On this day, August 10th 1909, one of the greatest and most significant pioneers of all time was born, Leo Fender. Inventor and founder of the iconic Fender Electronic Instrument Manufacturing Company, or ‘Fender’, as we all know it, Leo Fender’s iconic designs still endure today. The man can be credited with not only changing music and how it sounds but how it is played as well. Although he passed away in 1991, aged 81, he continues to exist in the most hallowed of regards and is quite literally one of music’s most defining characters. Alongside Robert Moog and Les Paul, Fender is a key element of that rare cohort of figures who, without their existence, music, as we know it today, would not be the same.
Starting as a radio engineer in Fullerton, California, in 1938, his ‘Fender Radio Service’, was where his foray into musical instruments would start. Before too long, local musicians and band leaders came to his shop for Public Address systems which he also built, rented out and sold. At the forefront of technology even then, Fender also offered amplification for the acoustic guitars that were becoming popular on the southern California music scene, particularly in the jazz, big band and country genres of music.
During World War II, which was itself a brilliant time for technological advancement, Fender met Clayton Orr ‘Doc’ Kauffman, an inventor who worked for Rickenbacker. Kauffman had been building and selling lap steel guitars for over a decade, and when he was at Rickenbacker, he invented the ‘Vibrola’ tailpiece. This was to become the progenitor of all future vibrato systems on the guitar, such as the standard fixed tremolo, floating tremolo and Floyd Rose systems.
In a brilliant piece of business foresight, Fender convinced Kauffman to team up, and they subsequently started the ‘K&F Manufacturing Corporation’, where the duo designed and built Hawaiian guitars and amplifiers. By 1944, K&F patented the design for a lap steel guitar, in it contained an electric pickup that was already licensed by Fender. The year after, they started selling the guitar in a package that came with K&F’s very own amplifier. However, this series of home runs for the pioneering pair was about to end.
By 1946, Kauffman pulled out of the company, and Fender renamed it ‘Fender Manufacturing’ and again as ‘Fender Electric Instrument Co.’ at the end of 1947. This was to be the true birth of the ubiquitous guitar juggernaut that we know today. Fender consequently handed over his radio shop to a friend and concentrated solely on all things guitar and amplifiers. It is worth noting at this point that the man who changed the face of guitar playing forever didn’t even play the instrument himself. Unlike Les Paul, he was purely an engineer.
Fender’s switch from radios and speaker systems to guitar and amplifiers was aided by the end of the Second World War. The big bands that he had originally catered to prior to the war’s beginning had fallen out of favour, attributed to the rise of the more modern musical modes. In the US, rhythm and blues, honky-tonk and boogie-woogie were just some of the new exciting genres. The band’s who made up this new wave were embracing the electric guitar as it would give one man the sonic power of an entire brass section.
Initially, the semi-acoustic archtop style was the guitar of choice for players at the end of the ’40s; however, the newfound popularity of roadhouses and dance halls created a significant demand for louder, cheaper and more importantly, durable instruments. This demand also created a need for a change in the electric guitar’s design. The rise of the “take-off lead guitar” in country music made players require a design that aided this quicker style of playing, which needed “faster” necks and better intonation.
Thus, the solid-body guitar was on the rise. This wave would change music forever. Whilst there were other designs such as Les Paul’s and Rickenbacker’s, of course, Leo Fender would get in on the action – to a more significant effect than any of his competitors.
The three unmistakable designs were: the Fender Telecaster (1950), which became the first mass-produced electric guitar, the Fender Stratocaster (1954), the world’s most recognisable guitar silhouette and the Fender Precision Bass (1951), which set the standard and hailed the dawn of the electric bass. Showing that Fender never lost his love of speakers, his Fender Bassman amplifier drew up the blueprint for all of our favourite amplifier brands such as Marshall, Mesa Boogie and Orange, which would dominate alternative music over the coming decades.
It is a testament to Leo Fender that 30 years after his death, his designs are very much alive, being turned out in numerous different formats, by Fender, a company who in the last ten years have really got their act together and displayed themselves as the company by the guitarist, for the guitarist. In fact, the company that shares its founder’s name is thriving even amongst the pandemic, a starkly different tale to its direct competitors, the company that should not be named.
