Leo Fender: The Quiet Giant Heard Around the World

Leo Fender: The Quiet Giant Heard Around the World
By Phyllis Fender & Randall Bell
[Leadership Institute Press]

“Occasionally, the world produces one of those rare thinkers that alters the course of history.” The rare thinker in this case is Leo Fender, founder of the Fender Musical Instrument Company, G&L Musical Instruments and past president of Music Man Instrument Company. In her new book, Leo Fender: The Quiet Giant Heard Around the World, Leo’s widow Phyllis Fender presents Leo Fender as a simple, yet extremely creative man…a man arguably responsible for changing the course of human history.

His story is simple and apparently so was he. Phyllis and her co-author Randall Bell present Leo as such a banal man regarding his daily life that to think he could go on to invent a toaster, not to mention the electric guitar, would be a stretch of the imagination. For those looking for details on his creations…look elsewhere. Phyllis writes up front, “This book is less about guitars, but more about the man who invented them.” Unfortunately the man who created such beautiful instruments was quite boring and tales of his eating and dressing habits can be of interest to few, if any.

Leo Fender was born in 1909 and lived his whole life in Fullerton, CA. He attended high school and college in town, and was first married in 1939. After Pearl Harbor, his effort to join the Army was thwarted due to his having lost an eye in a childhood accident. Growing up he loved music but had no musical talent. His personal proclivities lent themselves to electronic tinkering, and Phyllis writes: “Soon after college, Leo, whose skill with electronics had been spreading, was asked by a local band if he would make a public-address system.” He did and became more and more interested in music and what all the various musical components were. “During the 1940s Leo would attend War Bond Dances,” Phyllis writes. “He enjoyed big band music and admired musical talent. While the guitarists played their wooden, acoustic guitars with all their might, nobody could hear them. They were playing their hearts out but were basically invisible! Leo felt bad for them. The guitarists had to be heard! Leo got an idea. He was determined to help these talented musicians be heard, just like the rest of the band.”

From here Leo Fender invented the first solid body electric guitar, the Esquire [this point can be argued…but not here]. This model soon became the Telecaster and is still one of the most popular guitars today. A gem of information found in the book is that the word “telecaster” was a simple blend between the new, upcoming televisions and radio broadcasters.

One major point of issue with Fender Instruments is the regard of their stature before and after Fender sold his company to CBS in 1965. “Pre-CBS” is a seemingly important delineation point for players. According to Phyllis, there is nothing to it. Leo Fender’s “rigorous daily grind eventually got to be too much for Leo and he became sickly and tired,” she writes. “Most people did not know it, but Leo had gotten a severe staph infection. It lingered and lingered and eventually got worse. The doctors told Leo that his was incurable and that he was going to die, so, in 1965 Leo decided to sell the company he had built. He wanted to wrap up his affairs so that when he died his [first wife] Esther would not have to deal with them.” This illuminates the sale as a way for Leo to protect/provide for his family after he was gone. As it turns out…his doctors were wrong and another doctor cured him. He later regretted the sale. Still, “There is a preconception that pre-CBS guitars are better, but that is just plain false,” she goes on to say. Both Fender and an original partner worked at both pre- and post-CBS Fender and neither would have ever tolerated any decline in quality.

The book is a nice history of a time and a place in American ingenuity, but there just does not seem to be much to Leo Fender as a person. We do learn that his favorite musician was Glen Campbell and that “Leo was not happy about Jimi Hendrix smashing Stratocasters.” He was friends with Les Paul, one of his equals over at Gibson, Fender’s main competitor. Fender did lead a nice life…he enjoyed travel and shunned the spotlight whenever possible. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame in 1992, the year after his passing. Most of Leo Fender: The Quiet Giant Heard Around the World is about his eating habits (Carl’s Jr. and Sizzler) and his love of girls in tight jeans. A final interesting point is what provoked him to make guitars in the first place. According to a story Leo told Phyllis, he had a deeply personal dream where Jesus had told him that the world was a tough place, that musicians were really angels who were sent to make the world a little better. His contribution in this regard cannot be overstated.