Telecaster variations are almost as traditional as the Tele itself. Fender and others have spun countless variations on the basic design since the model appeared some 50 years ago. But as mutant Teles go, this new quartet is fairly conservative -- only the DeArmond-equipped Tele-Sonic attempts a truly new hybrid. The Deluxe Nashville Tele, U.S. Fat Tele, and American Deluxe Telecaster honor the classic formula. Each introduces appealing new tones, but these guitars will appeal most to players who want their Teles to look and sound like traditional Telecasters.
No complaints here. While many "improved" versions have compromised the blunt power of classic models, three of these newcomers crackle with ass-kicking immediacy. All are U.S.-made except for the Deluxe Nashville Tele, which is made at Fender's state-of-the art factory in Ensenada, Mexico.
The American Deluxe ($1,650; $1,800 as reviewed with ash body) is the beauty queen of this roundup. The stunning and transparent malachite-green finish shows off the figuration of the ash body, and the cream-colored pickguard and flawless binding offer elegant counterpoints. Another gorgeous detail: mother-of-pearl position markers that reflect the rich green hue of the finish. Yum. The rear side of the body has a Strat-style belly bevel.
The feel is equally luxurious. Like the other three Teles covered here, the American Deluxe features a 91/2" radius neck that is lightly finished to impart a woody, organic feel. Here, though, the fretboard edges have been slightly rounded as on a broken-in instrument. While all four Teles have wider-than-vintage medium-jumbo frets, those on the American Deluxe are installed with fastidious perfection. Such attention to detail rivals that of builders such as Tom Anderson, who have based careers on crafting über-Fenders.
Fortunately, the boutique trimmings don't compromise the guitar's gutsiness. The American Deluxe has plenty of spit and spank, backed by virile lows and a three-dimensional presence. The stacked-coil Vintage Noiseless pickups are quieter than many humbuckers, yet they deliver uncompromised high-end brilliance and a tactile sense of "stringiness." The tone control doesn't have a particularly vocal sweep, but it unveils lovely colors as you roll it back. Between the stacked pickups and ash body, the American Deluxe forsakes some of the airy, acoustic-like openness of a good vintage-style Tele, particularly in the combined-pickup setting. The payoff is extra mass, which makes this guitar a good choice for players seeking both orthodox Tele snap and convincing high-gain tones.
The Deluxe Nashville ($614, includes gig bag; $664 with sunburst finish) is inspired by the old Music City trick of extending a Tele's range with a third pickup. To this end, the Deluxe uses a Strat single-coil in its center slot. Another Strat-like touch is the rosewood fretboard (maple is also available).
Still, the Deluxe Nashville feels very much like a classic Tele. The fretboard is crisp-edged and relatively flat, and the frets are well polished and seated -- although some ends are a little rough. The tortoise-shell pickguard looks sharp against the simple but flawless off-white finish.
Even if the Deluxe Nashville had no third pickup, it would be a formidable tone machine. The traditional Tele sounds are terrific -- better, in fact, than the ones produced by many expensive custom Teles. The bridge pickup has all the cluck and spank you could ask for, yet it's never strident. The neck pickup is smooth but defined, and the combined setting has a radiant, acoustic-like shimmer. In all settings, the high end is sweet and airy. Fender's Tex-Mex Tele pickups stack up well against some of the best designer replacements. The Strat pickup is stellar, too, and the combined Strat/Tele settings have a gorgeous, woody openness. The tone knob has a vocal, almost wah-like sweep, with many usable timbres across its range.
The Deluxe Nashville truly delivers on the promise of a more versatile Telecaster. Like a traditional Tele, it ventures from smoky jazz tones to blistering twang, but adds a wealth of subtle combined-pickup tones. This lovely and versatile instrument can simmer, shimmer, or scream. It's easily one of today's best solidbody bargains.
The Tele-Sonic ($1,650) is a fascinating hybrid of Fender, Guild, and Gibson features. It has a pair of U.S-made DeArmond single-coils, and like the dual-humbucker Tele Deluxes that Fender made from '73 to '82, the Tele-Sonic has a set of Gibson-style volume and tone controls. But the Tele-Sonic takes further steps toward hybrid-ville with a chambered mahogany body, 243/4" scale, and a wraparound tailpiece (a Wilkinson model with intonatable B and G strings).
Cosmetically, the Sonic is a class act. The cherry finish is luscious, the painted headstock echoes the curvy pickguard, and the large metal pickup surrounds make the bar-style tailpiece look right at home. It's a beautifully made instrument, too. The frets are smooth and speedy, and the overall feel is buttery and sensual.
The Tele-Sonic delivers much of what you'd hope for when combining Fender and Gibson elements. You get the mass and impact of a good Les Paul-style guitar combined with authoritative Fender snap. But while the Tele-Sonic cranks out formidable high and lows, its thick mids overshadow the lively acoustic-like zing you hear when strumming the guitar unplugged. Some will dig the Tele-Sonic's thick-waisted tones, but I found myself wishing for more midrange transparency -- especially on the neck pickup.
The U.S. Fat Tele ($1,200; $1,250 as reviewed with sunburst finish) trades on another time-honored Tele modification: a neck-position humbucker. The humbucker-equipped Telecaster Customs that Fender made from '72 to '82 had dual volume and tone controls, but the U.S. Fat Tele has the traditional Tele control arrangement.
With some hum/sing Telecasters, the pickup contrast is so exaggerated that one pickup inevitably sounds thin, the other muddy. But while the U.S. Fat's humbucker fully lives up to the guitar's name, it never overpowers its partner. For all its low-end wallop, it has enough bite and sparkle to blend with the bridge pickup. Furthermore, you can cancel one of the coils for a more traditional Tele neck-pickup sound. All five pickup settings offer beautifully balanced sounds with the electrifying presence and acoustic-like openness of a good vintage Tele.
The U.S. Fat has the same sexy but substantial neck and chubby frets as the other new Teles. Overall workmanship is excellent, and the mother-of-toilet-seat pickguard strikes just the right note of gaudiness against the flawless two-tone sunburst finish.
The Fat Tele offers exactly what its name implies: vintage-style brilliance with extra girth. Anyone seeking both credible country twang and genuine rock muscle will love this terrific ax. It does what most mutant Teles have always aspired to do, though few have pulled it off so triumphantly.
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