Leo Fender: 20th Century Man
Mr. Fender’s amps and guitars changed the way musicians work with their tools and helped ignite whole new styles of music.
From 1950 to 1954, Leo Fender spearheaded the most potent creative surge in the history of electrical instrument manufacturing. He designed the first commercially successful solidbody guitar, the Telecaster; invented the modern electric bass, which transformed popular music; and introduced the most influential of all electric guitars, the Stratocaster. If he had done none of these things, his place in history would still be secure because of his amplifiers, which set the gold standard for tone and reliability against which virtually all amps are judged to this day.
And yet there is a broader heritage as well, one that exceeds the boundaries of musical hardware altogether. Though his products may have benefited fewer people than did telephones or alarm clocks, Leo Fender deserves a place in the annals of the 20th century’s great industrial designers, alongside figures such as Raymond Loewy, Henry Dreyfuss, and Charles Eames. Beyond their commercial success, their innovations changed how people live, interact, and see themselves and their place in the world.
Acknowledged as the father of streamlining, Raymond Loewy designed everything from logos for Shell, Lucky Strike, and Exxon to Frigidaire refrigerators, Air Force One’s exterior graphics, even spacecraft. A few of his landmark designs or redesigns include the iconic Coke bottle of the mid-1950s, several ahead-of-their-time Studebakers, and the modern versions of the Greyhound bus and the steam locomotive.
The famously practical Henry Dreyfuss designed the spherical, take-me-to-your-leaderish Hoover Constellation vacuum cleaner (which floated on a cushion of its own exhaust), classic Westclox alarm clocks, John Deere tractors, Thermos bottles, washing machines, Eversharp’s Skyliner fountain pen, the circular wall thermostat, a model city for the historic 1939 World’s Fair, and one of the most widely used appliances of all time, Bell’s Model 300 rotary telephone in basic black.
Charles Eames is best known for the Eames Lounge Chair, perhaps the foremost example of 20th Century modernist furniture. He and his wife Ray also pioneered designs and techniques for producing other types of furniture, as well as pre-fab houses and various products made with new techniques of wood molding.
Raymond Loewy described streamlining as “beauty through function and simplification.” Henry Dreyfuss was chiefly concerned with practicality and what came to be called ergonomics. For Charles and Ray Eames, the essential condition for design was recognizing the need, and fulfilling that need through the latest in materials, components, and construction techniques. All of these concepts will sound familiar to anyone even remotely aware of the philosophy of Leo Fender.
Fender Follows Function
The design maxim most often associated with Mr. Fender is “form follows function.” It was coined by American architect Louis Sullivan at the tail end of the 19th century and adopted and refined by many of his successors, most notably Frank Lloyd Wright. In Wright’s view, form and function are inseparable: function is form. Simply put, a product’s design should derive from the manner in which it serves its purpose rather than considerations of mere ornamentation. Design a product that works better, and let its beauty flow from that.
It’s hard to imagine a purer expression of that philosophy than Bill Carson’s recollection of Mr. Fender’s approach to design: “Leo used to say, if we’ve only got a hundred dollars to develop this item, it’s got to be reliable, and it’s a life or death matter for the musician for that thing to perform every time. We will spend as much of that hundred dollars as necessary to get that. If we’ve got four or five dollars left over, we’ll work on the cosmetics.” [See Ritchie Fliegler’s Leo Fender and the Whole One Hundred.] As Mr. Fender told me: “Your best product, I think, always is first to work to the utility, and then try to make the utility have a pleasant appearance.”
“His rare ability to rethink and solve musicians’ problems shaped the sound of 20th-century music more than any single inventor.”
— Richard Smith, Fender: The Sound Heard ’Round The World
Of course, Leo Fender never intended to create one-off art objects. Like Loewy, Dreyfuss, and the Eameses, he designed practical items for everyday use. Custom amp designer Blackie Pagano recalled, “Leo wasn’t trying to make these exalted icons of fetishistic obsession. You can tell everything about his philosophy just by looking at his amplifiers, because their form follows their function. This is part of the genius of Leo Fender, and why these designs have an enduring quality.”
