Leo Fender, the man instrumental in changing popular music in the 20th century and beyond, was literally born in a barn. It was on Lone Oak Farm on the border of Fullerton and Anaheim, off what would become Harbor Boulevard and La Palma Avenue. Fender didn’t stray far—geographically or in demeanor.
He opened his first store, Fender Radio Service (now on the registry of National Historic Places), on Harbor Boulevard, which was called Spadra in those days. There, he built the first modern, electric, solid-body guitar, an invention that would launch the name Fender around the world and his products onto the biggest stages and into the hands of the most famous musicians of the past 75 years.
The man Fender, though, stayed humbly and happily here in Orange County for the majority of his life. At a recent lecture in promotion of Phyllis Fender’s new book on her late husband, Leo Fender: The Quiet Giant Heard Around the World, she spoke with her co-author Randall Bell, a fellow Fullerton kid who basically grew up at the Fender factory. His father, Pete, worked closely with Fender on research and development.
“[Leo’s] father was a very stern farmer,” recalled Phyllis. The elder Fender told his son from an early age, “You’re only going to be as good as as much work you do. Otherwise, no one is going to know you.”
When he wasn’t working on the family farm, Fender attended Orangethorpe Elementary and went on to Wilshire Junior High, Fullerton High and Fullerton Junior College (FJC), from which he earned an associate’s degree in accounting. After graduation, Leo took accounting jobs at such places as Consolidated Ice and Cold Storage Co. in Anaheim and the California Highway Department in San Luis Obispo. But the middle of the Great Depression perhaps wasn’t the best time to be an accountant, and after being laid off a few times, he gave up the bean-counter gigs.
Fender moved back to Fullerton, and with a $600 loan, he opened Fender Radio Service at what is now 107 S. Harbor Blvd. in 1938. The shop serviced and sold record players, radios and other electronics.
During World War II, Fender helped run sound at local war-bond dances. He couldn’t serve in the armed forces himself because of a childhood accident involving the wrong end of a picket fence that left him with one eye. (His striking blue glass eye was apparently so convincing that even Phyllis had no idea he was missing an eye until their wedding night.)
But setting up the electricity and running the PA at these fundraisers was Leo’s way of serving his country. One night in 1943, at a dance in a park near Fullerton High, he noticed the acoustic guitar players in the band were struggling to be heard over the louder band instruments. “The whole idea of the electric guitar was sparked by Leo Fender’s deep, never-ending desire to help other people,” Phyllis wrote in the book.
The next day, Fender began tinkering at his radio shop. “He got a hunk of wood, cut the middle out and put some electronics in it,” Phyllis wrote. “He built several ‘paddle guitars’ that quickly evolved into the guitars we see today.”
There has been debate over who actually invented the electric guitar, with some crediting Les Paul and others Santa Ana’s Rickenbacker International Corp. Phyllis and Bell address this in the book, pointing out that while other people had started to put pickups on acoustic guitars, Leo was the first to put pickups on a solid piece of wood. His own cool reply when asked about it: “I’ve got the patent.”
The rest, of course, is music history. Though he went on to change the world, he—unlike so many other talented natives—never abandoned Orange County. He’s buried at Fairhaven Memorial Park in Santa Ana.
As Bell and Phyllis signed copies of their book after the lecture, they also passed out a variety of commemorative metal coins that celebrated Leo and different genres of music. When it was my turn, Bell asked what kind of music I like. “Well, Leo and I are of the same opinion that the best music is country and western music,” I replied.
“That’s the one I picked, too,” confided Phyllis, “just in case Leo is watching.”