Play It Loud: An Epic History of the Style, Sound, and Revolution of the Electric Guitar - Alan di Perna, Brad Tolinski (2016)
Chapter 4. THE MODEL T
In the years between 1957 and the early ’60s, American teenagers and preteens tuned in excitedly to a weekly television sitcom called The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. Not that they were particularly interested in the tepid domestic mishaps and misunderstandings of bandleader Ozzie Nelson and his on-screen family (which was also his real-life family). What younger viewers really wanted to see were the musical segments at the conclusion of many of the episodes. These were devoted to performances by the Nelsons’ teenage son, Ricky, and his rock-and-roll band. For kids in more conservative homes, this was a rare chance to experience the excitement of rock-and-roll music, which had become a national sensation with the outbreak of Elvis Presley mania in 1956.
No other sitcom in those early days of television featured rock and roll. Ricky Nelson was well on his way to becoming a significant recording artist, a position that the television show helped him to secure. Strikingly handsome in a more or less Presleyesque manner, he performed in an engaging but less frenetic style than Presley, eschewing stage moves such as the pelvic gyrations that had gotten Elvis into trouble with censors and self-appointed guardians of public morality.
Nelson nonetheless lit up the black-and-white TV screen (color television was still a relative rarity at the time), singing and playing rhythm guitar on a flashy instrument, a Martin brand acoustic housed in a hand-tooled leather casing emblazoned with his name. But perceptive viewers might also have noticed another pompadoured young guitarist off to Nelson’s left, grinning from ear to ear while ripping snaky lead lines and blast-off solos from what was still a new and quite revolutionary electric guitar at the time—a Fender Telecaster. It was smaller than the guitar Nelson played, and certainly nowhere near as ornate. But it sure had a big sound.
The beaming youth was James Burton, a hero and role model among guitarists but a name perhaps not as well known to the general public as it should be. Burton was one of the very first players to embrace the Telecaster, and few guitarists, if any, have accomplished more with the instrument. Burton would come to be known as “the Master of the Telecaster.” His style—an amalgam of steely country twang and gritty, bluesy string bends—encapsulates the essence of early rock and roll, and indeed of all American roots music, not to mention the unique tonal qualities of the Telecaster itself. The Tele he played on many Ozzie and Harriet episodes and countless landmark recordings was a model from 1952, which was only the second year that Telecasters had been produced.
Burton was just thirteen when his parents purchased the guitar for him. But just a year later, he and his Telecaster were already working professionally as part of the house band for the influential country music radio show Louisiana Hayride, the same program that had first brought Elvis Presley to fame. Burton had also written and performed the lead guitar lick on early rock-and-roll singer Dale Hawkins’s seminal 1957 hit “Susie Q.” Employing the guitarist’s trademark style of “combination picking”—combining a flat pick and bare fingers—was an approach for which the Telecaster seemed ideally suited.
So Burton was already a seasoned pro by age sixteen when he left his parental home in Shreveport, Louisiana, to go to work on the Ozzie and Harriet show. But he was really still just a kid—a teenager playing a brash new style of teenage music. The guitarist was so young, in fact, that he lived with the Nelson family in their cozy West Hollywood home, which was also used for exterior shots in the show.
“Ozzie said, ‘I know what it’s like being away from home at such a young age. You’re part of the family; so we’d like you to live with us,’ ” Burton recalled. “I was like the third son. It was Ricky, David, and James.”
The sound of Burton’s Telecaster is deeply ingrained in the fabric of American popular culture. He has backed legendary performers such as Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Glen Campbell, John Denver, Emmylou Harris, Roy Orbison, Elvis Costello, and many others on countless recordings and live dates. But he’s also always had a special relationship with television and the movies. In 1957, the same year he started on the Ozzie and Harriet show, he’d performed in the early rock-and-roll film Carnival Rock. Following his tenure with Nelson, Burton would go on to be a member of the Shindogs, house band on America’s premier mid-sixties rock-and-roll TV show, Shindig! And as a session player, Burton’s guitar can be heard on hits by the Monkees, the world’s first made-for-television rock act. (Second, perhaps, if you count Ricky Nelson.)
As we’ll see, it was a random set of circumstances that led Clarence Leonidas Fender—better known simply as Leo Fender—to name the world’s first commercially produced solid-body electric guitar after another great innovation of the day, television. But the name is an apt one. TV and the Tele were both the result of electronic advances that had been gestating for decades. They both came to fruition during America’s mid-twentieth-century golden age, a time of big-finned Cadillacs, sporty T-Birds, sleek modernist furniture, tiki exoticism, and unprecedented middle- and working-class prosperity.
Urban apartment dwellers who’d barely managed to survive the lean years of the Great Depression and World War II were now moving out to the suburbs to start their own personal Ozzie and Harriet family lives. And they were hungry for entertainment. The small screen and Leo Fender’s game-changing electric guitar would both play key roles in fostering a new era in American popular music—the age of rock and roll. But rock and roll was the furthest thing from Fender’s mind when he began designing the guitar that would become the Telecaster.
I. COWBOY COOL: LEO FENDER AND THE BIRTH OF THE TELECASTER
A good head for business ran in Leo Fender’s family. His parents, Clarence and Harriet, owned a thriving orange grove on what, in the early decades of the twentieth century, was a verdant stretch of land between the Southern California towns of Anaheim and Fullerton. Leo’s uncle had done all right for himself, too, with his own automotive electronics business. Sometime around 1922, when Leo was thirteen, his uncle bestowed upon him a box of spare car radio parts, along with a battery. Experimenting with ways to connect the random bits of electric junk he’d inherited, the lad stumbled upon his destiny—one that would lead him to be acclaimed as the Henry Ford of the electric guitar.
It’s not just that Leo Fender was good with electronics—although he definitely was, and at a time when electronics was a hot new profession, not unlike software engineering in our own era. But Fender was also gifted at finding ways to make the most of minimal resources. He possessed the kind of pragmatism that the Great Depression tended to foster. Give him a box of reject electronic components and he’d figure out how to make something useful of them.
