When do you absolutely know you are looking at the work of Leo Fender?

When I had the opportunity to do a photo session with Junior Barnard’s famous Epiphone Emperor I knew it would be a special day in two ways.

One: It can be absolutely argued that Junior Barnard’s tone and approach was a pivotal point in the development of rock and rockabilly guitar styles, although at the time Junior was busy fusing jazz with country music playing western swing in Bob Wills’ Texas Playboys.

Two: Leo Fender installed a steel guitar pickup in it at one point. Leo was a huge fan of western swing, and in the mid- to late-forties Junior Barnard was on the cutting edge, experimenting with amps and pickups, ultimately sending a signal from the steel pickup to one amp and a DeArmond to the another. Junior thought the wiring was quite elaborate, calling his guitar his “Radio Station.” His tone no doubt featured a fair amount of rawness when he kicked in for the solo on one of many hot central California nights in the old barn. Stay tuned for more about this amazing instrument and its place in guitar history.


This is a comment from musical instrument historian Mike Newton:

“A point that everyone seems to be missing about that guitar is the fact that wonderful as that Fender pickup is, it’s only on a few sides he recorded at the last Tiffany session on 12/30/47. On all the other stuff, both Columbia and Tiffany from Oct. ’45 to Sept. ’46, and on the Luke Wills’ Rhythm Busters session on 2/19/47, he’s just got the DeArmond FHC pickup.  We don’t know exactly when Leo put the steel pickup on that guitar, but the pots are from the last week of January, ’47, so it’s unlikely they could have gotten to Leo’s shop and been installed in the guitar before the Luke Wills session on 2/19.  I’ve heard a couple of the Luke Wills sides, and it’s still just the DeArmond; on the stuff from 12/30/47 with the Playboys, the difference in tone is obvious; much sharper, less horn-like; sounds almost like a Tele, but hollow.

“By the way, from a central California angle: Frank Hicks played rhythm guitar in Junior Barnard’s Radio Gang in the late ’40s/early ’50s until Junior’s untimely demise.  That band was an offshoot of the Barn Dance Gang, played over KMJ (no transcriptions seem to have survived, dammit) and featured Junior, Gene Barnard on steel, Frank on rhythm guitar and, at various points, ex-Playboys Joe Holley, Millard Kelso, Alex Brashear, Johnny Cuviello and Harley Huggins.  The guitar Frank was most likely playing was a cutaway L-5 with a McCarty pickguard pickup –his first wife got it in the divorce; he didn’t get the Super 400 until about 1975.”

Thanks Mike!