17 February 2009
The invention: The first commercially manufactured solid-body electric guitar, the Broadcaster revolutionized the guitar industry and changed the face of popular music The people behind the invention: Leo Fender (1909-1991), designer of affordable and easily massproduced solid-body electric guitars Les Paul (Lester William Polfuss, 1915- ), a legendary guitarist and designer of solid-body electric guitars Charlie Christian (1919-1942), an influential electric jazz guitarist of the 1930’s Early Electric Guitars It has been estimated that between 1931 and 1937, approximately twenty-seven hundred electric guitars and amplifiers were sold in the United States. The Electro String Instrument Company, run by Adolph Rickenbacker and his designer partners, George Beauchamp and Paul Barth, produced two of the first commercially manufactured electric guitars—the Rickenbacker A-22 and A-25—in 1931. The Rickenbacker models were what are known as “lap steel” or Hawaiian guitars. A Hawaiian guitar is played with the instrument lying flat across a guitarist’s knees. By the mid-1930’s, the Gibson company had introduced an electric Spanish guitar, the ES-150. Legendary jazz guitarist Charlie Christian made this model famous while playing for Benny Goodman’s orchestra. Christian was the first electric guitarist to be heard by a large American audience. He became an inspiration for future electric guitarists, because he proved that the electric guitar could have its own unique solo sound. Along with Christian, the other electric guitar figures who put the instrument on the musical map were blues guitarist T-Bone Walker, guitarist and inventor Les Paul, and engineer and inventor Leo Fender. Early electric guitars were really no more than acoustic guitars, with the addition of one or more pickups, which convert string vibrations to electrical signals that can be played through a speaker. Amplification of a guitar made it a more assertive musical instrument. The electrification of the guitar ultimately would make it more flexible, giving it a more prominent role in popular music. Les Paul, always a compulsive inventor, began experimenting with ways of producing an electric solid-body guitar in the late 1930’s. In 1929, at the age of thirteen, he had amplified his first acoustic guitar. Another influential inventor of the 1940’s was Paul Bigsby. He built a prototype solid-body guitar for country music star Merle Travis in 1947. It was Leo Fender who revolutionized the electric guitar industry by producing the first commercially viable solid-body electric guitar, the Broadcaster, in 1948.Leo Fender Leo Fender was born in the Anaheim, California, area in 1909. As a teenager, he began to build and repair guitars. By the 1930’s, Fender was building and renting out public address systems for group gatherings. In 1937, after short tenures of employment with the Division of Highways and the U.S. Tire Company, he opened a radio repair company in Fullerton, California. Always looking to expand and invent new and exciting electrical gadgets, Fender and Clayton Orr “Doc” Kauffman started the K & F Company in 1944. Kauffman was a musician and a former employee of the Electro String Instrument Company. The K & F Company lasted until 1946 and produced steel guitars and amplifiers. After that partnership ended, Fender founded the Fender Electric Instruments Company. With the help of George Fullerton, who joined the company in 1948, Fender developed the Fender Broadcaster. The body of the Broadcaster was made of a solid plank of ash wood. The corners of the ash body were rounded. There was a cutaway located under the joint with the solid maple neck, making it easier for the guitarist to access the higher frets. The maple neck was bolted to the body of the guitar, which was unusual, since most guitar necks prior to the Broadcaster had been glued to the body. Frets were positioned directly into designed cuts made in the maple of the neck. The guitar had two pickups. The Fender Electric Instruments Company made fewer than one thousand Broadcasters. In 1950, the name of the guitar was changed from the Broadcaster to the Telecaster, as the Gretsch company had already registered the name Broadcaster for some of its drums and banjos. Fender decided not to fight in court over use of the name. Leo Fender has been called the Henry Ford of the solid-body electric guitar, and the Telecaster became known as the Model T of the industry. The early Telecasters sold for $189.50. Besides being inexpensive, the Telecaster was a very durable instrument. Basically, the Telecaster was a continuation of the Broadcaster. Fender did not file for a patent on its unique bridge pickup until January 13, 1950, and he did not file for a patent on the Telecaster’s unique body shape until April 3, 1951. In the music industry during the late 1940’s, it was important for a company to unveil new instruments at trade shows. At this time, there was only one important trade show, sponsored by the National Association of Music Merchants. The Broadcaster was first sprung on the industry at the 1948 trade show in Chicago. The industry had seen nothing like this guitar ever before. This new guitar existed only to be amplified; it was not merely an acoustic guitar that had been converted. Impact The Telecaster, as it would be called after 1950, remained in continuous production for more years than any other guitar of its type and was one of the industry’s best sellers. From the beginning, it looked and sounded unique. The electrified acoustic guitars had a mellow woody tone, whereas the Telecaster had a clean twangy tone. This tone made it popular with country and blues guitarists. The Telecaster could also be played at higher volume than previous electric guitars. Because Leo Fender attempted something revolutionary by introducing an electric solid-body guitar, there was no guarantee that his business venture would succeed. Fender Electric Instruments Company had fifteen employees in 1947. At times, during the early years of the company, it looked as though Fender’s dreams would not come to fruition, but the company persevered and grew. Between 1948 and 1955 with an increase of employees, the company was able to produce ten thousand Broadcaster/Telecaster guitars. Fender had taken a big risk, but it paid off enormously. Between 1958 and the mid-1970’s, Fender produced more than 250,000 Telecasters. Other guitar manufacturers were placed in a position of having to catch up. Fender had succeeded in developing a process by which electric solid-body guitars could be manufactured profitably on a large scale. Early Guitar Pickups The first pickups used on a guitar can be traced back to the 1920’s