Book Review: The Fender Archives by Tom Wheeler

Tom Wheeler knows gear.
By Jim Roberts ,

Tom Wheeler knows gear. The former editor of Guitar Player—who was also BP’s founding editorial director—has written a half-dozen authoritative books on instruments and amps, including American Guitars, The Stratocaster Chronicles, and The Soul of Tone [all published by Hal Leonard].

Tom Wheeler Wheeler’s latest volume is The Fender Archives: A Scrapbook of Artifacts, Treasures, and Inside Information [also published by Hal Leonard]. Reflecting Wheeler’s deep experience as both a musician and a scholar—he is a professor of journalism at the University of Oregon—The Fender Archives is a showcase of creatively presented insights and images about a company that played a crucial role in the development of modern music technology.

While Fender has already been the subject of a library shelf full of books, Wheeler was surprised by how much new information he discovered while exploring file cabinets, storage boxes, and photo galleries. “The more I searched, the more I came across some pretty astonishing pieces,” he says. “It became a deeper and richer experience than I had imagined.” The concept was for Wheeler to act as a sort of museum curator, unearthing materials, organizing them, and writing about their significance. “The aim here,” he explains in the book’s introduction, “is not to introduce Fender but rather to revisit it, to go behind now-familiar facts, images, and assumptions and shed new light on the inspirations for these revolutionary instruments and amplifiers.”

Wheeler consulted with other Fender experts such as Richard Smith, the author of Fender: The Sound Heard ’Round the World [Garfish], and photographer John Peden. He secured access to materials at the Fender Museum, the Fullerton Museum, and the Fullerton Public Library, as well as company records in Corona, California, and Scottsdale, Arizona, and he also tapped private sources, including the family archives of Fender sales executive Don Randall. Roaming the Corona storage facility was an especially memorable experience. “That warehouse was like the last scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark,” says Wheeler. “Floor to ceiling stuff. And it must have been 100 degrees in there—Southern California summer, no ventilation.”

Sweating away, Wheeler uncovered handwritten correspondence, old photographs, patent documents, newspaper clippings, sketches in Leo Fender’s own hand, and more. In one box, he found journals kept by longtime employee Freddie Tavares. “I knew of no one who had ever heard of their existence—several volumes, handwritten, by one of the most esteemed employees from the early days.” The journals included Tavares’ day-by-day account of the many bad decisions made by CBS executives after they acquired Fender in 1965. “Everything we had heard about life under CBS was true, and it was actually quite a bit worse than anybody knew.” In one memorable entry, inspectors were told to lower their standards when evaluating the speakers in Bassman amps because “bass players would not notice anything wrong.”

Organizing and presenting the material was a huge task, one that took Wheeler more than two years. One of the most innovative aspects of the book is the inclusion of four large envelopes, attached to inside pages, that contain posters and reproductions of original documents. You can hold copies of key agreements and Leo Fender’s business card in your hand. Or you can peruse an early price list—how about a Precision Bass for $219.50? And there are two more posters tucked into pockets on the inside covers.

For bass players, one of the most intriguing items is on the poster in Envelope 2: a pair of photos of a 1959 Jazz Bass prototype. For one thing, the peghead says Precision Bass. And look at those pickups: two soapbar- style units, one with five polepieces in the neck position and one with four polepieces by the bridge. And there’s a three-knob control configuration—two volumes and a tone—which was long believed to be the second version of the Jazz Bass, introduced in 1962. The early production Jazz Basses had two stack-knobs, but apparently Leo came up with the three-knob version first, then changed his mind. Wheeler says that even vintage-guitar expert George Gruhn was surprised by this discovery.

One chapter showcases the beautiful Fender ads that featured the photographs of Bob Perine, a guitarist and graphic artist who lived near the beach in Southern California. His work helped to cement the bond between Fender and surf music, with photos featuring guitars, surfboards, and pretty girls—three of whom were Perine’s daughters. “I was able to track down two of Bob’s daughters,” says Wheeler, “and they remember everything. I also found Edie Carhart, who was the surfer girl in some of the ads. It turns out she was a champion surfer—the real deal.”

Talking with people like Perine’s daughters, says Wheeler, made compiling The Fender Archives especially gratifying. “I was able to draw upon my experiences going back to the ’70s, when I was fortunate enough to interview Mr. Fender and many of the other principals from the early days, so I was connecting dots from the present with dots from the past—putting things together. It was very rewarding.”