There’s irony in the fact that Leo Fender, creator of the first solidbody electric guitar to be mass-produced, wasn’t the adventurous sort. Rather, history tells us he was a pragmatic, conservative guy for whom form very much followed function – a fact borne out in the bread-and-butter realities exhibited by the Telecaster.
Fortunately, Leo’s tastes and tendencies were not all mirrored in the men who worked alongside him in the design of other guitars like the Stratocaster, nor in those who carted his guitars and amps to market. To the contrary, guys like Freddie Tavares, Don Randall, George Fullerton, Bill Carson, Dale Hyatt, and others suffered no shortage of suggestions for improving the company’s offerings, and their feedback helped keep Fender atop the market for years.
Gibson, on the other hand, spent the formative late ’50s in a state of lag. Though it ruled the hollowbody jazz-guitar market and its acoustic “cowboy guitars” held similar court, in the rapidly expanding world of the solidbody/rock-and-roll guitar, the Les Paul failed to catch on, and by late in the decade, Gibson was resorting to near gimmickry to gain market share. Ted McCarty, president of Gibson at the time and the true mind behind the Les Paul, ES-335, and other groundbreaking concepts, took it upon himself to improve his company’s lot.
“In ’57, McCarty, inspired by the Russians’ Sputnik orbiter and GM’s Futurama automotive exhibits, designed the ‘Modernistic’ trio of guitars – the Flying V, Explorer, and Moderne,” said Robb Lawrence, a longtime vintage-instrument collector and author of several books on the subject. Famously odd in shape (fans like to say they were “ahead of their time”), few players explored the instruments and they rarely went flying out of showrooms – the Moderne wasn’t even put into production. As a result of low demand, fewer than 100 Flying Vs and far fewer Explorers were made, and by ’59, they were no longer in the company’s line (though in ’63, Gibson shipped more of each using leftover parts). And while their bizarre shapes were noteworthy, even moreso was the wood used to make them.
Gibson opted to make the guitars using Korina, a trademarked name in the U.S. given to limba, a relative of mahogany that grows in western Africa. Softer and less dense than mahogany, Gibson had already used it to make the bodies of its ’50s Consolette pedal-steel and Skylark lap-steel guitars, but it was untried on solidbody Spanish-style guitars because pieces of sufficient quality and size are difficult to find due to the fact it’s very wet when cut, dries quickly (which can lead to cracking), and must have wax applied to cut surfaces during storage. Still, guitar builders are fond of its light weight, light color, and the way its fine grain pops under a bit of stain. As a tone wood, it performs well, offering a bit less upper-midrange compared to mahogany, but with more-pronounced high-end response. For Gibson’s purposes, however, Korina was merely an exotic wood it could use to gussy up the Modernistics.
Perhaps out of simple curiosity, in late ’63, Fender actually followed Gibson for once when it bought enough limba to make a handful of its market-leading Stratocaster. Little-known by vintage enthusiasts or collectors, three of the guitars have emerged with the same type of potentiometers, same style of date code, and necks that date from November of that year or very early ’64. All left the Fender factory with sunburst finishes (it’s generally held that Fender would not have sprayed mahogany with sunburst because areas with little or no grain would appear too dark). All three have a knot or mineral stain on their bodies, indicating they may have been cut from the same plank.
Why did Fender dally in “Korina?” Lawrence posed the question to the company’s long-time lumber supplier, which was established as Penberthy Lumber Company in 1931 and became a major player when the furniture-construction industry in Los Angeles blossomed following World War II. Fender and Gibson became customers not long after the war.
Today, the company is called Penberthy International, and is operated by Gary Penberthy, grandson of founder Paul Penberthy, Sr. Gary recalled that limba wasn’t as readily available as the more typical types, and to get it, Gibson or Fender essentially had to call in favors.
“My grandfather traveled the world to select the exact specifications for what Leo Fender was looking for,” he told Lawrence. “And of course, on a guitar, wood has to be seasoned; a lot of guitar guys didn’t want wood that had been shocked with heat – they wanted it air-dried. That’s one reason we sold a lot of imported woods – we were able to season it.
