Similar to the Fender Stratocaster and the Gibson Les Paul, which I covered in previous posts here and here, I could have called the Fender Telecaster the quintessential electric guitar. After all, that model predated the Stratocaster and the Les Paul by three years and one year, respectively. And while Paul Bigsby built the first solid-body for country and western artist Merle Travis in 1948, it was the Telecaster that became the first such electric guitar that was manufactured on a substantial scale.
But the truth is “quintessential” is largely in the eye of the beholder. I always loved the seductive shape of the Stratocaster. I also thought Mark Knopfler created such a cool signature sound with it on Sultans of Swing, Once Upon a Time In the West and other early Dire Straits classics. Ultimately, that’s why I feel the Strat is THE electric guitar and wrote about it first. On to the Telecaster.
The Telecaster was developed by inventor Leo Fender, the founder of the Fender Electric Instrument Company. He built the first prototype in the fall of 1949 and introduced it to the market in 1950 as the Fender Esquire, a solid-body with one single-coil pickup. But the Esquire was hampered by quality issues, especially around the guitar neck that easily bent, so it was only produced in limited numbers.
Fender addressed the lacking neck stability with the placement of a tross rod. He also added a second single-coil pickup to the guitar and renamed it the Fender Broadcaster. That name was very similar to Broadkaster drum sets made by Gretsch, so needed it be changed. The Broadcaster became the Telecaster in 1951, and the guitar has been sold under that brand name ever since.
The Telecaster featured several innovations and used production techniques that made manufacturing and repairing the guitar more cost-effective compared to models from Gibson and other manufacturers. Rather than constructing the Telecaster individually, Fender introduced the production of components that could easily be put together into the finished product on an assembly line.
Unlike the traditional glued in neck, the Telecaster had a “bolt-on” neck. Not only did this make production easier, but it also allowed for faster repair or replacement of the neck. Additionally, the neck on the classic Telecaster was made from a single piece of maple without a separate fingerboard.
Moreover, the bodies of the Telecaster were built with solid pieces of wood instead of being hand-carved individually. The Telecaster also featured easily accessible electronics. This was made possible through a removable control plate. In contrast, the electronics of the then-predominant hollow-body electric guitars could only be accessed through the soundholes.
Unlike the Stratocaster, which got a lukewarm initial reception from many guitarists, the Telecaster was an immediate hit. This can be explained by the guitar’s distinct properties, which according to Reverb include: “A bridge pickup tone like to no other. The definition of twang when clean. The definition of rock when dirty; Liberating simplicity. Two pickups, two knobs, six strings, no frills. It forces you to be a better player; Surprising versatility. Across three pickup positions, different tone knob positions and varying levels of gain, the Tele is capable of an unexpected number of voices.”
I think it’s mainly the guitar’s versatility, which has made the Telecaster a staple in country, electric blues, rock & roll and other music genres. Like in the case of the Stratocaster and the Les Paul, several customized versions of the Telecaster have appeared over the decades. These variants feature different pickup configurations like a humbucker in the neck position, dual humbuckers and three single-coil pickups. There is also a semi-hollow version called the Telecaster Thinline.
Now comes the part of this type of gear-focused post that excites me the most – a list of musicians who have championed the equipment.
American guitarist James Burton, who has performed with Ricky Nelson, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Glen Campbell, Roy Orbison and many others, has played a Telecaster since age 13 and is considered to be the most visible Tele player in the late ’50s. Here’s a great clip of Burton performing Johnny B. Goode and Blue Suede Shoes live with Presley, playing his Paisley Red Tele.
Also known as Mr. Telecaster, English guitarist Albert Lee has played a Telecaster since 1963. Here is a cool live clip from the early ’70s of Lee performing Country Boy with British country rock band Heads Hands & Feet – holy moly!
American electric blues guitarist Albert Collins was called The Master of the Telecaster. The Fender Custom Shop offers an Albert Collins Signature Telecaster, which is based on his 1966 model featuring a humbucker pickup in the neck position. Here is a fantastic clip of Collins playoing Iceman, the title song of his tenth and final studio album released in March 1991, two and a half years prior to his untimely death from lung cancer in November 1993 at age 61.
Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards has used a variety of Telecasters throughout his long career. The most famous one is a ’53 Tele called Micawber. According to the Fender website, Richards got the Micawber from Eric Clapton as a present for his 27th birthday in 1970. At the time, the Stones were gearing up for Exile On Main Street. Shortly after the band’s ’72 tour, Richards replaced the single-coil pickup in the neck position with a ’50s Gibson PAF humbucker for extra bite. Here’s a clip of Richards in action with his Micawber, together with the Stones: Brown Sugar, from the 2016 concert in Havana, Cuba.
Blues guitar legend Muddy Waters played a red ’57 Telecaster. Until 2010, Fender offered a replica as part of its signature series, the Muddy Waters Telecaster. Here is a great clip of the maestro and his red Telecaster, performing I’m A King Bee, captured during ChicagoFest in 1981.
Of course, this short list of Telecaster champions would be incomplete without The Boss. Bruce Springsteen’s iconic guitar, which is pictured on the cover of the Born To Run album from 1975, is not a pure breed Telecaster. As Bobby Owsinski explains on his Music Production Blog, it’s actually a hybrid from at least two other guitars: a ’50s Telecaster body with what looks like a ’57 Esquire neck, which Springsteen purchased at a guitar shop in Neptune, N.J.
Before selling it to The Boss, store owner Phil Petillo removed the two additional pickups that had been added to return the guitar to its original Telecaster configuration. Over the years, Petillo made significant additional modifications requested by Springsteen, including triangular Precision Frets, a six saddle titanium bridge, as well as custom hot-wound waterproofed pickups and electronics, so the guitar could better withstand Springsteen’s marathon shows. In 2005, he retired his beloved instrument from live shows and has since played clones of it during tours. Springsteen continues to use the original for studio recordings. Here’s a clip of the mighty Born To Run, which is from a 1978 show and presumably features Springsteen’s original Telecaster hybrid. Man, watching this footage makes me want to see The Boss again!
Sources: Wikipedia; “Telecaster Buying Guide,” The Hub, March 2017; “Statocaster vs. Telecaster: The Differences That Matter,” Reverb, Nov 2016; “Interesting Mods: Keith Richards’ ‘Micawber’,” Fender website; “The Story Behind Bruce Springsteen’s Iconic Hybrid Telecaster,” Bobby Osinski, Music Production Blog; YouTube