The Fender Broadcaster and Guitar History's Greatest Myth

Bob Leggitt | Sunday, 24 May 2020 |

Fender Broadcaster
The Fender Broadcaster may have been a beautiful blonde bombshell, but for decades it sat at the centre of guitar history's greatest myth.

Don't you just love a good guitar myth? Well, if myths are your thing, you've come to the right place. In terms of its historical significance and sheer persistence, this, surely, was the greatest electric guitar myth of all time. Or was it a conspiracy?... You decide...

Even today, you might find one or two older musicians referring to the "1948 Fender Broadcaster". It's a trope that, up until the mid 1980s, was headlined in every published electric guitar history, passed around in guitar shops, bars and rehearsal rooms... The legend of the 1948 Broadcaster was everywhere. But if you time-travelled back to 1948, you would find no sign in Leo Fender's vicinity, or even in his mind, of a Broadcaster guitar.

The 1948 Broadcaster didn't exist. 1950 Broadcaster, yes. 1948 Broadcaster, NOPE, with caps lock literally gaffer-taped down to the keyboard. For nearly four decades, the birth date of the first mass-produced solid Spanish guitar was misreported by experts, novices, and anyone in between.

THE TRUE HISTORICAL TIMELINE


The true timeline of events was...

  • Second half of 1949: completion of the Fender solid Spanish prototype - a very crude, Telecaster shaped experiment with lap steel-type headstock.
  • Spring 1950: first public appearance of any Telecaster family instrument: an opaque black, one-pickup, pre-production Esquire depicted in the Fender catalogue.
  • Mid 1950: build of a very small run of Esquires, some of which had two pickups. Black finish re-standardised to Blonde.
  • Second half of 1950: start of full production of the twin-pickup model, with its name changed from Esquire to Broadcaster - to differentiate the two products.
  • Early 1951: Gretsch protested Fender's use of the Broadcaster model name because it clashed with their Broadkaster drum trademark, so Fender instantly dropped the Broadcaster branding to briefly produce so-called "Nocasters", with no model name at all.
  • Spring 1951: Fender sales dynamo Don Randall came up with the TV-inspired Telecaster name and the former Broadcaster was renamed - Fender Telecaster. Name aside, there was no difference between the Broadcaster and the very earliest Telecaster.

Writers finally began putting the old 1948 myth to bed and running with the main gist of the above in the late 1980s, with the American guitar magazines ahead of the British in so doing. During the 'eighties there had already been mounting head-scratching, as document and component evidence emerged to prove that Fender's nameless solid Spanish prototype could not have been built before the second half of 1949.

Even then, however, some writers continued to cite the Broadcaster's birth year as 1948. A production model that came before the prototype?... Insane. But that's the power of a deep-rooted myth. No one wants to question it, even when it becomes totally illogical. Countless books had been written through the years citing the "1948" myth, from Ken Archard's 1977 Fender Guitar guide, through Donald Brosnac's 1983 Guitar History Volume #1, to Tom Wheeler's American Guitars, which was still depicting a "1948 Broadcaster" in 1990.

Those volumes and many others formed a huge weight of authority, to the point where even those with suspicions would be reluctant to contradict the accepted story. Indeed, Ralph Denyer's Guitar Handbook alluded to the "1948 Broadcaster" as late as 1992. And even Seymour Duncan - a man who had studied early Fenders in phenomenal depth - believed the Broadcaster was introduced in 1948. His late 1980s How to Pick a Pickup brochures quoted the year in the blurb for the Duncan Vintage Broadcaster pickup.

But a perfect encapsulation of the myth drawing to a close in guitar history books appears in Andre Duchossoir's work. His 1985 release of Guitar Identification cites the "1948 Broadcaster", but his 1991 Fender Telecaster book categorically cites the correct timeline, with the model being born in the second half of 1950, shortly after the original Esquire. So it wasn't that some authors were right and others were wrong. They were all wrong, until the correct information steadily filtered through the grapevine beginning in the late 1980s.

