The Fender Telecaster, colloquially known as the Tele /ˈtɛli/, is the world's first commercially successful solid-body electric guitar. Its simple yet effective design and revolutionary sound broke ground and set trends in electric guitar manufacturing and popular music. Introduced for national distribution as the Broadcaster in the autumn of 1950, it was the first guitar of its kind manufactured on a substantial scale and has been in continuous production in one form or another since its first incarnation.
The Fender Telecaster was developed by Leo Fender in Fullerton, California in 1950. In the period roughly between 1932 and 1949, several craftsmen and companies experimented with solid-body electric guitars, but none had made a significant impact on the market. Leo Fender's Telecaster was the design that made bolt-on neck, solid body guitars viable in the marketplace.
Fender had an electronics repair shop called Fender's Radio Service where he first repaired, then designed, amplifiers and electromagnetic pickups for musicians — chiefly players of electric semi-acoustic guitars, electric Hawaiian lap steel guitars, and mandolins. Players had been "wiring up" their instruments in search of greater volume and projection since the late 1920s, and electric semi-acoustics (such as the Gibson ES-150) had long been widely available. Tone had never, until then, been the primary reason for a guitarist to go electric, but in 1943, when Fender and his partner, Clayton Orr "Doc" Kauffman, built a crude wooden guitar as a pickup test rig, local country players started asking to borrow it for gigs. It sounded bright and sustaining. Fender was intrigued, and in 1949, when it was long understood that solid construction offered great advantages in electric instruments, but before any commercial solid-body Spanish guitars had caught on (the then-small Audiovox company apparently offered a modern, solid-body electric guitar as early as the mid-1930s), he built a better prototype.
That hand-built prototype, an anonymous white guitar, had most of the features of what would become the Telecaster. It was designed in the spirit of the solid-body Hawaiian guitars manufactured by Rickenbacker — small, simple units made of Bakelite and aluminum with the parts bolted together — but with wooden construction. (Rickenbacker, then spelled "Rickenbacher", also offered a solid Bakelite-bodied electric Spanish guitar in 1935 that seemed to presage details of Fender's design.)
The initial single-pickup production model appeared in 1950, and was called the Fender Esquire. Fewer than fifty guitars were originally produced under that name, and most were replaced under warranty because of early manufacturing problems. In particular, the Esquire necks had no truss rod and many were replaced due to bent necks. Later in 1950, this single-pickup model was discontinued, and a two-pickup model was renamed the Broadcaster. From this point onward all Fender necks incorporated truss rods. The Esquire was reintroduced in 1951 as a single pickup Telecaster, at a lower price.
The so-called Nocaster was a short-lived variant of Telecaster. Produced in early to mid-1951, it was the result of legal action from the Gretsch company over the guitar's previous name, the Broadcaster (Gretsch already had the "Broadkaster" name registered for a line of drums). In the interim, before Fender had come up with an alternate name and printed appropriately revised headstock decals, factory workers simply snipped the "Broadcaster" name from its existing stock of decals, so guitars with these decals are identified simply as "Fender", without any model name. By the summer of 1951 the guitar was officially renamed as the Telecaster and has been known as such ever since.
The term Nocaster was originally coined by collectors to denote these transitional guitars that appeared without a model name on the headstock. Since they were manufactured in this form for only a few months very early in the Broadcaster/Telecaster's history, original Nocasters are highly prized and expensive collector's items. There are no official production numbers, but experts estimate that fewer than 500 Nocasters were produced. Fender has since registered Nocaster as a trademark to denote its modern replicas of this famous rarity.
In 1951, Fender released the innovative and musically influential Precision Bass as a similar looking stable-mate to the Telecaster. This body style was later released as the Fender Telecaster Bass in 1968 after the Precision Bass had been changed in 1957 to make it more closely resemble the Fender Stratocaster guitar. At the time Leo Fender began marketing the new, more refined Stratocaster in 1954, he expected it to replace the Telecaster, but the Telecaster's many virtues and unique musical personality have kept it in demand to the present day.
Leo Fender's simple and modular design was geared to mass production and made servicing broken guitars easier. Guitars were not constructed individually, as in traditional luthiery. Rather, components were produced quickly and inexpensively in quantity and assembled into a guitar on an assembly line. The bodies were bandsawn and routed from slabs, rather than hand-carved individually, as with other guitars made at the time, such as Gibsons. Fender did not use the traditional glued-in neck, but rather a "bolt-on" neck (which is actually affixed using screws, not bolts). This not only made production easier, but allowed the neck to be quickly removed and serviced, or replaced entirely. In addition, the classic Telecaster neck was fashioned from a single piece of maple without a separate fingerboard, and the frets were slid directly into the side of the maple surface—a highly unorthodox approach in its day (guitars traditionally featured rosewood or ebony fingerboards glued onto mahogany necks). The electronics were easily accessed for repair or replacement through a removable control plate, a great advantage over the construction of the then-predominant hollow-body instruments, in which the electronics could be accessed only through the soundholes.
