Fender Musical Instruments Corporation, commonly referred to as simply Fender, of Scottsdale, Arizona is a manufacturer of stringed instruments and amplifiers, such as solid-body electric guitars, including the Stratocaster and the Telecaster. The company, previously named the Fender Electric Instrument Manufacturing Company, was founded in Fullerton, California, by Clarence Leonidas “Leo” Fender in 1946. Leo Fender also designed one of the first commercially successful solid-body electric basses, the Precision Bass (P-Bass), which has become known in rock, jazz, country, Motown, funk, and other types of music.
The company is a privately held corporation, with the controlling majority of its stock owned by a group of its own company officers and managers. Larry Thomas is Chief Executive Officer and James Broenen is Chief Financial Officer.
Fender’s headquarters is in Scottsdale, Arizona with manufacturing facilities in Corona, California (USA) and Ensenada, Baja California (Mexico).
Fender offered the first mass-produced solid-body Spanish-style electric guitar, the Telecaster (originally named the ‘Broadcaster’; ‘Esquire’ is a single pickup version) the first mass-produced electric bass, the Precision Bass (P-Bass); and the popular Stratocaster (Strat) guitar. While Fender was not the first to manufacture electric guitars, as other companies and luthiers had produced electric guitars since the late 1920s, none was as commercially successful as Fender’s. Furthermore, while nearly all other electric guitars then were either hollow-body guitars or more specialized instruments such as Rickenbacker’s solid-body Hawaiian guitars, Fender had created versatile solid-body electric guitars. These guitars were and still are popular for musicians in a variety of genres. Many bands still use Fender guitars today. Some notable Fender players were Jimi Hendrix, Ritchie Blackmore, Yngwie Malmsteen, Waylon Jennings, Kurt Cobain, George Harrison, John Frusciante, Keith Richards, Bruce Springsteen, Hank Marvin, Eric Clapton, Mark Knopfler, David Gilmour, Charles Brown, and others.
The company also makes and / or distributes acoustic guitars, electric basses, mandolins, banjos, and electric violins, as well as guitar amplifiers, bass amplifiers, and PA (public address) equipment. Other Fender brands include Squier (entry level/budget), Guild (acoustic and electric guitars and amplifiers), SWR (bass amplification), Passport Tacoma, Jackson, Charvel, Gretsch guitars and collaborated with Eddie Van Halen to make the EVH guitars and amplifiers.
On February 11, 1994 the Fender manufacturing plant based in Ensenada, Mexico burned down. Fender President Bill Shultz decided to temporarily move production from the Mexico plant to the U.S. plant. These Fender guitars are fairly rare and can be identified by the unique serial number.
On October 28, 2007, Fender announced its intention to buy Kaman Music Corporation (owners of Hamer Guitars, Ovation Guitars, Genz Benz amplifiers, Gibraltar Hardware, along with many others, and exclusive distributor for Sabian cymbals and Takamine Guitars).
Other Fender instruments include the Mustang, Jazzmaster, Jaguar, Starcaster, Duo-Sonic, Telecaster, Stratocaster, Toronado and Bronco guitars; basses such as the Jazz Bass, the ‘Telecaster Bass’ reissue of the original 1950s Precision Bass; a line of lap steels; three models of electric violin, and the Fender Rhodes electric piano.
The company began as Fender’s Radio Service in late 1938 in Fullerton, California, USA. As a qualified electronics technician, Leo Fender had been asked to repair not only radios, but phonograph players, home audio amplifiers, public address systems and musical instrument amplifiers. (At the time, most of these were just variations on a few simple vacuum-tube circuits.) All designs were based on research developed and released to the public domain by Western Electric in the ’30s, and used vacuum tubes for amplification. The business also sidelined in carrying records for sale and the rental of self-designed-and-built PA systems. Leo became intrigued by design flaws in current musical instrument amplifiers, and he began custom-building a few amplifiers based on his own designs or modifications to designs.
By the early 1940s, he had partnered with another local electronics enthusiast named Clayton Orr “Doc” Kauffman, and together they formed a company named K & F Manufacturing Corp. to design, manufacture and sell electric instruments and amplifiers. Production began in 1945 with Hawaiian lap steel guitars (incorporating a patented pickup) and amplifiers, which were sold as sets. By the end of the year, Fender had become convinced that manufacturing was more profitable than repair, and he decided to concentrate on that business. Kauffman remained unconvinced, however, and they had amicably parted ways by early 1946. At that point Leo renamed the company the Fender Electric Instrument Company. The service shop remained open until 1951, although Leo Fender did not personally supervise it after 1947.
