The Vibro Set: Where Fender Really Started

If you’re the least bit interested in electric guitar history, you’ll know that Leo Fender opened his Fender Radio Service store in Fullerton in 1938, long before Fender became a famous brand. You may have read how one day a local musician by the name of Doc Kauffman walked in looking for parts to repair his Rickenbacker amp.

Leo was used to meeting local musicians like Doc at the store, and he’d started to consider building some amplifiers himself to cater for the growing interest in electric instruments. "The story goes that Leo was already aware of Doc," says Lynn Wheelwright. Lynn is a renowned collector and diligent researcher with a wealth of knowledge about early electrics, accumulated through decades of experience.

Vibro set steel and amp (left) and earlier Vibro steel (right).
Vibro set steel and amp (left) and earlier Vibro steel (right). Photo: Lynn Wheelwright.

"Leo had seen Doc playing around town at events like bank and store openings," he continues. "Also, he’d heard that Doc made electric guitars in his backyard shop. The two probably struck up a conversation about their mutual interest in the crude pickup Leo had built and installed in an acoustic guitar for a customer. No one knows exactly when this happened—somewhere between 1938 and 1942—but it would be the spark Leo needed to light the electric-guitar fire."

The two would team up later, in 1945, as K&F—Kauffman & Fender—in what seemed an ideal combination: Doc made little electric lap-steels; Leo made small amplifiers. But around the end of 1942, between the chance meeting at the store and the start of K&F, something else happened. Ever heard of a Vibro set? Thought not. Stay with us.

Lynn remembers a sequence of events a dozen or so years ago that would fill this important gap in the history. First was a routine email from Walter Carter, at the time general manager at Gruhn’s guitar store in Nashville, about an appraisal a customer wanted.

Walter attached the pictures that had come with the request showing an early-ish small-body electric lap-steel. The owner, John Dickerson, had told Walter an odd story of his father, Jerry, at ten years old, walking down the street in Fullerton in the early ’40s with his father, heading for a visit to Leo Fender’s house to place an order.

Walter reckoned the guitar wasn’t made by Leo—and he’d never heard of the Vibro brand on the instrument’s headstock. He asked if Lynn had any info that might help. Lynn in turn sought help from Mike Newton—another walking encyclopedia of guitar history—who recalled a picture in a mid-’90s guitar magazine of a very similar-looking guitar, although that one had Doc and Leo’s K&F brand.

Two remarkable things happened next. A followup mail from Walter arrived with a revelation. "This amp was bought from Leo along with that weird Vibro lap steel," he wrote, attaching some pix. "Anything to note about it? The owner says the grille cloth was replaced years ago."

Original owner Jerry Dickerson with the Vibro set steel and amp.
Original owner Jerry Dickerson with the Vibro set steel and amp. Photo: Lynn Wheelwright.

Lynn took one look and was certain the amp was the work of Leo, so he replied to Walter firmly expressing his interest in acquiring the set: likely-Doc steel and likely-Leo amp. Then Mike came back with equally startling news: a second Vibro steel was up for sale on eBay. "What are the chances!?" he wrote.

It was a fair question. Lynn and Mike had been on the hunt for interesting early electrics and amps for 30 years and more, and they knew the terrain better than almost anyone. Neither had ever come across a Vibro. The emerging idea that this could be the brand Doc had used for his backyard guitars was exciting news. Lynn promptly bought the eBay Vibro and soon had it in bits on his bench.

"The pickup was very much like the one on the K&F in the magazine picture Mike had seen," Lynn recalls. "Single-coil, with a blade polepiece energized by the magnet from a Model T Ford magneto. Two-piece body, with an interesting mortised-and-dowelled neck extension that had come loose." He says the design and finish screamed of Doc’s association in the mid ’30s with Rickenbacker.

Walter let Lynn know the Vibro set was available. "Money sent, I received the steel and amp the next day," he remembers. "The gray-and-black steel was near pristine. It seemed all original, right down to the strings—and the damn thing worked. It had a sort of refined crudeness, like the bird-feeders we used to build in shop class for our moms."

Back of Vibro-set amp shows hanging chassis.
Back of Vibro-set amp shows hanging chassis. Photo: Lynn Wheelwright.

The amp had an old black finish, no back panels had been added, and what was left of the handle was in an envelope. The tubes looked original, the Magnavox speaker cone intact. As far as Lynn was concerned, the real prize was this crude, weathered, finger-jointed pine box measuring 17 by 17 by 7 3/8 inches.

"After all, it wasn’t the lap steels Leo took to the stage to show off to folks like Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys, Alvino Rey, and a host of others. It was his amps that bought Leo access to the stars of the day, the players who could put his name in front of audiences and potential customers."

Lynn had no reason to doubt the owner’s story about his father ordering the set and collecting it at Leo’s house. "But in the circle of guitar and amp collecting, if you’re going to claim that here is the earliest known Fender guitar and amp, it’s as well to get some solid backup from acknowledged experts."

The amp expert was Bruce Zinky, who has a long history in the field, including a stint as Fender’s Custom Shop amp designer in the early ‘90s. He’s been inside a number of early K&F and Fender amplifiers and examined them right up close. Lynn set off with the Vibro set to Bruce’s workshop in Arizona, where Bruce proceeded to unravel the story of the amp.