In its classic form, the guitar is simply constructed, with the neck and fingerboard comprising a single piece of maple, screwed to an ash or alder body inexpensively jigged with flat surfaces on the front and back. The hardware includes two single coil pickups controlled by a three-way selector switch, and one each of volume and tone controls. The pickguard was first Bakelite, soon thereafter it was celluloid (later other plastics), screwed directly onto the body with five (later eight) screws. The bridge has three adjustable saddles, with strings doubled up on each. In its original design nearly all components are secured using only screws (body, neck, tuners, bridge, scratchplate, pickups to body, control plate, output socket), with glue used to secure the nut and solder used to connect the electronic components. With the introduction of the truss rod, and later a rosewood fingerboard, more gluing was required during construction. The guitar quickly gained a following, and soon other, more established guitar companies (such as Gibson, whose Les Paul model was introduced in 1952, and later Gretsch, Rickenbacker, and others) began working on wooden solid-body production models of their own.
A huge range of aftermarket components are manufactured, including bridges with three vintage-look brass saddles, compensated (by having two separate string separation points on each saddle) to improve intonation. There are also "vertical stack" humbucker pickups which fit into a standard bridge in place of the traditional single-coil units and maintain the original appearance.
The original switch configuration used from 1950 to 1952 allowed selection of neck pickup with treble tone cut in the first position (for a bassier sound), the neck pickup with its natural tone in the second position with no tone, and in the third switch position both pickups together with the neck pickup blended into the bridge, depending on the position of the second "tone" knob. The first knob functioned normally as a master volume control. This configuration did not have a true tone control knob.
In 1952 the pickup selection circuit was modified by Fender to incorporate a real tone control. Between 1953 and 1967 the neck could be selected alone with a pre-set bassy sound and no tone control, in the middle switch the neck could be selected alone with the tone control and finally the bridge could be selected with the tone control. Although this provided the player with a proper tone control, this assembly did away with any sort of pickup combination. Eventually from late 1967 Fender again modified the circuit for the final time to give the Telecaster a more traditional twin pickup switching system: neck pickup alone with tone control in the first position, both pickups together with the tone control in the middle position and in the third position the bridge pickup alone with the tone control.
Typical modern Telecasters (such as the American Standard version) incorporate several details different from the classic form. They typically feature 22 frets (rather than 21) and truss rod adjustment is made at the headstock end, rather than the body end, which had required removal of the neck on the original (the Custom Shop Bajo Sexto Baritone Tele was the only Telecaster featuring a two-octave 24-fret neck). The three-saddle bridge of the original has been replaced with a six-saddle version, allowing independent length and height adjustment for each string. The long saddle bridge screws allow a wide range of saddle bridge positions for intonation tuning. The stamped metal bridge plate has been replaced with a flat plate, and the removable chromed bridge cover (often called the "ashtray" for its secondary use) has been discontinued for most models; it improved shielding but prevented players from muting strings at the bridge and made it impossible to pick near the saddles to produce the characteristic Telecaster 'twang'.
During the CBS era in the 1970s, the Telecaster body style was changed to a new "notchless" shape, having a less pronounced notch in the crook where the upper bout meets the neck. The notchless body style was discontinued in 1982.
The short-lived Elite Telecaster of 1983 incorporated two specially designed humbucking pickups powered by an active circuitry that featured a "TBX" guitar expander and an MDX midrange booster with 12 dB of gain. Other features included a "Freeflyte" hardtail bridge and die-cast tuning machines with pearloid buttons. This guitar was among the latest CBS-era Fenders to feature a BiFlex truss-rod system, low-friction EasyGlider string trees and active electronics. After CBS sold Fender to a group of employees led by Bill C. Schultz in 1985, production ceased on the Elite Telecaster and other Elite models. Fender Japan made its own version of the Elite Telecaster in late 1984, which featured a 22-fret neck with medium-jumbo fretwire and a modern 9.5 inch fingerboard radius. Notable Elite Telecaster players include Johnny Hallyday, Dave Davies of The Kinks, Michael Houser with Widespread Panic, and Andy Summers of The Police.
