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Behind the Curtain: Leo Fender/Dale Hyatt
Photo: Rosen, Leo Fender and Hyatt (Glen Laferman)
I can’t remember a lot of things. I can’t remember my house in St. Louis, which is where I lived for the first six years of my life before my parents decided to relocate to California. I can’t remember what it was like sitting in a classroom when I was in the first grade or second grade. Hell, I barely remember high school. I mean I can recall being there but I can’t bring back more distinct memories of walking to classes or opening my hall locker or eating lunch or taking tests.
What I do remember about high school is learning how to type — if you’re thinking, “Why is this guy geeking out and not talking about Leo Fender?” just give me a couple more paragraphs and I’ll get to the great man himself — and how much that experience impacted me. I loved that process. Learning how to type felt like learning how to play guitar: You put your fingers on the strings and pressed down on the fretboard and it was nothing but clink, clank, noise, and frustration. Then one day you put your fingers down on the appointed frets and you strum and as if by magic, out comes a D chord and you are king of the world. You are Jeff freaking Beck.
That was my emotional attachment to typing — it was thrilling in a different way but similar to learning the guitar. It was something you couldn’t do, you couldn’t do, you could almost do and then one day you do it. Like learning how to ride a bike. Your parents are there beside you holding onto the bike and then they let go and you wobble to and fro down the street and your balance and center of gravity are battling for control and then suddenly that thing kicks in and you’re in total control just cruising by all the neighbors’ houses. You’ve felt that. It’s like that last drop of water that finally fills the glass and it overflows over the sides. You swear the glass will never be filled and then seemingly without warning, it is.
I loved the way your fingers were poised over the keyboard, curved just so, not resting on the keys but hovering above them, barely touching, like a spacecraft just about to make contact with the surface below. Similar to the way your hands floated over piano keys.
I can remember typing class with Miss Davis. Black hair. Severe wardrobe. Stentorian presence. But watching her go flying over the keys was a thrill. She became beautiful. I practiced and practiced and couldn’t do it, couldn’t do it and then I could. I was a typewriting phenom. I was good. I was fast. Speed king. I got that from my mom, who was the greatest typist in the world. She was a blur.
My mom gave me an ancient Underwood typewriter she had before she was even married. It was archaic. Vintage. A leftover from earlier times. A grey, utilitarian-looking machine. The keys stuck; the ribbon either spooled out too quickly or wouldn’t spool out at all; the action was so stiff my fingers would cramp; and some keys wouldn’t strike at all. Exactly the way guitar players would describe their first guitars: ugly, tortuous action and virtually unplayable.
There were two letters — pretty important ones — that never worked. I want to say m and e. I used that Underwood with the crippled letters for at least the first five or six years of life as a rock journalist. I wrote my interviews and learned to avoid words containing those letters. True story. I came to love the thesaurus. If I simply couldn’t avoid a specific word, I’d type it out and leave a space for the absent letter and then go back and write the letter in by hand. Not exactly high tech but I never heard a single complaint from the editors.
Which brings us back to Leo Fender and the miracles he wrought. In those early stories and in fact in hundreds and hundreds of subsequent pieces, I typed certain words over and over:
I can’t even begin to imagine how many times I typed out those words or how many times I invoked this magical name: Leo Fender. Leo Fender. Leo Fender. Leo … It was a name that conjured mystery and allure and one that filled me with awe. This was the cat who invented the Fender Stratocaster and Telecaster. How different would rock and roll have sounded if he hadn’t? What would Buddy Holly have sounded like? Jimi Hendrix? Jeff Beck? David Gilmour? Ritchie Blackmore? Would Jimi still have written “Purple Haze” and “Foxy Lady” on another guitar? Probably. Would those songs have sounded the same? Not remotely.
Without the Strat, Telly, Precision and Bassman, the sound of rock and roll becomes something different and by different I mean not as good. Clarence Leonidas “Leo” Fender was the grand master, the spiral architect, the mad inventor who would forever change the face and voice of rock. He occupied one of the big penthouses in the Grand Hotel of Guitar Design. Les Paul was in an adjoining suite and Jim Marshall would often come by to kibbutz and share a cup of coffee with his special friends. But there weren’t too many other rooms on the very top floor. That was a special place, the high country, a space where only the most daring of eagles dared fly.