This ability would serve Fender well when his first serious job, as an accountant for the California Highway Department, fell victim to the Great Depression. By this point he was a married man, having wed Esther Klosky in 1934. Losing the accounting gig was a bad break for a young man just starting out in life. Fortunately, Leo had already been moonlighting as an electronics wiz for hire, building P.A. systems for local musicians he’d befriended. Although he couldn’t play a musical instrument himself, Fender had a great love for western swing and the music that would come to be known as country. He’d gotten to know some of the local players and was starting to see ways in which his skill with electronics might be of service to them.
Not that he plunged right into the music business. The Depression was still in full cry, and Fender needed to find an enterprise with a wider client base than just a small coterie of musicians barely eking out a living in the local honky-tonks. Managing to borrow $600, Leo launched his own radio shop, Fender Radio Service, in 1938, in Fullerton. It was a very practical move.
Radio was the great source of entertainment and escapism that helped people get through the Great Depression. At a time when the price of a movie ticket or phonograph record was beyond the means of many, the family radio was often the last household item to go to the repo man. And if the thing broke, many folks couldn’t afford a new one. They needed a guy like Leo Fender to fix their old one up. And if they were so fortunate as to have the purchase price of a new radio, Fender’s shop could sell them one of those as well.
As we’ve seen, radio circuitry was very much the parent of electric guitar amplifier circuitry. It was all the progeny of Lee De Forest and his seminal vacuum tube. Leo was as familiar with those circuit paths as he was with the streets of Fullerton. And during the years of World War II, he’d met a man who was just as intimate with the device at the other end of the patch cord—the electric guitar. Thus it was that Fender began to start building and selling lap steel guitars and amplifiers in partnership with one Clayton Orr “Doc” Kauffman.
Kauffman was a lap steel player who had worked for Rickenbacker. While there, in 1935, he had invented the Vibrola, an important precursor of the “whammy bar” that would play a large role in much guitar rock. It became standard equipment on many early electric guitars, including some of Rickenbacker’s pioneering electric Spanish models.
Fender and Kauffman launched the K&F Manufacturing Company in the mid-1940s, designing, fabricating, and selling lap steel guitars and amplifiers. It was strictly a sideline at first. They worked out of their houses, and later in back of Leo’s radio shop in Fullerton. Doc was the guitar guy and Leo was more the electronics guy. From the start, there was an emphasis on selling guitars and amps in paired sets. Other early electric guitar manufacturers did this as well, but a special magic would quickly manifest itself in the way Leo’s pickup designs worked in tandem with his amplifier circuitry. All those years spent mucking around with busted radios would pay a big dividend.
In light of what was to come from Fender, surviving examples of Leo and Doc’s earliest work are surprisingly crude. The nascent company nonetheless grew quickly, and soon the garage out behind Fender’s radio shop, which had been the original K&F atelier, started to feel cramped. K&F’s rate of growth was perhaps a little too rapid for Doc Kauffman, who bailed out of the business in 1946.
“Leo wanted to move the workshop and build a larger area, and Doc didn’t want to invest any more money in it,” recalled longtime Leo Fender associate George Fullerton in 1999. “I guess after Doc went through the Depression, with his family and things, he was afraid he might lose everything he had put into [the business], including his home.”
Undaunted, Leo expanded and rebranded, launching the Fender Electric Instrument Company in 1946, taking possession of two small sheet-metal buildings on Santa Fe Avenue in Fullerton, not far from the radio shop. It was a major step for the small Southern California businessman, as future Fender vice president Forrest White recounted in his memoir, Fender: The Inside Story: “Leo said that when he moved into those two buildings he had never seen so much space before in his life. They seemed absolutely huge to him. The facilities within the new buildings were not the best, however. Everyone had to walk across the street and then up a block or two to the Santa Fe Railroad Station to use the restrooms. That certainly was not very pleasant during the winter rainy season.”
The Fender Electric Instrument Company’s early years were far from easy. Without heat or air-conditioning, the factory buildings were freezing in the winter and sweltering in the summer. Toxic fumes from acetate varnish filled the air, something that would be highly illegal today. Leo was unhappy with his distributor, the Radio and Television Equipment Company (Radio-Tel), disparagingly calling the company’s chief, F. C. Hall, a “former shipping clerk” who didn’t understand the power of advertising. Leo had been buying electrical parts from Radio-Tel for years, but he felt they weren’t doing enough to promote Fender products.
Taking on established electric guitar giants like Gibson and the equally significant Gretsch was a feisty move, and sometimes Leo must have wondered if he’d bitten off more than he could chew. F. C. Hall, for his part, wasn’t entirely in love with the early Fender products his company had to distribute. He would later complain that guitars shipped to Radio-Tel for distribution had to be sent back to the Fender factory to correct faulty wiring and other manufacturing defects.
“Those years were absolute hell,” Fender later told White. “I think I worked from six in the morning till midnight every day of the week. A new trademark is a hard thing to get accepted. With no advertising, no one knew who we were and there was nothing to pep up sales. It took every penny I could get my hands on to keep things together.”
Fender managed not only to hang on but to move forward. Among the first new employees that he recruited, in 1948, was the aforementioned George Fullerton, a guitarist and electronics repairman whose ancestors had founded the town where Fender’s business was located. Fullerton had known Fender since the early forties—he used to buy phonograph records at the Fender radio shop—but became a full-time Fender employee on February 28, 1948. The two men promptly started work on a prototype solid-body electric Spanish guitar, an archetypal design that would soon morph into the Fender Telecaster.
IN COMING UP with his electric Spanish model, Fender was aiming at the same core market he’d targeted with his lap steels—the proliferation of western swing bands that enjoyed immense popularity in the region stretching from Texas and Oklahoma out to the West Coast. A lively hybrid of old-timey country sounds and big band dance music, western swing was especially popular in Leo Fender’s Southern California backyard. Severe droughts and economic hardships had driven a wave of migrant farm families from the Texas and Oklahoma Dust Bowl into California during the Depression years of the 1930s—an exodus movingly depicted in John Steinbeck’s 1939 novel The Grapes of Wrath and the songs of folk minstrel Woody Guthrie.
