Forty Years of Fender

by Richard R. Smith

Leo Fender had worked as an accountant and radio repairman before taking up musical instrument manufacturing during the waning days of World War II. Riding on the double wave of post-war prosperity and the guitar's rising popularity, his novel, tradition-breaking designs quickly became popular with working musicians who played western swing, country, and rhythm and blues--the roots of rock and roll. He started designing the Stratocaster in 1953 for these cutting-edge musicians destined to shape popular music's next forty years.

Fender's intention was more than simply adding a new guitar to his successful line, which already included the highly popular Telecaster. Packing his new model with the latest "Fender Firsts," he hoped to outdo all other guitar inventors and make all other electric guitars obsolete. Besides looking streamlined and modern, the deep cutaway body balanced the instrument, made the high frets more accessible, and reduced weight. Musician Rex Gallion had once implored Leo, "Why not get away from a body that is always digging into your ribs?" The Stratocaster's contours allowed a snug fit to the player's body.

The Stratocaster's advanced, built-in vibrato put shimmering, sustaining sound effects at the player's fingertips. The distinctive Fender headstock design let the strings pull straight over the guitar's nut, minimizing the only real source of de-tuning friction. Surpassing earlier designs, Fender made each individual Stratocaster bridge section adjustable for length and height. To get the best tone, he tested a wide variety of pickup coils and pole pieces with different lengths and diameters.

Musicians soon discovered that by carefully positioning the Stratocaster's switch between settings, the signals from two pickups mixed and produced snarling nasal tones that redefined electric guitar sound. These unintended tones were reminiscent of a muted trumpet or trombone, but with the sting of downed power lines. Fender's new guitar offered much more than he anticipated.

Fender's business partner, Don Randall, came up with the new guitar's name. Fender Sales shipped the first few commercial units by May 15, 1954. No one envisioned the Stratocaster's eventual commercial success and historic impact. Considered by many an instrument for teenagers - bandleader Lawrence Welk often introduced Buddy Merrill as "our teenager” - the Stratocaster sold well in the 1950s, but did not dominate the market. Dick Dale first explored the Fender's high decibel capabilities playing surf music in the early 1960s. Beatles George Harrison and John Lennon had matching Stratocasters heard on the single "Nowhere Man" and numerous album cuts recorded after 1965. Of course, Jimi Hendrix revolutionized electric guitar playing with his Stratocasters and proved the wisdom of Leo's original design--which stood up to almost every abuse except a match and lighter fluid. For the next two decades, the Stratocaster's popularity grew almost unabated.

In 1987 Guitar Player magazine hailed the Stratocaster as the "undisputed Guitar of the 1980s." The Stratocaster, recognized by players for its wide-ranging, versatile tone, had become the most commercially successful and copied electric guitar design in history. The almost endless list of Stratocaster-playing stars included While many players had turned to vintage Stratocasters in the 1970s when CBS owned the Fender company (Leo Fender and Don Randall sold the company to CBS in the mid-60s) an increasing number of 1980s guitarists discovered new Stratocasters made by a revitalized Fender company under new ownership.

In 1985, the Fender company was purchased from CBS and in fact, a new chapter of Stratocaster history was being written. In 1990 the company offered a single-spaced index that included 31 different Stratocasters on the first page alone. The 1992 literature pictured 44 different Stratocasters. Players failing to find production models fitting their needs could consider a top-of-the-line custom-built guitar from the Fender Custom Shop. John Page, the shop's manager, sums up the company's philosophy quite well: "Old guitars represent a starting point," he said. "Vintage (product) is something you learn from. Then you go on and design something for tomorrow.”

Leo Fender designed the original Stratocaster to outdo all other electric guitars. In 1954, it was a guitar for tomorrow. Astonishingly, after 40 years, it still is.

A former working guitarist, Richard R. Smith has written extensively about vintage guitars and guitar company history. He is guest curator for the Fullerton Museum Center's show Five Decades of Fender: The Sound Heard Around the World. His articles and columns have appeared in Guitar Player, Guitar World, Guitar (Rittor Music, Japan) and Bass (Rittor Music, Japan) magazines. In addition, he is the author of The History of Rickenbacker Guitars (Centerstream) and a forthcoming book about Leo Fender and the Fender Electric Instrument Company.