Fender changed music forever. Without him, many of our favourite acts of the last six decades would not exist in the way they do today. To imagine Jimi Hendrix playing a Les Paul is almost criminal, but we will not branch into Orwellian policy here.
So on his birthday, it is fitting that we list the twenty best Fender guitar players of all time in remembrance of the late genius.
20 greatest Fender guitar players of all time
20. Kurt Cobain
Whilst he wasn’t the most technically gifted Fender proponent, no definitive list of Fender players would be complete without Nirvana’s mastermind, Kurt Cobain. Influenced as much by the Beatles as he was by punk and lo-fi such as the Pixies and Dinosaur Jr., Cobain is one of the godfather’s of alternative rock. In addition to this, he is one of the main reason’s why Fender’s range of offset bodied guitars have been used almost exclusively by alternative rockers for the past thirty years.
Cobain was almost exclusively a Fender player, particularly until Nirvana’s final album In Utero (1993). He used no end of different guitars throughout his careers, such as Mosrite’s and Gibson’s, and he loved obscure “junk” and pawnshop guitars. However, Fender is the brand that has become closely associated with the late frontman. At different points, he used a Fender Jaguar, Mustang and that unforgettable Jag-Stang in sonic blue. It is these models that underpin Nirvana’s most iconic tracks, including the big hits and other favourites such as ‘Drain You’ and ‘Aneurysm’.
19. Tom Verlaine
Virtuoso and frontman of the new-wave band Television, Tom Verlaine played several Fender Jazzmasters and Mustangs throughout his career. These guitars weren’t a popular choice for most guitarists in the 1970s, and Verlaine is often credited with being the person to bring these ‘surf guitars’ into the rock arena.
As is clear from tracks like ‘Marquee Moon‘, vibrato played a massive part in Verlaine’s playing, so, like the classic surf guitarists, he exploited the tremolo arm on his guitars whenever he could. Verlaine was also something of a virtuoso and, despite many a punk fan’s disdain for extended guitar solos, Verlaine managed to sneak a fair few in undetected.
18. Ritchie Blackmore
This list wouldn’t be complete without a word about Ritchie Blackmore. His bone-crunching style lay the foundations for an entire generation of heavy rock and metal guitarists, and he is today regarded as an icon of the rock world.
Blending baroque and hard rock, Blackmore rose to fame of the mind behind Rainbow and went on to perform with Deep Purple. Throughout the 1960s, Blackmore played a Gibson ES 355, but from the ’70s onwards, the guitarist has always wielded a Stratocaster in one form or another. He showcased the Strat’s powerful kick in ‘Smoke On the Water’, the main riff of which is so synonymous with the world of guitars that guitar sellers have reportedly kicked people out for playing it in-store.
17. Joe Strummer
As the frontman of the seminal punk outfit The Clash, Joe Strummer needed a guitar he could throw around a bit. With its blocky, almost nihilistic charm, the Fender Telecaster was perfectly suited to Strummer’s requirements, giving weight to his choppy playing style and imbuing his riffs with grit and bite. Strummer’s Telecaster had a certain rough-edged appeal. Its finish was worn away, its body was battered, and it looked as unforgiving as a slab of concrete. In other words, it perfectly encapsulated the aesthetics of the punk era.
Strummer’s playing, as was the case for many punk guitarists of the period, was angular, minimalist, and more about energy than technical prowess. Still, the reggae-influenced stabs of ‘London Calling’ are perhaps the most iconic of the era and songs like ‘Straight To Hell’ reveal a pioneering use of feedback in a way that would go on to influence bands like The Jesus and Mary Chain.
16. Jim Root
Possibly the most shocking entry on this list, Jim Root is one of the most influential and unique guitarists of the last 20 years. Slipknot’s “#4”, Root is credited with making Fender acceptable in the world of metal again.
A highly accomplished and visceral guitar player in his own right, Root now has his own Fender Jazzmaster and Telecaster models. This may come as a surprise to some, hearing that these models have underpinned some of Slipknot’s most iconic songs. ‘Duality’, ‘Before I Forget’ and the whole of ‘Psychosocial’, including that pastiche of Djent in the breakdown, are all played on Fender guitars.
