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SPOTLIGHT : FENDER, UNPLUGGED : Two Fans of Fullerton’s Late Great Guitar Maker Compose an Exhibit in His Honor

<i> Jim Washburn is a free-lance writer who contributes regularly to The Times Orange County Edition. </i>

The first opportunity Fullerton Museum Center director Joe Felz had to honor guitar maker Leo Fender was in 1985. Felz was then getting his start promoting events for the city, and when he was given the task of finding a grand marshal for the Fullerton Founders Day Parade, “Fender was the only significant local person I could think of,” Felz recalls, revealing his own background as a garage band guitarist.

Fender, who died in 1991 from complications of Parkinson’s disease, agreed to become grand marshal, which entailed riding down Harbor Boulevard in a Cadillac convertible and waving to people. The parade-goers waved back even though, Felz says, “I realized at the time that they didn’t particularly know who he was.”

Though Fender’s instruments such as the Stratocaster and Telecaster have been at the center of popular music for more than four decades, the man himself was quiet and unassuming, far more interested in his work than in getting credit for it. It’s not at all atypical that as soon as the Founders Day Parade concluded, Fender slipped away to spend the rest of his Saturday at work.

The products of his workbench are being celebrated in an exhibit opening Friday at the Museum Center. “Five Decades of Fender: The Sound Heard Around the World” will bring together 75 rare or currently made instruments--including Fender’s first guitar, made in 1943, and his last one, a six-string bass he was working on the day before his death--along with photos, catalogues, text, videos and hands-on displays that assert Fender’s pervasive influence on our culture.

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1993 is something of a ratifying year for those of us who spent our time in school art classes drawing gold metal-flake Stratocasters or Ed (Big Daddy) Roth dragsters. These adolescent dreams now have the stamp of museum recognition, with Roth and other California car customizers’ works featured in Laguna Art Museum’s recently ended Kustom Kulture exhibit, and the electric guitar now getting its due in Fullerton.

“This does validate things,” said Richard Smith, curator of the Fender exhibition. “I think that every guitarist has always known the impact that Leo Fender has had on our lives, our music and our culture. To me, the idea behind the museum show is to communicate that to a wider public.”

Smith is a Fullerton musician, former Guitar Player magazine columnist, and author of a book on Rickenbacker guitars, as well as a forthcoming book on Fender’s history, upon which he is a recognized expert.

The skinny of that history is that Clarence Leo Fender was born in a barn in the then-sticks between Fullerton and Anaheim on Aug. 10, 1909. In the ‘30s, he opened a radio repair shop on Harbor Boulevard, a few blocks from where he’s now being honored. The cause for that honor began when local musician and tinkerer “Doc” Kauffman came in with a broken guitar amp and the two got to talking about how to make a better guitar pickup (the device that translates a string’s motion into an electrical signal).

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They had a short-lived partnership that set Fender on the course of making guitars and amplifiers. In the early ‘40s, he made a crude solid-body electric guitar, which he rented out to local players. (The museum has this instrument on loan from the Roy Acuff Museum of Opryland in Nashville, Tenn.)

By 1950, he had designed the Telecaster, the first viable, mass-produced modern electric guitar (the museum also will display its rarely seen prototype). It was followed shortly by his designs for the first electric bass and the Stratocaster, which has become the most played and copied electric guitar in the world.

They were bold new instruments: When early Fender rep Dale Hyatt first went calling on music stores with the Telecaster, he was met with derisive comments like “Where’s the boat you’re going to row with that thing?” But Fender’s instruments were quickly adopted by musicians who fell outside the pale of “proper music,” those playing country, blues, R&B; and rock.

“It was the forward-looking guitarists and younger guitarists who were attracted to the Fender design, the people who were willing to take a chance and break with tradition,” Smith said.

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Though Fender didn’t play guitar himself, he had listened carefully to musicians’ suggestions for a better instrument. The highly functional design of his guitars, coupled with their reasonable price and ability to take a beating on the road, not to mention the radical new sounds players could get with them, made them popular with what Smith labels “the working class of America.”

“The types of music Fenders initially became popular in--hillbilly music, Western swing, blues, rock, and rhythm and blues--weren’t part of the mainstream,” Smith said. “At the time, most pop players were probably classically trained, could read music, and played in that tradition instead of the oral tradition of folk music. Elvis Presley was a truck driver. He wasn’t ever trained in music, yet he was probably the most popular musical star of the century.”

The vitality of these musical forms, enabled and amplified by Fender’s inventions, spread through the world, having an effect that in many cases may have been more profound than those achieved by tanks or rhetoric. Vaclav Havel, for example, has said that the Czech “Velvet Revolution” was inspired by Western rock ‘n’ roll.

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Said Smith: “People admired the freedom here, not just the political freedoms but the freedom to express ourselves as individuals. Rock ‘n’ roll predates Elvis, but starting with him, it was a symbol to the world of the unabashed id gone wild. The electric guitar is such an integral tool of the rock ‘n’ roll musician and its culture, and it was Leo Fender who produced the most popular guitar played in rock ‘n’ roll, the Stratocaster.”

