Leo Fender
Leo Fender

Leo Fender: The Quiet Giant Heard Around the World

Every FYI subscriber has been touched in one way or another by Fender musical products – whether that be a Fender Twin Reverb amp, a Stratocaster or Telecaster guitar, the Fender Bassman, a Fender Precision bass, or the Fender Rhodes. The history of contemporary music is grounded in electrical signals, impulses, woofers, sub-woofers, dials and knobs and the portability of these 20th-century innovations; courtesy inventor Leo Fender.

On my first rock gigs, the band played through a pair of Electro-Voice Musicaster 11A 30-watt speakers. That was vocals, acoustic piano, horns, and bass. Eventually, pops rigged up a 15-inch Jensen speaker and powered it with a Bogen power amp so I could play organ through it. I blew the cone within three days. It wasn’t long after I met the Fender Dual Showman amp. That became my front line of defense. I could play left-hand bass and roar away with the right and fit right in.

Behind most inventions is a visionary, a person driven by curiosity, who has stamina and is a problem solver. Leo Fender came at this looking for solutions; a person who recognized technical shortcomings and confronted them.

Written by Phyllis Fender and Dr. Randall Bell, The Quiet Giant Heard Around the World speaks of the man, the inventor, the ideas, the intensity and the dedication to work. Leo Fender was shy, near deaf and had one glass eye. He was born in 1909 and passed away in 1991, suffering from Parkinson disease. Fender’s first wife Ester died of cancer in 1979, and he then married  Phyllis in 1980. She is still an Honorary Chairman of G&L Guitars, based in Fullerton, California. Leo Fender formed it with partners George Fullerton and Dale Hyatt in 1979.

Together with author Randall Bell, Ph.D., and author of the book, Me We Do Be: The Four Cornerstones of Success, we get an inside portrait of the remarkable man whose inventions inhabit nearly every stage on planet earth. Here’s our conversation.

During Leo Fender’s early years there were so many transformative inventions in science and technology. What was it that caught Leo’s attention and compelled him to explore amplifying music?

P.F: A lot of these things weren’t out there until he started thinking about this stuff. Guitar players in bands couldn’t be heard. Amplifying solid body guitars – none of that was available until he started playing around with them in his laboratory. He was a driven man, and I say that lovingly, and he believed the world needed more music and better music. Leo felt that is was why he was born. He always said, 'how could we live without music?' I don’t think he would have paid attention to much else other than what he was driven to do.

Hearing acoustic musicians perform on their instruments live was always an issue. Most concerts of the time you’d rarely hear the bass – occasionally, the guitar. Most everything in a band overpowered. Did he position himself near a bandstand or bandstands and determine for himself what he had to solve?

P.F: During World War II he put up all of the electrical lights and sound systems for the war bond dances we had here in Fullerton, California to collect money for service supplies. It was during that period he got talking to guitar players, and they said they were playing as hard and fast as anybody in the group and nobody can hear them.

Leo took this back to his radio repair shop. He thought about it and the next day he got a hunk of wood and hollowed out the insides and started putting electrical things in there so people could hear what the guitar players were playing. It all got started through a dance in the park and a guitar player who was moaning and groaning that nobody ever heard him.

Is that first guitar still around?

P.F: No. They have some early ones like it at the Fullerton Fender Museum in the downtown. They were kind of strange looking, but they did the job.

Were these prototypes played on the bandstands and how did musicians become aware?

P.F: Leo became friends with the people doing several dances in Fullerton. He’d stay around and make sure all the electrical needs were taken care of. You know, if you said you wished you could figure out some way, immediately, Leo’s mind goes into gear. Little by little Fender Electric Instrument Manufacturing Company and G&L grew and grew.

Randall, how did you come to this project and co-author the book?

R.B: My dad was head of research and development at Fender. We lived a few blocks away; my mom’s now 95. I played in a band and wasn’t that good, and it sure wasn’t from lack of having a great guitar. It was a coincidence Mrs. Fender and I met at the museum. I was always fascinated by Leo, but frankly, he was invisible in the neighborhood. I felt passionately that he was an important historical figure and twisted Mrs. Fender’s arm until she said, 'uncle – let’s do a book.'

How does this book differ from others written about Fender?

The other books are about Leo’s guitars; this book is about Leo: what made him tick, interesting idiosyncrasies – all of that.

What made him tick?

R.B: He was remarkably focused. He had some odd quirks. He insisted everybody have white cars. He had a thing about blenders, handed out paper bags of tuna at Christmas. In the Fender home there was a wall covered up where he had his private laboratory in his house. It had a beautiful view of the pool but he had the walls boxed in so he wouldn’t be distracted so that he could focus on guitars. If you said you were going to lunch, he’d say thirty minutes and time it. He did things his way and could care less.

What are his roots and what made him the inquisitive man he was?

P.F: Leo was born in Fullerton in a barn and his family was of German extraction. His dad was a farmer and a very hard worker. Leo learned to work from his dad in fact. Every night he was in school, he’d come home, clean the truck from where they hauled fruits and vegetables around Orange County and washed away the squished tomatoes and crushed lettuce. After that was done and homework, his dad would let him play with anything electrical. Leo’s dad said, the only good you will be and the only reason people will be proud of you or like you will be because of how much work you do. This was drilled into him from a little boy. Work, work, work, was what a man did.