It is a testament to Root that he can create such metallic textures on Fender models, when his bandmate and guitar sidekick in Slipknot, Mick Thomson, prefers the more traditional metal bands such as Jackson and B.C. Rich. It is due to Root’s efforts that we now see Fender cropping up in metal and hardcore as it did back in the ‘80s, as people have realised the brilliance and hardiness of Fender’s just as Leo Fender had hoped back in the ‘40s. In a way, Root has been to metal for Fender, what Cobain was for alternative rock.
15. Jonny Greenwood
The Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood has always relied on his Fender Telecasters more than any other guitar. His sunburnt model especially has given the world countless iconic riffs, including ‘My iron Lung’ to ‘No Surprises’.
Like Strummer, Greenwood was attracted to the Telecaster because of its minimalist design. This is somewhat unsurprising given Greenwood has often said he dislikes the reputation of guitars as something to be “admired or worshipped”. Instead, he prefers to think of them as a tool, as something to be wrestled with. Greenwood’s aggressive playing style is undoubtedly a testament to the Telecaster’s ability to take one hell of a battering.
14. Johnny Marr
Another Johnny, now. Marr is perhaps the most iconic player of the Fender Jaguar. The Smiths’ guitarist has always been an immensely dexterous player and needed a guitar that could capture his densely polyphonic riffs with absolute clarity.
For Marr, the Jaguar was that guitar: “The Jag just suited the way I was playing. I’d evolved as a guitar player, but all my own riffs sounded absolutely right on a jag. It covered a lot of bases that I’d used other guitars for. I’m really glad that I came across it. It sounds like how I’m supposed to sound.”
13. Thurston Moore
If Kurt Cobain is the Jesus of alternative rock, then Thurston Moore is undoubtedly Moses. One of the most groundbreaking guitarists of all time, the frontman and mastermind of noise-rock heroes Sonic Youth, Thurston Moore, alongside bandmate Lee Ranaldo, has inspired so many of our favourite guitarists.
Why has Moore made the list and not Ranaldo? Well, Moore wrote some of Sonic Youth’s best pieces, including the majority of Daydream Nation (1988). Without Moore’s work in Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr. and Nirvana to name but a couple, would not have existed. They pioneered alternate tunings and the use of feedback and the majority of Moore’s solo work and his efforts in Sonic Youth were done on a Fender Jazzmaster.
Even more critically, Moore and Ranaldo invented their signature Fender, ‘Jazzblaster’. This is a Jazzmaster model with inserted wide-range Telecaster humbuckers. This design is so iconic that in 2009, Fender officially released the model.
12. Elvis Costello
Costello bought his first Jazzmaster after trading in an old telecaster for the sleeker, asymmetrical model in the early ’70s. “For the first sessions of My Aim is True I was playing this terrible telecaster – really hard to play. Then one day, I was walking along the street in Hounslow, and I saw this guitar hanging up in the shop window. And I thought, ‘I’ve never seen a guitar like this before.’ I thought it looked like a strat that someone had a cut a bit off”.
Costello quickly fell in love with the guitar’s notoriously mellow tone, and the Jazzmaster began to crop up all over this place, most notably on the cover of his 1977 album My Aim Is True. He also played his iconic walnut model in the video for ‘I don’t Want To Go To Chelsea’, a song that has got to contain the coolest ‘effing riff of the entire ’70s.
11. Nile Rodgers
There is scarcely an area of popular music where the influence of Nile Rodgers cannot be felt. He has been working as a producer, composer and arranger since the ’80s, and hardly a day goes by when you don’t hear the music he has contributed to. His guitar playing stems from slightly different origins than most of the guitarists on this list, with funk being the bedrock of his style. His treble-rich, wah-wah’d sound is unmistakable, as is his guitar, ‘The Hit Maker’
Yes, if Kieth Richards’ ‘Micawber’ is the most famous guitar in the world, then Nile Rodgers’ white 1960 Stratocaster is a close second. ‘The Hit Maker’ has been the making of countless iconic songs, including Madonna’s ‘Like A Virgin’ and Daft Punk’s ‘Get Lucky’. The story goes that Rogers bought the guitar on Miami beach when he was still playing a Gibson. His manager suggested he trade this Gibson in for the sleeker Strat, as it would better suit the new disco style Rodgers was pursuing. Rogers would later describe the Stratocaster as playing a “pivotal role” in his career.
