History of the Fender Guitar

It can be argued that nothing has influenced the evolution of popular music more than the electric guitar, and the Fender Corporation has been a constant force in the development of that iconic instrument since the very beginning. Fender guitars have been important in the areas of rock, country, swing, metal, blues, jazz, and just about every other genre of music for more than sixty years. Artists and musicians of all ages and ability levels, as well as collectors and guitar aficionados, have spent thousands of hours enjoying their Fender instruments. Take a look at the way this venerable company got its start.

The Early Years

Clarence Leonidas Fender (Leo) was the owner of a small radio repair shop in Southern California in the late 1930s. As a qualified electronics technician, he was often asked to repair more than just radios and worked on such things as record players, PA systems, and amplifiers. All of these used vacuum tubes and simple circuitry to produce sound that could be adjusted from loud to soft. Leo saw several flaws with the gadgets he was working on, and in the early 1940s, he joined his friend Clayton Kauffman in starting K & F Manufacturing Corp. The pair planned to design, produce, and sell electric instruments and amplifiers.

In 1945 they began placing patented pickups on Hawaiian steel guitars and selling them in combination with small amplifiers. Leo Fender saw a great future in the production of electric instruments, but his partner thought they might be better off sticking with repair work. The two eventually parted ways and Fender renamed his enterprise the Fender Electric Instrument Company. He continued to offer repairs for a few years but concentrated on manufacturing.

By 1947, Fender was producing a series of amplifiers called tweed amps. They got their name from the fabric coating that was used on them which was quite similar to the material used to make suitcases in that day. Tweed amps came in several sizes and had outputs anywhere from three to seventy-five watts.

After World War II ended, the American public’s taste in music underwent a change. Big Bands with their extensive brass and woodwind sections were falling out of favor. Instead, small musical groups sprang up in clubs, roadhouses, and dancehalls all over the country. Many of these specialized in honky tonk sounds, Western swing, or rhythm and blues and relied heavily on guitars. Amplification for stringed instruments became more important as these smaller bands tried to compete with the noise in a raucous tavern or jazz club.

The electric guitars that were available in the 40s were basically archtop acoustic models that had been fitted with pickups. These were prone to causing screeching feedback because the hollow bodies of the instruments resulted in excessive reverberation. They were also quite expensive and fragile for the lively lifestyle of a road musician.

Leo Fender realized that guitar players needed a sturdy, easy-to-play, reasonably priced instrument that could be amplified for best effect in a dance hall without producing feedback. Leo was sure that a solid-body guitar would alleviate the latter problem. He also had some innovative ideas for ways he could streamline the production of these instruments to make them durable and keep their cost low.

Mass Production

Fender began working on a prototype of his first electric guitar in 1949. The first few models produced were branded “Esquire” and had dual pickups. Next, Fender introduced the “Broadcaster” model, which had a modern cutaway look. However, the Gretsch Corporation objected to the name saying it infringed on their line of drums known as the “Broadkaster.” Fender began searching for a new name and produced guitars for a few months with no model sticker at all. They were only labeled with the Fender name. Today, collectors call these rare instruments “no-casters.” By 1951, the Telecaster name had been adopted and they were rolling off the assembly line. These guitars had a detachable maple neck and a white-painted pine body. They were the first solid body Spanish-type guitars to be made with mass production techniques.

In 1951, Fender also introduced another revolutionary instrument. The Precision Bass was shaped like a large guitar and had frets so it could be played “precisely.” Because it could be amplified, it was easy to hear and it could be transported without the great effort required of a person who played an acoustic bass nearly as tall as a man. Fender’s first two instruments enjoyed brisk sales and enabled customers to form small combos that came to be known as rock bands. With Fender instruments and amps, three or four friends could come together and make music that a large audience could hear and enjoy.

The Stratocaster

The first Stratocasters made their appearance in 1954. They incorporated several new design features based on the opinions of Fender customers as well as those of Leo Fender, himself. The new guitars were lighter and more comfortable to play. They had a third electronic pickup for greater variation in the tone, and they had a “double-cutaway” style that enabled the guitarist to reach the frets closest to the body more easily and thus have more access to the instrument’s upper register. The Strat’s most important innovation, however, was the introduction of the new Fender Bridge to give it vibrato or tremolo. It was originally put in place to allow musicians to “bend” notes like the players of Hawaiian steel guitars did. This was a popular sound of the day in country-western music, but artists in other genres quickly found ways to take advantage of the bridge, as well.

Stratocasters have been continually produced from 1954 until today and they still use the same basic construction. They have been one of the most influential instruments in the realm of popular music for more than fifty years. Artists of every ability level and style of play have relied on their Strats to help them produce the sound they love.

Corporate Development

While Stratocasters were selling like crazy, Leo Fender devoted his time to coming up with more innovations. During the decade following the release of the Strat, he introduced a new Twin Reverb Amp and several new guitars. These included the Jaguar, the Jazz Master and the Jazz Bass.

With his health in decline, Fender sold his company to CBS in 1965. Even though sales of Fender instruments continued to be strong, it eventually became apparent that the company was suffering from lack of leadership that was knowledgeable about the music business and was truly invested in pleasing musicians.

During the 1980’s, CBS sold all of its non-broadcast divisions. In 1985, a group of investors headed by William Schultz purchased Fender. The new owners were dedicated to bringing back the brand’s top status among musicians. Now called the Fender Musical Instruments Corporation, the new business had to start over at the beginning. No manufacturing facilities, warehouses, or office buildings were included in the sale. The investors merely purchased the Fender name, some leftover parts, and some intellectual property.

At first, the new Fender Company imported its instruments from offshore manufacturers with good reputations for quality production. But in late 1985, a new state-of-the-art assembly plant was opened in Corona, California, which allowed for much greater quality control. In 1987 a second facility came on line in Ensenada, Mexico.

Fender Custom Shop

1987 was also the year that the Fender Custom Shop opened in Corona. The leaders at Fender recognized that they needed to be open to requests from musicians and guitar lovers for special features to be incorporated into their instruments on an individual basis. The Custom Shop has specialized in creating “dream guitars” for a variety of purposes since its formation. Much of the work is done by hand, and it is recognized around the world as having the highest possible quality. Fender has created replicas of several historic Fender models, as well as custom guitars for many big names in music including Stevie Ray Vaughan, David Gilmore, Yngwie Malmsteen, and Eric Clapton.

Recent History

In 1991, Fender moved its headquarters to Phoenix, AZ. It now has satellite facilities in eight countries around the world including Japan, Germany, Spain, England, and France. William Schultz retired in 2005, and was replaced at the helm by William Mendello. Fender produces and distributes everything a modern musician might need including guitars and basses, amps, audio systems, strings, and other accessories. The company remains true to its commitment to provide music lovers with the means to express their passion.