a handful of orders for the guitar, telling the stores they could fill those orders if they became Fender dealers.

The radically shaped Stratocaster guitar (one resides in New York’s Museum of Modern Art), introduced in 1954, got off to a slow start, not becoming the industry standard it is until the ‘60s, when Dale’s surging surf music and Hendrix’s incendiary technique revealed the instrument’s true potential.

Troubled by a persistent strep condition, Fender sold his company to CBS in 1965 for $13 million (it has since changed hands again and is now headquartered in Brea). “Pre-CBS” consequently has become a hallowed term for guitar collectors, and the instruments made under Fender’s auspices command high prices.

Irish guitarist Rory Gallagher plays a battered 1961 Strat, held together with glue, that he says he wouldn’t sell for anything.

“I’ve been playing a Fender since 1963, and before that it was my dream guitar. I can’t endorse it more than that,” Gallagher said in a recent interview. “He was a great innovator, there’s no two ways about it. He lived to be a legend in his lifetime, which says it all.”

British guitar virtuoso Richard Thompson, another vintage Strat player, said, “I think the music would have been very different without him. He was a great design genius in the great American tradition. It says a tremendous lot for his vision that the designs he created in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s are still being reproduced as is.”

Perhaps the only party who didn’t hold such a warm regard for Fender’s classic designs was Fender himself.

Said Smith: “I really felt that Leo resented the attention given to his earlier work. He told me as much several times. It’s like Paul McCartney always being asked what the Beatles were like. He’d moved on to other things.”

“What Leo was proudest of were the guitars he made in the last 10 years with G&L;,” Hyatt said. “He said comparing his original guitars to his old ones were like comparing a Model T to a Thunderbird. He never looked at anything without thinking, ‘How can I make it better?’ ”

JOHN FUNG / Los Angeles Times