The migrant “Okies” had brought their music with them. As a result, western swing could be heard all over the Southern California airwaves. And there was an abundance of dance halls, bars, and honky-tonks devoted to the music all across the L.A. Basin—venues such as the Los Angeles Country Barn Dance at the Venice Pier Ballroom, the Baldwin Park Ballroom, Riverside Rancho, the Painted Post, Cowtown, the Cowshed Club, and, perhaps the most legendary of them all, the Palomino in North Hollywood. The clubs, radio broadcasts, and recording sessions fostered a wide-ranging community of country and western swing musicians, all of whom needed instruments to play.
These were not only Leo Fender’s customers, they were the men and women making the music that he personally loved most. He enjoyed going to the honky-tonks and dance halls to hang out with the players. The instruments and amps he created were voiced with them and their music in mind.
Among the kindred spirits Fender met on the circuit was guitar builder Paul Bigsby. The big man with the wild, brownish gray hair, commanding voice, and daredevil motorcycle racing past was also a technically accomplished industrial pattern maker and designer. And after a few too many perilous crack-ups on the racing circuit, he’d decided to turn his attention to producing parts for the Crocker Motorcycle Company.
But Bigsby—known as “P.A.” to his friends and associates—was also a passionate devotee of western swing music. He’d played a bit of guitar and upright bass in local bands, but his real musical talent was for designing and building guitars. Exposure to the instruments available on the still nascent electric guitar market reportedly led him to exclaim, “This is junk! I can make something better myself.”
And so he did, starting in the mid-1940s with lap steel guitars that he built for top players such as Joaquin Murphey and Speedy West. From there he moved on to pioneering designs for a more sophisticated kind of steel guitar, the “pedal steel.” With his flair for mechanical engineering, Bigsby was ideally suited to devise an elaborate system of pedals, levers, and pulleys in order to change the pitch of strings mounted on two or three different steel guitar necks. Like many of his designs, these mechanisms would be much imitated later on, becoming industry standards.
Bigsby’s background in motorcycle and industrial design is handsomely evident in his steel guitars. They are elegantly modernist masterpieces in contoured cast aluminum and blond wood. Like a luxury sedan, some even came equipped with onboard ashtrays. The time-honored link between automotive and guitar design can be traced back to some of these remarkable instruments.
And while steels gave him his start, Bigsby soon turned his hand to solid-body electric Spanish designs as well. One of the earliest, dating from 1944, was a guitar he made for none other than Les Paul. But the Bigsby creation that marked a significant milestone in the solid-body electric guitar’s evolution was the instrument that he created for legendary country picker Merle Travis. Like Les Paul, Travis had begun to think about the tonal advantages a solid guitar body could provide.
“I kept wondering why steel guitars would sustain the sound so long, when a hollow-body electric guitar like mine would fade out real quick,” Travis wrote in his memoir “Recollections of Merle Travis: 1944-1955.” “I came to the conclusion it was all because the steel guitar was solid.”
Travis first met Bigsby in 1947 and soon thereafter commissioned him to build an instrument that would realize Merle’s dream of an electric Spanish guitar with the singing sustain of a steel. Travis sketched out the shape of the body, historically regarded as the first to resemble the general silhouette of the solid-body electric guitar as we know it today. It was also his idea to mount all six of the guitar’s tuning pegs on one side of the head of the guitar (rather than three on one side and three on the other, as many guitars, acoustic and electric, continue to feature). This was hardly a new idea. “Six-on-a-side” headstocks can be found on instruments made by Austrian luthier Johann Stauffer (1778-1853) and early guitars by his apprentice Christian Frederick Martin (1796-1873), not to mention traditional Croatian folk instruments of the tamburica family. But it was something new in the emergent realm of electric guitars.
The pickups on the Travis solid-body were Bigsby’s own creation—a design that leading guitarists such as Les Paul and Chet Atkins had already installed on their guitars. The instrument’s cast-aluminum bridge was also Bigsby’s handiwork. Completed on May 25, 1948, the Travis-Bigsby guitar is loaded with features that foretold the future of electric guitars. In addition to the singular body shape Travis had sketched out and six-on-a-side headstock, there was the way the strings anchored directly in the body rather than to an affixed tailpiece. This would become a defining feature of Fender electric guitars. And the way the neck and central portion of the body are fashioned from a single piece of maple on the Travis-Bigsby electric—what is known as “neck-thru” construction—is an idea that wouldn’t really catch on until the seventies.
But like pretty much all of Bigsby’s instruments, the Travis guitar was unmistakably a hand-built custom creation—the idiosyncratic work of an individual, and a fiercely individualistic, craftsman. The same big, blustery personality and obsessive perfectionism that made Bigsby a larger-than-life figure also rendered it somewhat difficult for him to work with other people. He had a hard time delegating. He even did his own bookkeeping. It would fall to others to bring some of Bigsby’s innovative ideas to the mass market. Perhaps the most notable of these fellow guitar builders was Leo Fender.
How much does the guitar that would become Fender’s legendary Telecaster owe to the solid-body electric guitar that Bigsby made for Merle Travis? Did Fender just rip Bigsby off? The two men certainly both moved in the same world of Southern California western swing and country bands. Like Bigsby, Fender was designing electric guitars, both steel and Spanish, for country players, beta-testing prototype models by placing them in the hands of countrified SoCal talent like Jimmy Bryant, Roy Watkins, Bill Carson, and others. These were essentially the same guys with whom Bigsby was rubbing shoulders.
Fender was friendly with Merle Travis as well. And Travis later claimed that he loaned his Bigsby solid-body electric to Leo for a week sometime in 1949, right when Fender and Fullerton were working on their prototype solid-body electric Spanish guitar. Fender, for his part, always maintained that he did not borrow the Travis-Bigsby guitar. This would become a sore point of contention between Fender and Travis for years. In fact, Bigsby would later attempt, unsuccessfully, to sue Fender for purloining his six-on-a-side headstock design. And as the man who made the initial sketches for the instrument Bigsby built, Travis felt he deserved more credit for the solid-body electric than either Bigsby or Fender. In later years, Travis would reportedly approach young Fender players, demanding, “How do you like the guitar I designed?”
At the time, nobody had the slightest idea that the electric guitar would go on to become the most important musical instrument of the twentieth century. Once it did, everyone who’d been involved wanted to claim primary credit. But great inventions are often the product of multiple minds—a zeitgeist rather than any individual’s genius. The Fender and Travis-Bigsby instruments are both products of the same era, region, and musical milieu. Given this close proximity, it’s fair to surmise that a certain amount of cross-pollination would have been inevitable.
