I'm a guitarist and bassist with over 35 years of experience as a musician.
If you are a guitarist, the best Fender electric guitars and the evolution of models like the Stratocaster, Telecaster, Jaguar and Jazzmaster should be significant to you. It’s not an understatement to say that knowing Fender history means knowing the history of the electric guitar.
Fender played a major role in the design and development of the electric guitar as we know it today, and no matter what brand you play it’s safe to say there’s a little Fender in it.
Even if you play a Gibson you’ve benefitted from Fender’s innovations. In the 1940s guitarist Les Paul invented a solid-body guitar in the Epiphone factory and named it the Log. He pitched the idea to Gibson, but they weren’t interested. Not until Fender released the solid-bodied Telecaster, anyway. After that, Gibson decided it might be a smart idea to see what this Les Paul guy had going on.
The result of their collaboration, of course, was the Gibson Les Paul solid-body electric guitar. Is it fair to say the Les Paul would have never existed without the Fender Telecaster?
Well, let’s not go that far. But the friendly guitar arms race that has been going on between Fender and Gibson for over 50 years has led to many of the innovations we take for granted today.
Some of the top guitarists in history played Fender guitars. Here’s a look at some incredible Fender instruments and their impact on the guitar world.
The Telecaster wasn’t always called the Telecaster. It started out as the single-pickup Esquire back in 1950, then gained a second pickup and become the Broadcaster, and finally the Telecaster.
Yup, this is the guitar that gave Gibson the kick in the pants it needed to develop the Les Paul.
This was the first commercially available solid-body electric guitar. It was a creation of Leo Fender, founder of Fender, and a unique innovation.
The form and function of this guitar has remained essentially the same since its inception. They built the Tele model for clear, clean sounds, and assembly-line production. With a flat, solid body and simple wiring they could pump these guitars out by the thousands, and the Tele caught on just as fast as Fender could make them.
Today the Fender Telecaster seems among the most simple guitars out there, but it’s easy to forget just how ground-breaking it was at the time of its release. Even today, it has a sound and look that some guitarists can’t live without.
Leo Fender knew what he was doing!
The first Fender Stratocaster popped up in 1954. Like the Telecaster, it was simple in form and function, but featured a few things that were pretty distinctive in the guitar world.
The body shape featured contours to make holding and playing the guitar more comfortable, and a double-cutaway design that made reaching the upper frets much easier. The tremolo bar allowed players to add vibrato to their sound, and the three-pickup design meant more available tone options than found in the Telecaster.
Still, the Strat struggled a bit, until rock icon Buddy Holly appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show with a sunburst Strat. The rest, as they say, is history. From Jimi Hendrix to Eric Clapton to Yngwie Malmsteen, legions of rock guitarists have used the Fender Stratocaster to get the sound they need.
And when the Strat didn’t quite have the sound they wanted, they took a wrench to it. The Stratocaster is among the most modded guitars out there, and players have created their own custom Strats over the years. Some ideas caught on and found themselves in the designs of other guitar brands.
Without the Fender Stratocaster, we may never have seen instruments like the Ibanez RG or Jackson Soloist.
There’s no doubt the Fender Stratocaster is one of the most popular guitars in the world, and no matter what genre of music you’re into, you can likely see the value in the Strat. The Fender Jazzmaster, however, is more of an acquired taste.
With its larger body, soap-bar single-coil pickups and unique Lead and Rhythm circuits in addition to normal pickup switching and tone control, the Jazzmaster is a bit more sophisticated than either the Strat or Telecaster. Unfortunately, the jazz audience Fender was hoping for never quite grabbed onto the Jazzmaster idea.
However, this guitar didn’t fail to earn some fans. The Jazzmaster played a part in shaping the sound of ‘60s surf guitar and later found itself in the hands of alternative guitarists looking for a distinctive sound.
Since the late ‘50s, the Jazzmaster has been a unique voice in the Fender lineup. While not as well known as the Stratocaster or Telecaster, it is no less important in the Fender's evolution.
The Fender Jaguar arrived in 1962, and like the Jazzmaster had a certain appeal within the surf crowd. While the Jaguar may look a bit like the Jazzmaster there are some serious differences.
Both guitars share a similar design concept, but the Jaguar features an even more complicated pickup switching and tone circuit system, a shorter scale length and single-coil pickups more like those seen on a Strat or Tele.
