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Leo Fender honored posthumously

The Recording Academy will bestow a technical award on the guitar maker whose instruments revolutionized pop music's sound.

February 07, 2009|Randy Lewis

No invention since the phonograph more dramatically affected how popular music is made than Fender guitars, arriving as they did with the birth of rock 'n' roll. Buddy Holly was an early Fender convert; Jimi Hendrix used the Stratocaster to revolutionize the world of rock guitar playing.

Consequently, there are perhaps few people as deserving of the Recording Academy's technical award as guitar maker Clarence "Leo" Fender, who will be given the honor posthumously at an invitation-only ceremony today at the Wilshire Ebell Theatre. The award was created to recognize "contributions of outstanding technical significance to the recording field."

Fender, contrary to common perception, didn't invent the electric guitar. He just made it functional, affordable, reliable and capable of being mass-produced. The introduction of the Telecaster model in 1951, followed by the Stratocaster three years later, both on the heels of the electric bass-- which Fender also perfected -- literally changed the sound of popular music.

"It has such an elegant design," Keith Richards said of the Stratocaster, widely considered the most copied guitar in the world. "It's simple, practical and incredibly well made. You can sling it about. It has to go on the road with you, so it has to be sturdy. It has all the attributes of anything you'd want from a guitar or a woman."

Calendar invited several musicians to share their thoughts about the lifelong tinkerer from Fullerton, who died in 1991, and the instruments he created that continue to reverberate around the world.

Eric Clapton

The first time I saw one was in Jerry Lee Lewis' band in some footage from [the 1958 film] "High School Confidential." His bass player was playing a Fender Jazz Bass. I'd never seen anything like that solid-body guitar before. That was it for me. It was the perfect design. It looked like a spaceship. I loved that it was new and exciting and like science fiction. . . . He had a very small budget to make those early guitars, so every decision he made about design was about function. . . . That's why that guitar is perfect. He didn't care what it looked like; it was about function. That's the cornerstone of why the Strat and the Tele are what they are, and why they cannot be improved on.

Dick Dale

Back then in 1955 was when I met Leo. The Strat came out in '54, and I came to him and said "I'm a surfer with no money, could you help me?" . . . He goes, "Kid, here's this Stratocaster. It's brand new. I want you to tell me what you think about it." He thought I might have been a guitar player . . . I started out playing drums, and I tried copying the feeling of Gene Krupa, who made drums a solo instrument. I wanted it to sound like a drum. I didn't know it should be played eloquently, like a Telecaster, the way the country players did it. I just wanted a big, thumping sound.

The Edge (U2)

When we got our record deal, the first thing I did was go out and buy another Strat. It's the black one, that's the one I recorded a lot of our big, important songs with, "Pride (In the Name of Love)," "Where the Streets Have No Name," major U2 songs . . . There is something completely unique about the Strat. What's really special is that something so simple and so mass-produced should end up with such a kind of subtle and unique and amazing sound quality. All of the guitars that had gone before -- the great Gretsches, the big Gibson arch-top guitars -- were all complex designs that were much more like cellos or violins, construction-wise. But with the Strat, you get this plank of wood with a neck stuck into it. Yet it just sings. It's an incredibly inspiring instrument. . . . It's like the '57 Chevy of guitars. It's the pinnacle of something that was very special about that time in history.

Billy Gibbons (ZZ Top)

My first opportunity to strike the strings on a guitar was on a Stratocaster. My first instrument was a Gibson single pickup, single cutaway Melody Maker. Make no mistake: It's a fine instrument in its own right. Yet I don't think there was ever one soloist or instrumentalist that didn't at some point have their sights set on a Strat, including me and everybody I knew. The Strat is really the global cornerstone, the reference point of the perception of the contemporary electric guitar. . . . Just about everything up till now has aimed to equal or improve upon the Stratocaster, but in the words of a dear musician buddy of mine, "How fancy do you think you really have to get?" Answer: Get a Strat and you can do it all.

Buddy Guy

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