b. Clarence Leonidas Fender, 10 August 1909, Anaheim, California, USA, d. 21 March 1991, Fullerton, California, USA. Along with Les Paul and Adolph Rickenbacker, Leo Fender was one of the key names in the development of the electric guitar in the middle of the twentieth century. He first came to the attention of the musical instrument manufacturing industry when he was working with ‘Doc’ Kauffman producing guitar amplifiers in the mid-40s. He had developed a new smaller pick-up, and designed a solid-body guitar based on the Hawaiian steel with which to demonstrate it. Although the pick-up itself was quite revolutionary, local musicians were more intrigued with the guitar, and so Fender decided to concentrate his efforts in that direction. In 1946 he left Kauffman and formed the Fender Electrical Instrument Company. The idea of a solid body guitar had been in the forefront of manufacturer’s minds since the advent of electrical amplification, which meant that hollow sound boxes were no longer essential. It was Fender, along with Californian neighbours Les Paul and Paul Bigsby, who spearheaded the forthcoming wave of electric guitars.
In 1948 Fender launched the Broadcaster (later called the Telecaster), which remained virtually unchanged for the next 30 or so years; there were a few variations such as the Esquire (1954), the Thinline (1969), the Deluxe (1972) and the Custom (1972). Famous rock ‘n’ roll guitarist James Burton favoured a Telecaster, as did Bruce Welch of the Shadows, Steve Cropper, Roy Buchanan and Bruce Springsteen. Fender’s next major instrument was the Stratocaster, developed in 1953 with his chief engineer Leo Tavares, and put into production the following year. Like the Telecaster, the Stratocaster was virtually untouched in design over the next few decades and became a favourite of Buddy Holly, Hank B. Marvin, Eric Clapton, Rory Gallagher, Mark Knopfler and the master, Jimi Hendrix, to name just a few of thousands. In 1990 a Stratocaster once owned by Hendrix was sold at auction for almost £200,000. The design, shape, feel and colour of the Stratocaster became an art form, and probably the accepted icon for the electric guitar.
In 1955 Fender contracted a virus that would dog him for the next decade. In the mid-60s, convinced that he had little time to live, Leo decided to order his affairs. The Fender Electrical Instrument Company was sold to CBS in January 1965 for $13 million, shortly after which Fender made a complete recovery. CBS employed him as a consultant and he continued to help design and develop new guitars. Later he formed the CLF Research Company before returning to consultancy work for Music Man guitars, started by former Fender employees Thomas Walker and Forrest White. In the 80s he formed G&L (George and Leo) Guitars with longtime associate George Fullerton. They continued to make popular instruments, although names like the F100-1 series were less appealing than their forebears. Leo Fender died in March 1991 at age 81. As well as the guitars mentioned, the Fender name is also attached to the Musicmaster (1956), the Jazzmaster (1958), the Jaguar (1961) and the Starcaster (1975). He also moved into electric basses in 1951 with the Precision and then the Jazz Bass (1960), Bass VI (1962) and Telecaster Bass (1968).