10. J. Mascis
One of the most pioneering guitarists of all time, J Mascis, frontman and guitarist of Massachusetts noise-rock trailblazers, Dinosaur Jr., has a style that is often imitated but never matched. A brilliant technical guitarist, with quick fingers and a master of alternate tunings, Mascis is closely associated with the Fender Jazzmaster.
He is so closely associated with the Jazzmaster model, that both Fender and offshoot company Squier have released his signature models. The standout is, of course, the Fender model in its sparkly purple finish. Known to use a Telecaster at points over Dinosaur Jr.’s long career, Mascis is up there with Cobain in terms of influence on today’s alternative rock bands. In fact, in 1989 Cobain is said to have invited Mascis to join Nirvana.
The brilliant, spiky tone of the Jazzmaster can be heard on some of Mascis’ best work, including ‘Feel the Pain’ and ‘Little Fury Things’.
9. Kevin Shields
As the creative mind behind My Bloody Valentine, Kevin Shields pushed the textural capabilities of his instrument to its very limits. The swirling pool of sound that defines his band’s influential shoegaze album Loveless, is largely down to Shield’s manipulation of his Fender Jazzmaster’s floating tremolo bar, which allowed him to warp his playing to other-worldly effect.
Shields is renowned for his love of the Jazzmaster which, back in the ’80s, became the guitar of choice for people who didn’t want to fork out on an expensive Stratocaster. When asked how many Jazzmasters he thought he might have in his collection, Shields gave the reply: “Oh, something like 80.”
8. John Frusciante
One of the guitar legends that picked up the Stratocaster because of Jimi Hendrix, John Frusciante, is a virtuoso in every sense of the word. The modern player’s Jimi Hendrix, Frusciante’s technically gifted ability, is a colourful patchwork of different influences. Equally inspired by psychedelia, glam, krautrock, punk and funk, Frusciante has carved a path out that is truly his own.
He joined the Red Hot Chili Peppers aged just 18 after the tragic death of their original guitarist Hillel Slovak. Throughout his three stints as guitarist in the funk-rock masters, his work has underpinned their most enduring and iconic songs. Hits such as: ‘Under the Bridge, ‘The Zephyr Song’, ‘By The Way’ and ‘Dani California’, feature his trademark experimental style on Fender models.
A master of the clean tone, Frusciante is most well associated with playing the beat-up 1962 sunburst Strat.
7. Stevie Ray Vaughan
Blues virtuoso Stevie Ray Vaughan has always been synonymous with the Fender Stratocaster and has expressed his love for the 1959 model, in particular, many times. Of the instrument, Vaughan has said: “I like the strength of its sound. Any guitar I play has got to be pretty versatile. It’s got a big, strong tone, and it’ll take anything I do to it.” And it is this versatility that, despite his short life, cemented Vaughan as one the greatest guitarists of all time.
Vaughan’s playing is full of the vitality and razor-sharp edge that the Stratocaster model oozes from every pore. In songs like ‘Little Wing’, and Lenny, Vaughan showcases his intricate playing style and baffling ability to make his instrument, which is still just a plank of wood, sing like a bird.
6. Keith Richards
Richards has played a huge range of guitars throughout his career – and has said that he has a collection of around 3000 in total. But if there’s one guitar that captures the style and inescapable cool of ol’ Keith, it is without a doubt the Fender Telecaster. His iconic yellow 1950s model ‘Micawber’ is perhaps the most famous guitar in rock, and heralded such songs as ‘Brown Suger’ and ‘Before they Make Me Run’.
It is also one of the many Telecaster’s that The Rolling Stone’s guitarist modified to better suit his requirements for creating marauding and menacing riffs.
When asked why he favoured the Telecaster more than anything else, he replied “Because it gives you a lot of range. I have several telecasters and some I like to keep strictly Tele, and others – if there’s an open tuning in a song – I like to put humbuckers on.”
5. Jeff Beck
Founder of the eponymous Jeff Beck Group and one of three legendary guitarists to have played in the Yardbirds along with Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck is widely regarded as “the guitarist’s guitarist”. His genres encompass a wide range of styles, including blues, jazz and hard rock and owing to his versatility, he is one of the most influential guitarists of all time. A proponent of fingerpicking and the whammy bar, Clapton once said of his Fender wielding contemporary: “With Jeff, it’s all in his hands”.
