Clarence Leonidas “Leo” Fender was born on August 10, 1909, in Anaheim, California. He was the founder of the Fender Electric Instrument Manufacturing Company, commonly known as just Fender. Fender was the first company to mass-produce an electric guitar, the Fender Telecaster, which was introduced in 1950. Electric guitars were introduced some 20 years before the Telecaster, but Fender’s model was revolutionary and conquered the music world.
In the late 1940s, solid-body electric guitars began to rise in popularity, with the Rickenbacker Spanish Electro guitar being the most commercially available solid-body, and Les Paul‘s one-off home-made “Log” and the Bigsby Travis guitar made by Paul Bigsby for Merle Travis being the most recognized early models.
Fender recognized the potential for an electric guitar that was easy to hold, tune, and play, and would not feed back at dance hall volumes as the typical arch-top would. In 1949, he finished the prototype of a thin solid-body electric; it was first released in 1950 as the Fender Esquire (with a solid-body and one pickup), and renamed first Broadcaster (changed because there was already a line of drums called Broadkaster produced by Gretsch) and then Telecaster (with two pickups) the year after.
The Telecaster, originally equipped with two single-coil pickups and widely used among country and western players, became one of the most popular electric guitars in history. Based on customer feedback, Fender decided to leave the Telecaster as it was, and designed a new upscale solid-body guitar.
Assisted by draftsman Freddie Tavares, he designed the Stratocaster in late 1953. It included a rounder, less “club-like” neck (at least for the first year of issue) and a double cutaway for easier reach to the upper registers.
In 1951 Fender released the Precision Bass; small and portable, with solid-body construction and four-magnet, single coil pickup, it allowed playing at higher volumes without feedback. Along with the Precision Bass, Fender introduced a bass amplifier, the Fender Bassman, a 25-watt amplifier with one 15-inch speaker (later updated to 45 watts and four 10-inch speakers).
From an early age, Fender showed an interest in electronics; when he was 13 years old, he visited his uncle’s automotive-electric shop in Santa Maria, California, and he was fascinated by a radio his uncle had built from spare parts. Leo later claimed that the loud music coming from the speaker of that radio made a lasting impression on him. Soon thereafter, he began repairing radios in his parents’ home.
Fender graduated Fullerton Union High School in 1928, and began education at Fullerton Junior College, where he studied to become an accountant. While in college he continued to teach himself electronics, and tinker with radios and other electrical items but never took any kind of electronics course. After graduating from college, Fender took a job as a delivery man for Consolidated Ice and Cold Storage Company in Anaheim, where he was later made the bookkeeper. Around this time a local band leader approached Leo, asking him if he could build a public address system for use by the band at dances in Hollywood. Fender was contracted to build six of these PA systems.
In 1933 he met Esther Klosky, the love of his life, whom he married in 1934. The Great Depression left Leo unemployed, so in 1938 he and his wife returned to Fullerton, where with a borrowed $600 he started his own radio repair shop, ”Fender Radio Service”. Soon, musicians and band leaders began coming to him for public address systems, which he built, rented, and sold. They also visited his store for amplification for the amplified acoustic guitars that were beginning to show up on the southern California music scene.
For the first guitar he ever built Fender worked with Clayton ”Doc” Kauffman, an inventor and lap steel player who had worked for Rickenbacker. They started the ”K & F Manufacturing Corporation” and designed and built amplified Hawaiian guitars and amplifiers. In 1944 Leo and Doc patented a lap steel guitar with an electric pickup already patented by Fender; they began selling the guitar in 1945, in a kit with an amplifier designed by Fender.
Despite having such an impact on the music industry, Leo Fender never actually learned how to play the instrument he perfected. In 1979, Fender‘s wife Esther died of cancer. He remarried in 1980 and died on March 21, 1991.
In 2009 Leo Fender was posthumously awarded the Technical Grammy Award for “contributions of outstanding technical significance to the recording field”.