Leo Fender: Utilitarian Philosophy Meets Artistry
Reflections on a famous quote about Leo Fender
Bill Carson’s comment about Leo’s spending ninety-five bucks on utility and five bucks on cosmetics is a great quote. I’ve heard it before. But there’s more to Leo Fender than his utilitarian philosophy, whether Leo knew it or not. It is not necessary for an artist to be self-aware in order to be an artist, and Leo’s intentions had nothing to do with whether he created art. Artists are not necessarily the best people to judge their own work. Sometimes they are the worst people to judge it, and many lack an appreciation of it. They’re too busy doing what they do to articulate it.
The Rolling Stones thought they were copying Muddy Waters and Elmore James. Eric Clapton thought he was copying Freddie King or whatever. Eddie Van Halen has said he was copying Eric Clapton. Well, when you hear Eddie Van Halen, do you hear someone copying Eric Clapton? Either he failed miserably in his attempt to copy, or he created original art. It doesn’t matter whether he thought he was copying Eric Clapton. The art stands.
Leonardo da Vinci was doing a job. Mozart was doing a job. They would get a commission from the Pope or a patron and they did what they were hired to do. Countless other people were doing exactly the same thing, but only Leonardo came back with The Last Supper. Only Michelangelo came back with the Sistine Ceiling.
So, yes, Leo Fender was committed to utility, but everyone else confronted the same problems, and they all had the same tubes, the same ruler, the same drafting table, the same RCA manuals. Leo Fender was the only one to come back with a tweed Twin. He saw his amps as machines that did a job, but it’s a disservice to his genius to leave it at that.
Leo’s intention was to solve problems, so on his amplifiers he put the knobs on a raked-back panel in front, and chrome protectors on the corners, and he covered it in affordable Tolex, and gave it the script logo and that piercing red light, which could have been any color of the rainbow. It was all very utilitarian, but it just looks so freakin’ cool! These were decisions that could have gone in any number of directions. If someone had asked Leo back then whether he was an artist, he surely would have said no. But it’s right in front of us. All we have to do is look. Leo may have intended to spend ninety-five dollars on the utility and five dollars on the art, but you know what? He spent the whole one hundred on the art.