Every guitarist should own a Fender Telecaster at some point in their musical lives. Besides being among the most tonally distinctive guitars around, they are also really fun to play, surprisingly versatile, and possessed of a powerful, understated cool that can't be touched by flashy modern shred machines. The Tele also just might be the most historically significant electric guitar model of all time, with a legacy that is unmatched by any other instrument.
Before 1951, when Clarence Leonidas Fender and his Telecaster finally met with mainstream success, solid-body electric guitars were little more than curiosities, neither commercially successful nor taken seriously by the musicians of the day. Hollow-body acoustics were the dominant instruments of professional level guitar players at that time, many of them being fitted with aftermarket electromagnetic pickups to enhance volume and clarity in a big band context where horns were common. Leo had been designing and building these pickups for local players as part of his radio repair business, and in order to test them he built a primitive bolt-neck solid-body guitar. It was very Tele-like in sound and appearance, and Leo's regular customers quickly became enamored of its clear, bright, cutting tone, frequently borrowing it for gigs and recording sessions. Obviously he was onto something.
Fast forward to the modern day, and the Fender Telecaster in its various incarnations is a beloved and ubiquitous instrument that can be found in the hands of guitarists from all over the world, and from every conceivable genre of music. Despite its seeming crudeness in comparison to the more advanced designs that have followed in its footsteps, the Fender Telecaster has proven itself to be remarkably versatile and unquestionably timeless. From wailing blues leads and rock riffery, to deft country picking, cave man punk, sultry jazz tones, and metallic chunking, this elder of the electric solid-body world can do it all. If you want to truly understand the electric guitar and where it comes from, you must have one in your arsenal. To that end, here are a few of our favorite Tele-style guitars that will bring that stang to your thang without blowing your rent money.
Squier Classic Vibe '50s Telecaster
If you want a cool Tele, it makes sense to go straight to the original source. As luck would have it, Fender's broad and impressive assemblage of Telecasters has something for everybody, and at every possible price point. The Squier line in particular is better than ever, and for an astonishingly small amount of money an exceptional guitar can be had. The Squier Classic Vibe '50s Tele is just such a guitar, exuding tons of vintage "blackguard" swagger and bite, with thoughtful modern appointments like a fast maple "C" neck and 9.5-inch radius maple fretboard. Its pine body hearkens back to Leo Fender's original prototype Tele, which was also made of pine, as well as the early pine-bodied Esquires, making it historically relevant as well as great sounding, lightweight, and wicked fun to play. The Classic Vibe '50s Tele comes in Butterscotch Blonde or Vintage Blonde and sells for around 400 bucks. Get one of each!
G&L Tribute ASAT
Founded in 1979, G&L was Leo Fender's last guitar company, and he worked there designing instruments until his death in 1991. In many ways, G&L was the final culmination of all of the late, great genius's ideas about electric guitars, thus many G&L models tend to be more modernized, technologically advanced versions of classic Fender models like the Strat and Tele. The Tribute line (which equates to Fender's Squier brand) is practically bursting with cool, affordable rockers, and the Tribute ASAT is a stand-out for Tele fans, featuring the warm, robust, high fidelity sound of Leo's Magnetic Field Design (MFD) pickups. A nine-inch radius fretboard, 22 Medium Jumbo frets, and a comfortable medium "C" neck profile further enhance playability, while six individual brass saddles offer a great blend of classic twang and precise intonation. The G&L Tribute ASAT is a superb instrument, and sells brand new for under 400 bucks.
Right behind Mick Ronson on my list of favorite Bowie guitarists is the mighty Earl Slick. Slick's raw, textural approach gave albums like Station To Station a wild rock ‘n’ roll edge that perfectly offset Bowie's coke-fueled mysticism and romantic inclinations. Besides his time with the Thin White Duke, he has also played John Lennon and Yoko Ono, The New York Dolls, Slim Jim Phantom and Glen Matlock, and many others. Recently Earl Slick partnered with Guitar Fetish on a line of Slick-branded guitars, including the model SL50, a badass and uniquely Slick take on the Telecaster formula. It features an excellent pair of hot vintage, sand-cast alnico Tele pickups mounted straight to the ash body, a raw brass billet wraparound bridge, 12-inch fretboard radius, and a single volume control. The wood is all rough and raw with no filler or seal, and just a single thin layer of automotive paint sanded back down to almost nothing. The result is a no-nonsense rocker that rings and howls and comes to life in your hands. Best of all, the Slick SL50 sells direct for an unbelievable 209 dollars. This is an insane deal.
Japanese "Lawsuit" Teles
In the ‘70s Fender experienced a slow and steady decline in quality and craftsmanship, and eventually sales as well. This was due in no small part to the sale of the company to the soulless, cost-cutting suits over at CBS corporate headquarters in 1965, and the subsequent departure of Leo Fender. They just weren't makin' 'em like they used to in the '70s, and when guitarists couldn't get quality Fender guitars from Fender itself, Japanese manufacturers stepped into the marketplace and filled the need. Adding insult to injury (at least from Fender's perspective), these high quality Japan-made Strat and Tele copies were also way cheaper than the real thing. Many of these so-called "lawsuit" guitars are still around and just as great as ever. Fine Japanese Tele copies can be found with various brand names (or even no brand name) on the headstock, including Ibanez, Aria, Westminster, Raven, and Tokai, among others. The guitars built in the Matsomoku factory tend to be uniformly excellent, and can often be had for a few hundred bucks.
Schecter got its start as a Fender aftermarket parts and repair shop in Van Nuys, California in 1976, eventually beginning to release limited quantities of its own hand-built instruments in 1979. These guitars were extremely high quality custom shop models based on classic Fender designs, and became quite sought after. In the modern day Schecter is known more as a manufacturer of high quality, affordable, mass produced guitars, but some elements of its '70s SoCal custom shop legacy remain, including one of its earliest releases, the Tele-inspired PT model. The model name is said to be a tribute to the Who's Pete Townshend, who played a similar guitar, and today it can be found in various iterations from the original black, dual-humbucker version, to standard single-coil equipped versions. The PT is a great combination of Tele-style simplicity and modern features like flat, fast fretboards, beefy frets, and advanced switching options.