Leo Fender – The Man Behind The Brand

Leo Fender & The Inventor’s Torment

Here we are, more than 70 years since Leo Fender first revolutionised the guitar, and players are still wringing new sounds out of his creations. The Fender Jim Root Stratotcaster and Telecaster, the Johnny Marr Jaguar, the Yngwie Malmsteen Stratocaster, and of course classic models for players like Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton, all serve as reminders that the early Fender designs are incredibly adaptable, able to be tweaked and refined for different musical purposes yet still baring the distinctive traits that the original designers designed into the instruments all those years ago.

But Fender’s designs were not easily won. It took much trial and error, theories, tests, discoveries, setbacks, redesigns and rethinks before the guitars we know and love found their way to us. That development continued on, of course, and Leo Fender was further refining his designs right up until his death in 1991. And it was all accomplished around a man who wasn’t a musician: Fender didn’t actually play guitar, although he understood the importance of surrounding himself with those who did – such as Western Swing guitarist Bill Carson, who suggested the body relief cuts that made the Stratocaster more comfortable than the slab-like Telecaster.

But much of Fender’s drive to create was informed by the music he wanted to hear. As devoted fan of country music, much of Fender’s early success was driven by Leo’s desire to provide instruments for the genre he loved. “We were trying to get a tone like you get with the steel guitar, because a steel was so much cleaner in sound than an acoustic,” Fender is quoted as saying in The Story Of The Fender Stratocaster by Ray Minhinnett and Bob Young. “We wanted to have something that you could hear that had sustain and a lack of feedback.” He cheekily added that the instrument had to be strong enough for musicians to use them in a fight in a club if they had to. “If you get clobbered over the head with one of those, you know you’ve been hit!” Fender said.

And let us not forget the brilliant flash of creativity that led Fender to create the electric bass. Before Fender, there was no such thing. Bass was a big instrument that stood upright and took up the same area as a small water craft. Then Fender came along and, with the original Precision Bass, turned it into something you could sling over your shoulder. Initially adopted by country guitarists, it wasn’t long – literally just a couple of years – before the electric bass became a standard instrument for virtually every band everywhere!

But not all of Fender’s design hunches were smash hits: Leo originally wanted to build necks without truss rods, believing them unnecessary in an instrument that was made well enough. And he felt that the act of channeling out a neck and installing a truss rod would impede the instrument’s natural sustain. A few Nocasters (Telecasters with the name removed due to a copyright claim on the word by Gretsch) and two-pickup Eqsuires were made without truss rods in the early 50s before it was decided that the extra care needed to create such a stable neck without reinforcement was too time consuming.

And the vibrato bridge, such a key feature of the Strat, took a while to perfect too. The initial design was similar in spirit to Paul Bigbsy’s famous bridge, with a moving tailpiece and roller saddles. But the unit was so lightweight that it pretty much killed the ability of the string energy to transfer to the body, and the guitar sounded awful. As Bill Carson says in The Story Of The Fender Stratocaster, “I took this guitar to a job, hooked it up to play it, and it sounded like a cheap banjo, the sound decayed so quick.” Carson phoned Leo Fender and Freddie Tavares to complain that they’d killed his pickups, only to be told that the pickups weren’t touched. It was a valuable lesson in the interaction between the mass of the tremolo system and the transfer of string vibration. Five thousand dollars worth of custom tooling was scratched and Fender went back to the drawing board.

It was Carson who suggested six individual saddles for the Stratocaster bridge, but the initial units adjusted from the opposite side to where we perform this action today: on the pickup side of the bridge rather than the back. This made it almost impossible to intonate, so it was flipped 180 degrees. Carson also says he was behind the decision to switch from two pickups in the Telecaster to three in the Stratocaster – although he wanted four. 

Some of Fender’s refinements were improvements in some ways but a step back (or at least sideways) in others.  For example, although the Telecaster’s original two-strings-per-saddle, three-saddle design was eventually superseded by a more intonatable six-saddle version, players lost a little of the tonal mojo created by the interaction between the strings on each shared saddle. With each pair vibrating with each other, and on a much bigger saddle, the sound was fuller and snappier – more ‘Telecastery.’ Swap those out for individual saddles and you get greater control over intonation, but a little of the magic is traded off.