The first big series of amplifiers were built in 1948. These were known as tweed amps, because they were covered in the same kind of cloth used for luggage at the time. These amps varied in output from 3 watts to 75 watts. This period was one of innovation and changes; While Leo made a Tweed Princeton in 1948 for his Professional 8 string Lap Steel guitar [very short lived, as later he would focus on 6 string Student models] later the Princeton would become a push-pull class AB tube amp, in 1948 it was a single ended Class A amplifier similar to the Fender Champ, with the output transformer mounted to the speaker frame and bereft of any negative feedback. Also, in 1964, the Tweed Champ amp would be reissued in black tolex in small numbers along with the newer model with the slant front panel and controls; the stacked plywood boxes Leo used often went uninventoried. In late 1963, he found a couple hundred Tweed Champ chassis boxes in these bins. He had had them chromed and printed in 1958; being frugal, he built them in black tolex with a chrome and black Champ nameplate, as he had money tied up in them already.
Fender moved to Tolex coverings for the brownface amps in 1960, with the exception of the Champ which kept its tweed until 1964. Fender also began using Oxford, Utah and CTS speakers interchangeably with the Jensens; generally the speaker that could be supplied most economically would be used. Jensens and Oxfords remained the most common during this period. By 1963 Fender amplifiers had a black Tolex covering, silver grille cloth, and black forward-facing control panel. The tremolo was changed to a simpler circuit based on an optical coupler and requiring only one tube. The amps still spanned the spectrum from 4 watts to 85, but the difference in volume was larger, due to the improved, clean tone of the 85w Twin.
Fender owed its early success not only to its founder and talented associates such as musician/product engineer Freddie Tavares but also to the efforts of sales chief, senior partner and marketing genius Don Randall. According to The Stratocaster Chronicles (a book by Tom Wheeler; Hal Leonard Pub., Milwaukee, WI; 2004, p. 108), Mr. Randall assembled what Mr. Fender’s original partner Doc Kauffman called “a sales distributorship like nobody had ever seen in the world.” Randall worked closely with the immensely talented photographer/designer Bob Perine. Their catalogs and ads — such as the inspired “You Won’t Part With Yours Either” campaign, which portrayed people surfing, skiing, skydiving, and climbing into jet planes, all while holding Jazzmasters and Stratocasters — elevated once-staid guitar merchandising to an art form. In Fender guitar literature of the 1960s, attractive, guitar-toting teenagers were posed with surfboards and Perine’s classic Thunderbird convertible at local beachside settings, firmly integrating Fender into the surfin’/hot rod/sports car culture of Southern California celebrated by the Beach Boys, beach movies, and surf music. (The Stratocaster Chronicles, by Tom Wheeler; Hal Leonard Pub., Milwaukee, WI; 2004, p. 108). This early success is dramatically illustrated by the growth of Fender’s manufacturing capacity through the 1950s and 1960s.
In early 1965, Leo Fender sold his companies to the Columbia Broadcasting System, or CBS for $13 million. This was almost two million more than they paid for The New York Yankees a year before. CBS entered the musical instruments field by acquiring the Fender companies (Fender Sales, Inc., Fender Electric Instrument Company, Inc., Fender Acoustic Instrument Company, Inc., Fender-Rhodes, Inc., Terrafen, Inc., Clef-Tronix, Inc., Randall Publishing Co., Inc., and V.C. Squier Company), as well as Electro-Music Inc. (Leslie speakers), Rogers drums, Steinway pianos, Gemeinhardt flutes, Lyon & Healy harps, Rodgers (institutional) organs, and Gulbransen home organs.
This had far-reaching implications. The sale was taken as a positive development, considering CBS’s ability to bring in money and personnel who acquired a large inventory of Fender parts and unassembled guitars that were assembled and put to market. However, the sale also led to a reduction of the quality of Fender’s guitars while under the management of “cost-cutting” CBS. Several cosmetic changes occurred after 1965/1966, such as a larger headstock shape on certain guitars. Bound necks with block shaped position markers were introduced in 1966. A bolder black headstock logo, as well as a brushed aluminum face plate with blue or red labels (depending the model) for the guitar and bass amplifiers became standard features, starting in 1968. These cosmetic changes were followed by a new “tailless” Fender amp decal and a sparkling orange grillcloth on certain amplifiers in the mid-1970s. Regarding guitars, in the early 1970s the usual four-bolt neck joint was changed to one using only three bolts, and a second string tree for the two middle (G and D) strings was added in late 1972. These changes were said to have been made to save money: while it suited the new ‘improved’ micro-tilt adjustment of the neck (previously requiring neck removal and shimming), the “Bullet” truss-rod system, and a 5-way pickup selector on most models, it also resulted in a greater propensity toward mechanical failure of the guitars.