West Coast Cool
The influence of musicians’ feedback on Mr. Fender’s designs is a tale often told. Harder to pinpoint is the influence of the environment and events outside the Fullerton shop. But consider: Few developments in human history were as exciting or as technology-dependent as manned flight, and the aviation industry was headquartered in Leo Fender’s backyard. A decade before he patented his first products, more than two dozen aviation manufacturers were already established in Southern California, home to 3,000 licensed pilots and site of a third of all airplane traffic in America.
The intertwined aerospace and defense industries would keep Southern California on the cutting edge of technology. Over the years, plenty of Fender designers worked in aviation, automobiles, or aerospace as well as amps and guitars, from Leo’s first partner, Doc Kauffman (Douglas Aircraft) and plant manager Forrest White (Goodyear Aircraft) to the technicians and execs from the auto and aerospace industries who joined Fender after its acquisition by CBS.
Southern California was also the center of a building boom in housing and an accompanying revolution in architecture. Although Mr. Fender may not have taken the inspiration for his amp cabinets directly from the squares and rectangles of suburban houses in the Western Ranch, American Ranch, and California Rambler styles, there’s no question that those homes and Fender’s amps were born of the same philosophy of putting function ahead of decoration.
Christopher Hawthorne is the architecture critic for the Los Angeles Times. In language that could have been referring to narrow panel tweeds, he wrote, “But the residential designs [of Los Angeles] that have stood the test of time have not been those meant to impress the neighbors …. They have been nearer the opposite: ones featuring an honest and straightforward approach, a clarity about budget and materials, and an assertion of the Modernist ideal that great design shouldn’t be reserved for the wealthy.”
The postwar spirit of innovation wasn’t confined to governments, corporations, or entire industries. It flourished in garages, workshops, and tool sheds, too. The year the Fender Electric Instrument Company was established, 1946, also saw the founding of the So-Cal Speed Shop in Burbank; it’s no surprise that Southern California gave birth to both the custom car and hot rod phenomena. Guitar makers and hot rodders have shared a great deal ever since, crafting precision-tuned machines with chrome parts on custom-colored bodies and emphasizing speed, performance, flash, sex appeal, and noisy fun.
Up the coast from Fender was America’s original dream factory, Hollywood, making Southern California the center not only of the new industries and the new architecture but the new glamour as well. Southern California’s vibrant postwar economy, its opportunities for self-reinvention, its magnetic pull on dreamers and mavericks, its spirit of can-do innovation, its tropical climate (which fostered any number of fun-centered trends – convertibles, surfing, backyard barbecues, suburban swimming pools), its new approach to everyday activities (drive-in restaurants, malt shops), and its ebullient, let’s-go-to-the-moon confidence in technology all went hand in hand to stir up a heady atmosphere of new possibilities. Across the American cultural landscape, it was often heard: If it’s cool, if it’s exciting, it happens first on the West Coast.
For the designers of the postwar era, the effect of the new sensibility was not a rejection of style but rather the birth of a new style, one that stripped away traditional, tacked-on embellishments and allowed function to dictate bold new forms and shapes. There was something profoundly optimistic about it all. In jettisoning the past, the new designers embraced the future.
Enter Leo Fender
It was in this environment that Leo Fender set about imagining the electric musical instruments of decades yet to come. Blackie Pagano: “Although I’ve been in audio for 30 years and have repaired hundreds of Fender amps, my primary interests are art, culture, and industrial design and how they interact. I consider Leo Fender to be one of the geniuses of the renaissance in design that occurred in America after World War II. It probably went back to the late ’40s, with bebop and abstract expressionism. Then the ’50s started an artistic shift, which ended up in the huge cultural shifts of the ’60s. All these things are a continuum.”