Like any great inventor, Leo Fender wasn’t afraid to admit when he was wrong, but he also had the conviction to doggedly pursue his ideas when he felt that he could be ‘more right.’ And that’s what led to his work with the Music Man company in the mid 1970s, and then his establishment of G&L Guitars with George Fullerton in 1979. 

Music Man and G&L

Leo and co were never afraid to test an idea, refine it if it could be made better, or scrap it if they were just not on the right track. But it didn’t stop at Fender. After selling the Fender guitar company to CBS in 1985, Leo went on to work as a consultant for Music Man before starting G&L, and the innovations didn’t stop.

One of Fender’s more revolutionary creations was the electric bass guitar. First released as the Fender Precision Bass in 1951, it wasn’t long before this instrument became a core feature of virtually every band since (notwithstanding the occasional White Stripes or Jon Spencer Blues Explosion). A refinement of this instrument was very high on Fender’s list when he returned to the guitar making biz in 1974. After selling Fender to CBS, he signed a non-compete clause, and remained a consultant to Fender for a few years. He formed his own company in 1971, called Tri-Sonic, and changed the name to Music Man in 1974 ahead of the expiry date for the non-compete clause.

The Music Man StingRay bass (with input from Forrest White, Sterling Ball and Tom Walker) built on the Precision Bass in many ways, but presented a major innovation in the from of active electronics, which had never before been used on a production line bass. The StingRay featured a two-band active equaliser pared with a high-output humbucking pickup. Today the model can be purchased with three-band active EQ or even a piezo pickup for acoustic sounds (or just blending in further high-end clarity). But in the 70s the ability to boost both highs and lows was directly in phase with the direction bass playing was taking as players explored the slap and pop technique. Perhaps the best contemporary example of this is Louis Johnson from The Brothers Johnson, who you can hear doing his thing in this lesson video:

https://youtube.com/watch?v=CslkVhOoE2U

Less successful at the time was the Music Man HD-130 Reverb amplifier, which was designed to compete with the Fender Twin. It did this very well, but unfortunately the Twin was falling out of favour with the guitarists of the day, who were steadily migrating to Marshalls as their gain requirements increased. The HD-130 Reverb did have a few fans however, including Eric Clapton and Dire Straits’ Mark Knopfler.

When internal stresses – largely due to low sales – prompted Fender to grow weary of Music Man, he started G&L with fellow Fender alumni George Fullerton. It was here that Fender and Fullerton really went to town on refining and improving the early Fender designs. New Magnetic Field Design (MFD) pickups were created which combined a ceramic bar magnet with adjustable soft iron pole pieces. Before that, pickups were typically made with warmer-sounding Alnico magnets and with immovable pole pieces. The ceramic magnets and increased control over string volume allowed the MFD pickups a higher level of clarity than earlier models. G&L also offered the MFD Z-Coil pickup, which features an offset design similar to that used in the split Precision Bass pickup, moving the treble part of the pickup closer to the bridge and the bass side closer to the neck, enhancing the clarity of the former and the warmth of the latter.

G&L also pioneered several bridge innovations which would be vast improvements on earlier versions. These tweaks included the Dual-Fulcrum Vibrato and the Saddle-Lock Bridge. The Dual-Fulcrum uses two pivot points to anchor the bridge to the body, rather than the traditional six screws. This reduced interference led to much smoother operation and made it much easier for the players to bend notes up as well as down. And the Saddle-Lock Bridge used a small Allen screw on the side to reduce lateral movement of the separate string saddles, improving tuning stability and sustain at the same time by preventing the saddles from moving, and allowing – or maybe a better term is forcing – them to vibrate with each other instead of against each other. 

Today, Fender, Music Man (under the ownership of the Ernie Ball company) and G&L are all going strong. Leo’s spirit of innovation – and his ability to bring in collaborators who could help him realise his ideas and contribute their own too – is seen and heard every day, from the smallest garage band to the biggest stadium acts.