Was the first breakthrough and success the Telecaster?

R.B: He started out in 1946 making amplifiers and then in 1948 he filed a patent for electric guitars and produced his first guitar which was called the Esquire, later changed to Broadcaster, then the Nocaster, then the Telecaster. The same guitar. Then it came out in 1950. The Stratocaster came out in 1954.

You must be amazed at the longevity of these inventions? The many players from Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Elvis Presley, Jimmy Page.

R.B: A lot of people don’t realize the market Leo was after and catering to in the beginning was country and western and that went from 1950 to the early 60s’. Then along came Page, Hendrix, the Beatles and they all played Fender instruments. I went through a Rolling Stone article about the top 100 guitarists in the world and ninety-one of them played a Fender onstage. I’m not saying they only played a Fender, but Leo just took over; he dominated. Think about it. Name anything invented in 1946 that is still iconic today.

I’m thinking the design of the Telecaster was to satisfy what they termed “the pickers.”

R.B: It lent itself to that twangy sound. Leo liked three kinds of music: #1 – country - #2 – western and #3, country and western.

He must never missed an episode of the Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour?

P.F: What little TV he did watch, he did see that show quite often. He loved to see Glen’s fingers sail over the fretboard. He thought Campbell was just about the best-ever of all of the guitar players he was aware of. He mentioned Glen the most.

I was thinking about when I had my first amp. My dad built it with a 15-inch Jensen speaker and it was powered by a Bogen amp and it just didn’t hold up. Fender made durable products that also sounded great. How did this happen?

R.B: I can’t think of a better word to describe Leo than, ‘authentic.' The stuff he produced was authentic. He didn’t skimp on materials. My dad introduced me to everybody on the entire production line. There was this interesting kind of Zen mysticism where they were conscientious of the quality and that their guitars and amps would be on stage in front of the whole world. They just made them rock solid. Leo would have guys in the plant get up on guitar necks between two chairs and they’d stand on them to see if they cracked. He did the same thing with the cases. He’d drop the amplifiers. He made them solid on purpose. He wasn’t into cheap stuff.

How did he know about sound – getting those amps to respond so well?

R.B: Leo couldn’t play guitar or even tune a guitar. Mr. Fender’s sister, Laurie, tuned them when he was at the house. He was nearly deaf. His right-hand man Freddy Travares played guitar. He depended on a lot of guitarists for feedback, in fact, Leo and partner George Fortune would let a musician borrow a guitar then sneak in the back door and go around to the little coffee shops around Fullerton while they were playing and listen in on them. He’d look at the reactions of the crowd. Another thing Leo used to compensate for his hearing loss in his laboratory, and they are still there at G&L on Fender Avenue, were the oscilloscopes he’d watch sound waves on. He couldn’t hear for himself but he could sense the vibe and feel the excitement. He was very observant and would monitor all of these things to get the right sound.

What’s the thing with Willie Nelson all about?

P.F: My secrets are out. I had a crush on Willie Nelson. I never met the man and had a completely different lifestyle, but I sure do like his music. I mentioned that and Leo stood up real quick at the table, put his hands on his hips and said, “that’s not funny,” and walked out of the room. By the next day he was hungry and got over it.

Leo enjoyed fine dining?

He loved food. He liked his meat but loved his vegetables, in fact, I made his favourite soups with hefty chunks of potato. He’d be a happy man when he came home and smelled them cooking on the stove.

What happened on your wedding night?

We had a lovely wedding on the Love Boat with family and friends – the reception and then everyone got off the ship and we took a cruise through Mexico, Panama Canal, and the Caribbean.

After they had left, we went in for a bite to eat in our cabin. Leo said he was going to change clothes and I went OK and said I’d unpack. When he came out, it was my time to go in and get my teeth brushed. I’m standing at the sink with toothpaste and toothbrush and looking down and there’s a black box sitting on the counter. I’m thinking, oh my goodness. Someone told Leo to bring his bride a present. I wondered if I should open it then or take it  out into the other room where he can see me open.

Finally, I couldn’t stand it anymore so I opened it up and there was the most beautiful baby blue glass eye I’d ever seen in my life, in fact, it was the only glass eye I’d ever seen in and my life and I didn’t even know he had one, he never mentioned. And, no there was no gift. Leo lost the use of his eye when he was seven years old when he fell off a vegetable truck onto a picket fence.

Was he a gift giver?

He gave tuna to everybody at Christmas. He found a plant in the Long Beach area and he loved seafood and this was terrific tuna. In fact, my first present from Leo was a bag of tuna and an umbrella. It never rains here and the sun is intense.

Did he take offense to Jimi Hendrix smashing his beloved Stratocasters and setting on fire?

He said it was like his children were getting cut up and burned up. He was severely distressed over it. He said there was no need for that and if he didn’t want the guitar he could have given it to someone else to play.

Was the Fender Rhodes invented under his watch?

R.B: Someone came along with the idea and Leo thought it out, improved and made it better. Leo went through the mechanics. In fact, when Leo and Phyliss were in China going through a manufacturing facility, Leo got lost because he was trying to fix the equipment and make it better. He saw the potential and went to work to make improvements.

P.F: He wanted to have one of those in our living room and I told him we couldn’t because they were ugly. You know you can find me at the Fender Museum in Fullerton. I tell stories and meet people and we have a great time.

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