The Fender Telecaster: A Timeless Icon of Guitar History
Some things are just unmistakable. You can instantly recognize them without any specialized knowledge. A powerful American sports car revving up, the awe-inspiring Grand Canyon, and of course, the one and only Mickey Mouse. While we might not all agree on everything, there is one item that deserves a spot on everyone's list—the Fender Telecaster. If you're in the market for a Telecaster, you're in luck. At Art of Guitar, we're here to guide you through the noise and confusion, providing you with all the essential information. So, let's dive in!
A Brief History
Leo Fender, known for his radio repair business, ventured into instrument building as he transitioned into amplifiers. Starting with lap steel electric guitars, his small company, in an order even he couldn't recall, created the Precision Bass, Esquire, and eventually the Fender Telecaster by the end of 1951. The Telecaster, an instrument that remains largely unchanged, has become an iconic piece of music history.
Originally known as the Broadcaster in 1950, this ash bodied, maple-necked electric guitar with its screw-together design offered a unique alternative to the glued-together instruments of the time. After some legal disputes, the Broadcaster’s name was dropped, leaving only Fender. The guitars released during this period are now referred to as NoCaster models. Don Randall, one of Leo Fender's early employees, combined the word "Television" with "Broadcaster," giving birth to the Telecaster in 1951.
The fundamental model of the Telecaster has remained virtually unchanged over the past 70 years. While there are now countless models available, we'll focus on the original Telecaster and take a comprehensive look at its features.
The elegant curves of the Telecaster headstock have remained the same since its inception. The headstock houses the tuning machines, whether vintage slotted or modern solid posts, and marks the end of the strings. You'll find the company logo, model name, string trees (which guide the lighter strings), and the truss rod access hole on the headstock. On most Telecaster models, the serial number can be found on the back of the headstock.
Interestingly, during the design process of perfecting the Telecaster's headstock, there were various twists and turns, including the exploration of a prior design known as the snakehead guitar. We were fortunate to acquire a replica of the third version of the Snakehead guitar, which also came with a vintage Fender amplifier. This historical connection highlights our commitment to preserving the legacy of guitar craftsmanship at Art of Guitar, as we embrace the rich heritage and evolution of iconic designs.
Compared to the Stratocaster, the Telecaster headstock is slightly smaller but instantly recognizable. It embodies the form-follows-function principle that defines all class-defining objects.
The neck of the Telecaster, measuring 25.5" in scale length, remains unchanged since its creation. You'll find dark-colored rosewood fingerboards and almost white maple fingerboards. While other woods have been used, we'll focus on these two options. The fingerboard has a standard radius of 9.5" for modern Teles and 7.25" for vintage versions. In recent years, 12" radius necks with 22 frets have become more common. At the headstock end, you'll find the nut, typically made of synthetic bone, which hasn't changed for decades.
The average profile of a Telecaster neck features a somewhat deep C shape with defined shoulders near the edges. Different profiles exist across various models, ranging from the original deep, thick U shape to the modern D shape. This is an important factor to consider, as the necks can vary slightly even within the same model.
Lastly, the back of the neck features a brown strip known as the "skunk stripe." It houses a channel that holds the truss rod, a steel rod that prevents the neck from bending. This channel is filled with a strip of walnut. The thick, square heel, located at the body end of the neck, provides stability and support to the instrument.
The body of the Telecaster is where all the magic happens. It's typically made of solid ash or alder, although other wood options are available on certain models. The Telecaster has a distinctive shape with its single cutaway, allowing easy access to the higher frets. Its simplicity and elegance have made it an iconic design that has stood the test of time.
One of the defining features of the Telecaster is its bolt-on neck construction.
Unlike guitars with set necks or neck-through designs, the Telecaster's neck is attached to the body with four screws, offering easy adjustability and repairability. This simple yet effective design contributes to the guitar's renowned sustain and unique tonal characteristics.
The Telecaster is known for its signature sound, which is primarily due to its pickups. The original Telecaster models featured single coil pickups known as "ashtray" pickups due to their metal covers resembling ashtrays. These pickups deliver a bright, twangy tone that has become synonymous with the Telecaster.
Over the years, Fender has introduced various pickup configurations and designs to cater to different musical styles. One popular option is the Telecaster Custom with a single coil pickup in the bridge position and a humbucker pickup in the neck position. This configuration provides a wider range of tones, from the classic Telecaster bite to warmer, thicker sounds.
