Founded in 1946, the Fender Musical Instruments Corporation and its Fender brand have become synonymous with contemporary music. Everyone knows what a Fender guitar is and many of rock ’n’ roll’s most famous guitarists have favoured the Fender brand, from Buddy Holly to Hendrix and Clapton, Kurt Cobain and Elvis Costello to today’s guitar stars such as H.E.R. This year marks Fender’s Diamond Anniversary, celebrating 75 years of innovation and quality musical instrument manufacturing … but where did it all begin?
With the end of World War II in 1945 came cause for celebration and a new sense of hope for people around the globe who had endured years of darkness and uncertainty. Meanwhile in Fullerton, California Leo Fender, a qualified electronics technician, who had been repairing radios, phonographs, PA systems and musical instrument amplifiers at his Fender’s Radio Service workshop since 1938 was dreaming big. In the early forties Leo had formed the K&F Manufacturing Corp with Clayton Orr ‘Doc’ Kauffman in order to design and manufacture electrical musical instruments, beginning with a Hawaiian lap steel in 1945. Kauffman however didn’t see much future in the musical instrument business and they parted ways a year later. In 1946 with a spirit of post-war adventure in the air, Leo renamed the company the Fender Electric Instrument Company and the journey of an American music icon had begun.
Initially building lapsteels, Leo started to invest more time in the development of solid-bodied guitars and in 1951 the Telecaster was introduced as the world’s first commercially mass-produced solid-bodied Spanish-style guitar. Believe it or not, the Rolling Stones’ legendary Tele player Keith Richards was only eight years old at the time and Bruce Springsteen was just two. Fender also invented and introduced the Precision Bass, the world’s very first electric bass guitar. In an amazing era of innovation, the pioneering Bassman amplifier was unveiled a year later, setting the precedent for tube amplifiers from the world’s top amplifier manufacturers in coming years. If that wasn’t enough, 1954 gave us the world’s most celebrated guitar, the Fender Stratocaster!
It’s debatable as to when work began on the Stratocaster. Leo claimed it was as early as 1951 but designer Freddie Tavares suggested it was mid-1953, when he started to work at Fender. Bill Carson, who also had a lot of input has said that he and Leo began talking about a ‘new guitar’ in 1952 but nothing was actually done until early ’53. Features of note on the Stratocaster included the novel ‘Synchronised Tremelo’ and the ‘Comfort Contour Body”. One of Leo’s main objectives was to design a vibrato which would return to pitch and stay in tune. The other significant feature of the Stratocaster was the introduction of the famous Fender headstock shape.
Rockers of the day including Buddy Holly and Gene Vincent were quick to jump onboard the Stratocaster train, as were Hank B Marvin and Bruce Welch of The Shadows on the other side of the world. The Stratocaster even inspired folk legend Bob Dylan to go electric. As rock music changed through the decades, the Stratocaster remained the one constant and with the British music invasion, came an abundance of new guitars heroes such as Jeff Beck, Ritchie Blackmore, Eric Clapton, David Gilmour and of course the left-handed guitar freak Jimi Hendrix, who initially made his name in the UK.
Not one to rest on his laurels, Leo and his crew continued to present exciting new models including the Jazzmaster in 1958, Jazz bass in 1960 (which to this day remains Fender’s top-selling electric bass), the Jaguar in 1962, and the Mustang in 1964.
However, guitars were not Fender’s only obsession. The amplified sound needed to always match the high quality of their instruments and consequently they spent as much time and effort on the production of amplifiers as they did on their guitars. Fender amplifiers such as the Twin Reverb and the Deluxe Reverb were introduced in 1963 and would be sought-after forever more due to their “clean” tone capabilities. Fender acoustics were also released during ’63 with the help of Fender’s newly hired Roger Rosmeisl.
1965 was a significant year for Fender as the giant media corporation, the Columbia Broadcasting System (aka CBS) acquired the company, signalling a shift to mass production of their products. Fender instruments built before 1965 are collectively referred to as Pre-CBS Fenders, and are considered by vintage guitar enthusiasts as more desirable than those built since. CBS ownership of the company lasted until 1985. William “Bill” Schultz, Fender’s then-president under CBS since 1981, bought the Fender name, trademarks, and some inventory from CBS in March of 1985 for $12.5 million. The Corona factory, which still operates as the company’s American manufacturing facility, was opened this same year.