With the Strat and Telly, Leo had given the world of rock its most essential tools. The hammer and screwdriver. There have been a million permutations and changes but nothing has ever replaced those two things, and nothing has or ever will replace Leo’s creations. I had Stratocasters and now have a Telly and my friends had Fenders and my first guitar was a Mustang after seeing Randy California play one and this all goes back to Leo.
I used to spend a long time just staring at the Fender decal on the headstock and thinking how cool it was and in those moments when I went a little deeper I thought, “What does it feel like to have your name on the coolest guitar in the universe? Wonder what the guy is like?”
I would get that extraordinary opportunity many years later in 1985. Was I really going to meet Leo fucking Fender? Oh, man. I knew that Leo had sold Fender to CBS back in 1965 and then with his close friends and confidantes George Fullerton and Dale Hyatt created G&L. It was here I met the wood whisperer at the G&L facility in Fullerton, California, just a pick’s flick down the road from the former Fender operation.
Upon arriving at the facility, I was first greeted by Hyatt, Leo’s longtime colleague. Hyatt had been hanging out with Fender since 1946, when the guru of grain formed the Fender Electric Instrument Company. At this early juncture, Leo was building lap steel guitars and amplifiers and wouldn’t begin designing and manufacturing “electric Spanish guitars” — in other words, the fabled Esquire, Broadcaster and Telecaster — for about another three years. But Dale was there from the outset and would remain by his friend’s side until 1965, when Fender Electronic Instruments and Fender Sales — as the entity was then known — was sold to the Columbia Broadcasting System, Inc. (CBS) and became Fender Musical Instruments.
Hyatt had ventured off on his own following the sale of Fender to CBS but spilling all that blood, frets and tears alongside his friend for so many years proved to be too compelling. After about 15 years, he was lured back into the fold to become head of marketing for G&L. When I first shook Dale’s hand, I was struck by both his physical presence and the way he carried himself. He must have been about 6’1” and though there was a slight paunch, he carried it well. He had the mien of a warrior, of a man who didn’t miss much. Indeed, Hyatt had been a tail gunner in a B-17 and had completed 25 missions. He was shot down over France and still managed to make it back to his Allied bombing squad. Hyatt was a man who stared down a challenge and said, “You want a piece of me?”
This was a dude you didn’t mess with, and indeed he made sure nobody messed with his mentor Leo, the wizard of wood.
Dale chaperoned me back to Leo’s office somewhere in the interior of the G&L building. As I walked down the corridor, my mind tried to wrap itself around the notion that this man I was about to meet had virtually kick started the rock and roll revolution. When he brought forth the Telecaster, Stratocaster, Precision bass — and lest we forget — the Bassman amplifier, the musician’s world shuddered in paroxysms of ecstasy and anticipation. Music would never again sound the same, and the man responsible for all that heavenly upheaval was now only a few footsteps away.
We entered through a doorway into a smallish office. Perched on a rear wall-mounted shelf were potentiometers and other gun-gray metal devices with big knobs and multiple toggles. Cables hung from brackets and a workbench held various cans — oil, wood stains — and tools. Alligator clips were strewn about like little metal reptiles and sitting there amidst this wondrous collection was Mr. Leo Fender.
Dale introduced us. Trying to control my breathing and hoping my voice was still somewhere to be found, I approached him in awe, wonder and respect — and no small amount of terror. I was insanely nervous and as I approached him — the whammy bard, the king of string theory — I extended my hand and managed to mutter, “How are you, Mr. Fender?” and the sound of those words in my ears was like the sweetest Strat tone in the world. He said hello and smiled and my fears vanished. When his beatific grin was directed at you, your heart beat slower and nerves melted away.
You knew you were in the presence of a man who had lived a life and dreamed a dream. Leo was 76 years old when I shook the hand of the magic man. He appeared fragile and there was a deliberateness in his movements and no wasted motions. Still, behind oversized steel-framed glasses, you couldn’t help but notice how his eyes peered at you with mirth and mystery. Think: Yoda meets the Dalai Lama. Shining and bright, they focused on me and revealed, “I have seen things you could never see. I have heard sounds no one else could hear. I have built a spaceship from wood to take musicians to the furthest reaches of their own imaginations.”
Leo wore one of those magnifying headpieces you saw on inventors and scientists. A hard gray plastic piece wrapped around his forehead while a Plexiglas shield fitted with an illuminating light could be lowered like a normal pair of glasses. What else would he be wearing? It was perfect. In the left-hand pocket of his blue, short-sleeved sport shirt, a white plastic pocket protector held several pens. The kind you see nerds wearing. Only this nerd had drawn the shape of a body so transcendent that every piece of wood hewn from a tree would forever want to look like that.
