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Fender: The History of an American Guitar Maker

Fender is an American corporation renowned around the world for their electric guitars and amplifiers. Their success story dates back to the 1950’s, when Fender put out models like the Telecaster, Stratocaster, and Precision Bass, which revolutionized the design of electric guitars, and with it the sound of pop music for all time. In this article, we wanted to give an overview of Fender’s history from their humble beginnings to the present.

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For the Fender x Teufel Speaker Collection, we brought together our innovative audio technology with the iconic look of Fender’s guitars and amps. Legendary sound takes passion, and that is what drives the Fender x Teufel collaboration.

The Beginnings: Leo Fender Turns his Hobby into a Profession

Fender’s story kicks off in the 1920’s in California. Inspired by his uncle, a teenage Leo Fender started building radios at home. He kept up the hobby throughout his school and college years, where he studied accounting. It wasn’t until 1938 that he established his first official store in Fullerton, CA, which was called Fender Radio Service. There, he sold and repaired musical instruments on top of the booming radio business. It was around this same time that the first electroacoustic amplifiers started hitting the market, and Leo Fender began selling them to California musicians.

Found ineligible for the draft due to a missing eye, in the mid 1940’s, Fender was able to found his first company with a partner, which specialized in the production of lap-steel guitars and amplifiers. When his partner left, he renamed the company after himself. And that is why 1946 is considered the year Fender was officially founded.

Leo Fender and guitars in their Museum
Leo Fender’s instruments tell the history of music itself.

It was a period of change for American pop music, with tastes shifting from big band, jazz, and folk, to rhythm & blues and modern country. The advent of radio also meant the rise of national acts, which led to bands and musicians touring the country. These shows would draw larger crowds than the local acts that preceded them, and that necessitated electronic amplification of voices and instruments, with one popular method being the electric guitar. That was what led Fender to invent an electric guitar with easy tone adjustment, and smaller size and weight compared to older acoustics and resonators, while also avoiding acoustic feedback from the speakers and monitors. Fender’s first solid body guitar, the Esquire, was created in 1950. Shortly after that came the Fender Telecaster (originally known as the Broadcaster), which generated a lot of sales. And since then, Fender has been a brand synonymous with electric guitars, iconic design, and modern sound.

The Breakthrough: An Easily Mass-Produced Electric Guitar

The secret sauce of the Telecaster, as with Fender overall, traces back to ease of production, and thus greater affordability. The body is made of solid ash, which is readily available at a low price. To ease assembly, and make the instrument faster to repair, the oak neck is attached to the body with a screw, rather than glue as was common practice in the past. On top of that, the headstock is constructed in such a way that the tuning pegs are all lined up in a single row, rather than three on top and three on the bottom like with traditional guitars. And those are just a few examples of how Fender made unconventional decisions, which led to an innovative product ready for mass production.

Fender Telecaster
The Telecaster – Fender’s first big hit

Selling at a price of around $170, the Fender Telecaster was a great deal compared to the competition. The name was supposed to make consumers think of the television, and signal an overall modernity. Equipped with two pickups and bright sound, the Telecaster became the top choice for a new generation of country guitar players. The body has a cutaway under the fretboard, making it easier to reach the highest notes than ever before. Later, the Telecaster also became a favorite of the indie rock scene.

Hallmarks of the Fender Telecaster

  • Clear, powerful sound (“Twang”)
  • A flat solid wood body made of ash or alder wood.
  • Oak fretboard with 21 or 22 frets.
  • Cutaway under the fretboard.
  • Tuners in a single row on an asymmetrical, angled headstock.
  • Two single-coil pickups.

The 1950’s: Fender molds a new generation of musicians

Then, in 1951, Fender released their Precision Bass. This was the first industrially produced electric bass with a solid body. Its bass construction and fretted fingerboard allows especially precise playing with much less weight than a double bass. The design of the Precision Bass is also trailblazing: with a neck longer than that of an electric guitar, the body was made longer over the fretboard so the strap could be tightened, brining the instrument closer to the player’s body. This horn design and cutaway would form the basis of the classic Fender guitars.

