The Complete Telecaster

This column is originally posted by
Mike O'malley on TDPRI on August 21, 1999.
With permission, I have posted here.
Thank you Mike!

How Fender Worked by Mike O'malley

It's important to look at Fender's origins when we're talking about finish and wood and etc.

Leo Fender never even learned how to tune a guitar. His primary interest was in amps and electronics. He worked closely with musicians, but his biggest concern for musicians was convenience and reliability as much as it was tone. He wanted to make dependable, sturdy, good sounding stuff, and he was enough of an original to think outside the box. But he was mostly motivated by practical concerns.

I've never seen ANY evidence that he picked swamp ash or alder for their tonal properties--not a scrap. As far as I can tell, he picked them because he could get a dependable supply at a good price. Then once they became popular, he stuck with them. The only reason they added rosewood fingerboards was because Leo thought the wear patterns on maple necks looked bad. It wasn't tone mojo.

He used nitro laquer because it was a widely available finish used for painting cars--CARS!! When was the last time you heard anybody raving about the tonal properties of side panels on a 52 ford? It was cheap, readily available, and there were lots of guys around who knew how to spray it and had the equipment.

Fender was never like Gibson, which never lost the old-world, craftsman mentality. Why is there a carved top on a Les Paul? It looks cool, but it adds nothing to the tone--it's a holdover from violin making and arch-top jazz boxes, signifying "class." If Leo was really concerned about finish effecting the tone, he'd of used traditional violin finishes. But Leo used what worked: he was unhindered by "tradition" and sort of contemptuous of it. He hated it when G+:L did strat copies.

Everything about Leo points to a very original, innovative, practical, forward thinking guy. He cared about the product, and he got what he intended--dependable, great sounding, affordable stuff for working musicians. That's who bought it, and in the hands of talented people the sounds fender's stuff made became THE sounds.

I'm absolutely sure that if Leo were starting fender today he'd use some kind of composite bodies and polyester finsihes. He'd use what was readily available in interesting and non-traditional ways. I don't like the guitars, but the guy who reminds me the most of Leo Fender today is Parker. Parker really tries to blend what musicians want with modern materials.

The real mojo at fender wasn't swamp ash and nitro, it was Leo's originality, dedication, his disregard for convention, and his willingness to use what worked. And that's the real mojo with great players too--not the fact that they play a 62' but the fact that they've forged their own vision.

Whoo--ok, I'm done. No offense meant, I hope none taken


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