and the efforts of Lloyd Loar, but there was not strong interest on the part of the American public for the guitar to be amplified. The public did not become intrigued until the 1930’s. Charlie Christian’s electric guitar performances with Benny Goodman woke up the public to the potential of this new and exciting sound. It was not until the 1950’s, though, that the electric guitar became firmly established. Leo Fender was the right man in the right place. He could not have known that his Fender guitars would help to usher in a whole new musical landscape. Since the electric guitar was the newest member of the family of guitars, it took some time for musical audiences to fully appreciate what it could do. The electric solid-body guitar has been called a dangerous, uncivilized instrument. The youth culture of the 1950’s found in this new guitar a voice for their rebellion. Fender unleashed a revolution not only in the construction of a guitar but also in the way popular music would be approached henceforth. Because of the ever-increasing demand for the Fender product, Fender Sales was established as a separate distribution company in 1953 by Don Randall. Fender Electric Instruments Company had fifteen employees in 1947, but by 1955, the company employed fifty people. By 1960, the number of employees had risen to more than one hundred. Before Leo Fender sold the company to CBS on January 4, 1965, for $13 million, the company occupied twenty-seven buildings and employed more than five hundred workers. Always interested in finding new ways of designing a more nearly perfect guitar, Leo Fender again came up with a remarkable guitar in 1954, with the Stratocaster. There was talk in the guitar industry that Fender had gone too far with the introduction of the Stratocaster, but it became a huge success because of its versatility. It was the first commercial solid-body electric guitar to have three pickups and a vibrato bar. It was also easier to play than the Telecaster because of its double cutaway, contoured body, and scooped back. The Stratocaster sold for $249.50. Since its introduction, the Stratocaster has undergone some minor changes, but Fender and his staff basically got it right the first time. The Gibson company entered the solid-body market in 1952 with the unveiling of the “Les Paul” model. After the Telecaster, the Les Paul guitar was the next significant solid-body to be introduced. Les Paul was a legendary guitarist who also had been experimenting with electric guitar designs for many years. The Gibson designers came up with a striking model that produced a thick rounded tone. Over the years, the Les Paul model has won a loyal following. The Precision Bass In 1951, Leo Fender introduced another revolutionary guitar, the Precision bass. At a cost of $195.50, the first electric bass would go on to dominate the market. The Fender company has manufactured numerous guitar models over the years, but the three that stand above all others in the field are the Telecaster, the Precision bass, and the Stratocaster. The Telecaster is considered to be more of a workhorse, whereas the Stratocaster is thought of as the thoroughbred of electric guitars. The Precision bass was in its own right a revolutionary guitar. With a styling that had been copied from the Telecaster, the Precision freed musicians from bulky oversized acoustic basses, which were prone to feedback. The name Precision had meaning. Fender’s electric bass made it possible, with its frets, for the precise playing of notes; many acoustic basses were fretless. The original Precision bass model was manufactured from 1951 to 1954. The next version lasted from 1954 until June of 1957. The Precision bass that went into production in June, 1957, with its split humbucking pickup, continued to be the standard electric bass on the market into the 1990’s. By 1964, the Fender Electric Instruments Company had grown enormously. In addition to Leo Fender, a number of crucial people worked for the organization, including George Fullerton and Don Randall. Fred Tavares joined the company’s research and development team in 1953. In May, 1954, Forrest White became Fender’s plant manager. All these individuals played vital roles in the success of Fender, but the driving force behind the scene was always Leo Fender. As Fender’s health deteriorated, Randall commenced negotiations with CBS to sell the Fender company. In January, 1965, CBS bought Fender for $13 million. Eventually, Leo Fender regained his health, and he was hired as a technical adviser by CBS/Fender. He continued in this capacity until 1970. He remained determined to create more guitar designs of note. Although he never again produced anything that could equal his previous success, he never stopped trying to attain a new perfection of guitar design. Fender died on March 21, 1991, in Fullerton, California. He had suffered for years from Parkinson’s disease, and he died of complications from the disease. He is remembered for his Broadcaster/ Telecaster, Precision bass, and Stratocaster, which revolutionized popular music. Because the Fender company was able to mass produce these and other solid-body electric guitars, new styles of music that relied on the sound made by an electric guitar exploded onto the scene. The electric guitar manufacturing business grew rapidly after Fender introduced mass production. Besides American companies, there are guitar companies that have flourished in Europe and Japan. The marriage between rock music and solid-body electric guitars was initiated by the Fender guitars. The Telecaster, Precision bass, and Stratocaster become synonymous with the explosive character of rock and roll music. The multi-billion-dollar music business can point to Fender as the pragmatic visionary who put the solid-body electric guitar into the forefront of the musical scene. His innovative guitars have been used by some of the most important guitarists of the rock era, including Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, and Jeff Beck. More important, Fender guitars have remained bestsellers with the public worldwide. Amateur musicians purchased them by the thousands for their own entertainment. Owning and playing a Fender guitar, or one of the other electric guitars that followed, allowed these amateurs to feel closer to their musician idols. A large market for sheet music from popular artists also developed. In 1992, Fender was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He is one of the few non-musicians ever to be inducted. The sound of an electric guitar is the sound of exuberance, and since the Broadcaster was first unveiled in 1948, that sound has grown to be pervasive and enormously profitable.