WEB-EXCLUSIVE: A hero to rock legends, Leo Fender – yes that Fender – was born right here in Orange County.
Visit Solid Design: Leo Fender’s
Telecaster exhibit at the Fullerton
Museum Center or enroll your budding
rock star in Summer Guitar Camp.
Summer Guitar Camp
July 11-July 15, 2011, 10 a.m.-2 p.m.
$140 general/$130 for museum members
Fullerton Museum Center
301 N. Pomona Ave., Fullerton
714.738.6545 :: cityoffullerton.com
According to legend, when accepting his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones made a point of thanking one individual in particular.
“Thank God for Leo Fender,” he said.
It's a popular sentiment. At the Fullerton Museum Center – based just a few blocks from the radio repair shop where Fender began the design of what eventually became the Telecaster – the Solid Design exhibit displays samples of this popular guitar.
“The Telecaster was designed over 60 years ago,” says Fullerton Museum Curator Richard Smith, “and it remains one of the most popular guitars in the world.”
Fender created the first commercially successful solidbody electric guitar and changed the sound of rock and roll forever. But it isn’t just guitars that earn Fender the respect and gratitude of rock legends. It’s also his story.
“The Fender story is the classic American success story,” says Smith, “from the humble start to the innovative idea to the riches and fame."
Born to orange grove owners Clarence Monte Fender and Harriet Elvira Wood on August 10, 1909, Clarence Leonidas Fender’s homestead straddled the Fullerton/Anaheim border. But while Anaheim claims Disneyland and No Doubt, Fender belongs to Fullerton.
He graduated from Fullerton Union High School in 1928 and began studying accounting at Fullerton Junior College while expanding on a lifelong fascination with electronics, primarily radio. He would later trace the start of the fascination back to the impression made on him by a homemade radio built by his uncle who owned an automotive-electric repair shop.
After college Fender married Esther Klosky and moved away from Orange County to take an accounting position. The Depression took hold and he moved through a string of accounting positions before borrowing $600 and moving back to Fullerton to open Fender Radio Service. But customers didn’t just come to Fender for radio repair. More and more musicians were coming to Fender Radio Service for PA systems he both sold and rented. The PA systems amplified the sound of acoustic instruments, a style that was proving popular, especially with the introduction of “lap steel” guitars, also known as Hawaiian guitars. One of those popularizing the lap steel guitar was lap steel guitar player Clayton Orr “Doc” Kauffman, who Fender befriended in World War II. He convinced Kauffman, who had worked at Rickenbacker Guitars for nearly a decade, to partner with him.
The two founded K & F Manufacturing Corporation and began developing amplified Hawaiian guitars and amplifiers. In 1944 the two patented a lap steel guitar equipped with an electric pickup Fender patented on his own. The following year K & F began selling a guitar with its own amplifier.
Custom-made guitars, the Les Paul Log for instance, were a part of the early attempts to emulate the large sound of an entire band from a single cheap but sturdy instrument. It was around this time Fender began marketing the Esquire, a six-string single-pickup guitar. A second model, with dual pickup, was released almost immediately after, originally dubbed the Broadcaster. But after Gretsch claimed the name infringed on the trademark of the company’s line of model drums of the same name, the Broadcaster became the Telecaster. Easy to hold, tune and play, the Telecaster featured a solid wooden body and a bolt-on neck for a clear, steel guitar tone. Fender would go on to develop further innovations from the Stratocaster, favored by guitar greats Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughn, the Jazzmaster and Jaguar, popular among members of Dinosouar Jr. and Sonic Youth to the P-bass and the Stingray.
“Children in Fullerton can see how one person can make a big difference,” Smith says.
Since his death due to complications from Parkinson’s disease in 1991, the Fullerton Museum has included multiple exhibits that showcase Fender’s contribution to music.
“The first Fender exhibit at FMC was in 1993-1994, called Five Decades of Fender,” Smith recalls fondly. “That was the biggest show and will probably never be duplicated because the guitars are spread too far away now.”
Currently, the museum offers Solid Design: Leo Fender’s Telecaster, showcasing the guitar and the musicians who favor it – Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen and George Harrison, among them. The museum also offers a Summer Guitar Camp for children grades five through nine.
“We teach guitar, music theory and music appreciation,” says Smith. “So it's really much more than guitar.”
And of course, Fender guitars are available on loan.