If you can say one thing about those of us in the music industry (apart from desperately trying to pick up chicks all the time and wearing a lot of leather), it is that we have a good sense of respecting and appreciating our past. Trends in music tend to cycle back around (which explains all this hipstery “neo-folk” rock stuff on the radio these days), we attach lofty values to the products in the “vintage” market, and audiophiles everywhere are always, always going to defend vinyl as the superior listening experience. All this to say, we tend to put our stock in the time-tested methods, even while we strive to improve upon the known and true.
Probably one the greatest staples of rock music instrumentation is, in my opinion, the Fender Telecaster for four main reasons that I’m going to break down for you in this post. I think you’ll find I’m not the only one to praise the Telecaster, either, being that a crap ton of people play these things and like ‘em. But before I start feverishly name-dropping like Pete Townshend in his autobiography, let me explain why Tele’s are quite fantastic:
Reason Numero Uno: Surprisingly Versatile
The stereotype of the Telecaster is one that a lot of people are familiar with: a country-rock instrument solely prized for its distinctive “twang”. To credit the stereotype, it was in that “twangy” country music world that Telecasters were first discovered and appreciated and the guitar itself has been responsible for shaping a lot the genre as we know it now. In the same way that people immediately associate pointy shapes and EMG’s with heavy metal, Tele’s tend to be heavily associated with and marketed to the Disciples of “Twang” (which, as I type this I realize that sounds like a terrible episode of Gene Roddenberry Star Trek).
And if anyone of you happens to know me personally, you may know that I am decidedly not a fan of country rock. If Kenny Chesney ever sauntered into this store with his faked-tanned, V-necked expression and his utterly un-used Les Paul strung across his back, I’d drop-kick the paisley-soaked hat off his head and tell him to get an actual job with a truck. So you might be asking, “why would a chick like me dig Telecasters but not country music, the genre the birthed the Tele’s popularity?”
Simply put, a stereotype is just a stereotype. Telecasters, though prized and known for the twang-flavor (rapper name), is an extremely versatile guitar that, when used and outfitted properly, can accommodate almost any style of music. Even a standard solid-body, dual-pickup Tele can be played in anything from sleepy, blue-blooded jazz to Rage Against the Machine-caliber anarchistic hate-punk. In fact, Tom Morello of Rage almost always rocks a Tele in his high-gain stuff (name drop number one).
And that’s just an example of all the different things you can do with a standard Tele. These days, Telecasters have graduated into many different forms since its original design. As a result, you can find a specialized Tele for almost anything. One example is in the semi-hollow bodied Tele’s like the Thinline give the guitar an extra resonant edge and fuller, bassier tone or even Deluxe model Tele’s which are routed to fit humbuckers and heavier, hotter pickups for that extra edge. Yup, there’s such a thing as Tele metal (see: SlipKnot and the dude from Radiohead).
Reason Number 2: User Friendly and Easy to Fix/Modify
From a guitar tech’s perspective, Tele’s are a cake-walk when it comes to repairs and maintenance. No weird tricks or high-maintenance components or the eternally frustrating Floyd Rose locking system *mutters obscenities under breath*. Fender’s whole idea behind the Tele anchored on a product that could easily be mass produced and could be serviced relatively simply. In contrast to the methods of traditional luthiery, the bodies were routed out from slabs instead of hand-carved and utilized bolt-on necks made out of one solid piece of maple without a separate piece for the fret-board (something highly unorthodox at the time). Hardware and electrical components were produced quickly and inexpensively and put together on assembly lines and then sent in large quantities to Fender’s shop.
If you look over a Telecaster, you can see that it is comparatively dirt-simple in design. Traditional Tele’s have one three-way switch, a tone knob, and a volume knob. Badda-bing-badda-boom. Simple. And the whole thing is designed with service and repairs in mind, so they are also easy to disassemble and reassemble at need. Even if you don’t consider yourself a tech, this is very advantageous when it comes down to basic guitar maintenance like restringing, set-up, neck-adjustments, swapping pickups, or just general trouble-shooting.
Simplicity being a trademark of the Telecaster has also encouraged some very interesting modifications over the last half-century. Fender has considered the Tele a long-time favorite for hot-rodding and experimentation with all kinds of different pickup configurations, wiring schemes, and materials. As mentioned before, there are a bunch of different variants from the classic Telecaster model since the early ‘50’s and each variant has something it specializes in and gives the guitar a unique edge. Personally, my favorite variants are Thineline semi-hollows: I love the extra resonance and the overall lightness of the guitar.
