The Fender Telecaster was conceived to be a working-class hero. Leo Fender never intended it to be elegant, pretty, or sophisticated— although it exuded midcentury-modern style. He designed the Tele to do an efficient job for hard-working musicians—the ultimate blue-collar guitar. Of course, he knocked that one out of the park, and it flew far, far above expectations. So many of the elements that made the Telecaster revolutionary when it hit the scene 65 years ago have helped it remain a first-tier favorite today.
Fender had been building and selling amplifiers and lap-steel guitars from his radio repair shop in Fullerton, California, since 1945—first in a brief partnership with musician and inventor Doc Kauffman as K&F, and, starting in 1946, as the Fender Electric Instrument Company. He worked in close consultation with the many musicians working in and around Los Angeles and southern California, striving to create tools that would better meet their performance needs.
His first real success was in creating a bright, cutting tone for the lap-steel guitar—the first successful “solidbody” electric—that was popular in the western swing scene of the day. But Spanish-style players were also crying out for an instrument that could put them in the spotlight and that was not as prone to feedback as were big, hollowbody electrics. To get there, Fender completely redrew the blueprint for the guitar. His ultimate goal: An instrument that sounded bright, had sustain, was feedback resistant, and was easy to manufacture and repair.
Early prototypes employed different shapes and ingredients, but the final form was achieved by early 1950, when Fender released the Esquire as the first production solidbody electric guitar. It later became the Broadcaster for a time, and, by mid 1951—and forever after—the Telecaster. (The Esquire then settled in as the Tele’s single-pickup sibling.) Elements such as the adjustable bridge with three steel (later brass) saddles, through-body stringing, a solid swamp ash body, and a bolton maple neck combined to make the guitar both highly functional and sonically eviscerating. Two adjustable pickups—both developed in previous incarnations for Fender’s lap-steel guitars—further enhanced the cutting twang that players of the day were craving.
Some traditional players and guitar makers laughed at Fender’s creation, calling it a “plank” and a “canoe paddle.” But in the hands of early Tele stars such as western-swing virtuoso Jimmy Bryant and rockabilly original Paul Burlison, the sleek instrument’s wiry, biting tone and easy playability shut down the naysayers. As simple as its construction is, the Telecaster has proven itself to be a versatile guitar, winning over players such as blues powerhouses Muddy Waters and Albert Collins, rock and roller James Burton, jazzers Mike Stern and Ed Bickert, R&B sideman Steve Cropper, country-fusion virtuosos Roy Buchanan and Danny Gatton, and rockers Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, Keith Richards, Joe Strummer, and Tom Morello. And while the Telecaster has undergone mild shifts in specs over the decades (changing switch functions, evolving hardware formulations, blackguard to whiteguard aesthetics, etc.), its utility has never waned.
If you haven’t experienced a good Telecaster for yourself, track one down, wrap your hand around that solid maple neck, hit the strings hard, and let it ring. Then, sit back and imagine what you could do with that luscious blend of twang and bluster.
Dave Hunter is a life-long Telecaster fanatic, and author of the book The Fender Telecaster: The Life & Times of the Electric Guitar That Changed the World.
• Solid swamp ash body (later alder)
• Solid one-piece, bolt-on maple neck (later with rosewood fretboards)
• Three-piece bridge with through-body stringing
• Dual single-coil pickups
• Six-on-a-side headstock with “straight line” stringing
• Simple Master Volume, Master Tone, 3-way switching