Clarence Leonidas Fender was born on 10 August 1909, to Clarence “Monte” and Harriet Fender, in the barn of a farm located between Anaheim and Fullerton, in southern California. During his teens, he took piano and saxophone lessons – he played saxophone in the school band -, but his passions were hawaiian music, stringed instruments - although he never learned to play the guitar -, and electronics, which he cultivated by himself. He was still a young boy when he built a small radio, which he called W-6-DOE, and started implementing some amplification systems that he rented for money. In 1938 he opened in Fullerton the Fender Radio Service, a shop that soon became famous for its quality and reliability establishing itself as a reference point for local musicians and music lovers in general.
Donald "Don" Randall was among the regulars of the store: Don and Leo shared the same interest in radio and electronics and they frequently talked about starting a business together. However, because of the United States entering the war after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, the two friends had to separate: Don was drafted, unlike Leo who was not suitable for military service due to the early loss of an eye caused by a tumor.
In that same period Clayton "Doc" Kauffman also visited the Fender Radio Service to have an audio amplifier repaired. Musician and inventor, Doc had collaborated with Paul Barth and George Beauchamp and he’d patented an excellent pickup that had been used in the Rickenbacker Frying Pan lap steel. At the beginning, he used to work in a small lab he’d built inside his house; then, after 1941, he’d moved to the aircraft factory Douglas in Los Angeles.
Due to the war, new electronic products were scarce and as a result the demand for repairs increased so much that Leo asked Doc to help him with his work. They soon became friends and planned a new type of pickup which they called Direct String Pickup, and whose patent, requested on 26 September 1944, was approved on 7 December 1948 with the number 2,455,575. Leo and Doc began to produce lap steel guitars and the related amplifiers under the K&F (Kauffman e Fender) Manufacturing Corporation brand. The future looked bright to them; however, Kauffman, less optimistic than Fender and fearful of losing some money recently inherited, left the business a few months later. The separation was formalized at the end of 1945; Doc abandoned the company only at the beginning of 1946. Leo used up to the last of the old plates to save money and only after having exhausted them all he began to produce his instruments with the new brand Fender Electric Instruments Co - Fullerton, California. Kauffmann died in Fullerton on June 26, 1990, at the age of 89. He never envied Leo's success and remained his friend all his life.
In 1946, Don Randall, returned from the war, was appointed as general director of Francis Hall’s Radio and Television Equipment Co. (Radio-Tel). Hall was a distributor of electronic components who had been supplying Leo since 1945. Don was enthusiastic about the K&F guitars and proposed to the two men a very advantageous agreement to have the exclusive distribution.
In the same year Fender opened his first factory consisting in two buildings in Santa Fe Avenue, in Fullerton. Given the increase of the requests, expansion was necessary, but it caused economic problems to Leo, whose finances were limited. In order not to stop the production and to buy the two buildings, he had to ask Francis Hall for a loan, thus deteriorating the relationship with him. On the one hand, in fact, Leo, anxious to get rid of his debt, accused Francis of paying the sums of the distribution agreement too slowly; on the other hand, Francis, whose investment was very risky, pushed Fender to increase the production: consequently, the two began to quarrel very often. Leo also reproached Francis for not promoting the Fender enough: «Those years were absolute hell. I think I worked from six in the morning 'til midnight every day of the week. A new trademark is a hard thing to get accepted. With no advertising, no one knew who we were and there was nothing to pep up sales. It took every penny I could get my hands on to keep things together. I was unhappy with our distributor, who was a former shipping clerk and never advertised». Plus, there was the matter of the 500 lap steel guitars returned to the factory and burned because of the termites: «During this time, they didn't sell hardly any of our guitars. They just sat there in this garage, and termites got into them and ate through the bodies. We never found out the termites until dealers started calling us about holes in the guitars». For this loss Leo blamed Francis, but he was probably wrong because the bodies of the guitars were covered with an acetate plastic coating which didn’t allow the termites to penetrate the wood: so, perhaps, the termites were already inside.
At the end of 1947, Fender realized that, if he wanted to keep on producing guitars and amplifiers, he had to give up with the radio and he left the direction of his shop to his collaborator Dale Hyatt – the Fender Radio Service closed in 1951. In the factory Dale was replaced by George Fullerton, a truck driver with a passion for electronics who was also the guitarist of The Gold Coast Rangers. In 1953 George was promoted to production director. Despite his surname, he wasn’t born in Fullerton, and many years later he would become Leo’s partner in G&L.
In the late Forties, Fender guitars and amplifiers had earned the reputation of quality electric instruments, as a motto, which would have appeared soon on many advertising inserts, said.
It was time to resume an old project which Leo had discussed with Doc Kauffmann in the early Forties: build a solid-body electric guitar, different from the lap steels and from the other Spanish electric guitars used by the musicians after the war, all of them with a hollow body and with the tendency to generate feedback and distortions at high volume. Although many inventors had already conceived this idea, no one had actually invested in such a project. Fender was certainly inspired by the solid-body guitar “custom” that the luthier Paul Bigsby built for a famous musician of that period, Merle Travis, characterized by a cutaway to facilitate access to the last frets and by a headstock in which the keys were all on the same side: this allowed the strings to enter the tuning machines without deviation, as in Leo's lap steel, improving the stability of the tuning.
