Ca. 1969 Fender Electric Tenor Banjo
Right from the company’s beginning, Fender prioritized functionality above appearance. Their guitars were designed to be easy to manufacture and easy to repair; if a problem developed with almost any part, even with the neck itself, it could be replaced without major surgery to the instrument. In addition to simplifying the manufacturing process, this ensured consistency from one guitar to the next; as much as possible was done using jigs and mechanized carving tools rather than relying on hand labor.
One side effect of this philosophy was that players were offered only limited customization of their instruments. Fender was happy to apply any finish that the DuPont company manufactured, so that your Jazzmaster and your Cadillac could be color-coordinated, but that was the limit. While Gibson and Guild were happy to add a vibrato tailpiece, use a non-standard pickup, or even make structural changes to the body at a players’ request, Fender seldom allowed anything to leave the factory that didn’t meet catalog specifications underneath the lacquer. Certainly, some prototypes survive from the 1950s and 1960s; Leo Fender was an inveterate tinkerer, always trying to improve his creations through experimentation, but it seems that most of these instruments were never intended for public sale.
The few completely custom instruments that did escape from Fullerton were mostly built for famous musicians. Two good examples are the banjolines built for Eddie Peabody; one was essentially a modified Mustang, probably assembled by Leo Fender, while the other was a completely custom creation by Roger Rossmeisl. This electric tenor banjo was also built for a well-known player: Freddy Morgan, the banjo-playing, rubber-faced stooge who accompanied musical freak show Spike Jones during the 1950s. While Morgan was best known for his antics on Jones’s TV show, he also possessed considerable chops, as demonstrated on the handful of LPs he released.
Morgan was no stranger to amplified banjos; he played electrics by Gibson and Vega, though the concept of an electric banjo was a definite anachronism by the time Fender built him this one. The instrument had its heyday in the early days of electrification when magnetic pickups were installed in just about anything bearing strings; in addition to Gibson and Vega, Epiphone and National also built electric banjos in the late ‘30s and early ‘40s. Players quickly realized, however, that a wooden head and electric pickup removed much of the banjo’s signature sound. The result sounded practically identical to an electric tenor guitar, and those looked a lot less goofy. By the time World War II began to disrupt the musical instrument industry, the electric banjo market was nearly dead.
Fender’s decision to build one for Freddy Morgan was therefore surprising. It was an exception to their manufacturing philosophy, it was a distinct anachronism, and – in addition – it required coordination with the outside contractor who built the rims for Fender banjos at the time. Most likely, Fender built the neck and sent it with the hardware to the contractor, who assembled the instrument before returning it to Fender. It’s clear that Fender tried to use as much as possible from other products instead of reinventing the wheel. The pickup came from their electric mandolin, the neck came from the Artist model banjo, and the vibrato came from the Mustang guitar (the bridge was simply fitted with four saddles instead of six). The pickguard material was appropriated from the rare LTD archtop guitar, which helps date this instrument to 1969 or later; Freddy Morgan died in late 1970, so the date of manufacture can be narrowed down pretty well.
Despite its unconventional nature and appearance, the banjo plays quite well and sounds excellent. It has the bright, clear sound one would expect from a Fender guitar, and surprisingly good sustain for a hollow body. Like other Fender banjos of the time, the entire instrument is made of walnut. Unlike other banjos, however, the wooden top is screwed onto the rim; the pearl dots, which may look like imitation lugs, actually hide the screw heads.