He noted a series of important points. The permanent-magnet Magnavox speaker was expensive and high-tech for the period, but if you were a Magnavox repairman, you could get one. Leo Fender was a certified and authorized Magnavox repairman in the ’40s. The tubes, Bruce told Lynn, were also of unusually high quality and would have been the choice at the time of somebody interested in performance. Similarly, the high-end paper capacitors would have appealed to someone who wanted to build an amp that would last.

Bruce Zinky hits a chord while testing the Vibro-set amp.
Bruce Zinky hits a chord while testing the Vibro-set amp. Photo: Lynn Wheelwright.

"Then it was time to power the amp," Lynn remembers. "Bruce flipped a switch on his Variac to slowly increase the supply of life-giving voltage. But… nothing. My heart sank. I mean, this amp hadn’t been plugged in for over 60 years, so there were bound to be issues. He tested the switch, with no effect, but then he got an intermittent signal, which gradually became more solid. Soon, the tubes were glowing, and Bruce checked the caps and resistors to his satisfaction. High-quality parts apparently equal years of service."

Time for Bruce to plug in a guitar. "As the notes of the first chord to play through the amp in decades flowed through its ancient speaker, he broke into a smile, letting the rich, distorted notes linger," Lynn recalls.

"A series of chords sent the sound of rock’n’roll through the shop. ‘And there you have an early Fender amp,’ Bruce said. ‘They sound fantastic, utterly fantastic.’ He continued to coax more and more from the early circuit, adjusting the volume to dial in the sound, and then with a wide grin added: ‘It sounds like Iggy Pop Raw Power to me!’"

The Radio Shop guitar. Photo: Fullerton Museum Center.
The Radio Shop guitar. Photo: Fullerton Museum Center.

The big question remained. Could they say that Leo Fender built this amplifier? Bruce pointed out its consistencies in design and workmanship to the earliest K&F and Fender amplifiers. In his opinion, he proclaimed it the work of the master.

Lynn lined up one final expert to give his considered opinion on the Vibro set and the eBay Vibro steel. He invited the original owner of the set, Jerry Dickerson, to meet Richard Smith at Fullerton Museum Center. Richard is the author of the excellent book Fender: The Sound Heard ‘Round The World and the Fender historian at the museum.

Richard pulled out a crude instrument from the museum’s collection, known as the Radio Shop Guitar and built in 1943. He explained that for decades it was believed to be the very first Doc and Leo guitar, but that now needed a qualification. "It’s their first solidbody electric Spanish guitar. We know Leo and Doc collaborated on it directly. Its direct-string pickup is the design they patented." He added that it was probably Doc’s idea to make the guitar, because Doc had experience making them in that backyard workshop of his.

He moved on to Lynn’s eBay Vibro steel and explained that this was one of those backyard guitars, and one that Doc probably made before he met Leo. But then Richard turned to the Vibro set, saying how significant it was that it was known exactly where this amp and steel had come from—Leo Fender—and more or less when they were made—late 1942 to early ’43.

"You might be asking yourself why Leo would be selling these out of his house, and probably for cash," Richard said. Apparently, Leo had a running dispute with the local tax authorities. "I think he didn’t want to charge sales tax."

Richard pointed again at the eBay Vibro steel and repeated his uncertainty that Doc and Leo were collaborating at that point. "I kind of suspect that they weren’t," he said. Then he pointed at the Vibro-set steel. "There’s reason to believe definitely that by the time they got to this guitar, however, they were collaborating. Whereas Leo was the expert on the amplifiers, Doc had brought his experience in making guitars to the partnership."

And the amp from the Vibro-set? Richard focussed on three points that led him to conclude it was definitely made by Leo: the finger joints of its cabinet; the Masonite speaker baffle board; and its galvanized steel chassis. These matched features from other early Leo-related items, including a radio that he made. And its hanging chassis? "That would be copied by other amp makers," Richard said, "but it was a Fender innovation. This one used Loctal tubes, as did the radio. This is very clearly an early Fender amplifier."

Jerry, who had listened to Richard’s expert analysis, asked if Richard might like to play something on the old guitar. "As a Hawaiian melody flowed from the amplifier, a smile came to Jerry and a little of that ten-year-old boy showed in his eyes," Lynn recalls. "Jerry said: ‘I can’t believe that after all this time, it still works. I remember how good it sounded back then when I played along with my mother.’ And as he watched Richard coax the notes from the strings, he added: ‘But I was never that good!’"

Richard Smith compares early Fender relics at the Fullerton Museum Center.
Richard Smith compares early Fender relics at the Fullerton Museum Center. Photo: Lynn Wheelwright.

Today, Lynn looks on the Vibro set as glistening stars among his enviable collection of early electrics. They mark the point where Doc and Leo’s collaboration began, a humble enough connection that would determine nothing less than the future of electric guitars and amplifiers. Quite a pair!

"Had a young Jerry and his father not taken that stroll to Leo Fender’s house, compelling Leo to ask Doc Kauffman to build the lap steel that completed the set, the seed that grew to be the Fender company may never have been planted," Lynn concludes. "Richard Smith told me that in one of their interviews, Leo recalled that had things turned out otherwise, his plan was to open a string of radio repair shops."

About the author: Tony Bacon writes about musical instruments, musicians, and music. His books include Electric Guitars: Design & Invention and Legendary Guitars. Tony lives in Bristol, England. More info at

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