THE FIRST FENDER and Fullerton solid-body electric guitar prototype, completed in 1949, is a somewhat primitively wrought instrument, obviously never intended for production. But it embodies most of the design principles that would make the Telecaster a radical instrument that would revolutionize the embryonic electric guitar market. The distinctive single-coil voicing of the Telecaster’s bridge pickup would become a prime signifier of the Fender sound, even as other builders began to experiment with double coils. Fender’s implementation of the single-coil pickup design is a key factor in the Telecaster’s unmistakable steely tone, beloved of country players as well as rock guitarists looking for a lead tone to cut through even the densest of instrumental mixes. Long after the steel guitar itself had passed out of fashion, the crisp twang of the Telecaster bridge pickup would carry some high, lonesome steel guitar DNA into a new musical era.
On the ’49 prototype, the basic lineaments of the Telecaster’s simple slab body are also in place. It’s like an abbreviated, one-dimensional silhouette of a traditional guitar shape. Even the “cutaway,” a feature of the guitar body’s shape allowing the player easy access to the highest frets, is in the time-honored tradition of classic guitar design. Like everything about the instrument that would become the Telecaster, its contours are executed in the most basic, minimalist way possible.
“We used to draw up different shapes and things,” Fullerton recalled. “We kind of decided to make it resemble a guitar at least a little bit. We put a cutaway on it so you could get at all the frets. We had to make [the guitar body] small enough, since it was solid wood, so that it would be light enough that the player could hold it.”
Perhaps the single most radical thing about the Telecaster is the way the neck is attached to the body by means of four common bolts. This essentially disrupts several centuries of guitar-making tradition, which stipulated that the only way to attach a guitar neck to the body was via an age-old woodworking technique known as a dovetail joint. Many established guitar makers sneered at the Telecaster at first for just this reason. It looked like something a working-class guy had put together in his basement woodshop. Which is basically what it was—and why it’s so revolutionary. The Telecaster is a proudly populist, working-class instrument. In traditional acoustic guitar making, a dovetail joint allows the instrument’s neck and body to vibrate uniformly, almost as a single piece of wood, which enhances tone. Seen in this light, the bolt-on neck is all wrong. But there’s no such thing as wrong when you’re inventing a new musical instrument—an instrument, moreover, that was destined to create hitherto undreamed-of forms of music.
Often compared with Henry Ford and his Model T automobile, Fender’s Telecaster is a pragmatic instrument for the working musician—affordable and easily repaired. With just a little skill, a guitarist could easily replace a flawed or damaged neck by him- or herself. In a sense, Fender’s modular approach to guitar building in the middle years of the twentieth century set the stage for the guitar hot-rodding craze that would take shape in the seventies, which saw guitarists readily swapping out guitar pickups, necks, bridges, and other components in quest of the perfect tone and high-performance playability.
One feature of the Telecaster was missing from the original 1949 prototype. It had its tuning pegs on either side of the head, three-and-three rather than six-on-a-side. The second prototype that Fender and Fullerton built, also in 1949, would include this iconic feature. It was a subtle change, but a meaningful one. The Fender six-on-a-side headstock would become one of the company’s most widely recognized design features, often imitated and closely associated with the rock-and-roll era.
AMONG THEIR OTHER virtues, the design simplicity of Fender’s 1949 prototypes made the instruments ideally suited for mass production. Long before he built his first guitar, Leo Fender had been an accountant. He knew how to make the numbers work, just as he knew how to make a guitar work. The basic slab body and bolt-on neck designs that Fender and Fullerton had come up with meant that the guitars could be fabricated quickly and relatively inexpensively with just basic machinery and materials. Yet the end result was still a good-quality instrument.
And so, by 1950, Fender had its first electric Spanish production model, the single-pickup Fender Esquire, on the market, introduced at a list price of $139.95. This was followed by a small number of two-pickup Esquires. The second pickup, mounted in the guitar’s body very near where it joins with the neck, was able to produce a warmer tone than the pickup nearer to the bridge, a tone not unlike that of an acoustic guitar and thus eminently suitable for rhythm playing. But because so few two-pickup Esquires were ever made, they’re extremely rare and collectible today. By the fall of 1950, the two-pickup iteration of Fender’s design had been renamed the Broadcaster, carrying a list price of $169.95.
And that might have remained the guitar’s name for all time, had history not intervened. In 1951, a somewhat disturbing telegram from the Gretsch company reached Don Randall, general manager of Fender’s distributor, Radio-Tel. In its entirety, the Western Union message read:
YOUR USE OF TRADEMARK BROADKASTER ON YOUR ELECTRIC GUITAR IS INFRINGEMENT OF OUR TRADEMARK BROADKASTER U.S. PATENT OFFICE REGISTRATION 347505 OF 29 JUNE 1937. WE REQUEST IMMEDIATE ASSURANCE THAT YOU ARE ABANDONING THE USE OF THIS NAME.
THE FRED GRETSCH MFG CO.
Gretsch had been marketing a drum set bearing the similar name “Broadkaster.” The company had been around since 1883 and had become a significant force in both the drum and guitar markets. Fender was still a relatively new company—a much smaller fish just barely managing to survive in the big pond of musical instrument sales.
The cease-and-desist order from Gretsch was one more setback in what had been a difficult product launch. There had been earlier problems with necks warping on the first Esquires, requiring Fender to revamp, retool, and add a truss rod—a reinforcing metal brace long used in guitar building—to all subsequent Esquire and Broadcaster necks. And now there was the Gretsch problem to be resolved.
Reluctantly, Randall and the Fender leadership conceded that Gretsch were “fair in their request.” Randall wrote to Fender’s nationwide sales force, advising them to stop using the name Broadcaster and to inform their customers that the name would be changed.
“It is a shame that our efforts in both selling and advertising are lost,” Randall wrote. “But I am sure we can change over with little if any detrimental effects. If any of you have a good name in mind I would welcome hearing from you immediately.”
