Fender Guitars History

Fender Musical Instrument Corp


The Leo Fender Years (1946-1965)
The CBS Years (1966-1985)
The Bill Schultz Years (1985-2005)
Fender Today


With an illustrious history dating back to 1946, Fender® has touched and transformed music worldwide and in nearly every genre: rock 'n' roll, country and western, jazz, rhythm and blues and many others. Everyone from beginners and hobbyists to the world's most acclaimed artists and performers have used Fender instruments and amps, and legendary Fender instruments such as the Telecaster™, Stratocaster™, Precision Bass™ and Jazz Bass™ guitars are universally acclaimed as design classics and cultural icons. The company's history is as colorful as the music made with its legendary products.

The Leo Fender Years (1946-1965)

In the 1940s, Southern California inventor Clarence Leonidas "Leo" Fender (1909-1991) realized that he could improve on the amplified hollow-body guitars of the day with an innovative and relatively simple solid-body electric guitar design. Further, he realized that he could streamline the process of building them.

A born tinkerer, he opened Fender's Radio Service in the late 1930s as a small repair shop and retail outlet on Spadra Ave. in Fullerton, Calif., not far from where he was born. His interest in the small amplifiers that local musicians brought to his shop to be repaired led to an interest in the guitars that were used with them. Fender befriended one such customer, Clayton "Doc" Kauffman, who ran his own fix-it shop in Fullerton and who had designed and built his own guitar pickups and electric lap steel guitars.

Fender and Kauffman collaborated on their own primitive guitar pickup and test guitar in 1943 (the so-called "radio shop guitar"), and by 1945 they were building steel guitar and amplifier sets as the K&F Manufacturing Corporation. Meanwhile, an old friend of Fender's, Don Randall, had become general manager of businessman F.C. Hall's Radio-Tel radio and television parts distributorship. In early 1946, Randall suggested to Fender that Radio-Tel become the exclusive distributor for K&F guitars and amps, setting the stage for a legendary musical instruments industry partnership.

Kauffman quickly bowed out of the fledgling company (he and Fender remained great friends for years afterward), and Fender moved the renamed Fender Manufacturing Company to a new and larger factory on Santa Fe Ave. in Fullerton. Fender guitars became known for their clear, bright tone, which stood in marked contrast to the muffled midrange sound of most amplified acoustics.

Throughout the late 1940s, Leo Fender and his small staff worked on a design for a player-friendly solid-body Spanish-style electric guitar with a detachable neck and simple control scheme; a single-pickup prototype was completed in 1949. Many refinements later, in 1951, Fender officially introduced the world's first commercially mass-produced solid-body Spanish-style electric guitar, a two-pickup beauty called the Telecaster (originally and briefly the Broadcaster). A single-pickup version called the Esquire was also introduced.

That same year, Fender introduced a revolutionary new invention-the Precision Bass guitar. It was the world's first electric bass guitar; played like a guitar and fretted so that it could be played with "precision" and amplified, thus liberating bassists from unwieldy and increasingly inaudible acoustic basses.

Fender catered to the Western Swing artists of the late '40s and early '50s whose music Leo Fender personally enjoyed, and it bears noting that the Fender organization predated rock 'n' roll by a good decade. Nonetheless, the Telecaster, Precision bass and a soon-to-be unveiled new mid-'50s guitar laid the foundation for a new kind of group and a revolution in popular music-what we know today as the modern rock combo. As opposed to the "big bands" of the era, electric Fender instruments made it possible for smaller groups of musicians to get together and be heard.

Fender instruments and the increasingly powerful, rugged and elegant amplifiers that went with them started to draw attention and acclaim throughout the early 1950s. It was a legendary time in the company's history; when Leo Fender and his staff (including George Fullerton, Freddy Tavares and Forrest White) built instruments and amps and Don Randall and his sharp sales staff sold them.

Fender prided itself and indeed thrived on feedback from professional musicians who used its products out there in the rough-and-tumble real world of nightclubs, road tours, bandstands and recording studios. After the success of the Telecaster, Fender turned its attention to heeding players' calls for more tonal options and, significantly, a guitar with an efficient vibrato unit. Work began on an entirely new guitar model that would be the successor to the Telecaster.

The Stratocaster first appeared in 1954. Elegantly curvaceous, it was a quantum leap forward in electric guitar design and sound. Great looks aside, it was also an ingeniously functional guitar that incorporated many design innovations based on feedback from professional musicians, Fender staff and Leo Fender himself. Not only did the sleekly ergonomic body look like something from the future, but its contours made it much more comfortable to play and its double-cutaway horns allowed easier access to upper registers.

Sonically, the Stratocaster's three single-coil pickups and switching configuration offered more tonal possibilities. Most important, however, was the addition of the new Fender "synchronized tremolo" (vibrato) bridge, an innovation that let guitarists bend strings without the instrument going out of tune, thus achieving the pedal steel-like sound so popular among country music artists of the day.

