Leo Fender and the Les Paul Rivalry

  • Innovation is not limited to the people who create a product or the companies that support them.
  • The history of the electric guitar shows that the musicians who worked on the instrument were as much involved in the process as the people who created it.
  • The 37th episode of Business Insider’s “Brought to you by…” podcast featured author Ian S. Port describing the rivalry between Fender and Paul, and the history of the electric guitar.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

To hear the impact of Leo Fender and Les Paul on rock n’ roll, listen to the distinct sounds of their electric guitars.

In the 1940s, the electric guitars on the market were just acoustic guitars that you could plug into an amplifier. Fender and Paul independently sought to develop solid-body guitars, or instruments that were not hollow, to provide louder, clearer sounds.

The versions of the electric guitar they would develop, the Fender Telecaster and the Gibson Les Paul, would become integral to the sound of rock n’ roll. Yet, although Paul and Fender worked on the innovation of the instrument, they were both detached from producing the sounds their guitars would be famous for. Another version of innovation, playing Fender and Les Paul in original ways, would come from the hands of musicians like Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton.

The story tells how innovation isn’t just about following what an inventor “had in mind”, but what creative people do with a product when it’s in their hands, like using Coca-Cola to cook a cake or vinegar to clean a coffee maker.

Fender didn’t play guitar or any instrument. According to Ian S. Port, author of “The Birth of Loud: Leo Fender, Les Paul, and the Guitar-Pioneering Rivalry That Shaped Rock ‘n’ Roll”, his “lack of player romance” meant he considered the guitar electricity in terms of technical production.

“He almost saw it as a problem to be solved,” Port said on Episode 37 of BI’s “Brought to you by…” podcast. “And so, he was thinking about the mechanical details, the practicality, its sturdiness and its lifespan.”

This technicality translated into Fender’s Telecaster, which was introduced to the market in 1951. It had a noticeable, “thin, lazy, twangy, classic” sound, according to Port, which can be heard in Buddy’s music Holly, among others.

Paul’s answer to the Telecaster

Paul received a first Telecaster directly from Fender’s business partner. As one of the biggest pop stars of the early 1950s, with sold-out shows across the country, multiple number one hits in the top 10 charts, and his face in every magazine, Paul had influence. Fender was courting his endorsement for the Telecaster.

Paul glanced at the guitar but refused to approve it. Right after that he went to Gibson and told them to build an electric guitar like the Telecaster, because if they didn’t, Fender would take over the world.

Gibson listened, and their Les Paul electric guitar came out in 1952, with a warmer, growler, and a little sweeter sound that set it apart from the Telecaster. It had a thick wooden body, with barely contained power that made it well suited for spotlights. You can hear it in “Blue Suede Shoes” by Carl Perkins.

Now rock ‘n’ rollers had a choice: “They could sound like Fender or play like Paul,” Port says.

Although Fender’s electric guitar took center stage in the 50s, the Gibson Les Paul dominated the sound in the 60s when Eric Clapton recorded “Stepping Out” with it.

“With this Les Paul guitar, you can blow an amplifier so hard that it does this nice distortion,” Port said. “And no Fender or other instrument at the time was really capable of producing that kind of sound.”

The Les Paul’s latent power, its ability to communicate aggravation or fury, made itself known in the music of Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath.

Then Jimi Hendrix brought back the Fender in all its technical glory. Port says Hendrix made the Fender Stratocaster the equal of Gibson Les Paul in hard rock, creating wild and memorable sounds using all of its capabilities. Shortly after seeing Hendrix play, Clapton himself switched to a Fender.

Musicians like Clapton and Hendrix have taken the electric guitar and allowed it to resonate in new ways.

Innovation in this context was not limited to the rivalry between Fender and Paul, or the companies that supported them. It was about taking the instruments they produced, putting them in the hands of innovative musicians, and changing the sound of movements like rock n’ roll.

Listen to the podcast here.


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