Until that new name was finalized, Fender had to do something to protect themselves from a potential lawsuit, while still managing to sell some of their new guitars. Les Fender was a pragmatic man who had witnessed shortages of building materials during World War II—not to mention the Korean War, which was then under way—and his initial response to Gretsch’s demand was simply to snip the name BROADCASTER from the headstock decals. And so a very few guitars came out with no model name at all. (These are known as “No-casters,” and routinely fetch five-figure prices on the auction market today. A ’51 No-caster that had formerly belonged to Les Paul sold for $225,000 at a Julien’s Auctions sale in 2012.)
Before 1951 was finished, however, Randall had come up with a new name for the guitar, one that Leo Fender approved. “Telecaster” proved to be a much more apt name. Born of a simple marketing dispute between rival brands, the change was nonetheless reflective of a momentous cultural shift taking place contemporaneously.
WHILE THE ROOTS of television go all the way back to experiments in the late nineteenth century, the technology gained substantial momentum in the twenties and thirties. But TV only really got under way in America with the advent of national network broadcasting in 1948. It would prove to be a major force in the cultural life of America and much of the rest of the world in the latter half of the twentieth century. By 1951, some six million TV sets were already in people’s homes, and an additional five million new units would be produced by the end of the year. The Packard-Bell company had even marketed a television set with the name “Tele Caster,” but, for reasons unknown, the company never challenged Fender’s right to use the name. And so, at Randall’s suggestion, Fender affixed the buzzworthy “Tele” on a musical instrument whose impact on popular culture would prove to be nearly as profound as that of the small screen.
Both television and the Telecaster, moreover, were part of a larger cultural trend taking shape in the prosperous economy of post-World War II America. As working- and middle-class people were acquiring more disposable income and upward social mobility, an inspired new breed of industrial designers and architects was getting creative with mass-production techniques and inexpensive materials to come up with affordable yet stylish consumer goods that would make life more comfortable and gracious for this growing new body of consumers.
Rather than aping Old World craftsmanship, the mid-century modernists sought to find a kind of practical beauty in industrial building materials. The bolts that held chairs together, for instance, were left visible, proudly proclaiming the structural principles that held the chair together, rather than hidden beneath a wooden veneer in an effort to make the object look like it had been fashioned in 1850 rather than in 1950.
Which is to say, the Telecaster fits neatly within the context of the mid-century-modernist movement in design and architecture. The simple lineaments of the Telecaster find a close parallel in the iconic molded-plywood chairs designed by Charles and Ray Eames in 1946, and the spare, angular functionality of Southern Californian Case Study Houses designed by architects like the Eameses, Richard Neutra, and Eero Saarinen in the years between 1945 and 1966. The blond wood finish of many early Teles is also quintessentially mid-century modernist, particularly echoing the finishes found on furniture by the Heywood-Wakefield Company.
Charles Eames, one of mid-century modernism’s chief theorists, summed up the movement’s goals. Although he was speaking about furniture, it’s easy to see how his words are equally applicable to the new kind of electric guitar that Fender was building: “The idea was to do a piece of furniture that would be simple yet comfortable. It would be a chair on which mass production would not have anything but a positive influence. It would have in its appearance the essence of the method that produced it. It would have an inherent rightness about it, and it would be produced by people working in a dignified way.”
Which is precisely what Leo Fender was striving for in his own way. His goals were identical to Eames’s stated ambition “to make the best for the most for the least,” that is, the best possible guitar, accessible to a great many players at the lowest possible price. And, as much of the energy and activity of mid-century modernism was centered in Southern California, its stylistic principles were very much in the air as Leo Fender was working on his early electric guitar designs. In these contexts the Fender aesthetic can be regarded as essentially SoCal modernist in spirit—casual, informal, populist; effortlessly and elegantly discarding the fussy, hidebound traditions and restrictions of the prewar world order, not to mention the greater formality of America’s Midwest and East Coast.
The Telecaster and Esquire more than exceeded Leo Fender’s initial design goals, quickly becoming the quintessential country music electric guitars. The deep talkin’, percussive chug of early Johnny Cash hits like “Folsom Prison Blues” and “I Walk the Line” is the sound of Cash’s lead guitarist Luther Perkins and his Esquire. The plaintive Bakersfield sound of Buck Owens and his co-guitarist Don Rich is also pure Telecaster tone. And such country music icons as Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, and Waylon Jennings have all been conspicuous Tele players, a tradition continued by contemporary country pickers such as Marty Stuart and Brad Paisley.
But the Telecaster is an amazingly versatile guitar. Its tonalities seem to lend themselves readily to numerous musical genres. This, combined with the instrument’s affordable pricing, made it fairly ubiquitous in the popular guitar music of the 1950s and beyond. Bluesmen like Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, Albert Collins, and Muddy Waters all adopted the Telecaster or the Esquire. As did early rock and rollers such as Nathaniel Douglas in Little Richard’s band and Paul Burlison of the Johnny Burnette Rock ’n’ Roll Trio, whose lead work on Burnette tracks like “The Train Kept a Rollin’ ” inspired a youthful Jeff Beck to pick up an Esquire and play it during his mid-sixties tenure with the Yardbirds. And in R&B, Memphis guitarist Steve Cropper’s Telecaster stylings were an essential ingredient in hits by Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Sam & Dave, and other legendary artists on the Stax Records label.
In the seventies and beyond, the instrument even spawned a special breed of Telecaster virtuoso, guitarists such as Roy Buchanan, Danny Gatton, and the Hellecasters. And among the most iconic rock stars, the Telecaster has been closely associated with Keith Richards, Bruce Springsteen, and Joe Strummer. True to Leo Fender’s original intention, the guitar has become a signifier for a kind of working man’s credibility and plainspoken honesty.
If bringing the Telecaster to market had been Leo Fender’s sole achievement, his place of honor in electric guitar history would still be assured. But, as it turns out, the Telecaster was just the start of a dynasty of solid-body, single-coil-pickup, bolt-on-neck Fender electric guitars. In 1951 Fender introduced the seminal electric bass guitar, the Precision Bass. Prior to its introduction, the bass instrument of choice in almost all genres had been the large, bulky double bass or bass fiddle—also sometimes known as the “doghouse” bass, for being nearly as large as its titular canine dwelling. The advent of the Precision Bass revolutionized the lives of working bands, making it much easier and economical to travel to and from gigs, and changing the sound of the music they played.
