1946 K&F Deluxe
Leo Fender was one of the great innovators in the world of guitars. His inventions are actually few in number, but he popularized many obscure concepts. He didn’t invent the solid body guitar – Slingerland had one in the 1930s. He didn’t invent the first vibrato mechanism – Rickenbacker sold them in the 1930s. He didn’t invent the bass guitar – Paul Tutmarc built a few in the 1930s. However, Fender took these existing ideas and refined them so that ordinary guitarists would embrace them.
It’s not surprising, then, that Fender’s first foray into the musical instrument business was as a partnership with the man who did invent the vibrato: Clayton Orr “Doc” Kauffman. Kauffman had previously been the chief designer at Rickenbacker, and was responsible for introducing both a hand-lever vibrato and a unique motorized system that actually raised and lowered a guitar’s bridge. Neither system was very popular, but Rickenbacker did become probably the only company to introduce a hand vibrato on an electric mandolin. Kauffman worked in Fender’s radio repair shop during World War II, where they worked on a number of innovations for radios and phonograph players. Around 1943, the two collaborated on a new type of guitar pickup. Fender believed that if the strings went through the coil, the pickup wouldn’t register the pick attack and the resulting sound would be smoother. Kauffman and Fender built a crude solid guitar as a test bed for the pickup.
In 1945, the partnership was formalized with the creation of the K&F Manufacturing Corporation. Fender owned the company, while Kauffman worked for a wage. The two started making steel guitars and amps that year, using $5,000 from the sale of a patent to purchase manufacturing equipment (the patent concerned a record turntable design, not the guitar pickup). Kauffman had experience in manufacturing from his days at Rickenbacker and Douglas Aircraft, and had continued to build steel guitars at home after he left that company. He and Fender built the tools, dies and jigs used to construct their first instruments.
K&F steels were available in three models: Student, Standard and Deluxe. The basic specifications of each were the same, but the finish and cosmetic details varied. The Student models were finished in a grey paint that was crinkled by roasting in an oven; early examples were finished in Doc Kauffman’s kitchen oven before the factory installed an industrial gas oven. The fret lines and dot marfkers were stenciled in white paint, with a result that was crude yet functional. Most student models had simple bone nuts held in place by nails. Many Student steels did not have name plates. The Standard models were similar except for having natural lacquer finishes, either clear or a translucent brown. Deluxe models came with a metal fingerboard with the frets and numeral markers etched into the surface. All models eventually acquired a metal headstock plate with a built-in nut, with the K&F logo plate on top. Bodies were made of pine, maple, and other hard woods. There were many, many variations on the basic design of all three models, so it’s extremely common to find K&F steels with unusual features. I used to own an early Student model with a unique headstock shape, probably inspired by Kauffman’s own home-made steels.
Kauffman assembled each guitar, playing a tune on it before declaring it fit for sale. Fender likely built the pickups, which were very similar to the string-through unit developed a few years before. These are commonly known as “boxcar” pickups because of their shape; later ones sometimes collapse because the plastic bobbin around the strings decays, but the early ones have a wooden spacer that doesn’t give any such trouble. Unfortunately, mine is a later one which has collapsed; the bobbin had to be rebuilt and the coil rewound. Already in 1945 the Fender sound was apparent: extremely clear, with a bit of twang but without harshness in the high frequencies. The tone control was wired backwards from a regular guitar’s tone knob, as was common on early Fender steels.
Aside from the pickup, my example is mostly original. Someone added felt to the back to prevent the body from sliding around, and there is also an added plastic finger rest. The rest of the instrument – tuners and other hardware – seem to be factory original. The pots are too early to have date codes, which is appropriate for the mid ‘40s. The body is made of maple, which gives better sustain than the pine bodies; it also has a bit of birdseye pattern in the top and flame on the sides, making it one of the most attractive early Fenders I’ve seen.