The G&L guitar factory in Fullerton, California
I had been given the rare opportunity to spend some time with Leo Fender
, the father of the electric guitar. He had split away from Fender
and in the late 1970s co-founded G&L Guitars
along with Dale Hyatt
and George Fullerton
had worked with Leo
since January 1946 and from that point forward, they were virtually inseparable.
By the time I met him, Leo
was probably in his late 70s and he looked very old. But still spry and wearing a smile on his face. Dale
took me and the photographer for a tour of the facility but Mr. Fender
was too frail to accompany us. I remember he was wearing one of those huge illuminated glass things that watch makers and people like that use. It's meant to focus on very small things. So, he had that on. And when we were done with the interview, he took out this little guitar with a clock in the middle of it, and I had my picture taken with him.
The great man has stated that he thought the G&L Guitars
represented his greatest achievements moreso than the Fenders
. He may have felt that way, but the world didn't agree with him. G&L Guitars
are still manufactured to this day and while they are excellent instruments, they have never been able to consistently match up to the quality, ingenuity, and tone of the Fender
Mr. Leo Fender
passed away on March 21, 1991, due to heart failure. He was 82 years old. The Fender Stratocaster
that he developed/created in 1954 will forever cement his legend as one of a handful of prime movers in the history of recorded music.
Sidekick Dale Hyatt
retired from G&L
on November 4, 1991, just about seven months after the passing of his very dear friend.
In thinking about it, this interview with both Fender
may be one of the few latter-day interviews with both of them. I had so many more questions I wanted to ask Mr. Stratocaster
but even after just 20 minutes or so of conversation, you could see how visibly fatigued he was.
Still, these few words here are pretty terrific. As you read them, think of Jimi Hendrix
and "Purple Haze
" and "Voodoo Chile
." Conjure up the remarkably diverse and absolutely manic sonics Jeff Beck
fingered. Close your eyes and well, you can't really shut your eyes and keep reading so, mentally close your eyes, and hear Ritchie Blackmore
, Stevie Ray Vaughan
, Eric Johnson
, and the legions of other players wringing just the most otherworldly tones, moans, and groans from this particular type of guitar. And then try and realize that one man actually built this instrument. One man - certainly touched by God and inspired by every muse who ever set pick on string but still, one human being taking some inexpensive pieces of wood and some electronics, some wire and machined parts, was able to give birth to this extraordinary thing.
"I would go through thousands and thousands of pickups hunting for the best possible way to make [Stratocaster]."
In its way, it has had as much impact and influence on culture as any book ever written, any picture ever painted, any film ever made.
Just try and imagine, or rather, just try and hear a world without the Stratocaster
. You know what you'd hear? The worst thing you've ever heard in your life: the terrible nothingness of music without the depth of expression that the Strat has given to the instrumentalist. Yes, I know, exaggeration and hyperbole. Certainly the Gibson Les Paul
and the 335
, the Ibanez
line of guitars, the Paul Reed Smith
instruments, and many other fine 6-strings exist. They do.
But the Stratocaster
was there from the beginning (and so was Gibson, of course, but you can read about that conversation in the Les Paul interview also presented in the RC collection). Hank Marvin
and The Shadows
. Surf music. Styles were built around the instrument; the configuration of the instrument, the cutaways, the tremolo arm, suggested certain approaches in technique.
Would Jimi Hendrix
have sounded like Jimi Hendrix
if there had been no Stratocaster
? Would "Smoke On the Water
" have been so heavy if those 4ths had been pounded out on another type of guitar?
Anyway, I was just trying to get you thinking a little bit. Picture him in his little workshop with his little glass-and-light headset on. In front of him, there is a neck and a familiar-looking body shop. Parts are being attached, glued, screwed, and tooled. Finally, this first prototype is completed. Leo
looks at it and smiles in the way inventors will. Is he thinking, "I've done it. I've built the greatest electric guitar that will ever be built
"? Hardly. He's probably musing to himself, "This one looks good and feels right. I think musicians will play this one
In 1980, Leo Fender
, George Fullerton
, and Dale Hyatt
created G&L Guitars
. The landscape for guitar manufacturing was changing; a lot of instruments were being built outside of the US and the custom designers were beginning to create a toehold in the industry. The writing was on the wall.
and Dale Hyatt
[the former's sidekick since 1946] talked about the company three years after emerging. While the bulk of the conversation related to contemporary product lines, they did speak briefly about what had come before. Leo
, born on August 10, 1909, was 74 years old at the time of this dialogue and while he spoke a bit slowly and with uncertain focus, his obvious love and enthusiasm in the creation and development of the electric guitar was more than evident. Eight years after this meeting, the great man would pass on.
When you were first building the Stratocaster, did you design it completely separate from outside input? That is, did you ever talk to musicians about what they wanted in a guitar?
A lot of times a musician would make a casual remark about how he wished he had this or he wished he had that. That's how the guitar developed and really how the bass developed back in 1950.
There was another reason for that, too. Back in those days, a guy needed to be able to do both guitar and bass. The fretted Precision Bass was so that a guitar player could stand in on bass and make a living.
How long typically would it take to actually build a Strat?
How long does it take in the production of the instrument? About three or four weeks, longer. Really, you see the wood has to be lumbered in the forest and then it goes to a press kiln back at the mill. The lumber is brought out to us, truckloads of what we need as fast as we need it. Then it goes into the instruments.
The worst thing about making the guitars in this area (Fullerton, California), being right on the coastline, was you would get variable moisture content. Sometimes it does give us a fit.
Warm air holds a lot more moisture than cold air and we keep the temperature of the lumber above normal temperatures.
Did building the Stratocaster teach you a lot?
We're still learning; there always will be things to learn.
I would go through thousands and thousands of pickups hunting for the best possible way there is to make one.
When you look back at the Stratocaster can you understand how it changed the evolution of electric guitar?
"A lot of times a musician would make a casual remark about how he wished he had this or he wished he had that. That's how the guitar developed."
I'm not the judge; it's the guy that buys it.
He created the finest instrument that ever was and the most copied instrument in the world. Frankly one of the problems G&L has had was making people believe Leo was part of it. He did sell a product with the name Fender on it. Mr. Fender hasn't been back inside that place [Fender Guitars] since 1965.
A lot of ideas Mr. Fender had for Fender he's brought here. None of us in here can be a judge and say they're going to be accepted, but they are new ideas.
How did you ever come up with the idea for the Stratocaster? Can you remember?
Well [lengthy pause] twenty-four hours a day. I sat at home and thought about it. I never just decided to build guitars; first I built amplifiers until about 1940. I started in before they had a radio station out here [Orange County area of California] in 1922. They only had Catalina [an island 26 miles off the coast of California] for a broadcast. Catalina, before they had a wire across the channel [to the western edge of California shoreline], used wireless and people used to talk back and forth and tune that in.
Were you a guitar player? Is that how you could truly understand the needs of a musician?
No, at first I took piano lessons and then I took sax lessons, trumpet lessons. I studied bookkeeping and accounting.
Did you take woodworking classes?
Yeah, electronics, foundry
Interview by Steven Rosen