The magic, of course, was electricity. In the purely acoustic realm, you need a large-bodied instrument to produce the large sound waves that create low frequencies. This is why a double bass, for instance, is so large. Or a tuba, for that matter. These are not the kinds of musical instruments you’d want to carry around or try to fit into the trunk of a car. But electronic amplification made it possible to produce very low frequencies without a large resonating body cavity or brass bell.
Electric amplification also afforded better control of volume than the double bass could offer. The Precision Bass—or P-Bass, as it came to be known—could get much louder than the old doghouse and didn’t need to be miked. It’s also considerably easier to play. The double bass, like most members of the violin family, has a fretless fingerboard. It takes a fair amount of technique to sound notes accurately on this type of playing surface. Just a slight variation in finger position can result in a pitch too sharp or flat. In contrast, the Precision Bass’s fretted fingerboard made it much easier for players to sound notes with precision. (Hence the instrument’s name.) A metal fret, rather than the player’s finger, is what produces the pitch of each note played. And the frets are all located in exactly the right places.
Perhaps even more important, the P-Bass made possible a whole new range of playing techniques and tonalities. A doghouse bass is essentially a fiddle; you can bow it or pluck it pizzicato-style. The P-Bass is a guitar. It can be played with a pick like a guitar for a bright, crisp attack that can be further accentuated by muting the strings with the palm of the picking hand—something that isn’t possible on a double bass. Or, for a more traditional tone, it can still be plucked with the fingers like a double bass. In a sense, it offers the best of both worlds.
It would be hard to overemphasize the importance of the Fender Precision Bass in the evolution of popular music in the twentieth century. Even after bass guitars by other manufacturers entered the market, for a long time any electric bass guitar was generically known as a “Fender bass.” The instrument’s 1951 introduction provides a subtle but distinct line of demarcation between the popular music of the first half of the twentieth century and that of the second half.
With a growing line of electric instruments and amplifiers, the Fender company had evolved beyond the early days of employees sweltering or freezing in the company’s twin steel shacks on Santa Fe Avenue. By gradual degrees, Fender had moved into larger, more comfortable and modern facilities, settling by 1953 into four buildings at 500 South Raymond Avenue in Fullerton. The staff had grown from fifteen employees in 1947 to about fifty by 1955. And none of them had to exit the building and walk several blocks to use the restroom.
II. SURF’S UP: THE STRATOCASTER MAKES THE SCENE
The year 1953 brought the guitarist and designer Freddie Tavares to the Fender staff. An accomplished steel player, Tavares had performed one of the most frequently heard electric guitar recordings in the world—the steel guitar glissando heard at the beginning of the Looney Tunes cartoon shorts that Warner Bros. began producing in the thirties. The Hawaiian-born guitarist was playing a regular gig with Wade Ray and His Ozark Mountain Boys at the Los Angeles-area club Cowtown when he was introduced to Leo Fender by the steel player Noel Boggs from Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys. Leo was impressed with an amplification setup Tavares had devised for the group’s violinist. After chatting for a while about amp design, Fender decided to hire Tavares.
Once onboard, the newcomer immediately went to work with Leo on a new guitar design that would prove as revolutionary as the Telecaster, if not even more so—the Fender Stratocaster. By ’53 Fender knew that he had to up his game if he wanted to stay in it. The guitar establishment had laughed at the Telecaster when it first came out. But once everyone saw how well the instrument was selling, companies started rushing to market with their own solid-body electrics—perhaps most notably the Gibson Les Paul, which debuted in 1952. Some of these new models were appreciably sexier than the homespun Tele. For players in search of a solid-body electric, Fender was no longer the only—or even the most attractive—option.
So Fender and Tavares got to work on a new design that would take the quintessential Fender solid-body guitar style to a new plateau. A key collaborator in the process was SoCal guitarist Bill Carson, who at the time was playing with country honky-tonk legend Hank Thompson, then riding high on the momentum of his 1952 hit “The Wild Side of Life.” Early in the process, Carson succinctly summed up the chief design goal for the new instrument.
“The guitar should fit like a good shirt,” he declared.
Which the Fender Stratocaster does. This is perhaps why the Strat has been a great fit for a broad range of legendary guitarists, including Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, Buddy Guy, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Stevie Ray Vaughan, among many others. A great deal of thought went into the Stratocaster body contours. Balance was a key consideration. With the solid-body electric’s reinvention of traditional guitar dimensions, it was vital to find a new shape that would hang evenly on a strap or cradle snugly into the lap of a seated player. Fender came up with a design that would be frequently imitated in years to come.
Where the Telecaster was a single-cutaway guitar, the Strat boasted a radically curvy double-cutaway design, affording unprecedented ease of access to the highest notes on the fingerboard. The Strat body is stylishly—one might say sexily—asymmetrical in shape. The upper-body “horn,” which supports one end of the guitar strap, is appreciably larger than the lower one. The other innovative feature of the upper-body “bout,” as it’s known, is that it is contoured in back to fit comfortably against the player’s rib cage. This is thought to have been the suggestion of another guitarist who consulted on the project, Rex Gallion, who complained that the right-angle edge of the Telecaster body had been digging into his ribs.
When initially envisioning the guitar, Bill Carson called for it to have four pickups. But in the end, the designers settled on three—one more than the Telecaster.
“Two is good,” Leo Fender is reported to have said. “But three will kill them!”
The Stratocaster’s bridge pickup possessed a bright, steely tone similar to that of the Tele. And the neck pickup was similarly warm in timbre. But the addition of a third pickup, midway between the bridge and neck pickups, opened up a broad range of new tonal possibilities. Any of the three pickups could be used on its own. But players quickly discovered that by placing the instrument’s three-way pickup switch in between the three standard positions, it was possible to activate two pickups at once—either the bridge and the middle or the neck and the middle. Either of these combinations produces a sweet, lyrical sound heard in much of Mark Knopfler’s guitar work, for instance, or in the more gentle, ballad side of Jimi Hendrix’s recordings. Eventually Fender would replace the original three-position switch with a five-position selector, making these coveted tonalities more easily obtainable.