During the CBS era, the company did introduce some new instrument and amplifier designs. The Fender Starcaster was particularly unusual because of its semi-hollow body design, still retaining the Fender bolt-on neck, and a completely different headstock. The Starcaster also incorporated a new Humbucking pickup designed by Seth Lover. This pickup also gave rise to 3 new incarnations of the classic Telecaster. Though more recent use by Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead has raised the Starcaster’s profile, CBS-era instruments are generally much less coveted or collectable than the “pre-CBS” models created by Leo Fender prior to selling the Fender companies to CBS in 1965.
The culmination of the CBS “cost-cutting” may have occurred in 1983, when the Fender Stratocaster received a short-lived redesign lacking a second tone control and a bare-bones output jack, as well as redesigned single-coil pickups, active electronics, and three push-push buttons for pickup selection (Elite Series). Additionally, previous models such as the Swinger (also known as Musiclander) and Custom (also known as Maverick) were perceived by some musicians as little more than attempts to squeeze profits out of factory stock. The so-called “pre-CBS cult” refers to the popularity of Fenders made before the sale.
After selling the Fender company, Leo Fender founded Music Man in 1975, and later founded the G&L Musical Instruments company, which manufactures electric guitars and basses based on his later designs.
In 1985, in a campaign initiated by then CBS Musical Instruments division president William Schultz (1926–2006), the Fender Electric Instrument Manufacturing Company employees purchased the company from CBS and renamed it the Fender Musical Instruments Corporation. Behind the Fender name, the Fender Musical Instruments Corporation has retained Fender’s older models along with newer designs and concepts.
Fender manufactures its highest quality, most expensive guitars at its Corona factory in California and manufactures a variety of other mid-to-high quality guitars at its Ensenada factory in Baja California, Mexico. Channing Ward is the lead designer of the 2009 Stratocaster. Fender also contracts Asian guitar builders to manufacture Fender guitars and the economy priced entry-level Squier guitars. Older vintage and U.S.A. built Fender guitars are generally the most favoured, but pre-1990 Fender Japan guitars are now highly regarded as well. Fender guitars built in Ensenada, Mexico now fulfill the primary export role formerly held by Japanese made Fenders. Japanese Fenders are now manufactured specifically for the Japanese market, with only a small number marked for export.
Squier was a string manufacturer subsequently acquired by Fender. The Squier brand has been used by Fender since 1982 to market inexpensive variants of Fender guitars intended to compete with the rise of Stratocaster copies, as the Stratocaster was slowly becoming more popular. Squier guitars have been manufactured in Japan, Korea, Mexico, India, Indonesia and China. The Squier name adorns many inexpensive guitars based on Fender designs but with generally cheaper hardware, bridges and electronics.
In recent years, Fender Musical Instruments Corporation has branched out into making and selling steel-string acoustic guitars, and has purchased a number of other instrument firms, including the Guild Guitar Company, the Sunn Amplifier Company, and other brands such as SWR Sound Corporation. In early 2003, Fender Musical Instruments Corporation made a deal with Gretsch and began manufacturing and distributing new Gretsch guitars. Fender also owns: Jackson, Charvel, Olympia, Orpheum, Tacoma Guitars (based in Seattle, WA), Squier and Brand X amps. The Californian guitar giant has recently purchased Kaman Music Corporation, which owns Ovation acoustic guitars, LP and Toca hand percussion products, Gibraltar Hardware, Genz Benz Amplification, Hamer Guitars and is the exclusive U.S. sales representative for Sabian Cymbals and exclusive worldwide distributor of Takamine Guitars and Gretsch Drums.
In February 2007 Fender announced that it would produce an illustrated product guide in place of its traditional annual Frontline magazine. This change was made in large part due to the costs associated with paying royalties in both print and the Internet. With the new illustrated product guide, this removed print issues. The new guide contains its entire range of instruments and amplifiers along with color pictures and basic specifications. The New Fender Frontline In-Home will be produced during the year, keeping customers up to date with new products. These will be available through guitar publications and will be directly mailed to customers who sign up to the Fender website. As well as these printed formats, Fender Frontline Live was launched at the winter NAMM show in January 2007 as a new online reference point, containing information on new products and live footage from the show.