Classic Guitars, part 3: Fender Telecaster

The Fender Telecaster is the model that put the solid body electric guitar on the map. Although quite a few inventors had dabbled with the concept of an electrically amplified solid body guitar from the 1930s onwards, Leo Fender and George Fullerton succeeded in starting a huge industry back in 1950.

The guitar we now know as the Fender Telecaster first saw light as a one-pickup guitar – the Esquire. The first Esquires had a small pushbutton next to the volume and tone controls, enabling the player to switch quickly between the normal bridge pickup tone and a boomy sound with the treble removed. A few weeks later the pushbutton was replaced with a three-way lever selector, which gave you the boomy tone, the normal pickup sound with tone control and a setting with the bridge pickup routed directly to the output jack for more treble.

At first the two-pickup counterpart retained the Esquire-moniker, before Fender hit upon a new name – the Broadcaster. In February 1951 Fender got a telegram from Gretsch – then a much larger company than Fender – informing them that they already had a trademarked drum-series called Broadkaster, and asking Fender to stop infringing on their trademark.

Time for a name-change, again. In the meantime Fender used up the old logo decals, modified by clipping off the Broadcaster-script. These guitars are now affectionately called ”Nocasters”.

In August 1951 the two-pickup Fender model finally became the Telecaster.

The Tele is a really straightforward instrument, put together from a slab body (no comfort contours here) and a bolt-on maple neck, sometimes augmented by a rosewood fingerboard.

The neck pickup has its own metal cover, while the bridge pickup is suspended in the box-like bridge.

The vintage-style Tele bridge is equipped with only three saddles, but these days many of the model’s versions feature modern six-saddle bridges. Anoraks can discuss one bridge type’s ”superiority” over another for ages on end – let me just state that the bridge saddles of different versions can either be made from brass, steel or die-cast metal, which all have differing influences on the respective guitar’s tone.

Since 1967 the three-way switch gives you either the warm neck pickup, the nicely broad and slightly hollow mix of both units, or the nasal, twangy and sinewy bridge pickup on its own. The bridge pickup sound quickly became the Tele’s calling card and it’s one of the mainstays in Country music. But this guitar is much more versatile than ”just” Country, and it is widely used in many music styles from Blues to Rock. Even some Metal guitarists have been spotted sporting a Tele, even though they usually have the original pickups exchanged for humbuckers.

In my opinion, the Telecaster is a fantastic guitar for a novice, if you can live with the edgy slab body. Leo Fender wanted to create a guitar that was easy to manufacture, easy to service and easy to repair. He envisaged a sturdy workhorse-instrument for the working musician.

Only very seldom does an inventor succeed so completely, as Messrs Fender and Fullerton have.


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