So where did the myth of the "1948 Broadcaster" come from? Who started it? And why?

HOW AND WHY DID THE MYTH START?


The "1948" myth is most often attributed to flawed memory among the Fender luminaries who spoke about the Broadcaster in interviews - particularly Leo Fender and George Fullerton.

But their memories were razor sharp on other matters. It seemed only to be the birth of the Broadcaster that somehow got backdated, by a highly significant two years. Even longer if you believed 1970s accounts like the one relayed by Ken Archard, who said...

"And so it was that during 1947 with the aid of George Fullerton, the first production design Fender guitar was hand carved."

Archard then went on to describe the Broadcaster. And in the same book there's a picture from an early 1970s official Fender ad, that compared a 1972 Telecaster with a "1948 Broadcaster". We're now getting right back to the rear doorstep of the 1960s, and we're still seeing Fender feeding the "1948" line to industry and public alike, with fanatical vigour. So no, I don't think the myth started because someone asked more than one Fender luminary interview questions and they made exactly the same mistake with their dates. I think the myth was contrived, and had a purpose...

The most likely reality is that the myth started because of a dispute between guitarist Merle Travis and Leo Fender.

Travis's story is that he had Paul Bigsby build him a pioneering solid-bodied guitar in the late 1940s, designed on a napkin a la Spinal Tap's Stonehenge scenery. Okay, maybe it wasn't an actual napkin, and (thank God) it wasn't built in miniature, but let's not ruin the tale.

According to Travis, Leo Fender subsequently borrowed the guitar for a week, before rapidly coming up with his own solid prototype, which culminated in the Telecaster family. Over time, Travis increasingly insinuated that Fender had copied his idea.

Fender vehemently denied that this was true, and may have 'backdated' the birth of his Broadcaster somewhat in a bid to subtract credibility from Travis's claim. The argument was kind of academic anyway, because Les Paul had beaten them both to the solid electric Spanish idea. But Les Paul wasn't the one throwing the accusation around. In placing the birth of the Broadcaster in 1948, and claiming it was already in progress in '47, Fender could appear to have predated the Bigsby/Travis with their solid. Therefore, Travis's claim would far less likely be taken seriously.

No inventor wants to be considered a copycat. Would that fact be enough to drive Fender to rewrite the historical timeline, or at least attempt to? Yes. Easily. The Broadcaster was absolutely not a copy of the Bigsby/Travis, even if the Bigsby/Travis did give Fender some of the ideas. But when you're going down in history as the man, and company, who invented the solid guitar, you do not want any pantomime cries of "Oh no you didn't".

HOW DID THE MYTH PERSIST SO LONG?


Part of the reason the myth persisted for decades is that vintage guitars didn't really become a market until well into the 1970s, and there was no joined up consensus on the vintage guitar timeline. Once the market did take off, it took years for all the knowledge to be pooled to the degree that an accurate picture could form. Even in the early 1980s, vintage books could harbour wild inaccuracies, and some were frequently updated to maintain some semblance of credibility as knowledge rapidly evolved. Compounding the problem, the first Fender Broadcasters didn't have neck dates, so there was nothing on the earliest guitars themselves to debunk Fender's "1948" claim.

AND HOW DID THE MYTH END?


The main thrust of the debunking process came through the exploration of printed matter. Examination of factory records and letters helped show that the crude prototype was still not complete in 1949. The guitar itself had no neck or body date, but its pots, it was discovered, dated to latter summer '49.

The rest of the jigsaw was assembled through catalogue and trade show blurb, alongside billing and order documentation from 1950. Once there exists enough doubt, the floodgates open, and the detective minds begin to focus on every minute detail.

But the saga of the "1948 Broadcaster" does show us how even recent history can be distorted, either through inaccurate memory or rather more egotistical biases.

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