The Telecaster sound
The Telecaster is known for its ability to produce both a bright, rich cutting tone (the typical Telecaster country twang) and a mellow, warm, bluesy jazz tone depending on the selected pickup, respectively "bridge" pickup or "neck" pickup, and by adjusting the tone control. The bridge pickup has more windings than the neck pickup, hence producing higher output, which compensates for a lower amplitude of vibration of the strings at bridge position. At the same time, a capacitor between the slider of the volume control and the output allows treble sounds to bleed through while damping mid and lower ranges. Slanting the bridge pickup also increased the guitar's treble response. The solid body allows the guitar to deliver a clear and sustaining amplified version of the strings' sound; this was an improvement over previous electric guitar designs, whose resonant hollow bodies made them prone to unwanted acoustic feedback when volume was increased. These design elements intentionally allowed guitarists to emulate steel guitar sounds, as well as "cut-through" and be heard in roadhouse Honky-Tonk and big Western Swing bands, initially making this guitar particularly useful in country music. Its wide range of tonalities allows the Telecaster to be used successfully for many styles of music including country, pop, rock, blues and jazz.
The Telecaster has also been a longtime favorite guitar for hot-rod customizing. Several variants of the guitar appeared throughout the years with a wide assortment of pickup configurations, such as a humbucker in the neck position, three single-coil pickups and even dual humbuckers with special wiring schemes. Fender offered hot-rodded Teles with such pickup configurations, the US Fat and Nashville B-Bender Telecasters around 1998. The Deluxe Blackout Tele was also equipped with three single-coil pickups, a "Strat-o-Tele" selector switch and a smaller headstock than a standard Telecaster. The most common variants of the standard two-pickup solid body Telecaster are the semi-hollow Thinline, the Custom, -which replaced the neck single coil-pickup with a humbucking pickup, and the twin-humbucker Deluxe. The Custom and Deluxe were introduced during the CBS period and reissues of both designs are currently offered.
Designed by German luthier Roger Rossmeisl, the Telecaster Thinline model first appeared in 1968/69. It is characterized by a body having a solid center core with hollow wings to reduce weight. The '69 version has two standard Telecaster single-coil pickups, string-through-body bridge, and a choice of an ash or mahogany body. Later a '72 version was introduced based on the Fender Telecaster Deluxe with two Fender Wide Range humbucking pickups. In 2011, Fender released the Modern Player Telecaster Thinline as a part of the Modern Player series. This guitar features two MP-90 pickups, similar to the Gibson P-90 and a mahogany body. The Fender Custom Shop has produced a variation referred to as the "50's Telecaster Thinline" with an ash body, maple neck and a Twisted Tele neck pickup matched with a Nocaster bridge pickup.
The first edition of the Telecaster Custom was produced between 1959-1968, and featured a double-bound body but otherwise-standard configuration. While the guitar was known as the Telecaster Custom, the decal on the headstock read "Custom Telecaster". Later editions of the Tele Custom were popularized by Rolling Stones' guitarist and composer Keith Richards, featuring a Fender Wide Range humbucker in the neck position and a single-coil pickup in the bridge. To distinguish this model from the mid-1960s Custom with body binding, the market generally refers to the guitar as the "1972 Custom", indicating the year this model was originally released.
This model includes two Fender Wide Range humbucking pickups and was originally produced from 1972 to 1981 and has since then been reissued. The Tele Deluxe sported a large headstock similar to the Stratocaster, maple neck and a contoured body, as well as a tremolo bridge option on models manufactured after 1973/74.
Designed to restore Fender's reputation after a group of employees led by William C. Schultz took over ownership from CBS in the early 1980s. The pickups used in early models were dual humbucking Red Lace Sensors in the bridge position and a single Blue Lace Sensor in the neck position. Later models (post-1995 or so) used three Gold Lace Sensors or a Red/Silver/Blue set in a Strat-like configuration, as well as low-friction roller nuts, locking synchronized vibrato bridge and tuners, and a bound contoured alder body with ash veneers. These instruments were discontinued in 1998 with the advent of the American Deluxe series. In 2011 Fender released the Modern Player Telecaster Plus as a part of the Modern Player series. The guitar has a humbucker in the bridge, a Strat pickup in the middle, and a Tele pickup in the neck positions.
The Fender Tele Jr. is a variant of the Fender Telecaster electric guitar that the Fender Custom Shop produced in a limited run of 100 units in the early 1990s. It uses a Telecaster body shape, scale length, and electronics controls (albeit, with a reversed control plate). However, many of its construction and electronic features—for example its set-in neck and P-90-style pickups—are similar to those of a Gibson Les Paul Junior and Gibson Les Paul Special electric guitars.
