Published: October 17, 2017
Leo Fender did more than invent the electric guitar; he altered the trajectory of the music world. Would the sounds of iconic musicians like Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck be the same if they hadn’t played Fender Stratocasters? Phyllis Fender, wife of the late inventor, is giving the world a rare look into the sometimes quirky – and always fascinating – life of this soft-spoken man in Leo Fender: The Quiet Giant Heard Around the World, with co-author Randall Bell, PhD.
Did your husband actually invent the electric guitar? Did he ever learn to play one?
Paul Bixby, Les Paul and some people at Rickenbacker – who were all friends of Leo’s – were putting pickups and microphones on acoustic guitars as far back as 1938. Until Leo, every guitar was hollow. In the mid-1940s, Leo got the idea to put pickups on a solid piece of wood, which is the modern electric guitar. Guitar Player Magazine declared that Leo Fender was the father of the modern electric guitar. Leo not only could not play a guitar, but he could not even tune a guitar! Leo got his joy from inventing and designing, and he loved guitar players and just wanted to support them.
Did he have any memorable interactions with any of the world-renowned musicians who played his guitar?
Every imaginable country and rock star came to the plant when they were performing at the Anaheim Stadium or the Convention Center – or they would come down from Hollywood. Leo did not pay much attention to “who” they were, he was more interested in “what” they could do with the guitar. Leo never asked for autographs or pictures. For him, it was all business – not a “meet and greet” event.
Bios characterize Leo Fender as an unassuming and shy genius. What was the cause?
Leo was quite shy naturally, and the fact that he had a glass eye and was deaf did not help the cause. He was shy, which some people mistook as being snobby, but he was not a snob at all. He just loved to focus all his energy on designing guitars. He felt that the world would be better with lots of music.
What did Randall Bell bring to this project?
Randy grew up in our neighborhood and his dad worked at Fender as the head of the research and development department. Randy also plays the guitar, and he knows all the details about the history of music, Fender and G&L. He is also a beautiful writer. For months, Randy and I met at a special booth at Polly’s Pie on Raymond, just by the plant where Leo invented the Stratocaster. We met in our special “office” just about every week, and Randy would ask lots of questions and record my answers for hours at a time. (I do love to talk!) We poured over photo albums, Leo mementoes, guitars and drove all over Fullerton looking at Leo sites. The process was so much fun. Randy just loves Leo, and I think it shows in the way the book came out.
You have your own remarkable story, going back to a doctor’s prognosis more than two decades ago. Can you tell us about it?
I have a heart condition and the doctors told me that my heart was only 17 percent efficient. The first doctor told me that I had three to six months to live. So, I went to another doctor who told me the same thing. Today, both of those doctors are dead! I really cannot explain why I keep ticking, other than Leo and God are looking down and wanted me to get this story out!
In addition to the early guitars themselves, which bring record prices at auction, there must be an incredible amount of Fender ephemera, including catalogs, ads and promotional items. Where does the bulk of it reside?
Gladly it mostly resides at the Fullerton Museum, so that everyone can come and enjoy it! The people at the museum are wonderful and they have a permanent Leo Fender display. It has the first guitar that Leo created, all the way to the last one he invented the day before he died … and a whole bunch more in between!
When will your book be released?
The book can be pre-ordered on Amazon and comes out the first week of November in time for Christmas. I am hand-signing all the books that are pre-ordered – I have thousands of them on my kitchen table right now! The Fullerton Museum is hosting a big event on November 17, where I will talk about Leo and sign books.
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