Today, some 40 years after its introduction, the Strat is still the overwhelming instrument of choice for such players as Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck, and it still looks remarkably modern, with its sleek California-style shape, radically unlike any guitar that had preceded it. The enduring appeal of its design is such that it has spawned literally hundreds of imitations. None of this was especially intended.

“The way Leo explained it to me,” Smith said, “the Stratocaster was not designed to look good. It was designed to fit the player. He had the contours on the Strat to shape the guitar to fit the player’s arm and chest. It’s a classic example of form follows function. And when things work really well, a lot of times they look really good , the way a car that’s fast often looks really cool.”

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Though the Strat sounded pleasant enough when played by Buddy Merrill in Lawrence Welk’s orchestra, it also opened the door to wild sounds that were unimaginable before its advent.

Here in Orange County in the early ‘60s, Dick Dale used it and custom-designed Fender amps to invent surf music, Dale’s very palpable musical vision of what it was like to be out amid the raging surf. A few years later, Jimi Hendrix took his Strat surfing on the canals of Mars, using the instrument to create a new musical vocabulary.

The exhibition will feature a separate section on the Strat, though Smith and Felz have attempted to include all of the varied instruments Fender designed over the years. (He sold the Fender company to CBS in 1965. In the ‘70s, he designed Music Man guitars, and in the ‘80s, G&Ls.;)

There will be no shortage of drool-inspiring rare guitars--including the rarely seen original late-'40s prototype of the Telecaster--for collectors visiting the show, but it isn’t geared toward collectors.

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While quite a collector and specs-nut himself, Smith said, “I imagine that some guitar collectors will walk through the exhibit and be miffed that we don’t show the dimensions of the screws used in 1951 versus the size of the screws used in 1963. Those details matter little to the general public, and the thrust of the show is to show how the Telecaster in 1951 changed the music in 1954, which changed the music in 1964 and onward and how that progression of technological development fed the development of music.”

Said Felz: “We want people to get some sense of this important historical figure, his accomplishments and the impact they had on music and, therefore, our culture. The idea we want to get across is this is part of all our lives. His art, his creative spirit really touch all of us. We’re trying to present an appreciation of that.”

Felz said it had been his intent to mount a Fender exhibit since the museum reopened in 1988. It took a while, he said, not because the subject of electric guitars seemed unsuitable for a museum but because “it was only about a year and a half ago that we became sophisticated enough as an institution to have the ability to produce this with the quality it deserved. We have now produced some shows ourselves on a scale where we felt we’d be able to do this.”

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He and Smith have been working on the exhibit since the spring. They’ve gathered instruments from collectors across the country, while the present-day Fender company (now headquartered in Scottsdale, Ariz.) has supplied some new instruments and some belonging to stars such as Clapton and Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour, along with being a sponsor of the exhibit.

There will be a display of how an electric guitar works, as well as an hourlong video of the instruments at work, featuring performers from Spade Cooley to Stevie Ray Vaughan. The museum will also be scheduling special events, including a lecture by Smith, concerts in February and March (Felz is hoping to feature name surf and blues performers), and a New Year’s Eve appearance by the Santa Barbara blues band Little Johnny and the Giants as the museum’s offering to the city’s First Night celebration.

Felz, 34, has played guitar since he was 14, and it was as a musician that he first met Smith years ago. Smith, 42, has been a Fender player for most of his life, ever since seeing Ricky Nelson and James Burton playing in Ozzy Nelson’s TV living room. In the ‘80s, Smith became a friend of Fender’s, and was one of the musicians Fender would use to test his new designs.

Smith said Fender was an unassuming and quiet man, though articulate when he did talk. Although a workaholic, Fender wasn’t in it for the money, Smith said.

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“Profit wasn’t the bottom line with him. He thought the product was more important than the profit you made on it. He produced some instruments that he knew would have marginal commercial appeal, but that would still be very useful to some musicians.

“He loved music, and I think he was glad to be able to contribute something to it.”

After his death, Fender was inducted in 1991 into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. At the induction ceremony, the Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards said, “Thank God for Leo Fender, who makes these instruments for us to play.”

Though Fender wasn’t around to accept those accolades or to see his work recognized by his hometown in this exhibit, that might be for the best.

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“Leo would probably be offended if he saw his guitars hanging in a museum, because he intended his guitars to be played,” Smith said. “The fact that Leo’s not here to enjoy the recognition is eased a bit by the likelihood that I think he would probably have just walked through here and gone back to work.”

* What: “Five Decades of Fender: The Sound Heard Around the World” mixed-media exhibition.

* When: Opens Friday, Dec. 10, and continues through April 2. Hours are noon to 4 p.m. Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday; noon to 8 p.m. Thursday.

* Where: Fullerton Museum Center, 301 N. Pomona Ave., Fullerton.

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* Whereabouts: Orange (57) Freeway to Chapman Avenue, Fullerton exit; go west; turn left onto Pomona Avenue (one block east of Harbor Boulevard).

* Wherewithal: Admission is $2.50 for adults, $2 for senior citizens, $1.50 for students, and free to children under 12 and museum members.

* Where to call: (714) 738-6545.


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