It quickly made its mark as the most innovative Fender guitar yet. But even though it was billed as Fender’s ultimate modern guitar, the initial release of the Jaguar wooed few musicians. By 1975, Fender has ceased production.
But the grunge movement of the early ‘90s brought the Jaguar back into the limelight, as guitarists found clever uses for its unique sound capabilities. Today, the Jaguar is back in production, and available in several Fender lineups.
Fender introduced the Mustang in 1964 as a student-model guitar. It is a short-scale instrument (24 or 22.5-inch) with a pair of single coil pickups. Unlike the Telecaster, there is no pickup selector switch. Instead, each pickup has its own on-off switch. The original run lasted until 1982, when Fender removed the guitar from production.
However, this little horse would not go quietly. The explosion of grunge in the early ‘90s led to a kind of Mustang renaissance. It was the favorite of many alternative musicians, most notably Kurt Cobain of Nirvana.
Today, the Mustang is a popular reissue instrument in Fender’s catalog. While it is unlikely that many students choose it as a first guitar, and maybe never did, it has found its place as one of the most legendary Fender guitars in rock history.
Fenders Made in Mexico
For the past few decades Fender's main lineup of budget instruments has come from their facility in Ensenada, Mexico. Today, most of these guitars are in Fender's Players Series, and they are sometimes referred to as MIM (Made in Mexico) Fenders. Player Series guitars and basses are excellent alternatives to spending big cash on an American Fender.
The debate on MIM Fenders vs American Fenders will go on forever, and I get lots of feedback from guitarists on both sides of the fence. Many players insist an MIM Fender is just as good as an American Fender, or at least good enough for them. Other guitarists think that's the silliest thing they've ever heard.
In my opinion, MIM Fenders are valid alternatives and worth checking out if you are looking to save a few bucks.
Squier by Fender
Squier is Fender's entry-level brand, and they produce classic Fender models priced for beginners. Starting out with a Squier is a great way for a guitarist to ensure they are playing affordable but quality gear from the beginning. Squier even makes starter packs, which contain everything a new guitar player needs to get going.
Even though most Squiers are made for inexperienced players, their Classic Vibe series guitars have gotten some attention from veteran players. These are upgraded instruments, but still very affordable, and a great way to add to a guitar collection without going into debt.
Like the MIM Fenders, guitarists will always debate the pros and cons of Squier guitars. I believe they are among the best options for newbie guitarists.
The Legacy of Fender
Fender Musical Instruments Corporation has seen its share of ups and downs over the years. From the creative excitement of the '50s and early '60s, to the uncertainty of the CBS era, to the resurgence of the late '80s, and on to the present. Today, Fender is as strong as ever, and among the top guitar brands on the planet.
Leo Fender left the company in 1965. He went on to form Music Man and G&L Musical Instruments, two more giants of the guitar world, before his passing in 1991.
So, do you play a Fender? Should you play a Fender? Probably. Every guitarist has to have at least one Fender in their collection. You might discover, like thousands of other musicians, that there is a Fender model that fits your sound perfectly.
Choose Your Fender!
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Paul orben on September 26, 2019:
Just bought an american pro strat. Its an incredible instrument. Right out of the box it plays like dream. Always been a fender guy since 1980. The quality is off the chain. Would nt play anything but a fender. Worth every penny. My 1979 fender p bass which i bought brand new is astounding. The sound and playability just gets better with age. What can i say...fender is the best!!
Tommy Grant jr. on June 19, 2019:
I'm a bass player, I still prefer the sound of the jazz bass my personal favorite bass is G&L 1st ,2nd jazz bass, 3rd musicman!!
Michael James (author) on July 02, 2014:
Thanks for sharing that great story, Amy. Don't worry, I get emotional about guitars too!
Amy Murry from London on July 01, 2014:
i had a stratocaster MIM when growing up...
the time i spent playing those scales seems so long ago.
I'll always remember how i started paying interest to guitar playing.. i was hearing Jimi Hendrix playing 'Little wing' on the radio and i was immediately hooked up to it. i was trying to search for the name of the person who played this (before the internet era) and the minute i saw Jimi's picture with his stratocaster i decided that i want to learn how to play the guitar, and that i want to own one of these stratocaster guitars.
so thanks for this post, sorry if i got to emotional...:)
Michael James (author) on June 30, 2014:
Thanks rustedmemory! Glad you like it.
David Hamilton from Lexington, KY on June 30, 2014:
I love the guitar articles! Keep it up :)