Everything about the Stratocaster’s hardware configuration is fine-tuned and superbly well-thought-out. Six individual “saddles” serve as the guitar’s bridge, with each adjustable for string height and string length, allowing the guitarist to tweak the instrument’s playability and intonation to the smallest degree. (Intonation refers to the guitar’s ability to play perfectly in tune all up and down the neck.) Fender also devised a spring-operated vibrato bridge system that was significantly more advanced than the Kauffman Vibrola or any other similar system available at the time. About the only thing on the Stratocaster that looks back to an earlier design—the Travis-Bigsby guitar—is the headstock, which is more bulky and shapely than the Telecaster’s. In time, it would come to be thought of as a key signifier of the Fender design aesthetic.
If the Telecaster exemplifies the pragmatic, minimalist side of mid-century modernism, the Stratocaster is a sterling example of the curvy, parabolic elegance that could be wrought from industrial mass-production techniques. Even the Strat’s bullet-shaped, angled, chrome patch-chord receptacle is a fashion statement, boldly and conspicuously mounted on the guitar’s top rather than hidden on the lower side like that of most guitars.
The guitar’s name derives from “stratosphere.” The space race between the United States and the Soviet Union would officially begin in 1955, both nations vying to be the first to launch a satellite into orbit around the earth. So, just as Fender had moved forward in time and technological sophistication—from radio to television—in rebranding the Broadcaster as the Telecaster, they’d ventured into the brave new world of outer space in christening the Stratocaster.
The Fender Stratocaster is an addictively comfortable instrument to play. The volume and tone controls, the pickup selector switch, and the slender vibrato arm are all located within easy reach of the player’s picking hand. Of all the iconic rock guitar virtuosos, Jeff Beck has perhaps made the most creative use of this aspect of the Strat, building a whole style around expressive volume swells and dramatic vibrato arm histrionics.
Which is to say that, like the Telecaster, the Strat quickly transcended Leo Fender’s initial cowboy-centric vision for the instrument, finding a welcome across a broad range of musical styles. In this context, it’s fortuitous that the Stratocaster’s contoured body also bears an uncanny resemblance to the sleek curves of a surfboard. One of the instrument’s early champions was the guitarist born Richard Anthony Monsour, who took the stage name Dick Dale, and would ultimately be crowned “King of the Surf Guitar.”
Just as the country-and-western musical aesthetic was central to Fender’s earliest years, surf music became an essential part of the Fender vibe in the late fifties and early sixties. Surf music is the great bridge between the early days of rock and roll and mad-mod guitar sounds of the British Invasion. It became the soundtrack for an early-sixties Southern California youth culture based around hot-rod cars, sunny beaches, and the aquatic sport of riding the massive waves on well-waxed, precision-engineered planks of wood. Originally a free-spirited outsider cult, the surf scene became a national obsession through “youthsploitation” feature films such as Ride the Wild Surf, Girls on the Beach, Beach Party, Bikini Beach, and Beach Blanket Bingo, many starring the perky brunette and former Mickey Mouse Club television star Annette Funicello along with teen heartthrob Frankie Avalon. While the visuals focused on cars, surfboards, and teens in beachwear, the soundtrack music heavily featured the twangy cadences of electric guitars.
A key surf music architect, Dick Dale was an actual surfer and a true iconoclast—a left-handed guitarist who nonetheless played guitars strung in the conventional right-hand manner, forging a style based around rapid staccato runs on the guitar’s lower strings and a reverby tonality that became one of the chief sonic signifiers of the surf scene. Based in El Segundo, California, as a teenager, Dale took to the water early. And his hometown was just a stone’s throw from Fullerton, where he first made Leo Fender’s acquaintance at some point in the late fifties or early sixties.
“I went to him and said, ‘My name is Dick Dale. I’m a surfer. I’ve got no money and I really need a guitar. Can you help me?’ ” Dale recalled. “Me and my dad looked him up. I was getting ready to go play the Rendezvous Ballroom [in nearby Balboa, California]. Leo said, ‘Take this guitar and tell me what you think about it.’ ”
Despite a difference in age and background, Dale and Fender turned out to be kindred spirits. Both loved country music and shared an obsession with boats, each maintaining his own craft in the nearby harbors of the Pacific shore. Dale related an anecdote illuminating the nature of their friendship and working relationship:
I’m interested in how everything is built, and so was Leo. When I brought my Rolls-Royce around, Leo would sit in the backseat of the car and just keep opening the picnic tray, looking at the hinge. He’d call and say, “Freddie, Freddie [Tavares], come here and look at this! Look how this hinge activates itself!” He was like that. Leo took a liking to me because I was blowing up everything he was making. He was going, “How are you doing that!”
Dale became a key consultant, working with both Fender and Tavares on new product designs, particularly in the area of guitar amplification. Among other things, Dale encouraged Fender to begin incorporating spring reverb units into the company’s amplifiers. The splashy “spring reverb” sound would become one of the sonic common denominators in electric guitar music, integral to country, surf music, rockabilly, psychedelic rock, and many other genres.
In search of a louder sound to accommodate his growing audiences at the Rendezvous, Dale also goaded Fender to produce larger and more powerful amplifiers, particularly the 100-watt Fender Showman. Its fifteen-inch JBL loudspeaker was built to withstand the rigors of Dale’s extreme playing techniques.
“When I plugged that speaker into the Showman amp,” Dale later recalled, “the world of pansy-ass electronics came to an end. It was like Einstein splitting the atom.”
Early Dick Dale singles such as 1961’s “Let’s Go Trippin’ ” and ’62’s “Miserlou” touched off an explosion of surf guitar instrumental hits in the early years of the 1960s. These included the Chantays’ “Pipeline,” the Surfaris’ “Wipe Out,” the Ventures’ “Walk Don’t Run,” “Penetration” by the Pyramids, “Out of Limits” by the Marketts, and “Torture” by the Fendermen. As the latter band name clearly suggests, the sound was generally very Fender-centric—bright, trebly single-coil pickup tones and tons of reverb. Many of these groups became Fender endorsers, their photos featured in Fender product catalogs of the era.