J5 Triple Tele Deluxe
The Triple Tele Deluxe is Marilyn Manson and Rob Zombie guitarist John 5's signature model. It is similar to the regular Telecaster Deluxe, but it features three Fender "Enforcer" humbuckers and a chrome pickguard.
The Cabronita (and Custom Shop variant La Cabronita) is a model that is distinguished by the use of Fidelitron or the more expensive TV Jones Classic humbucking pickups, which look like the original Gretsch humbuckers. The La Cabronita is an American-made, custom-built-to-order instrument. It typically has one TV Jones Classic pickup in the bridge position although being custom built, in can be ordered in any configuration. All Cabronitas can be distinguished by use of a smaller pickguard that covers the lower horn only, similar to the pickguard used in the original prototype for the Telecaster in 1949.
The versions built in Mexico offered either a solid body or Thinline body, with both featuring two Fender Fidelitron pickups, a volume knob and pickup selector. They both have maple necks, 25.5" scale, a 9.5 inch radius fretboard, "Medium C" profile and 1 5/8" nut width, common to many standard Telecasters made in Mexico, although the Cabronita comes with 22 frets instead of the more common 21. For a brief period, Fender offered an American made "Telebration Cabronita" that used two of the TV Jones pickups.
While "Cabronita" isn't a proper Spanish word, it roughly translates to English as "little bastard" or "little devil".
Modern Player Telecaster
The Modern Player Telecaster is offered in two distinct styles: a Plus model and a Thinline model. The Plus utilizes a pine body, a standard Telecaster pickup in the neck position, a reverse wound single-coil strat-pickup in the middle position and a humbucker in the bridge position. It is equipped with coil splitting and a five way switch to provide seven different pickup combinations.
The MP Thinline adopts a pickguard similar to Deluxe models and a Stratocaster style bridge, without tremolo. It features a mahogany body, two P-90 style single-coil pickups, individual volume and tone controls and the three-way pickup selector in the upper horn position.
Both use the standard 25.5" scale on a 22 fret maple necks that are unlike any other Telecasters in that they do not utilize an overhang to accomplish the 22nd fret, but instead use a longer, square ended neck that is not fully compatible with previous Fender parts. They are manufactured in China and at the time of their introduction, represented the least expensive Telecasters under the Fender brand.
In keeping with other models Fender distinguishes product lines manufactured in different locations.
- The moderately-priced Standard, Classic Player, Blacktop, Modern Player and Deluxe Telecaster models are manufactured in Mexico, Japan, China and Korea. Each of these instruments has a feature set that makes them more affordable.
- The American Standard, American Vintage, American Deluxe, Artist Series, Custom Shop and American Special model lines are manufactured in the United States.
The American Deluxe Telecaster (introduced in 1998; upgraded in 2004, 2008, and 2010) features a pair of Samarium Cobalt Noiseless pickups and the S-1 switching system. Models made prior to 2004 featured two Fender Vintage Noiseless Tele single-coils, Fender/Fishman Powerbridge piezo system and four-bolt neck fixing. Other refinements include a bound contoured alder or ash body and an abalone dot-inlaid maple neck with rosewood or maple fingerboard, 22 medium-jumbo frets, rolled fingerboard edges, and highly detailed nut and fret work. The HH model sported an ebony fingerboard, quilted or flamed maple top and a pair of Enforcer humbuckers with S-1 switching (discontinued as of 2008). As of March 23, 2010, Fender updated the American Deluxe Telecaster with a compound radius maple neck, N3 Noiseless Tele pickups and a reconfigured S-1 switching system for wider sonic possibilities. The new model now sports staggered, locking tuning machines, which provide a better break angle over the nut for increased sustain and improved tuning stability. The Thinline version has been introduced in 2013. Fender discontinued the American Deluxe series in 2016.
The American Series model used two single-coil pickups with DeltaTone system (featuring a high output bridge pickup and a reverse-wound neck pickup). Other features included a parchment pickguard, non-veneered alder or ash bodies and rolled fingerboard edges.
In 2003 Fender offered Telecasters with a humbucking/single coil pickup arrangement or two humbucking pickups featuring Enforcer humbucking pickups, and S-1 switching. These models were discontinued in 2007. As of 2008, all American Standard Telecasters came with a redesigned Tele bridge with vintage-style bent steel saddles. In March 2012 the American Standard Telecaster was updated with Custom Shop pickups (Broadcaster in the bridge, Twisted in the neck); the body is now contoured for reduced weight and more comfort. In 2014 the American Standard Telecaster HH was introduced, sporting a pair of Twin Head Vintage humbucking pickups (open-coil with black bobbins in the bridge, metal-covered in the neck). Controls include a dual concentric volume pot for each pickup, a master tone and 3-way pickup switching.