Hallmarks of the Fender Precision Bass

  • Warm, powerful sound, and incredible versatility
  • The first mass-produced electric bass to be built in guitar-form with a solid body
  • Fretboard with 20 nickel-silver frets
  • Longer neck than an electric guitar and longer strings for added resonance (34 inches)
  • Cutaways on the top and bottom
  • Split-coil pickups (starting in 1957) for direct sound with no buzz
Fender Precision Bass
The Fender Precision Bass

The next decisive date in Fender’s history is 1954, the introduction of Fender’s Stratocaster. Seen initially as an improved successor to the Telecaster, it was made to meet the demands of guitar players who were now more familiar with electric models, and wanted something better. It came with three sets of pickups and a tremolo bar, which can give the guitar a vibrato sound. The characteristic bright and clear audio made Fender’s new electric guitars quickly gain popularity in the emerging genre of rock and roll, particularly California surf music. The Strap, which adopted the shape of the Precision Bass, would rewrite this history of rock and pop music. In 2024, Fender celebrates the 70th anniversary of the Stratocaster.

Features of the Fender Stratocaster

  • Bright, transparent sound great for many music styles
  • Light body made of alder or ash
  • Flat back for enhanced comfort
  • Plastic pick guard
  • Three single-coil pickup sets
  • Tremolo bar for vibrato
Closeup of a Fender Stratocaster
The Stratocaster is a Fender classic for those with higher demands

The Fender x Teufel Collection

From 1985 on: Fender’s Rebirth as a High-Quality Brand

In 1965, Leo Fender decided to sell the company for health reasons. For the next 20 years, it was owned by American broadcaster CBS. In the mid-1980s, CBS wanted to sell the company, which was barely profitable for them, and it was taken on by a group of investors led by William C. Schultz. Since 1985, the Fender Musical Instruments Corporation (FMIC), has been an independent company, led by Schultz as CEO until 2005. In that time, Fender renewed its brand image thanks to higher quality standards and new editions of its classic instruments. With the launch of the Fender Customs Shop in Corona, California, the company has had an excellent reputation among professional musicians and amateurs alike.

In the meantime, Fender has grown into one of the biggest music instrument manufacturers worldwide. On top of the many guitar models, they produce a wide range of amplifier systems and accessories as well. After acquiring the Kaman Music Corporation (KMC) in 2008, Fender took exclusive control over its US and international commercial channels. Today, there are Fender sales offices in many European cities such as Düsseldorf, as well as in Japan and Mexico, where there are also production facilities.

Famous Fender Guitar Players

Guitar SeriesFamous Musicians
TelecasterKeith Richards
Bruce Springsteen
Bob Dylan
Jimmy Page
Joe Strummer
StratocasterBuddy Holly
Jimi Hendrix
Eric Clapton
George Harrison
Jeff Beck
Ritchie Blackmore
David Gilmour
Rory Gallagher
Mark Knopfler
Chris Rea
Eddie Van Halen
Tom Morello
JazzmasterElvis Costello
Robert Smith
Thurston Moore
JaguarKurt Cobain
John Frusciante

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Did you know…?

  • … the Jazzmaster, introduced in 1958 as a followup to the Stratocaster was rediscovered by the alt music scene after it was no longer in production? The same is true for the 1962 Jaguar, used by bands such as Sonic Youth, The Cure, or Nirvana, who had to purchase used models, and thus caused a revival of old Fender guitars?
  • … that the Mustang (1964) and Mustang Bass (1966) were the last Fender products Leo Fender himself had involvement with? The founder went his own way after the sale to CBS.
  • … that VW has had a partnership with Fender since 2010? In the North American market, VW cars are available with Fender Premium Sound as an upgrade to the audio system.

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