“My grandfather agreed that air drying made for a better tone wood,” he added. “And if it was Korina, he let it air dry, then finished it in the kiln. That was a big deal.”
Today, the relationship continues between Penberthy and Fender.
Geoff Fullerton, son of George Fullerton (who was Leo’s co-designer of the Esquire/Telecaster and Precision Bass), worked in the Fender Custom Shop for years, and recalls his father’s discussing Penberthy Lumber, the use of limba, and how he thought it to be soft and not durable – it would easily dent.
“There was probably a lot of testing going on – building samples, maybe testing how well it took finish, or to hear its tone,” Fullerton said. “They had to determine things like how well it cut in the pin router or whether it needed extra hand-sanding.”
He also has personal experience with the wood.
“It smelled horrible, the little bit we ran at the Custom Shop,” he said. “It was weird stuff.”
Those who have played one of the limba-bodied Strats say its tone falls between alder and swamp ash, two more-common woods used for the Strat.
“Players cite its warm, resonant, balanced sound, as well as the clarity, definition, and sustain it offers with each note,” said Lawrence. “It’s considered a ‘super mahogany’ tone wood, with a strong upper-midrange.”
The original owner of one limba Strat vividly recalls begging his parents to buy it, though its woods had nothing to do with his infatuation. Brian Lehman was 12 years old and a few months into lessons with a musician in Fresno who “worked his magic” on a Strat.
“So, of course, that’s what I wanted!” Lehman said. “I worked on my parents for a few months, and my teacher, Bobby Bloyd, helped convince them. In early ’64, dad sprung for it and a Princeton amp. The guitar was $289.
“A couple years later, my cousin and I started getting together to play with a couple friends. When we were good enough, we started calling ourselves Page One and, for the next few years played local gigs – parties, a yearbook signing, a high-school dance, church youth dances, and several times at a local hall.”
In 1971, Lehman was attending Fresno City College when the draft board revoked his deferment. Destined for an Army hitch, he instead enlisted in the Navy, where over the next four years he became a Vietnam Vet, a husband, father, and a resident of San Diego. The Strat, meanwhile, sat in a case in his parents’ closet. For 30 years afterward, he was occupied with college, a career as an elementary-school teacher, and the rest of life’s commitments.
“I would occasionally get the guitar out and play a little, but months and years would go by when it just sat,” he said. “I’d sometimes talk about selling it, but mostly it was just ignored.”
After retiring from teaching, he began paying attention to collectible guitars and in early 2012 contacted Heritage Auctions, which put the Strat in a sale at the Dallas guitar show.
“Though I played it a lot from 1964 to ’71, I somehow had the good sense to not mess with it or beat it up, so it was still 100 percent original,” he said. “I had engraved my driver license number on the back of the headstock, which Heritage reminded me of!”
Its sale netted just under $10,000 for Lehman after Heritage commissions and fees. He also sold a mid-’60s Fender Bassman to a local shop, and with the urging of his wife, used some of the money to buy a new Carvin guitar and a new amp.
Another limba-body Strat entered the life (and personal collection) of vintage-instrument dealer Dave Rogers more than 20 years ago.
“A fellow called me one day, asking if I’d be interested in buying a ’60s Strat,” Rogers recalled. “He had stripped the guitar of its parts and finish years before and never got around to putting it back together. He shipped it to me in a box!”
Opening that box, Rogers was dismayed to discover parts missing and the electronics a mess, but, “I was intrigued that the body wasn’t alder or ash,” he said. “At first, we thought it was maybe mahogany, but the color was wrong. I had never seen a Strat like it.”
After determining the body was indeed limba, Rogers sprayed a tinted amber finish on the guitar and used it as a player for a few years. “It was very light and sounded great,” he said. And though he doesn’t generally keep refinished guitars in his collection, the body on this one earned an exception.
A third limba-bodied Strat resides with renowned action-movie star Steven Seagal, who acquired it in 2009. “[It] is the warmest, sweetest-sounding Strat in my collection,” he said. “It was a wonderful discovery and carries a unique sonic signature I have not experienced with any other Fender instrument.”
This article originally appeared in VG February 2014 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.