Thanks to the collaboration with George Fullerton, Leo developed the lines of the new guitar, of which, in 1949, was made the first prototype - still lacking the Bigsby style headstock - with the neck fixed to the body by four screws. Leo believed that this simplified product could allow to replace the neck with ease in case of need. Don Randall called this first solid-body Fender, equipped with only one pickup, Esquire. But the advantage given by the use of a second pickup was so evident that in 1950 the Esquire variant with two pickups came to light, and it was initially called by Don Randall Broadcaster. After the complaint of the Gretsch which informed the Fender that it had already registered as Broadcaster some drums it had been marketing since the 1930s, Don changed the name of his guitars to Telecaster. As for those already produced with the name of Broadcaster, he simply removed the decal from their bodies. These instruments, really a few, made between the Broadcasters and the Telecasters and without a name on the headstock are known today with the term Nocaster.
At this point it was clear to Fender that the two buildings in Santa Fe Avenue were no longer sufficient and he built a new one in Pomona Avenue, adjacent to those already existing.
It is interesting to note that Don was criticized by many musicians and traders because, according to them, the Esquires had to have the truss rod. At first he did not agree, affirming that the maple of the neck was quite resistant and it did not require any effort. In support of his belief he used to put the necks between two chairs so that his workers could stand on them. Still, Don eventually changed his mind due to market pressure and his guitars had been all fitted with truss rods since October 1950. The anecdote about the resistance of Don’s guitars inspired, around 1967, an advert for Fender in which a worker climbed over a neck suspended between two boxes, with the quote "We stand on our reputation".
In 1951, Leo, for years focused only on guitarists, created the first solid-body bass: the Precision Bass.
Fender instruments were sold with great ease, exceeding the expectations of the competitors. However, the frictions between Fender, who in the meanwhile had paid off the debt, and Francis Hall were not diminishing yet. In 1953 Don Randall, in order to overcome these contrasts, proposed to create a new distribution company, the Fender Sales, based in Santa Ana, 308 East Fifth Street, ten miles from the plant in Fullerton. Randall himself assumed the position of president of the company and so he got rid of the obligations towards Radio-Tel. Charlie Heys, appreciated salesman and old friend of Leo, became vice president, while Fender and Hall respectively secretary and treasurer. However, Francis’s feeling of revenge towards Leo was not yet extinguished and in 1953 he bought the Rickenbacker, a company that produced lap steel and amplifiers which couldn’t compete with the Telecaster and with the Precision Bass. In a short time Francis developed a line of excellent guitars which he would promote through Radio-Tel rousing the anger of Leo and Don Randall. On 9 June 1955, a year after the birth of the Stratocaster, the guitar born from the evolution of the Telecaster and which most of all influenced the music of the second half of the 20th century, Charlie Heys lost his life in a car accident; the widow decided to sell her 25% to the other three partners. Pressed by Leo and Don Randall, a reluctant Francis Hall sold his quote to his partners. Leo and Don now had the 50% of Fender Sales shares.
The success of the Fender brand was determined by several factors: the undisputed quality of his instruments, a valid and large distribution/sale network, and, above all, a series of innovative advertising campaigns and elegant catalogs - in comparison, those of the competitors in the early 1950s were dull, conservative and insignificant. The new entry Fender could afford more audacious and colorful ads. In a period in which musical instrument companies aimed at austerity, the campaign started in 1957 by the agency Perine/Jacoby in Los Angeles, centered on the young, creative and progressive nature of its instruments, was a great success. Bob Perine immediately identified the segment of the population to which the ads were to be destined and proposed the slogan "You won't part with yours either", largely used in the 50s and 60s and rediscovered many years later.
Few "You won't part with yours either" ads
In 1952, given the increase of the request of his instruments and the consequent increased amount of work, Leo Fender realized that he needed to expand his business and he bought a vast land located between South Raymond Avenue and Valencia Drive, in Fullerton, on which new buildings could have been built in the future if necessary. In late 1953 Fender moved from Pomona Avenue to the four new buildings at 500 South Raymond Avenue.
The success of the Stratocaster led Leo to hire a manager. His company employed forty people and the quality control had become crucial in order to keep standards high. His choice fell on Forrest White, an old acquaintance who had visited Fender’s factory several times in the past and who had built in 1938 a lap steel, in 1942 a solid-body guitar and in 1944 a ten strings lap steel equipped with preset switch and locking nut. Forrest was born in 1920 in Copen, West Virginia. In 1939 he started working for Goodyear Aircraft, in Akron, Ohio; in 1944 he moved first to California, where he collaborated in the construction of the war plane Lockheed P-38, and later to the Food Machinery Corporation. An expert in management and industrial engineering, he was the right man to rationalize the production of Leo's factory. Forrest began working for Fender as plant manager on 20 May 1954 and remained until the end of 1967, when he resigned because he didn’t approve the CBS mass production methods - CBS had bought Leo’s factory in 1965. Forrest soon became Leo's right hand man, and this probably made George Fullerton a little envious.
In 1958 the company was rapidly expanding and Forrest White planned the construction of other four factories in South Raymond Avenue; in the same year, Fender Sales also moved to a larger location, at 1536 East Chestnut, Santa Ana.