Although he has used Les Paul’s and Telecaster’s, Beck is widely associated with using a Fender Stratocaster. In the early ’90s, he was ordained with his custom Fender Stratocaster, which cemented his status as one of its more significant players. Beck is also credited with using his famous “Tele-Gib”, a 1959 Fender Telecaster he got from none other than mastermind of all-electric pickup’s, Seymour Duncan.
Some of his best moments came on this classic model, such as Blow by Blow (1975) and its standout track, ‘Cause We’ve Ended as Lovers’.
4. David Gilmour
Widely hailed as the definitive guitarist of the 1970s, no Fender list would be complete without the inclusion of Pink Floyd’s cerebral genius, David Gilmour. After all, he was once voted Fender’s best ever guitar player in a poll. Something which he humbly brushed off: “Best ever Fender player will come around again, and it will be Eric or Jimi or someone. You can’t believe that stuff,” he said, adding: “Much as I’d love to believe I’m the best ever Fender guitar player, it just doesn’t really make sense.”
Gilmour nearly exclusively used his trademark ‘The Black Strat’ across his career. What a match made in heaven it was. A pioneer of the emotive guitar style, rather than blistering technicality, Gilmour paved the way for a whole host of futuristic styles. In 1994, after the release of The Division Bell, he said of his style, “(My) fingers make a distinctive sound… (they) aren’t very fast, but I think I am instantly recognisable.”
A large portion of that unique and signature sound can again be put down to the Strat’s versatility. It is safe to say that without the Strat, Gilmour would be an entirely different guitarist.
3. George Harrison
What a surprise that ‘The Quiet One’ finds himself on here. The Beatles guitarist was no stranger to Fender instruments in his time. An eclectic personality, Harrison, like the majority of guitar players, was not consigned to one model or manufacturer. Ephemeral like the Beatles, Harrison chose a guitar for whichever moment or period it best fit.
However, two of his most memorable guitars are Fenders. Who can forget the red, psychedelic 1961 Stratocaster dubbed ‘Rocky’ that he played on ‘I am the Walrus’ and ‘All You Need is Love’. Furthermore, who can forget Harrison’s brown Telecaster that he played on the live rooftop version of ‘Don’t Let Me Down’, at the end of the Beatles’ career?
What a testament to Leo Fender that one of the most inspirational guitarists of all time, George Harrison, should play Fender’s instruments.
2. Eric Clapton
In truth, it was between Clapton and Hendrix for the top spot. However, one would wager that in his short career, Hendrix did more for the Stratocaster than Clapton has done. Whilst, Slowhand is an unbelievably gifted guitarist who has given us some of rock’s most memorable riffs, Hendrix’s use of the model is more era-defining. But this is just our opinion.
Yes, Clapton has used a wide variety of six-strings over the years, not restricted to a brand or model, he has relied upon the Strat considerably more than any other. Lest we name the Strat for which is most well-known? The controversial six-string icon had some of his best moments on the Strat from 1969 onwards such as ‘Layla’ and ‘I Shot the Sherrif’.
Explaining why he switched to Fender’s three-pickup model, he recalled: “I had a lot of influences when I took up the Strat. First, there was Buddy Holly and Buddy Guy. Hank Marvin was the first well-known person over here in England who was using one, but that wasn’t really my kind of music. Steve Winwood had so much credibility, and when he started playing one, I thought, oh, if he can do it, I can do it”.
Herein also lies another answer to why Hendrix pipped Clapton to the top spot. Hendrix did it first.
1. Jimi Hendrix
Who else would have seriously taken the number one spot? Hendrix and Fender are the Riggs and Murtaugh of guitar playing, the Kemosabe and Lone Ranger of six-string shredders. The partnership of the Fender Stratocaster and Jimi Hendrix changed music and inspired countless generations. As we mentioned earlier, picturing Hendrix without his Stratocaster is of the unnatural realm.
Although he did actually use other Fender models, and Gibson models, the iconic partnership underpinned all of Hendrix’s best work, and the versatility of the Strat really made itself clear on Hendrix’s records. In 1967, he definitively explained why he chose the model as his weapon of choice. He labelled it “the best all-around guitar for the stuff we’re doing”. Hendrix gave particular praise to its “bright treble and deep bass”.
Hendrix’s use of the Stratocaster was so awe-inspiring and visceral that he inspired countless others to chose the Strat as their own axe of choice, some of whom are even included on this list.