The genius of Leo Fender or How I learned to build an electric guitar.

For the past few months, well actually more than a year, I have been working at building 4 string electric guitars.  I have tried to apply all that I have learned in making cigar box guitars but of course I have looked at the "real thing", the Fenders and the Les Pauls and the Parkers and the Rickenbacker and the Ibanez.  For aesthetic reasons, and because most of my favourite players play Fender guitars, I looked at Leo Fender's creation closely. What I found was innovation in the classic american style and by that I mean innovation without undue regard for established or traditional ways of doing things: a willingness to imagine or reimagine something within a new set of circumstances or conditions and to change the subject, often in fundamental ways, to fit a new reality . I am willing to bet that most people who called themselves "luthiers" around the time Fender introduced the Broadcaster were appalled and probably refused to acknowledge that it was a guitar at all. 

Leo Fender's guitar is nothing short of the "Declaration of Independence" of guitars.  He built a guitar that could rock like hell and he built it for anyone who could save a few pennies a week.  He looked a tradition in the face and said there must be a better and easier way.  He considered new materials including improved screws that resulted from the experience of wartime necessity.  With these new and better fasteners he concluded the best way to simplify what is a complex and time consuming job, setting the neck of an instrument, was simply to screw the neck to the body resulting in a significant reduction in build time and cost.  Imagine the uproar at the meeting of the luthiers guild! 

The neck Fender designed was, in similar fashion, intended to overcome the complexity of the scarf joint that attaches a headstock at an angle to the neck, creating the break angle and the resultant force necessary to hold the strings down on the nut.  Fender's neck was and is flat, with break angle provided by relieving the face of the headstock thereby placing the tuners at a level below the nut. This neck and headstock could be cut in a simple process from a single piece of wood (reducing cost).  I imagine that the development of the neck was iterative;  the shape was decided on but upon testing was found to have failed to have created enough break angle to ensure proper tension across the strings given the in line tuner design.  That design resulted in a  lower effective break angle and consequent lower tension with the increasing distance of the tuner from the nut.  The result was that strings 1 through 4 (DGBE) had a tendency to emit an unwelcome buzz.   I like to imagine a young apprentice lamenting the neck's failure to Leo Fender, whereupon, he, Fender, drilled a couple of holes in the headstock face, and using a washer or an offcut from a guitar nut, fastened them over the misbehaving strings with a...gasp...screw, and the string tree was invented: problem solved.  

I don't think the solid body was Fender's idea, that seems to have come from elsewhere (Merl Travis, Les Paul???) but who did a better job of dropping in pickups into a nice slab of wood? Not to mention the Fender body shapes which seem to share in the wonderful ostentation of the streamlined era of industrial manufacturing while having the added bonus of actually providing ergonomic benefits. Those shapes are so aesthetically right they have become standards that you must acknowledge if you are going to build something and call it an electric guitar. 

Which is what I have been puttering with and it should come as no surprise that I have embraced Fender's genius and tried to incorporate his time and cost saving innovations.  My results fall a good deal short of anything Fender builds but resulted in a playable instrument with, I think, reasonably good looks.The body is pine, salvaged from an old headboard, the neck is maple - a leftover from a dresser project.  The fretboard is walnut.  The neck is, of course, screwed to the body with brass screws that fit into threaded brass receivers let into the neck.   I understand this is how they do it for the more expensive Fenders and I liked the idea of being able to take the neck off multiple times without worrying about messing up the pilot holes.The  truss rod is a fixed steel bar glued into a slot in the neck. The fret scale is 24.5 inches and the overall length is 38 inches. The centre of balance is right where the fretboard ends.

The headstock and the neck are fashioned from a single piece of maple.  The headstock is brought to thickness simply by slicing about 3/8" from the headstock face.  This provides the difference in height between the tuners and the nut and generates the required pressure at the nut.  Of course for the two high strings a bit of help is required in the form of the string tree. You can see in the picture, I've made mine out of a bit of used nut flipped upside down with a hole drilled between the string slots.

The speed with which this kind of guitar can be built is remarkable and the good news is there aren't any downsides to the method that I can see...but then I guess the last 70 years of amazing music from people like Buddy Guy, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Roy Buchanan, Susan Tedeschi,  Bill Frisell and Stevie Ray Vaughn have already, and most conclusively, proven that.

Happy building and playing.

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Comment by Doug Krantz on November 27, 2019 at 6:34pm

very nice work.....

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