Fender guitars are an important part of Fullerton history. Ever since 2006, the Fullerton Museum Center has had an entire gallery space dedicated to Leo Fender, the famed manufacturer of electric guitars. In years past, the gallery has provided an in-depth look at the man behind the music through personal items and historical artifacts. Now, in partnership with Fender Musical Instrument Corporation, the museum has created a new interactive exhibit, “Building Guitars, Making History: Fender Stories” which features recent interviews with past and present Fender employees.
During the Leo Fender Gallery’s thirteen years of operation, it has featured changing displays on different aspects of the Fender story.
“The premise behind it was to have a space dedicated to telling the Fender story in bits and pieces,” said Kelly Chidester, Museum Curator. “About every two to three years, we change over content. We changed this in May and it focuses on the people who worked in the factories, the people who worked with Leo, who continue to work in the factories in Corona and Scottsdale. We worked with the Fender Corporation to collect the stories of the workers and so we did an oral history project. We videotaped all of them talking about working with Leo and working within the factories. Then, we were able to compile them for the gallery.”
After reaching out to the museum through email, phone calls and in person conversations, I was finally able to schedule a tour of the Fender gallery. Arriving at the Fullerton Museum and checking in with Aimee Aul, who helped arrange the gallery tour, I met with Ms. Chidester, who helped with the planning and execution of the new Fender exhibit.
Following the curator, I stepped through the museum’s double doors with my hand-held shoulder rig into an air-conditioned gallery space for “Sharks: On Assignment with Brian Skerry,” where deep-sea photographs taken of several shark species were printed on canvases and put on display like paintings. Continuing on through another doorway in the back part of the current shark exhibit, I found myself immersed in the world of Clarence “Leo” Fender.
A sign at the entrance read, “In the beginning, it was Leo Fender, his partner Doc Kauffman, and a handful of employees, part-timers and college students. The musical instruments they produced in those early years didn’t look at all like they would eventually become, the most popular ever made. But they laid the foundation for a success story unlike any other, and their work changed music history. Building Guitars, Making History shines the spotlight on these largely unsung heroes in the Fender story: the employees.”
Ms. Chidester first showed me some early guitars and a radio Fender made in his radio repair shop. “He started making guitars and did radio repair up on Spadra Avenue,” said Chidester. In fact, Leo borrowed $600 and used his Ford Model A as collateral to open his first radio repair shop back in 1938: Fender’s Radio Service. It moved to larger sites as business grew and quickly became a retail outlet, specializing in “every branch of sound,” according to Leo’s 1945 newspaper ad pictured in “Fender: The Sound Heard ‘Round the World,” by Richard R. Smith. Ms. Chidester also showed me some of the earlier paddle guitars that Leo made with matching amplifiers. He made those with Doc Kauffman when they first started creating guitars in Fullerton.
“A lot of the people that worked for Leo talked about how great the workplace was and how great a boss he was,” said Chidester. “There was a lot of camaraderie and a lot of support there so they had a baseball team, a softball team, and a bowling league, both men’s and women’s. So we do have one of the baseball shirts on display.” Next to the jersey was a toolkit donated by a local Fender employee from the Research and Development Department.
Over on the far left wall of the room were electronic tablets that museum visitors could use to watch some of the stories from the people who worked at the factory. Ms. Chidester really loved the story of Abigail Ybarra. “She worked for Leo here in Fullerton for almost sixty years and she is very famously known for winding the pickups.” Ybarra spent most of her career winding the pickups that convert the strings vibrations into an electric signal that feed through an amplifier. She became so skilled that guitars with her pickups are still preferred by musicians today. “A lot of celebrity guitar players will approach her about specially made pickups. Keith Richards is a big fan,” said Chidester. Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Jeff Beck, Jimi Hendrix and Buddy Holly all played guitars built with Ybarra’s pickups.
The main exhibit room featured vintage photographs and video footage showcasing the Fender factories from decades ago. Leo’s confidence and tireless work ethic left no weekends off for the workers, but led to rapid advances in both design and technology. His employees included young women who could wire complicated guitar amplifiers from memory. They felt pride when they saw Fender on TV and wondered if it was one that they had worked on. In the exhibit videos, the women tell visitors that they preferred the jobs like assembly, soldering, and filing frets – they could wear nicer clothes and not worry about sawdust and paint overspray.
By modern standards, the factories were really primitive. On blistering summer days, Leo’s crew would try to cool off with fans. Many women workers went barefoot and many Fender men went shirtless. After requests from the floor for better solutions to curb the heat, the boss relented and shut down the factory for two weeks each August. Another threatening safety issue beyond seasonal heat arose from operating the punch presses used to cut metal. Fingers couldn’t protect them against this force. They were lost in a flash. When it happened, thankfully only a few times in twenty years, blood spattered onto the factory floor.
In an adjacent room, I found myself looking at a display of Leo’s office. “This display has been here for a few years now,” explained Chidester. “We worked with the owners of G&L, which are still producing guitars in Fullerton and they actually loaned us a lot of the artifacts that Leo was working with up until he passed away in the Nineties. So we have his French curve set, along with some items that were on his desk. We have his glasses and his pen set. Then we have some templates that he was using up until the Nineties. This is just a mock-up of what his office would’ve looked like.” The green workbench in the back of the display is actually from the Fullerton factory from the early Forties and late Fifties. It came from the Research and Development department of Fender. On the opposite wall, we looked at Leo’s first and last guitars. One guitar was on loan from the Roy Acuff Collection at the Grand Old Opry and the other one was the guitar Leo was working with up until he passed away.
Rock and roll as we know it today could not exist without Leo Fender and the help of his workers. Leo Fender set out to make musical equipment to address problems local musicians had with their existing gear. They needed to be loud enough to be heard; to have basses that would fit in their cars; to have amplifiers that didn’t catch fire during a gig. Leo’s instruments gave musicians that and so much more. His instruments and amps added a new lexicon to the musical vocabulary. Fender gear democratized popular music, allowing small combos of otherwise disenfranchised communities to be heard. In fact, the sound of rock and roll was largely built upon Leo’s gear. Leo’s instruments have continued to contribute to defining sounds of the times.
“It’s really cool to get an insight and look at the factory and what the people are doing being-the-scenes,” Chidester concluded. “There’s about a dozen stories we have on display right now and this is an ongoing project that we’re going to continue to collect. We see this as one chapter in the larger story. We’ve done exhibits on the Telecaster and on the Fender bass, so it seemed logical to do a story on the people who are making the instruments.”
“Building Guitars, Making History: Fender Stories” is open from noon to 4pm daily. The Museum is closed on Mondays and open until 8pm on Thursday evenings. General admission is $5, but free for museum members. To see my video tour of the Fender gallery at the Fullerton Museum, check out my video by visiting the Observer website and clicking the tab labeled “Local.” Underneath that tab, click on “Emerson Little YouTube Channel,” which should take you directly to my page.
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