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.
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.
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.
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.
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.