I plugged the microphone into my Sony Walkman Professional and Leo remarked, “OK, you got a tape there, huh?” Not so much a question as an endorsement and blessing of the act of recording. This was a process he understood. I said, “What new and exciting things have you been working on?” Leo hemmed and hawed and responded, “Oh, god.” Looking at Dale, he continued, “Should we tell him? We don’t wanna tell him.” Remember the mystery behind the eyes?
But Dale saw everything and suggested to his friend, “Well, I think it would be a good idea to tell him about the new vibrato units. I think it might be even a very good idea to tell him about the new pickups.” Leo wouldn’t budge. “I don’t think we ought to try to describe it,” he countered, referring to the pickup. Hyatt heard the reluctance in Leo’s voice and agreed. “OK, let’s leave it alone.”
This was a concise and intimate glimpse of the relationship between the pair. Leo as guiding light and Dale ensuring the way was clear so the visionary’s beacon could shine deep and long into the creative night. Dale as protector and Leo as inventor.
Leo’s voice was soft and a little shaky but he never missed a beat. Even when Dale offered some particular bit of information, Fender would chime in with some insight to clarify the comment. Here are some of Mr. Fender’s pronouncements on that special day:
When you were first building the Stratocaster, did you design it completely separate from outside input?
“A lot of times a musician would make a casual remark about how he wished he had this or he wished he had that. That’s how the guitar developed and really how the bass developed back in 1950.”
Did building the Stratocaster teach you a lot?
“I would go through thousands and thousands of pickups hunting for the best possible way there is to make one.”
How did you ever come up with the idea for the Stratocaster?
“Well [lengthy pause] … 24 hours a day. I sat at home and thought about it. I never just decided to build guitars. First I built amplifiers until about 1940. I started in before they had a radio station out here [Orange County area of California] in 1922.”
Were you a guitar player?
“No, at first I took piano lessons and then I took sax lessons and trumpet lessons. I studied bookkeeping and accounting.”
When you look back at the Stratocaster, can you understand how it changed the evolution of electric guitar?
“I’m not the judge — it’s the guy that buys it.”
Dale Hyatt: He created the finest instrument that ever was and the most copied instrument in the world.
I wish I could say this was one of the most illuminating conversations I’d ever had but that wouldn’t be the truth. Dale Hyatt covered most of the dialog and Leo’s remarks were typically brief or spoken at such a soft volume that it was virtually impossible to hear what he was saying. But none of that really mattered, because just occupying the same space as Leo Fender was a privilege and a gift. Hearing him talk about his life — however briefly — filled me with delight.
He would pass away about six years later on March 21, 1991 at the age of 82 due to heart failure. Dale Hyatt would retire from G&L on November 4, 1991, just about eight months after the departure of his very dear friend.
Leo Fender changed the course of history with the instruments and amplifiers he designed. Think about that statement for a moment: changed the course of history. How many people that you know can you say that about? Probably nobody. Think of Clarence sitting in his little workshop in Fullerton building, renting and selling PA systems, which was his first pursuit before turning his glorious brain to guitars. Then in the late 1940s and realizing the need for a solidbody electric guitar that was loud enough to play at dancehall volumes without feeding back, designing and building the Esquire.
Can you imagine that moment? Leo crouched there amongst his schematics, body plans and pickup designs. Drawing, redrawing, reconfiguring. Pencils being worn to nubs and electronic calculations a jumble of ohms, impedance and empty solder reels. One man sitting there with his visor turned low to focus on the winds of a pickup. A mortal man of flesh and blood but removed from the rest of the world and transported on the wings of his singular vision.
Can you see him? The prototype completed and all the parts glued, screwed and tooled. When Leo finally looked at it and smiled his beautiful smile was he thinking, “I have done it. I have built the guitar that will change the world.” Probably not. More likely he thought, “This one looks good and feels right. I think guitarists will play this one.”
He was right. Jimi, Jeff, David, Ritchie, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Mark Knopfler, Robin Trower and too many others to even begin naming them all would lay their fingers on his fretboards. It’s hard to think of a world — no, it’s absolutely and utterly impossible — to picture a world without the Strat and Telecaster. I can’t imagine it — and why would you?
January 12, 2021
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