Golden Age

Posted on November 5, 2016

Sleevenote written for Fender: The Golden Age CD, 2011.  

GREAT GUITARS ARE MADE TO BE PLAYED, and this CD celebrates some of the best players and the greatest Fender guitars, across three important decades, as they made glorious music in studios from Los Angeles to London.

There they are now, looking up as we peer through the control-room glass, plugging in their Telecasters and Stratocasters, their Precisions and their Jazz Basses. Here’s the studio engineer, too, adjusting the levels and carefully clearing a path so that these inspired musicians can reach out and fill the air with the blast of a magical master take.

This collection of recordings celebrates these guitar greats as a fitting accompaniment to the book Fender: The Golden Age, with a broad sweep of music from the late 40s to end of the 60s that matches the beauty and ingenuity of a series of simply classic guitars.

At first, Leo Fender gathered a small team around him to turn out a handful of steel guitars and amplifiers for local players. Californian musicians like the western-swing steel stylist Leon McAuliffe found with pleasant surprise that a Fender could give him the lovely big biting tone he wanted – just like his sound on the opening cut here, recorded in 1947: “Take it away, Leon!” Fender wanted guitarists to have something new and modern to hand, just as the artists themselves wanted the music they played to be spanking new and of-the-moment.

Leo was not content to stay small and local, and his team’s next move became their masterstroke. Spanish electric guitars – the type you play like a proper guitar, not horizontally like McAuliffe’s steel guitar – were available, but they were big and had hollow bodies. Fender’s Broadcaster, soon renamed the Telecaster, was the first solidbody electric guitar, and the Fender Precision was the first solidbody bass.

The old-school American makers – Gibson, Gretsch, and the rest – scoffed when they saw the peculiar things that this West Coast upstart was trying to sell at the start of the 50s. Their contempt quickly turned to imitation as Fender’s guitars found favour with musicians far and wide. By the turn of the 60s, the Fender company would be turning out colourful, player-friendly, brilliant instruments from its expanded Californian HQ.

Listen to this CD and, wherever you happen to land, you’ll hear the story of Fender unfolding before your ears.

Here’s the remarkable Jimmy Bryant, bending a Broadcaster to his will on Tennessee Ernie Ford’s ‘Catfish Boogie’ in 1953 – yes, it really is 60-or-so years ago – and showing off the glassy tone that Telecaster fans have coveted and chased and polished ever since. In the early years of another remarkable decade, Hank Marvin gracefully sets his Stratocaster adrift in ‘Wonderful Land’, underpinned by Jet Harris’s Precision Bass, in a beautifully crafted perfect-pop instrumental by The Shadows.

‘Memphis Soul Stew’ from 1967 opens with about a half a teacup of funky Jazz Bass, from the fingers of Jerry Jemmott, and soon stirs in four tablespoons of boiling Memphis guitar, courtesy of Reggie Young’s wailing Strat. “This is going to taste all right!” Closing the CD, and winding up the 60s for us, is the wiry Strat of Jeff Beck partnered with the rooted Tele Bass of Ron Wood, grooving their way through Donovan’s insistent ‘Barabajagal (Love Is Hot)’.

Fenders were hot, too, but it wasn’t all Strat, Precision, Tele, and Jazz Bass. For budding stars, there was a Duo-Sonic or a Mustang or a Musicmaster. Adventurous souls learned to tune and re-string and twang an Electric XII or dig deep with a VI six-string bass. Better-off groups awarded themselves an upscale Jaguar or Jazzmaster or three. There was even a line of Fender acoustic guitars. And while a Custom Color may not have been to everyone’s taste at the time, every collector today wants an original Fender finished in sparkling Candy Apple Red or Burgundy Mist or Lake Placid Blue.

Meanwhile, the pros followed the irresistible mainstream of Strat and Tele, as the early radio ads on this CD testify. They conjure up a distant, charming world where country music was still real and promotional opportunities seemed to happen simply of their own accord. “You pick a Fender, too, cousin,” suggests Faron Young’s sidekick, as Faron himself sings: “You can tell by the sound it’s a Fender.” Jan Howard also has a jingle for us: “Pick the electric guitar my pickiest friends pick,” she declares, “pick a Telecaster or maybe a Stratocaster.”

And yet … as Fender: The Golden Age shows, there is another side to great guitars. Yes, these are musical instruments that must work properly and function smoothly and satisfactorily to help musicians create great music – just the kind of music, in fact, that is collected together here. And yet … Fender guitars can live double lives. They can also be art objects, they can be historic icons or emblems of an era, and they can even add up to become valuable collectables.

If it’s the sound of a Fender electric guitar that is the instrument’s most important virtue, then this CD demonstrates time and again that a guitar put aside is just an empty vessel. Musicians make guitars speak; they turn one man’s gibberish into another’s poetry; they force an otherwise mute mix of wood, plastic, and metal to sweet-talk and whisper and sigh, to shriek and moan and howl.

Maybe it’s the look of a Fender electric guitar that first appeals to a musician. It’s hardly surprising. Maybe that’s what drew Ike Turner to the young and untested Stratocaster. Perhaps he was unable to hold out against that fluid, sculpted, comfortable shape as he held it close. He used his new guitar to good effect on the long jam called ‘All The Blues, All The Time’, belting out a sequence of tunes as an excuse to play in the style of his blues heroes: here, we’ve pulled out Turner’s takes on Junior Parker’s ‘Feelin’ Good’ followed by B.B. King’s ‘Please Love Me’.

And what about Jimi Hendrix? Sadly disallowed from an appearance here, Jimi is perhaps the ultimate Stratocaster man, the epitome of Fender invention. As we know, he died shockingly young in 1970. Jimi’s stone monument stands at Greenwood Memorial Park in Renton, Washington, carved with a fitting motto: “Forever in our hearts.” Alongside are his birth and death dates and a simple depiction of an electric guitar, unmistakeably and proudly a Fender Stratocaster. That mesmerising combination of Jimi and his Strat still haunts guitarists to this day.

Right now, somewhere, a young guitarist is finding something new and unexpected to play on a Fender electric guitar. As he picks and frets, he’s adding his own mark to a long and distinguished history, a history that continues as you listen now. Some of the best of that history – the mesmerising sound of Fender’s golden era – has been captured here on this CD.

As Jeff Beck once told me: “You don’t get kids saying: ‘What’s that old guitar – ain’t you got a new one?’ The Strat still looks futuristic, and it’s still an unbeatable shape, as is the Tele. I don’t think you can improve on those two guitars. They’re the all-time great rock guitars.”