Another milestone moment in the company’s history occurred in 1987 with the introduction of the Fender Custom Shop by Michael Stevens and John Page. The facility has since produced myriad unique, finely crafted instruments. This was also the year that Fender presented The American Standard Series.
While the 80s was defined by electronic pop music, the 90s saw a return to rock. However, it was a dirtier, distorted guitar sound, which we’d come to know as Grunge Rock, emanating predominantly out of Seattle. With successful grunge rock bands came grunge rock guitar heroes and there was none bigger than Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain, wielding either his famous ’65 Fender Jaguar or the Mustang featured in the Smells Like Teen Spirit’ music video. It was during the early 90s that Fender moved its corporate headquarters from Southern California to Scottsdale, Arizona, in addition to opening its manufacturing facility in Ensenada, Mexico in 1987.
With the clocks ticking over to the year 2000, a sigh of relief would be felt across the globe as the much-hyped Y2K bug never appeared and the digital age could continue its way forward uninhibited. In 2015 Fender Digital was officially launched and in the years to come, would introduce innovative products such as Fender Tune, Fender Tone and Fender Play. In 2016 Fender opened its Hollywood office, relocating much of its corporate headquarters from Scottsdale back to Southern California. In-ear monitors, which are produced in Nashville, were also introduced in 2016 and the Fender Mod Shop virtually opened its door in June 2016, allowing for customers to design and view products in real time.
In 2017 Fender Digital released Fender Play, a digital learning platform featuring high-quality video lessons and curriculum for electric and acoustic guitars. In support of social-distancing during the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, Fender offered new users three months of complimentary lessons on Fender Play. The offer was so popular that Fender extended the free user period and in doing so inspired more than one million new people to try out a fretted instrument. The popularity of the Fender Play app also saw an increase in ukulele enthusiasts, inspired by a new breed of uke players like Grace VanderWaal, who became Fender’s youngest signature artist with the Grace VanderWaal Signature and Grace VanderWaal Moonlight ukuleles.
In the modern era of music Fender continues to be a trailblazer when it comes to product innovation. In 2019 Fender released the American Acoustasonic Telecaster®, a revolutionary hybrid acoustic electric guitar, helping artists transition from a smooth acoustic voice to a bold electric tone at the flip of a switch. In 2020 Fender also introduced the popular American Acoustasonic Stratocaster, as championed by rhythm guitar king Nile Rodgers. With people stuck at home in isolation during the pandemic lockdowns, they turned to music and more often than not the guitar. As a result, Fender enjoyed their most successful year ever commercially.
It’s now 2021, seventy five years since Clarence Leonidas “Leo” Fender created Fender Electric Instrument Company and changed the trajectory of modern music forever and as you would expect, Fender is celebrating with the introduction of the 75th Anniversary Commemorative Series. The series features guitars handmade in Corona, Calif., celebrating Leo’s bold, revolutionary designs with special versions of the Stratocaster®, Telecaster®, Precision Bass® and Jazz Bass® guitars. Additional Diamond 75th Anniversary guitars include the iconic Stratocaster®, Telecaster®, Jazz Bass® and Precision Bass® models all priced at $1699 AUD and are available as an Ensenada-made version with a maple fingerboard. Specs include a “Modern C” profile, medium jumbo frets and a satin finish for supreme comfort and playability. For a deeper look at the 75th Anniversary Commemorative Series, click HERE.
From Jimi Hendrix’s iconic rendition of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ on the final day of Woodstock on a Stratocaster to Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ music video featuring a Mustang and the iconic acrylic Stratocaster Grammy award-winning artist H.E.R., seen by millions recently performing at Superbowl LV in Florida, Fender has always been front and centre of the musical zeitgeist. Happy 75th Birthday Fender, a jolly good fellow that nobody can deny!
Here are a few more historical photos from the Fender archives