5 Underrated Teles from the Depths of Fender History

Many guitar players — especially Fender lovers — are going to think this sounds ridiculous, but Telecasters are underrated. In my opinion, the Fender Telecaster is the finest electric guitar ever created. Stratocasters are great, of course, but to me, the Telecaster is nothing short of perfection.

Few guitars are prettier than a ‘50s–style Butterscotch Blonde Tele. It’s arguably the most accidentally cerebral, yet inherently simplistic instrument out of all of Fender’s offerings. There’s no misplaced switches on a vintage–style Telecaster; you’re not going to whiff a strum and knock yourself to the bridge pickup. Every sound built into a classic Telecaster is accessible, and every tonal decision you make has to be intentional.

Since its birth at the Fullerton factory, there have been a number of takes on the design, either from a visual or performance standpoint. And unsurprisingly, some of the most interesting versions from a visual, tonal and player’s perspective have been swept under the rug in favor of the vintage–style classic.

So today, we’re going to shine the spotlight back on five of those underappreciated iterations, taking a look at what makes them worth reconsideration.

The International Series Telecasters

What better way to kick off this list than with my favorite limited edition color scheme from Fender’s Dark Ages. The International Series colors were available on Stratocasters, Telecasters, and basses from 1980–81 and were made from parts in Fender’s inventory dating as far back as ’78.

Monaco Yellow International Series Telecaster

These guitars were overwhelmingly vibrant with eye–catching finishes, unlike most contemporary guitars of that era. With colors such as Maui Blue, Monaco Yellow, and Capri Orange, it’s hard to think of a more striking bread–and–butter–style Telecaster.

Not every player is a huge fan of late–’70s/early–’80s Fender pickups, but this guitar sounds as you’d expect a Tele to sound, with a little more ‘70s chime. For as much flack as this era of Fender (rightfully) gets, this is truly a gem of that time.

Given the way that these colors have aged, the International Series is becoming somewhat legendary, and the Telecaster versions of these guitars themselves have shown to be exceedingly rare on the resale market. With all of this and Fender’s rediscovered flair for outsider finishes, it’s a major surprise (and a shame) that Fender has never publicly reissued these colors.

Fender Bullet Telecaster

Keeping with theme of killer Teles from Fender’s Dark Ages is the Fender Bullet Series 1 Telecaster. While everyone seems to associate the Bullet with Squier because of the release of the Squier Bullet in the mid–’80s, the Bullet actually started out as a Fender budget instrument in 1981.

Fender Bullet Series 1

One of the coolest things about these guitars is that they were the first model designed by the now–mythic John Page, co–founder of Fender’s Custom Shop. These guitars age with the best of them, and their design is a shockingly unique and cumulative take on a classic Fender shape.

At its core, the design is a smaller Telecaster-style body with Strat–style bout and switching. The rest of the guitar was informed by the history of Fender’s early starter models, like the Duo Sonic and Musicmaster.

While it doesn’t sound like a traditional Telecaster with pickups on the thinner side, those, of course, can be switched out to whatever your ears prefer. Overall, these are incredible guitars for what they are and they have rightfully gained their own cult–like reverence.

Fender Elite Telecaster

The next Tele in that era that stands out is the Telecaster Elite. Not to be confused with Fender’s new Elite Telecaster, the Telecaster Elite existed from '83 to early '85 and represented a forward–thinking design, not just in terms of aesthetic but also in sound.

Fender Elite Telecaster

The Elites came in a variety of finishes as a standard series (black, white, natural, Sienna sunburst, brown sunburst, and pewter) as well as a variety of custom options (Candy Apple Red, Lake Placid Blue, Candy Apple Green, Aztec Gold, and Walnut).

My personal favorites are the Telecasters in this series that were finished in rare “Stratoburst” where the color of the finish gradually gets lighter the farther up you get on the body. It’s hard to find a modern–style Telecaster that looks sleeker and more like an art piece.

In a way, the Elite was the “Tele of the Future” in the ‘80s, featuring a top–loaded bridge and all of the deluxe appointments of the time. The sounds buried in this Tele are completely unique to itself, with the guitar often being referred to as the “Les Paul Tele.” Adding to that reputation, the model also featured a Gibson–style three–way switch. Featuring active circuitry with a built–in mid–range boost, this guitar is known as being a precursor to the Eric Clapton Signature Strat.

Some people will never accept an active Tele with a top–loaded bridge, but for what it is, it’s a good guitar that doesn’t get enough credit.

Contemporary/Heavy Metal Teles

Going into the mid–’80s, Fender was in limbo. With the creation of Fender Japan in 1982, Fender was able to experiment with newer designs over time in an effort to keep up with changing tastes. Two of those experiments were the Contemporary and, later, Heavy Metal lines of Stratocasters and Telecasters that were available from 1985 into the early ‘90s.

From the Telecaster side of things, the experimenting was noticeably more radical. A HSS–based or HH–based guitar with a locking trem/nut is no big deal in the scheme of things now, but those on a Tele — especially at the time — were kind of crazy.

Fender Contemporary Telecaster

Fender HMT

Super Strat culture was a thing, but Super Tele? The MIJ (and later, USA) Contemporary/HM series Telecasters went above and beyond with different pickup/switching combinations, and the result was a very capable instrument that nailed the style and sound of the era.

One of the most notable things about the Contemporary Tele is that they largely had individual pickup switches, as opposed to the HMT’s which had a Strat–style switch. Compared to vintage Teles, the necks were thinner for the most part and the bodies don’t feature pickguards.

The price ranges on these guitars quite a bit, so it is possible to score a major bargain on one of these outstanding guitars.

Fender Tele Plus Deluxe

Fender Telecaster Plus Deluxe

The most recent guitar on this list comes from a time of rebuilding and renaissance for Fender USA. While the Strat Plus is exceedingly common and has been discussed ad nauseum, the Telecaster Plus and — more specifically — the Telecaster Deluxe Plus deserves more recognition than it gets.

Not to be confused with Jonny Greenwood’s mid–’90s hardtail Telecaster Plus, these Plus Deluxe models were significant in that they featured Lace Sensor pickups (dual red LS in the bridge with a coil–tap, single blue LS in the neck) and a two–point strat–style tremolo system with a Roller nut and locking tuners.

With the amount of late–’80s Fender appointments on this, you’d say that this should have been Jeff Beck’s favorite Tele… but then you’d be forgetting his ’54 Esquire. All in all, Fender USA couldn’t have done a better job on these guitars, and I dare say that the Plus series should be in line for a reissue.

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