The electric guitar that changed the world
The inadvertent wonder of the Telecaster is strange. How could something acutely simplistic be that impactful? So much gear gets its glitz from pure happenstance; full of trinkets and doodads employed with the sole responsibility to lure. Typically, when music is made, by anyone, a certain feeling is sought out - of course. When many people think of a song that brings them joy from their youth, it’s often a tune that was played in the house they grew up in, by adults or on the radio. Sure it’s difficult to pinpoint why it made them feel this way, or the exact moment it started to mean something, it might be a song that was never learned by heart. The musician(s) could, to this day, be a mystery. But, for whatever reason, it elicits a feeling of home more so than any other from those formative years. Today, in 2019, if you were to ask a modern guitarist what that particular song might have sounded like, it’d be a safe bet to assume that it included a Fender Telecaster.
Electric guitars have been around since the 1920s. Since its’ invention, players were in dire search of ways to make the instrument louder without singularly relying on the use of an amp. A specific audible sound was in need, but no one had experienced it yet, so didn’t know how to fabricate it. Guitar manufacturers knew there were more options to be explored when it came to solid-body electric guitars. Leo Fender, from California, worked on this new guitar “sound” for the better part of the late 1940s. He and his team made it their mission to create something that didn’t exist before. They aimed to produce a guitar that was well-designed, easy playing, efficient, rugged, affordable and obviously, sounded great. No easy feat.
In 1950 Fender released the initial single pick-up model (Fender Esquire*), but it had too many issues, and needed to be axed (heh). Fewer than 50 guitars were manufactured in that first batch. Later in the year, after it was discontinued, a two-pickup model was created and named Fender Broadcaster**. Great! Only one slight problem, due to legal action regarding the name’s similarity to another popular manufacturers instrument (the Broadkaster), it needed to be changed, again. This eventually lead to the Telecaster.
The Fender Telecaster, today commonly referred to as Tele, was the first commercially successful solid-body electric guitar. So, how did the Telecaster become the most trusted, recognized electric guitar in music?
Let’s break it down
The Fender Telecaster is a Spanish style guitar. Upon release, it was initially mocked for its simple design and stature. References were made to it looking like a boat paddle, or a toilet seat. But simplicity deemed King. It meant that buyers and players could adjust, change and repair things with more ease and more inexpensively than before.
This is what the Fender website says about the build:
“Several of its features were carried over from the Hawaiian steel guitars Fender had already been making since 1945, such as the “ashtray” bridge cover, knurled chrome knobs, Kluson tuners and combination of bridge and bridge pickup in one integral unit. If the maple neck broke or became too worn, there was no complex luthiery involved—you just screwed on a new one. It had a simple black pickguard (of fiber or Bakelite) held on with five screws. Unlike many existing guitars at the time, the Telecaster’s strings were pulled straight over the nut, with all the tuners on one side of the headstock—ideas that Leo himself said he borrowed from 19-century Istrian folk guitars and Viennese Staufer guitars.
The controls were another matter. True, the layout was simple—two knobs and a three-position switch, but their combined function was not as simple as might be supposed at first. The front knob always controlled master volume, but the rear knob was not always a master tone knob. In 1951, putting the selector switch in the rear (bridge) position delivered both pickups, with the rear knob serving as a blend control that governed the amount of neck pickup sound mixed into the bridge pickup sound. The selector switch in the middle position delivered the neck pickup only with its “natural” mellow tone (its chrome cover soaked up extra capacitance), and the switch in the front (neck) position delivered the neck pickup only with extra capacitance that produced a bassier tone; the rear knob affected neither of these settings.
This control arrangement was “simplified” in 1952 to what became known as the conventional Telecaster control layout. After this change, putting the selector switch in the rear (bridge) position delivered the bridge pickup alone, with the rear knob acting as a proper tone control. The selector switch in the middle position delivered the neck pickup alone, with the rear knob again acting as a tone control. The selector switch in the front (neck) position delivered the neck pickup alone with the preset bassier sound and a non-functioning rear knob (as before). In this control scheme, there was no switch setting in which both pickups were on at the same time, an arrangement that lasted until the late 1960s. However, players were quick to discover that the Telecaster’s three-position switch could be precariously balanced in the two “in-between” switch positions to deliver in-phase or out-of-phase sounds (depending on the polarity of the pickups) in which both pickups were on.
So there was quite a bit of tonal versatility there. Unlike any guitar that came before it, the Telecaster had an incredibly bright, clean and cutting sounding, with a piercing high end and thick midrange and bass.
Even today, almost 70 years after its invention, a basic modern Telecaster outwardly differs very little from its ancestors of 1951. Its simplicity and efficiency as a solidly reliable workhorse guitar remained hallmarks of its design throughout the 1950s, as indeed they would throughout subsequent decades.”
So, what’s the big deal?
In a world with endless options, the Tele became an easy, sought-out choice, early on. In 1951, when it was born in full form, rock & roll was still a few years away. There were hints at its arrival in the form of rockabilly, but overall, country, blues, and soul were at the forefront of popular music. The Tele was created with country music in mind. Accompanied by an unmistakable sound, the Tele sounds both airy and twangy (the “Tele-twang”). This was the kind of electric guitar that bodes well for finger-picking guitarists, favouring blues and country elite. Explorative musicians veering away from a country sound realized that the Tele was also able to produce complimentary tight and punchy sounds.
The Telecaster is praised for being extremely versatile and unostentatious. It comes down to the modulation, the design (basically a slab of wood) creates an incomparable rounded tone.
Where have I heard it?
While it’s easy and exciting to discuss the history of the Telecaster verbally. The only way a person can truly identify the Tele sound is to audibly study it musically. Whether you are new to guitar or a seasoned pro, you have undoubtedly heard the Fender Tele. There are throngs of modern Tele masters who have taken on the guitar and invigorated the sound from what it used to be in the 50s. Without a doubt a significant amount of modern music owes it’s popular success to the Telecaster. But, take a look back and a listen to some great Tele tunes (below).
"Suzy Q" - Dale Hawkins (1957)
"Green Onions" - Booker T & the MG's
"Act Naturally" - Buck Owens& His Buckaroos (1963)
"Never Thought You'd Leave Me" - The Pleasure Seekers (1965)
"My Generation" - The Who (1965)
"Dazed and Confused" - Led Zeppelin (1969)
"(Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay" - Otis Redding (1968)
"Train In Vain" - The Clash (1978)
"Don't Stand So Close to Me" - The Police (1980)
Tele Fest 2019
Tom Lee Music Vancouver and Tom Lee Music Langley are hosting Tele Fest 2019 on February 9th and 10th. Here you will find an eclectic selection of rare, limited, and discontinued Fender and Squier Telecaster on sale! This is a can’t miss event for any Tele lover, or hopeful Tele master.
Written by: Danica Bansie
Design: Lorelle Kjarsgaard
*The Fender Esquire would be eventually re-released.
**The original Fender Broadcasters were renamed Nocaster, and are a rare find.