The American Nashville B-Bender guitar is modeled after the personally customized instruments of some of Nashville's top players, featuring a Fender/Parsons/Green B-Bender system, two American Tele single-coils (neck, bridge), a Texas Special Strat single-coil (middle) and five-way "Strat-O-Tele" pickup switching. Ideal for country bends and steel guitar glisses, this Tele is available only with a maple fingerboard.
The American Series Ash Telecaster is based on the '52 vintage reissue. It features an ash body, one-piece maple neck/fingerboard with 22 frets and two Modern Vintage Tele single-coil pickups. Fender discontinued this guitar in 2006.
The Custom Classic Telecaster was the Custom Shop version of the American Series Tele, featuring a pair of Classic and Twisted single-coils in the bridge and neck positions, as well as a reverse control plate. Earlier versions made before 2003 featured an American Tele single-coil paired with two Texas Special Strat pickups and 5-way switching. Discontinued in 2009 and replaced by the Custom Deluxe Telecaster series models. The 2011 version of the Custom Shop "Custom Deluxe" Telecaster featured a lightweight Ash body with contoured heel, Birdseye maple neck, and a pickup set that included a Twisted Tele neck pickup and a Seymour Duncan Custom Shop BG-1400 stacked humbucker in the bridge position.
The Highway One Telecaster (introduced in 2000) featured a pair of distortion-friendly alnico III single-coil pickups, super-sized frets, Greasebucket circuit, satin nitrocellulose finish, and 1970s styling (since 2006). The Highway One Texas Telecaster sported a one-piece maple neck/fretboard with a modern 12" radius and 22 jumbo frets, solid ash body and a pair of Hot Vintage alnico V pickups.
In 2010, the American Special Telecaster was introduced. While retaining such features from the Highway One as jumbo frets, Greasebucket tone circuit and 1970s logo, the American Special also includes some upgrades such as a glossy urethane finish, compensated brass 3-saddle bridge and Highway One Texas Tele pickups (alnico V). In the Fall of 2013, Fender upgraded the pickups on the American Special line to Custom Shop Texas Special pickups.
Artist Series Telecasters have features favored by world-famous Fender endorsees James Burton, John 5, Muddy Waters, Jim Root, G. E. Smith, Joe Strummer and Jim Adkins. Custom Artist models are made at the Fender Custom Shop, differing slightly quality and construction-wise; their prices are much higher than the standard production versions.
In September 2010, Fender introduced the Mexican-made Black Top Telecaster HH, featuring dual hot vintage alnico humbucking pickups, a one-piece maple neck with rosewood or maple fretboard and 22 medium-jumbo frets. Other features include a solid contoured alder body, a reversed control assembly and black skirted amp control knobs.
In 2011, Fender released the Modern Player series, which featured the Modern Player Telecaster Thinline and the Modern Player Telecaster Plus.
Squier model Telecasters are sold by Squier, a Fender-owned import brand. These can bear the Telecaster name, since Squier is owned by Fender. Squier guitars, especially the Telecasters, have gained popularity and a good reputation amongst guitar players, since it has expanded its production of guitar models. Squier has a wide range of different Telecaster-type guitars available, from the entry-level Affinity Series to the better quality Standard and Classic Vibe Series. Also available are the Artist Series and Vintage Modified Series. Among other famous musicians, Sheryl Crow has occasionally used a Squier Telecaster for recordings and live performances.
The Telecaster was important in the evolution of country, electric blues, funk, rock and roll, and other forms of popular music. Its solid construction let guitarists play loudly as a lead instrument, with long sustain if desired. It produced less of the uncontrolled, whistling, 'hard' feedback ('microphonic feedback') that hollowbodied instruments tend to produce at volume (different from the controllable feedback later explored by Pete Townshend and countless other players). Even though the Telecaster is more than half a century old, and more sophisticated designs have appeared since the early 1950s (including Fender's own Stratocaster), the Telecaster remains in production. There have been numerous variations and modifications, but a model with something close to the original features has always been available. In a recent article for Music Aficionado, Alex Lifeson of Rush wrote "I bought a reissue 1959 Telecaster back in 1981, and that guitar has since become my primary writing guitar for all of these years, especially for the electric work. Every time I pick it up, it feels like an old friend. I took all of the finish off of the neck, so it’s raw wood, and I feel very connected to it when I’m playing it. That is my number-one “go to” for writing new music."