The Fender Amp Book, published by Balafon Books, tells the story of the first valve guitar amplifiers and the men who made them. This extract, taken from the opening chapter of the book, introduces some of the key characters in the story. The book also includes a description of every Fender guitar amp up to the date of publication, but if you were interested in that you'd probably have bought it by now.
Leo Fender was a remarkable man. He was no musician: indeed, contemporaries record that he was virtually tone deaf. Certainly he could never tune the guitars that bore his name. And yet, his instruments revolutionised the way music was made. Nor was he an engineer. He had no more than a working knowledge of electronics. But in the far-off days of vacuum tubes (or valves), that was enough to let him build the practical, robust amplifiers that would give his instruments their voice.
Mostly, he was an intensely practical man: a tinkerer, an enthusiastic maker and mender of things, never seen without a screwdriver and a pair of pliers in his pocket. He coupled that with a strong entrepreneurial streak and a liking for the company of musicians. He knew how to find employees and collaborators whose skills would complement his own, and how to drive them nearly as hard as he drove himself. These things were to spread the Fender name across the world.
Clarence Leo Fender was born on August 10, 1909, in Anaheim, in the heart of Orange County, California, named after its principal agricultural industry. Fender's parents, Clarence (known as Monty) and Harriet, were orange growers themselves. Leo was born in the family's barn: the Fenders didn't build themselves a house for another year. An early photograph shows a stern-looking farmer in dungarees, his wife holding the baby, and behind them the barn, two horses and a couple of basic wagons: it could be Grant Wood's famous painting 'American Gothic'. Within sixty years their world would disappear beneath the concrete and asphalt of what is now a densely populated and industrial area of California.
Leo himself had no desire to live off the land. It was a time of new and exciting technological developments. He became fascinated by the emerging world of radio and electronics. At the age of 13, he built his first crystal radio sets, even before broadcasting had arrived in southern California: he would listen to ship-to-shore communications. Later he became a radio ham. He also had musical interests, taking a couple of years of piano lessons in his teens and playing saxophone in a high school band. He also built an acoustic guitar at about this time, and, once amplifying tubes became commercially available, from 1928, combined both his interests by building and renting out primitive public address equipment for sports and social events.
After school and junior college, where he studied English, business, mathematics and law, he married Esther Klotzky in 1934 and then went north to work in the accounting department of the state highways division. Later he transferred to work for a tyre firm, but was made redundant when the business was sold. So he returned to his home county and his original interests and, at the end of 1938, opened the Fender Radio Store on South Spadra Boulevard (now Harbor Boulevard), Fullerton's main north-south thoroughfare.
Fender sold electrical appliances, records, musical instruments and sheet music as well as doing repairs and supplying public address systems. It was now that he came into contact with several people who were to prove significant in the Fender story. Don Randall was a fellow radio ham and electronics enthusiast some eight years younger than Leo. Before World War II, he had a radio parts business, and supplied the Fender Radio Store. Unlike Leo, who was excused military service because he had lost an eye in a childhood accident with a farm cart, Randall took his electronic expertise into the army. The two did not meet again until the war was over, when an association began which was to last 25 years.
A shorter-lived connection, though as significant in its way, was that with Clayton Orr Kauffman, known as Doc, a professional violinist and lap steel guitarist who had earned a reputation locally as a music teacher by performing in shop doorways and attracting both customers and prospective pupils. He arrived at Fender's shop one day just before the war with an amplifier for repair. The two had a discussion about electric pickups for lap-steel guitars, and this led to plans for a collaboration to design and build instruments and amplifiers. That would have to wait until the war was over.
There were no new radios for sale during the war, because the factories had turned to armament production, but the government ensured that there were spare parts, so repairers were kept busy. At the same time, local musicians would bring in their instruments and amplifiers for servicing, enabling Leo and his repair man Ray Massie to take a close look. Kauffman had already had some experience in working on electric steel guitars for Rickenbacker, who were also established locally, and the three men began to work at their own designs. The conditions were in place for a commercial breakthrough.