Nobody could have foreseen then how the Stratocaster would go on to revolutionize popular music, including Leo Fender and his staff. The guitar's legendary status today makes it easy to forget that it wasn't exactly a spectacular success when it was unveiled in 1954, when it drew as many quizzical stares as it did longing gazes-indeed, it took a little while for the Stratocaster to reach the stratospheric heights for which it was destined. Refinements commenced immediately, and by 1957 the improved Stratocaster existed largely as it does today; within a decade new generations of talented artists would wring incredible sounds from it and transform it into a musical and cultural icon. The Stratocaster became and remains the world's most popular and influential electric guitar, and players at all levels and in all genres continue to rely on its sound, playability and versatility today.

Fender developed and introduced many classic instrument and amplifier designs over the ensuing decade, including the Jazzmaster™ guitar (1958), Jazz Bass™ guitar (1960; still Fender's top-selling bass), the Jaguar™ guitar (1962) and the Twin Reverb™ amplifier (1963). Leo Fender himself remained an immensely creative force at Fender until, his health declining, he sold the company in 1965 to CBS.

The CBS Years (1966-1985)

The CBS-Fender deal took effect in January 1965, signaling a new era in the electric guitar business. CBS was of course a gigantic entertainment company with holdings that included the New York Yankees and Columbia Records (a sidelight was that more Fender instruments immediately began appearing on CBS television programs and Columbia Records album covers). Don Randall became vice president and general manager of CBS's Fender Musical Instrument and Fender Sales divisions.

Unfortunately, the union was to prove an unhappy and ultimately unsuccessful one. While quality instruments and amps were still produced in the immediate period after the sale, quality control under CBS was suffering visibly by the late '60s. Among other issues, CBS continually failed to reinvest in modern factory equipment, and Fender entered a long, slow decline throughout the 1970s and early 1980s. Among players and collectors, the phrase "pre-CBS" quickly came to denote high-quality Fender instruments built before 1965, as opposed to the lesser CBS-era products.

The late '70s were dark days for Fender. A recession dogged the U.S. economy, and guitar sales dropped by 50 percent from 1972 to 1989 as computers and video games eroded interest in musical instruments. Further, when Fender's early patents expired, the company was subjected to an onslaught of Fender knockoffs produced by other companies.

Fender was all but dead in the United States by 1981. Unable to stem the rising tide of Fender-style guitars emanating from the Far East, CBS established a joint venture called Fender Japan in 1982. Fender Japan produced highly regarded instruments of very impressive quality during this period, and soon introduced budget-model version under the Squier name for export to Europe and North America.

Nonetheless, CBS decided in 1984 to sell off all its music-related holdings. A group of investors headed by William Schultz, a former Yamaha executive who was named Fender's president under CBS in 1981, bought Fender in March 1985 for $12.5 million.

The Bill Schultz Years (1985-2005)

Tough, smart, charismatic and tenacious, William "Bill" Schultz (1926-2006) literally went to friends and family to scrape together the financing for the sale. He and his partners bought the name, trademarks and some inventory; Fender's Santa Ana, Calif., factory wasn't part of the deal. Schultz himself then traveled the nation, shaking hands and touting the new Fender Musical Instruments Corporation and seeking crucial dealer support.

Starting anew in 1985 with a small management and manufacturing facility in Corona, Calif., he personally began to engineer Fender's re-emergence. Guitar by guitar and amp by amp, Schultz restored Fender to its place as an industry leader. He reestablished U.S. production, and it was under his leadership that the new Fender Musical Instruments Corporation (FMIC) opened its famous Custom Shop; built its large manufacturing facility in Ensenada, Mexico, and acquired other domestic and international facilities; moved its corporate headquarters to Scottsdale, Ariz.; and acquired other famous guitar brands such as Guild, Gretsch and Jackson.

By the time Schultz retired in 2005, Stratocaster, Telecaster, Precision Bass, Jazz Bass and other Fender guitars were once again great instruments worthy of their '50s and '60s ancestors, and Fender amps once again ruled venues from garages to clubs to concert stages. Schultz built the new Fender into a digital-age musical instrument industry leader with a worldwide reach and, once again, a world-famous reputation.

Fender Today

Fender celebrated its 60th anniversary in 2006 as a worldwide success story whose products and spirit of pioneering greatness encompass not only an industry, but also a lifestyle. Bigger and stronger than at any point in its illustrious history, the company is poised for an even more promising future.

As always, Fender proudly continues the tradition started by Leo Fender himself of going directly to musicians for their creative input and advice. And as always, it produces its famous instruments and amplifiers for everyone from youthful beginners to the world's greatest established artists. Fender continues to innovate, to lead the musical instruments industry and to bring to life the spirit of rock 'n' roll.

From the Fender® Website