Despite revolutions in both music and electronics, Fender products have proved their staying power for more than half a century. When it comes to style, classic Fender amps still look as timeless and cool as one of Raymond Loewy’s sleek Studebaker coupes. Durable? A properly maintained Fender will still deliver the goods as reliably as it did during the Eisenhower administration.
And when it comes to tone, the Fender sound still dominates the market so thoroughly that even the highest-tech amplifiers of other manufacturers are routinely judged by their proximity to standards set decades ago in Fullerton. Fender’s Mike Lewis: “Whenever anybody talks about their amp, they always refer to it in Fender terms. They all have a switch that says ‘Tweed’ or a knob that says ‘Blackface.’ If it’s got a lot of headroom and a great clean sound, they’ll say it’s like a Twin. If it breaks up really sweetly, they’ll say it’s like a tweed Deluxe. Or, it’s got that great Fender-sounding reverb.”
Plugging into the Future
However impressive, the initial success and the continuing, pervasive influence of classic Fender musical tools are only part of the story. Those products had additional, transcendent qualities that provided pathways to unexplored territories, portals to the future itself. In the hands of creative musicians, these amps and guitars proved capable of sounds, techniques, and trends beyond Mr. Fender’s expectations, even beyond his imagination. Examples abound, from high-wire trem-bar acrobatics to the glorious distortion of tube amps cranked far beyond their intended volume levels to “student” amps becoming treasured recording tools for famous guitar stars.
Aside from providing gear for stages, studios and rehearsal garages worldwide, Leo Fender facilitated the groundbreaking artistry of Dick Dale, Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck, Stevie Ray Vaughan and many others. In striving to build the best possible instruments for the players of his time, he built instruments for our time as well.
And yet the greatest of all testimonies to Mr. Fender’s brilliance lies beyond his products’ popularity, their timelessness, and even their suitability for radical new techniques and sounds. Leo Fender stands apart from contemporaries who succeeded merely in commercial terms because his amps and guitars helped change the way musicians work with their tools; most significant of all, they helped ignite whole new styles of music.
While he couldn’t have foreseen the global music market’s staggering variety of gear, today’s multi-billion dollar industry rests on a shift in musicians’ attitudes that owes much to Leo Fender. And while he couldn’t have foreseen rock and roll, surf music, soul music, Motown, psychedelia, electric blues-rock, country-rock, funk, or other trends, it’s almost impossible to imagine modern pop music without his instruments.
New Tools + New Attitudes = New Music
How did one man’s inventive use of tubes, circuits, speakers, and features contribute to rearranging an entire musical landscape? The story goes back to the beginning, to two steel buildings on Santa Fe Avenue in Fullerton, where in 1946 Leo Fender first put his name on production guitar amplifiers. Over the next 19 years, he spoke often with electronics suppliers, remained well aware of advances in high-end audio, and incorporated some of those advances into his Deluxes and Pros and Twins. Blackie Pagano: “The history of electronic audio reproduction basically starts with radio and the earliest triodes used in simple, single-ended configurations. Later we see push/pull triodes and even push/pull transmitting triodes for audio, to achieve higher power levels and more headroom. [Note: “Headroom” refers to the amount of signal an amp can handle before clipping or distortion occurs – how loud it can go and remain clean.] Push/pull topologies existed long before pentodes were developed, but many of the earliest guitar amps were single-ended pentodes – the classic Champ setup. Push/pull pentodes were seen concurrently in higher powered, more expensive models.
“As a radio repairman, Leo probably fixed a lot of early triode circuits, but his guitar amp manufacture joined the party while the earliest pentodes were current – metal-bodied 6V6s and 6L6s. As successive versions of the pentodes were developed, he utilized them: 6L6Gs, 6L6GBs, 6L6GCs, et cetera. Each new version generally incorporated a significant increase in specs. More headroom became available to the designer and, more significantly, to the musician.” (Note: The 6L6 is also described as a beam power tetrode.)
