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STRANGER THAN FICTION...Leo Fender Was the Last Guy You'd Expect


So it's Leo Fender's birthday, the much beloved late inventor of the Telecaster, Stratocaster, and many other music icons. I've been playing guitar for nigh on 40 years and I only recently learned that Leo never really played guitar himself. I guess I just assumed...The guy was really more an innovator, an inventor--and actually started out as a bean counter...

He went to school in Fullerton, Ca, and studied accounting, and then went and did accounting for several companies, but after the depression and losing a job he fell into his early love of tinkering with electronics, making PA equipment and pickups. Leo saw a need for a different kind of guitar toward the end of WWII as the Big Bands were becoming less popular. Players wanted smaller, more durable guitars than the current crop of archtops and the Fender Esquire was born, later to become the Broadcaster and Telecaster. Four years later the Stratocasater was unveilved, which added a third pickup, a double cutaway and body contour. And there you have two of the most iconic electric guitars ever invented. And the hits kept coming with the Precision and Jazz basses, again addressing a need--bassists no longer wanted to haul around huge acoustic double basses, and they wanted a louder instrument to compete with the new crop of electric guitars. Leo sold Fender in 1965 to CBS, but went on to push boundaries with Music Man and G&L.

So what has Fender become today? I think if you ask a lot of musicians they'll grumble about the ridiculous price of a USA-made Fender being over a grand. Yea times have changed, but the company is still finding ways to make affordable instruments. Probably more than anyone, today's Fender is responsible for the trend toward a market flooded with affordable guitars made in places like Mexico, China, Korea, etc. Some will scoff at this mountain of cheap guitars being produced. But I also hear more and more guys saying--"Hey, have you played a Chinese Fender lately? They're pretty darn nice." And I think most players have accepted that the quality of Fender's Mexican made instruments is pretty high now. Yea, they're a step down in most cases from USA Fenders, but for $200 to $500 you can get a pretty good instrument these days. Who knows, this era may some day be looked back on the way the Japanese Fenders of the 80s are, where overseas manufacture started to compete for quality with US made Fenders. For all its faults, the company has stuck to Leo's formula: produce an affordable, durable guitar ready for the masses to plug in and make noise. On a more personal note, 30-some-years later, I still remember my first Telecaster and how something about that guitar seemed magical. How that Tele neck and body just somehow felt right in my hands the moment I first played it. I still have my second Telecaster--a mid-70s Tele Custom that doesn't see playing time much anymore. But I'm loathe to let it go. Too many happy memories. Thanks Leo, and happy birthday! (In honor of the man and the myth, we're knocking 10 to 15 percent off all guitars and basses through the weekend...I think Leo would be proud.) ---note: this sale has ended.

V. Wade Contreras has been the owner of Still Kickin Music since 2007. He played for years in bands in the LA area. Now that he has a wife and kid and needs to eat more than Ramen once in a while he makes a living buying and selling really cool used guitars.

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