Reason Number 3: It’s a Time-tested Guitar Used by Freakin’ Everyone
Leo Fender’s Telecaster is generally credited with being the first solid-body guitar to become a success in the market beginning with its first appearance in 1950. For a decade and a half prior, other guitar manufacturers had been experimenting with different solid-body electric guitars, but nothing was proving to work well, sound good, or even play well. At the time, Fender had a radio and electronics repair shop in Fullerton, California, where he repaired, tested and designed pickups and amplifiers, but hadn’t really taken the plunge into the guitar market on its own, leaving that crazy stuff to companies like Gibson and Rickenbacker. Guitarists had been “wiring up” for a while now with pickups mainly for electric semi-acoustic guitars (like the Gibson ES-150) or Hawaiian lap-steels, but Fender and his buddy “Doc” Kauffman changed everything with a little in-shop experiment they had used as a rig to test pickups. It was a crude solid-body guitar that a bunch of Fender’s friends would ask to borrow for gigs in their country music bands because it proved to have a desirably bright sound and considerable sustain.
The curiosity in his goofy little rig inspired Fender to build a better prototype. The basic components were mostly all there, with two main exceptions: the first prototype only had one single-coil pickup in the bridge position, and the neck had no truss rod. These first models were called the “Esquires” and fewer than fifty of them were actually produced and sold partly because they had to keep replacing them under warranty for bent necks. Eventually, the model was improved upon by adding a truss rod and second pick-up in the neck position. Originally called “Broadcasters” but were later changed to “Telecasters” due to a legal issue with Gretsch’s drum-kit of the same name.
Since then, the Telecaster has had its hand dipped in almost everything and played by artists all over the spectrum. Honorable mentions include Danny “Telemaster’ Gatton, Muddy Waters, Jeff Beck, and Jimmy Page (in fact, all of the recorded leads on Led Zeppelin’s debut album were on a tele). Bruce Springsteen plays an interesting hybrid Tele with an original “Esquire” neck. Joe Strummer of the Clash favored his custom Tele until the day he dropped dead in all his British punk glory.
Number 4: There’s A Tele for Everyone
Regardless of how fat or (face it, we’re musicians) skinny your wallet is, Fender and Fender’s lil’ Brother Squier have Tele of all styles, variants, and prices for every type of Tele-curious player out there. Here’s a few examples of what we carry here at the shop:
Squier Thinline Tele ($299.99):
Here's an example of why the guys at Squier can be really cool. In homage to the classic '69 style Fender Thinline Tele, this thing sports two Duncan Designed single-coil pickups, one volume, one tone, and a three-way toggle switch. What's great about this guy is the rosewood fretboard which adds a warmth to the original brightness of a Tele and the semi-hollow sweetness in the tone. It's a fuller, warmer sounding Tele that I find awesome for blues riffs and heavier rock while still maintaing the praised "twang". All for about $300 bucks, which is great if you're like me and live off of cheap pizza and Gatorade. This thing has a fast, great playing neck and is just all around a solid, awesome instrument for the money.
Fender Standard Tele ($499.99):
Here is your basic blood-and-guts Telecaster with the sound and feel that Tele's have been known for since the beginning. Mexican-made, so you don't have to break the bank but still one of the best quality instruments Fender makes. In the classic Tele tradition, its an ash body with a pure and simple maple neck. Bright and twangy or warm and soft, you can pretty much do it all.
Fender Modern Player Thinline Tele ($449.99):
Here's where Telecasters really start to cater to my personal taste. Semi-hollow, so very light and very full sounding, but then you add Fender's MP-90's and separate tone and volume controls for each pickup and a three way toggle switch, and you've got something dark, heavy, and hot. This guy in particular is a shop favorite and everyone who comes in here and gives it a try is impressed with the output levels and the overall sound. This thing can rock hard enough for anyone (I'm looking at you, Tom Morello).
Fender Thinline Tele ($799.99):
Also made in the vintage '69 style in this handsome thing and another shop favorite. A good example of a vintage-style instrument that won't have you breaking the bank but is still pushing into the higher-end territory where things start to get kind of magical and...well, really dang good. They are available in either mahogany or ash bodies with the classic all-maple necks so they are nice and light weight. Great player, sounds awesome.
American Standard and American Special Tele's ($899.99-999.99):
American Specials give you the traditional Tele vibe with an emphasis on the "down-home" with Texas Special pickups and the original bridge-saddle layout with only three bridge saddles. Alder body for clarity and maple neck. Very sweet sounding, and I find the Texas Special pickups are excellent for Stevie Ray Vaughn style blues bite since they get pretty hot.
American Standard has the six-saddle bridge with Fender Custom Shop pickups and it comes with a fancy-schmancy hardcase. Both are great guitars and I recommend coming in here for yourself and taking them for a spin.
So yeah, this whole post was essentially my small little love note to Telecasters. I like'em. I highly recommend them if you haven't considered them before. And even if you never dug the traditional Tele in the first place, I recommend investigating the different kinds out there these days. Chances are, there's probably one to suit your style, whatever it may be. Daisy-gypsy-sawblade-funk-fusion? Yes.