In the first place, the lap-steel (or Hawaiian) guitar, which had enjoyed phenomenal success almost as a novelty instrument during the 1930s, had become popular with the Western swing musicians of the day. The instrument sits horizontally on the player's lap and the strings are stopped by a bar which he slides up and down the neck with one hand while he picks with the other. A simple instrument with only a rudimentary soundbox, the steel guitar benefited greatly from the introduction of amplification. Other players and instrument makers were experimenting with attaching magnetic pickups to "normal" (then often called "Spanish") shape guitars.
Amplified sound had been around almost since the invention of the thermionic valve or vacuum tube by John Fleming in 1904. The triode, the first amplifying tube, was patented by the American electrical engineer Lee de Forrest in 1907 for use in the detection circuits of radio receivers, converting radio waves into barely audible sound to be picked up on headphones. His first audio amplifier, to make the sound louder, was patented in 1911. The circuits were quickly picked up and improved for use in radios, record playing equipment and the early sound cinemas: de Forrest had also invented the optical film sound-track by this stage. The patents on all early tube circuitry were held by the American Telephone and Telegraph company and Western Electric, but these companies permitted the tube manufacturer RCA to reproduce the designs in the handbooks freely issued to anyone buying the tubes.
When Leo Fender and Ray Massie produced their first amplifiers they took them straight from these tube manuals, as did everyone else. No royalties were paid; nor, apparently, were they demanded. During the war, Leo had repaired and modified amplifiers and steel guitars: he and Kauffman applied for a patent on a guitar pickup in September 1944. Moving into small scale production seemed a natural step. A joint company was formed by Leo and Doc, to be called K and F (for Kauffman and Fender), funded in part by a design for a record changer that they had sold for $5,000.
At that time, steel guitar and amplifier were considered one item. The amplifiers and steel guitars K and F built, during 1945, were finished in a grey crackle paint. The amplifier had two sockets and no controls: even the volume knob was on the guitar. Grilles were either in wire mesh or in a coloured cloth, sometimes with the distinctive K and F logo, featuring a lightning flash. Their power output was no more than 4W (4 Watts). It is said that about 1,000 of these guitars and amplifiers were built in the year or so that they were in production.
The K and F products were built in a shed behind the Spadra Road radio shop, by Leo and Doc working after shop hours and at weekends, sometimes until late at night. With the end of the war, civilian manufacturing was once again encouraged, and Leo was nursing plans for expansion. But Kauffman had had enough. "It costs a lot of money to get into large scale production," Leo told BAM magazine in 1980," and the 1930s depression was still fresh in Kauffman's mind, so he didn't want to get involved. He had a ranch or farm in Oklahoma and he was afraid that if we got overextended on credit he might lose it. He thought he'd better pull out while he had a full skin, so in February of '46 he left it all to me."
To get the history of Fender amps go to ampware.com where there is a timeline of the dates of each model. Below is a sample, followed by a link to their site.
Fender Amp Time Line
- Thomas Edison discovers the "Edison Effect" where current can pass from a hot filament through a gas or vacuum to a metal plate.
- John Flemming invents the Thermionic (Vacuum) Tube.
- Lee de Forrest patents the first triode tube for use in radio receivers.
- Clarence Leo Fender is born to Clarence "Monty" and Harriet Fender in Anaheim California on August 10, 1909.
- Lee de Forrest patents the first audio amplifier tube.
- Leo Fender marries Esther Klotzky and takes an accounting job with the California Highway Dept.
- Leo Fender opens the Fender Radio Store on S. Spadra Blvd in Fullerton, CA. where he sells appliances, music, records and musical instruments in addition to repair services
To carry on reading about the incredible life of Leo fender click on the following link. ampware.com where you can find the full timeline plus amp spares and schematics.