Priced sensibly and imaginatively spec'd, Jason Isbell can be proud of his signature Telecaster Custom, and it just goes to show how the evolution of the Tele rolls on.
A great-sounding Tele, with a distinctive look.
Fret ends are prickly.
Selector button slips off easily when flicking the switch. Gig bag is not up to par.
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Telecasters with customized hardware, electronics, finishes, and so on have been a big part of Fender’s product line for years. The Jason Isbell Custom Telecaster is the latest model to be hybridized by mixing components from different eras, while also bringing all-new elements into the mix when deemed necessary by Isbell and the Fender design team.
“I went with a few different Teles I really like and sort of put together my favorite features of each one for this guitar,” says the guitarist/singer/songwriter and beacon of the Americana scene. “I liked the look of the double-bound body on my Tele Custom from ’59 or ’60, and I have a Custom Shop version of it that I put a black pickguard on. We went with those things purely for the look.
“We also used a traditional bridge with brass saddles, but the edges of the bridge are cut away to make it easier to mute with your right hand and play that much closer to the saddles. We also put a truss-rod access on the headstock to make it easier to adjust the neck, because you don’t have to take it apart.”
The Jason Isbell Custom Telecaster features a Road Worn Chocolate sunburst lacquer finish and aged hardware. For the most part, it resembles a well-used vintage Tele, except for the engraved neck plate and aforementioned headstock rout.
Although not readily visible unless you take off the chromed switch plate, the wiring in the control cavity is modern-style vinyl insulated, not cloth-covered.
The JICT came set up with low action and sweet-sounding intonation, however, the fret ends were a little ragged, the nut corners were sharp, and the zipper on the gig bag failed right off the bat. Otherwise, it plays well and there’s plenty to like about its acoustic tone, which rings out clearly and has good sustain.
Plugged into a Fender Deluxe Reverb and a Vox AC10 C1, and with a Fulltone OCD pedal for grind, the JICT sounded deep and rich and had a balanced presentation of fatness and top-end bite. The brightness and presence of the neck pickup was immediately noticeable for how it stands on its own and how it combines with the bridge pickup to deliver an open and articulate sound.
“The neck pickup is basically a Twisted Tele, but it breaks up a little quicker than they have in the past,” Isbell explains. “Tim Shaw [Fender’s chief engineer] has been working on that pickup design, and it sounds a little more like a Strat pickup, which makes it more useful and musical to me. In fact, I could play this guitar on the neck pickup and convince people that it was a Stratocaster.
"One of the things about a Telecaster that didn’t lend itself to my style of playing was that the traditional neck pickup is much darker. I like that sound, but it wasn’t as useful to me as something that was a little more scooped and had more high-end bite. It handles the fuzz pedal well and just makes a lot of sense, because it gives you an option you haven’t typically had with a Telecaster.”
The Jason Isbell Custom Telecaster certainly delivers enough clarity and punch in the neck setting to deploy it as an alternate texture for rhythm and lead work, and it brings more girth and sparkle to the dual-pickup position.
Coupled with the excellent bridge pickup, this new signature Telecaster gives country-rockers a potent new weapon that looks as cool as it sounds. It’s great that Fender is still coming up with ways to improve one of the greatest electric guitars ever made, and the fact that the JICT is priced within reach of working players should make Jason Isbell feel pretty stoked about his new signature Tele.
- PRICE: $1,499 street, gig bag included
- NUT WIDTH: 1.65” synthetic bone
- NECK: Maple, bolt-on
- FRETBOARD: Rosewood, 25.5” scale, 7.25” radius
- FRETS: 21 Vintage Tall
- TUNERS: Vintage style
- BODY: Alder
- BRIDGE: String-through-body Tele with brass saddles
- PICKUPS: Specially voiced Jason Isbell Telecaster single-coils
- CONTROLS: Volume, tone, three-way selector,
- FACTORY STRINGS: Fender 250R Nickel Plated Steel .010–.046
- WEIGHT: 7.62 lbs (as tested)
- BUILT: Mexico
- CONTACT: Fender
Art Thompson is Senior Editor of Guitar Player magazine. He has authored stories with numerous guitar greats including B.B. King, Prince and Scotty Moore and interviewed gear innovators such as Paul Reed Smith, Randall Smith and Gary Kramer. He also wrote the first book on vintage effects pedals, Stompbox. Art's busy performance schedule with three stylistically diverse groups provides ample opportunity to test-drive new guitars, amps and effects, many of which are featured in the pages of GP.