It’s safe to say there would be no such thing as rock and roll without its distinctive instrumentation. To put it another way, rock and roll as we know it could not exist without Leo Fender, inventor of the first solid-body electric guitar to be mass-produced: the Fender Broadcaster. Fender’s instruments – which also include the Stratocaster, the Precision bass (the first electric bass) and some of the music world’s most coveted amplifiers – revolutionized popular music in general and rock and roll in particular.
Leo Fender was born on August 10, 1909, near Anaheim, California, not far from the future site of his guitar factory. He was an electronics enthusiast and radio repairman who got involved with guitar design after guitar-playing customers kept bringing him their external pickups for repair. Before Fender came along, guitarists met their amplification needs by attaching pickups to the surface of their hollow-bodied instruments. While the question of who designed the first successful solid-body guitar is still being debated, Fender was the first to successfully design and market such an instrument with the introduction of the Broadcaster in 1948. Renamed the Telecaster two years later, Fender’s creation remains a mainstay of country and rock musicians who like its clean, biting sound. The guitar became an immediate success, particularly with country pickers. And now, more than 60 years after its introduction, the Telecaster still looks more or less the same.
“Fender could look at something and immediately discern the simplest method of doing whatever had to be done,” said Les Paul. “He was a good, honest guy who made a straightforward guitar.”
Fender’s Precision bass, introduced in 1950, brought a new sound and flexibility to the rhythm section of bands, liberating the bassist from cumbersome standup instruments. The bass-driven soul music of Motown and Stax would have been inconceivable without Fender’s handiwork. In 1954, Fender introduced the Stratocaster, a flashier instrument featuring a contoured, double-cutaway body, three (as opposed to two) single-coil pickups and a revolutionary string-bending (tremolo) unit. Fender’s Strat has been the favored model of such virtuosic rock guitarists as Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan.
In 1965, Fender sold his company to CBS for $13 million. Then, in 1971, he formed the Tri-Sonic Company. In 1974, he changed the company’s name to Music Man. One of that firm’s most notable instruments was the Stingray bass. Then, in 1979, he founded yet another company, G&L Musical Products.
Leo Fender died on March 21, 1991, after suffering from Parkinson’s disease for many years.