Battle of the Ax Men: Who Really Built the First Electric Rock ‘n’ Roll Guitar?

Many places deserve to be called the birthplace of rock ’n’ roll. Memphis often gets the nod because that’s where Sam Phillips of Sun Records recorded Elvis Presley belting out an impromptu, uptempo cover of “That’s All Right” in 1954. Cleveland makes the list since it’s the place where, in 1951, a local disc jockey named Alan Freed coined the genre’s name. Chicago’s claim precedes Cleveland’s by several years; in 1948, McKinley Morganfield, aka Muddy Waters, took the tiny stage of a neighborhood tavern called Club Zanzibar, pulled up a chair, and played his hollow-body electric guitar so loud, the sounds emanating from his small amplifier crashed upon the sweaty crowd in waves of soul-stirring distortion.

“The Fender Esquire was derided by competitors as a toilet seat with strings.”

George Fullerton (left) testing a Stratocaster in the Fender factory, sometime in the mid-to-late 1950s.

Those would all be good choices, but for author Ian Port, whose new book, The Birth of Loud, has just been published by Scribner, the birthplace of rock ’n’ roll could also be the former farming community of Fullerton in Orange County, California. That’s where an electronics autodidact named Clarence Leonidas “Leo” Fender founded a radio repair shop in 1938. By 1943, Fender and a friend named Clayton “Doc” Kaufman, who was Fender’s business partner in those days, had taken a solid plank of oak, painted it glossy black, attached a pickup at one end, and strung its length with steel strings… read more >

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