The Telecaster's hardware contributes to its playability and overall functionality. It features a bridge with three saddles that provide individual string intonation adjustment. While some players prefer this vintage-style bridge, others opt for modern versions with six individually adjustable saddles for more precise intonation.
The control layout of the Telecaster is straightforward and user-friendly. It typically includes a master volume knob, a master tone knob, and a pickup selector switch. Some models may have additional switches or tone-shaping options, but the core simplicity of the controls remains intact.
Let’s Get It Together
So, we’ve gone over all the bits and bobs, parts, and pieces of what makes this truly seminal piece of guitar history the classic that it is. With all the parts put together, we can get to the important points of the Telecaster, like, what does it sound like?
Like no other, is a concise, short, right-to-the-point answer. Clear as an autumn sunrise, bright as summer noon, sparkly as an early evening fly cast on the Yellowstone River, and that’s just the gorgeous cleans a Telecaster is capable of. Was that too much? Is our love for this guitar too loud? I hope not! A Telecaster into an overdriven amp at some rumble-inducing volumes is a thing of beauty all its own, so don’t think of it as just a clean machine.
The versatility of the Telecaster has made it a fixture in almost all styles and genres of music since 1951. Of course, everyone sees it in Country music, and it has gained a reputation as being particularly suited to that style. But the fact is, it is a part of nearly all forms of Rock, an extremely competent jazz guitar, and every style and type of music in between. It is true that the Tele doesn’t really appear in the heavy stuff, and the shredders don’t really use them, but that doesn’t mean you can’t! You’ll have to look hard to find one with a tremolo bridge or whammy bar, as Fender just hasn’t done that very often because, well, they make the entire Stratocaster for just such a need!
From Albert Lee to Danny Gatton to Roy Buchanan, from Bill Frisell to Vince Gill to Keith Richards and Jimmy Page, most types of modern music are all represented by just a handful of the long roster of musicians that have made their mark using the Fender Telecaster. True, Mr. Page has been photographed and associated most notably with another single cutaway guitar, but his Led Zeppelin career began with the Telecaster, as it was the guitar of choice for their entire first album, with great songs like "Dazed and Confused," "Communication Breakdown," and "Good Times Bad Times" as top hit examples of his command of the Tele.
What to Expect
Considering the history, sound, and versatility of the Fender Telecaster, you can expect quite a lot from your own. At an average weight of about 8 pounds, the Tele hangs well, moves with the player, and balances superbly. The substantial, solid feel of the flat top makes the Telecaster feel fantastic as a performance machine. It will do almost whatever you ask of it, do it well, and do it consistently and reliably for more nights than any of us can count.
It’s Buying Time
We’ve got all the stuff that makes a Tele deconstructed, put back together, and made ready to function properly. Whether you are a beginner or have a few years of guitar playing behind you, a Telecaster is an excellent choice.
The range of models is also a bit much for the new guitar player to digest. From the basic Telecaster to the two-humbucker Deluxe, to the one-humbucker one single-coil Custom, to the semi-hollow Thinline, to the you get the idea. There are quite a few models beyond the basic Tele. Add the often-released Factory Special Run (FSR) guitars, usually in exclusive custom colors and pickup combinations, and you’ve got racks of Telecasters to choose from. Amongst all of the Teles on the wall will be an equally dizzying variety of Fender Stratocasters, causing the new buyer to wonder what the difference is.
Fortunately, the best and only way to determine which Telecaster model is for you is to play as many as you can. See how each feels, plug them in, and hear the differences, no matter how subtle. Get a strap off the rack and stand and play it, feel the balance and the hang, and get an idea of the weight, if that matters to you. Play it loud and clean, loud and dirty, soft and smooth. Move the switch around, roll those two control knobs up and down, and get an idea of the wide range of tones that live inside the average Tele. If possible, stop by our Gallery and have our experienced active musicians help you wade through the sea of choices and help with head-to-head comparisons to help narrow down your choices.
Final Thoughts on The Telecaster
Well, you made it this far, and that was a long walk. If you came here for some clarity about a truly important piece of guitar history, you have hopefully gained some knowledge and insight and will be able to shirk some of the common myths and opinions that often masquerade as fact. There are many, many great reasons the Fender Telecaster has succeeded for so many guitar players for so long, and now it is up to you to get out there and try one. Or three or four.
So, what are you waiting for Only you can know which one is right for you, and the best thing you can do is enjoy the hunt, make an informed decision, and above all, have fun finding the Fender Telecaster for you!