An Abridged History of the Fender Telecaster

Many guitars have reached iconic status, but there is one that started it all—the Fender Telecaster. As the world’s first commercially produced solid-body electric guitar, the Tele, as it is affectionately known, has graced stages around the world since 1950. It has found its way into the hands of country players seeking twang and hard rockers that want a biting sound to cut through the mix. It’s been used on countless records, seen countless bar brawls, and has been seen on thousands of television broadcasts. If it falls down the stairs, it’s still ready to rock that night. While there have been various incarnations of the instrument, it has never strayed too far from the simple formula of a couple pieces of wood, some basic hardware, and simple electronics. Let’s pay tribute to Leo’s original design by taking a look at the Tele throughout the years.


Esquire

Eschewing the typical practice of using a glued-in, set-neck joint, Leo Fender opted to screw a neck made from a single piece of maple—there was no rosewood or ebony fretboard like Gibson models—to a body with four screws. This allowed the neck to be removed completely for any necessary service and also offered durability. Sounds were delivered courtesy of a single pickup in the bridge position. In this early stage, the neck did not have a truss rod, which proved troublesome down the road. Later versions had two pickups. Always tinkering, Leo was not satisfied and came up with the next incarnation of the instrument.


Broadcaster

Essentially a two-pickup Esquire, the Broadcaster now featured an adjustable truss rod. However, Gretsch was not fond of Fender’s new axe, due to the fact that they manufactured a drum kit under the name Broadkaster. Fender agreed to remove the Broadcaster name from the headstock. Ironically, Gretsch is now part of the Fender family of brands.


Nocaster

During this fabled time in Telecaster production, the instrument was nameless, and models with no name on the headstock are extremely rare and were produced for less than a year. It’s an interesting part of Fender lore, and if you find one of these in your grandma’s attic or basement, cling to it with all your might. Custom Shop Nocaster reissues are very popular among players today due to their vintage styling and attempt to recreate a unique time in the instrument’s history.


Telecaster

In the early ‘50s, a wild new invention called the television was taking America by storm. Like any good ad man, Fender’s marketing chief Don Randall knew which way the wind was blowing and merged television with “-caster” to give us what we now know as the Telecaster. Use that tidbit of information the next time your friends criticize you for creating a new portmanteau. By now, the Telecaster had a face and a name. Keeping the two-pickup configuration, the Tele initially had limited tonal options; the neck pickup had rolled the tone off considerably, offering a bassy sound designed to function similar to a bass. Later on, the circuit was modified to give a clearer signal and offer greater functionality. Some 1952 Telecaster reissues came with the vintage circuit neck pickup, while many today come with the more modern wiring that has become the standard.


Telecaster Custom (1959–1968)

This edition of the Tele was dressed up, featuring double body binding and a rosewood board. It also came in custom colors, a departure from the butterscotch blonde and white it had previously been known for. The rosewood fretboard offered a slightly darker tone, making it an option for players who previously thought the Tele to be too bright or shrill.


Telecaster Thinline

No doubt inspired by the aesthetics of hollow and semi-hollow guitars produced by Gibson and other manufacturers, in 1969 the next incarnation featured the same pair of single coil pickups, but now had an F-hole revealing a semi-hollow body. A later version from 1972 retained the F-hole design, but saw Fender step into the double-coil pickup arena with the Wide Range humbucker. Designed by Seth Lover, who had previously developed the PAF for Gibson, the Wide Range humbuckers represented Fender’s attempt to cut into the Gibson market with a semi-hollow humbucker-equipped guitar. The end result was quite different from a Gibson style semi, but it had a great sound nonetheless. The 1972 Telecaster Thinline is a popular model that saw renewed interest around the turn of the century when Jonny Buckland employed several onstage with Coldplay.


Telecaster Custom (1972)

This edition of the Custom was similar to the previous version in name only. Replacing the single-coil in the neck with a Wide Range humbucker, this model quickly became of favorite of Keith Richards due to its versatility and cool new look. Instead of the original single volume and tone configuration, the Custom sported dual tone and volume controls, just like many Gibson models, as well as a three-way pickup toggle switch on the upper bout of the guitar. This gave players a happy medium between Gibson and Fender and is still a wildly popular guitar today, as well as being the basis for numerous other similar versions.


Telecaster Deluxe

Now with two Wide Range humbuckers on a solid contoured body, as well as the control configuration of the ‘72 Custom, the Tele offered up Gibson-esque tones while still maintaining the Telecaster scale and feel. Instead of a standard Tele neck, the Deluxe featured a Stratocaster-style neck with a large headstock. In 1973–74, the Deluxe was offered with a tremolo bridge option, adding a Stratocaster-esque vibrato arm. This version became popular with alternative bands as it could be had for a more reasonable price than vintage standard Tele models. It doesn’t sound quite like a standard Tele, but it’s a great guitar worth checking out if you’ve never played one.


Telecaster Plus

This model came equipped with Lace Sensor pickups, specifically a single coil in the neck and humbucker in the bridge, and it represents Fender’s desire to continue to innovate and come up with new ideas. An esoteric model, it is most notably used by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, who has played a Tele Plus model for his entire career. He has a killswitch installed on his for muting and chop effects.


What do Keith Urban, Brad Paisley, Jim Root, and Eddie Vedder have in common? They all play guitar for a living, and they all play a Telecaster. Sure, they have other guitars, but the Tele is a mainstay in their collections and they are rarely seen without one live or in the studio. The Tele has permeated every part of popular music and is probably on every rock ‘n’ roll record you’ve ever listened to—it does blues, jazz, metal, and everything in between. I remember when I saw Pearl Jam live at The Gorge in 2005. Eddie Vedder, Mike McCready, and Stone Gossard all played butterscotch blonde Teles on “MFC.” I’m willing to bet they weren’t reissues, and they sounded amazing. What’s worth noting is the different tones they were all getting, and that’s why the Telecaster is so great—it can be whatever you want it to be.

There are many Telecaster variations that were not included in this article as there is not space to contain them all. In the past decade alone, there have been several new versions introduced at both entry level and Custom Shop price points. Which Tele model is your favorite, and why?

I hope you’ve enjoyed this look back at the Tele, now put down your electronic device and get back to twangin’!


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