As Fender amps increased in available power and versatility, those attributes became industry-wide standards and selling points. These new technologies and products found their way into the hands of inventive musicians, with several results. Bands got louder. Distortion was added to the guitarist’s sonic palette. Musicians sought to use these new tools in new ways. Ultimately, entire new forms of music emerged.
Blackie Pagano: “At the point where the tools changed, there was also a change in attitude. The people who adopted the new tools were thinking about their art a little differently than the people who were using the old tools. It was a huge break from tradition, and that blows open doors. You know, art changes culture; art is the cutting edge of culture. Today’s high art is tomorrow’s mainstream. Leo Fender managed to create new attitudes among musicians. It was true with his guitars, and also true with the amplifiers, absolutely.
“Rock and roll as we know it could not exist without Leo Fender.”
— The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
“One example: The type of distortion people wanted to hear started to shift. It’s an electronic fact that push/pull circuits cancel second harmonic distortion. Instead, odd-order distortion predominates – third, fifth, seventh, ninth – especially when you push them into clipping. And yet classic Fenders are by no means high-gain amplifiers. I’m talking about the type of distortion, not the quantity. I believe this contributed to a shift in taste. It seems now that people are always reaching for more distortion. Look at Marshall’s evolution, from basically no distortion to insane levels of distortion. Music has become much noisier in general, and part of that cultural shift – punk and metal, for example – has to do with our becoming accustomed to those odd-order distortions, which in turn resulted from evolving circuit topology. We saw this beginning a little bit in the late tweed and then in the brown and especially the blackface eras.
“So the music is getting both louder and noisier because the evolution of amplifier technology permits it. I think those things are partially responsible for predicating a shift in music. I’m certain of it. Listen to the Sex Pistols’ first album. When it came out, I listened to it every day, several times a day. And that thing sounded like such a snarling mess, so great. And now it kind of sounds tame. Why is that? It’s because our perspective has shifted so hugely.”
Leo Fender helped to stoke this evolution with his innovative guitars and amps. Even a special effect could influence an entire genre. As Guitar Player’s Barry Cleveland says, “Arguably, without the introduction of the [outboard] Fender Reverb, and the inclusion of spring reverb in Fender amps beginning with the Vibroverb in 1963, surf music would never have come into existence …. the wet quality of the Fender Reverb is the defining characteristic of the surf sound. Without that splash, the Ventures and Dick Dale would have been left high and dry.”
New Interactions with Our Gear
Aside from triggering shifts in taste and styles, Fender’s innovations also helped transform how musicians interact with their gear. Although we take for granted onboard effects and multiple tone controls, such features were unheard-of in the early days of amplified guitar. Leo Fender didn’t invent tremolo, reverb or tone filters, but by putting tremolo and reverb in the world’s most influential line of amplifiers, and by offering circuits with knobs for bass and midrange and treble, he accomplished much more than providing useful new sounds.
He encouraged, first, the very idea of the versatile amplifier and second, the concept that an amp’s performance would be determined by its user, not just its designer. In the years BL (Before Leo), you pretty much took what you could get, made the best of it, and delivered whatever sound your guitar produced through that amp. But with Fenders, players became sculptors of their own sounds.
After all, if you hand a guitar player a piece of gear with knobs on it, he’s going to twiddle them and see what happens. Guitarists’ endless fascination with diverse sounds was sparked in part by Mr. Fender’s simple yet flexible tone controls, presence knobs, Bright switches, inputs of different resistances, dual channels, and highly adjustable tremolo and reverb. Such features not only permitted sonic experimentation – they made it inevitable.
Blackie Pagano: “It’s important to note that Leo Fender’s designs reflected a cultural shift, but they also helped to cause that cultural shift. And this is why he is one of the great designers of the 20th Century. He rethought everything very creatively and came up with really good solutions, but the most important thing was not any single guitar or amplifier, or any detail about them. By developing these amps, he partially invented the sound of rock. Leo Fender wasn’t a guy who just built guitars and amplifiers. He changed cultures.”