The surf guitar hits of the early sixties were part of an even greater wave of popular guitar instrumental music that had begun a few years earlier with hit songs such as “Tequila” by the Champs and “Rumble” by Link Wray and His Raymen. The latter is often credited as one of the first records to employ guitar power chords and distortion. Legend has it that Wray poked holes in his amp’s loudspeaker to achieve a more raunchy sound. The tonality would go on to have a huge influence on British Invasion groups such as the Kinks and the Who. But even before then, the guitar instrumental craze had reached British shores, as can be heard on hits by English groups such as the Shadows’ 1960 track “Apache,” and the Tornados’ 1962 smash “Telstar,” which got all the way to #1 on the U.S. charts. These U.K. recordings would also prove to be a major inspiration for the British Invaders soon to arrive on U.S. shores in the Beatles’ wake.
But surf music proper wasn’t confined to just instrumental music. The genre developed a vocal harmony branch as well, with groups such as the Beach Boys, Jan & Dean, the Hondells, and the Rip Chords. Along with the allure of the wild surf and the inevitable romances on sunny beaches, the songs celebrated Southern California hot-rod culture. The lyrics were packed with references to Cobras, Stingrays, XKEs, 409s, and other objects of automotive desire that were just coming onto the market at that time.
But it was the surf guitar instrumentals that launched thousands of garage bands across the United States and indeed worldwide in the early to mid-1960s. These hit records provided a ready-made repertoire.
Fender gear was in high demand by these fledgling ensembles, and the company had a growing line of guitars and amps to offer. The Fender Jazzmaster, introduced in 1958, boasted an elaborate array of pickup selection switches and a slightly warmer tone than previous Fenders. Leo had entertained hopes that it would appeal to archtop jazz players; instead it became another iconic surf music guitar, as did the flashy, chrome-surfaced Jaguar, which debuted in 1962. To counterbalance these upscale Fender models, there was a growing range of more affordable “student model” guitars and basses, including the Musicmaster and Duo-Sonic lines, both introduced in 1956, and the Mustangs, which first appeared in ’64.
Fender was at the vanguard of marketing guitar gear to the younger musicians who were playing surf music and other forms of rock and roll. By the early sixties, Fender guitars were available in fourteen different custom colors, many of which were stock DuPont Duco automotive hues such as Fiesta Red and Burgundy Mist. This marked a significant departure from the sunbursts and blond finishes of traditional guitar making. As such, it reflects a key shift in how electric guitars were perceived and marketed. They became more fun and sexy—like fast sports cars—rather than staid musical instruments in rich wood tones worthy of enshrinement alongside violins, clarinets, pianos, and other instruments kids were forced to study in school.
In the early sixties, graphic designer Robert Perine devised a series of ads for Fender, photographing the company’s instruments in beach scenes alongside surfboards and young girls in bikinis, in automotive settings (a Fender Jaguar guitar alongside a Jaguar XKE auto), or in wild scenarios that had people jumping out of airplanes or climbing onto city buses with Fender guitars slung around their necks. YOU WON’T PART WITH YOURS EITHER the accompanying headline read.
“The teenage market was of vital importance because kids in every major city were being encouraged by dealers to take guitar lessons,” Perine later recalled. “So I slanted many of the ads towards them, going to teenage fairs in southern California, finding teen models, putting them in situations where the guitars looked user-friendly.”
BY 1964, FENDER’S workforce had grown to about six hundred employees operating out of some twenty-seven buildings in Fullerton. But those who collaborated most closely with Leo had begun to notice a change in him. Never an excessively voluble man in the first place, he’d grown even more quiet and withdrawn around 1964. He was troubled by a persistent, infectious sinus condition and, while just in his mid-fifties, was feeling the weight of his years perhaps more heavily than other men his age. He’d started out as a guy with a little radio shop. But now his business had grown exponentially and he shouldered a lot of responsibility.
One evening in December of ’64, Fender VP Forrest White found Leo at his workbench long after most employees had gone home. He was huddled close to a space heater and clutching the collar of his jacket close to his neck against the unseasonably cold California winter that year. White recounted the scene in his memoir. “[Leo] said, ‘Sit down, I have something to tell you. You know I haven’t been able to shake this sinus condition, and I think it’s time for me to get out. Don [Randall] and I have been talking to CBS Records about them buying the company.’ ”
The deal went through in January of ’65. CBS acquired Fender for an unprecedented $13 million, the highest price ever paid for a musical instrument company at the time, and $2 million more than CBS had recently shelled out to acquire the New York Yankees baseball team.
“Monday evening, January 4, 1965, I went down to see Leo in his lab for the last time,” White wrote.
We both found it difficult to act nonchalant. I helped him carry his personal belongings out to his car, pretended not to notice the tears in his eyes, and hoped he hadn’t noticed mine. He got into the car and I walked to the side gate. He stopped briefly on his way out, paused and said, “I don’t know what I would have done without you.” I wish I could tell you what those words meant to me. He stepped on the gas and was out of the gate before I could answer. That was the last time I would let him out of the gate as I had done so many times before. I watched until his car was out of sight.
It was the end of an era. By the closing years of the sixties, guitarists were already speaking with awe of Fender’s pre-CBS period. “Pre-CBS” became the watchword as musicians began searching for Fender guitars and amps from the golden years, before ’65. Leo hung on as a consultant to CBS for a few years, but things weren’t the same. Like all large corporations, CBS sought to maximize profits by cutting costs, and the quality of Fender gear suffered noticeably. New products didn’t resonate quite as deeply with the market as the classic Fender designs had. How could they? They’d been dreamed up by a corporate committee rather than by an obsessive country music fan and gear geek going out to clubs night after night, talking to musicians, placing test instruments in their hands, and gleaning a profound understanding of their desires and dreams.
By the 1970s, Leo had recovered his health and gotten back in the game, launching the Music Man company with Forrest White and another partner, Tom Walker, at mid-decade, and G&L (for George and Leo) with George Fullerton in ’79. Both companies produced well-designed and well-regarded guitars and amps. But they didn’t change the world the way the iconic Fender guitars and amps had. The time for such mythic transformations had passed from the hands of guitar makers into those of visionary musicians.
Country legend and Gretsch guitar spokesman Chet Atkins