Post contributions by Ben Blanc-Dumont, Mike Duffy & Jeff Owens
Throughout modern music history, the Fender Telecaster has played a huge part in the evolution of country music. From Western swing in the 1940s and ’50s, the Bakersfield and Nashville sounds in the ’60s, the Outlaw movement in the ’70s and the country rockers that top the charts today, the Telecaster is the sound of country.
Introduced in 1951, the Telecaster predated rock ‘n’ roll by a few years during which it first began to influence country music. With its signature twang and resonance, and its reputation as the instrument of the “working musician,” the Telecaster asserted itself as a country mainstay right from the very beginning.
Here’s our list of 10 great chart-topping Telecaster players …
An original members of country music’s Outlaw movement of the 1970s, Waylon Jennings (1937-2002) had country and rock ‘n’ roll roots that ran much further back to 1960s-era chart success and critical acclaim (he was briefly a member of Buddy Holly’s band, the Crickets, in the late 1950s). A powerful singer, versatile guitarist and phenomenally successful songwriter, he favored several 1953 Telecasters outfitted in black-and-white leather with an oak-and-floral motif. Jennings was known for a bright, spanking Telecaster tone, and he deftly combined thumb- and finger-picking rhythm and riff work with well-phrased flat-pick soloing. He released country’s first platinum album, Wanted! The Outlaws, in 1976, with Willie Nelson, Tompall Glaser and Jessi Colter. A Country Music Hall-of-Famer, Jennings lives on through his music for millions of fans worldwide. His tribute Fender Telecaster, a Custom Shop model introduced in 1996, is based on his original 1953 guitar.
A pioneer of the electric guitar-based honky-tonk Bakersfield sound of the late 1950s, Buck Owens (1929-2006) boasted a phenomenal 21 number-one hits on the Billboard country music charts. He blasted a bright, loud and twangy Telecaster tone that stood in stark contrast to the syrupy strings and choruses of the Nashville sound, with nimble fretwork ably abetted by Buckaroos guitarist Don Rich. Owens enjoyed dual popularity as an influential country hit maker and, from 1969 to 1986, co-host of syndicated TV hit Hee Haw, and he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1996. Fender’s limited edition Buck Owens Telecaster of 1998-2003 featured a gold pickguard and Owens’ signature sparkling red, silver and blue finish.
Fellow Bakersfield sound pioneer and ’70s-era Outlaw country co-founder Merle Haggard scored an astonishing 34 number-one hit singles, from “I’m a Lonesome Fugitive” (1966) to “Twinkle, Twinkle Lucky Star” (1987). Like Owens, Haggard played with a loud, bright and twangy Telecaster tone and was backed up in the Strangers by an exceedingly adept pair of Telecaster masters (Roy Nichols and, later, Redd Volkaert, both below). A titan of country music, Haggard was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1994, and he received a lifetime achievement award for his “outstanding contribution to American culture” from the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in 2010. The Fender Custom Shop introduced its distinctive Merle Haggard Signature Telecaster model in 1997.
Few old-school country pickers wielded a Telecaster with more versatility and sheer dexterity than California guitarist Phil Baugh (1936-1990). With pure, clean Telecaster tone, he played dazzling flat-pick runs one minute before launching into light-speed Travis picking the next. An in-demand session great and top recording artist in his own right from the 1960s through the 1980s, Baugh is undisputedly one of country’s greatest Telecaster masters. He scored major hits in 1965 with singles “Country Guitar” and “One Man Band”; that year also saw him named “Best Guitarist” by the Academy of Country Music, “Outstanding Instrumentalist of the Year” by Billboard and “Instrumentalist of the Year” by Cash Box.
Merle Haggard’s band had a roll call of great players over the years, but perhaps nobody brought more Telecaster magic to the Strangers than Arizona guitarist Roy Nichols (1932-2001), whose deft chicken pickin’, pedal steel-like bends and jazz-inflected chromatic tonality made him a sophisticated musical foil for Haggard’s own hard-edged Telecaster chops. Nichols joined Haggard’s band in 1965 and spent the next 20 years on the road and on the charts with him as one of country’s finest guitarists. Nichols’ own “Street Singer” was recorded by Haggard and nominated for a Grammy in 1970.
After years of session and live work in Los Angeles and Nashville, red-headed Canadian Telecaster virtuoso Redd Volkaert joined Merle Haggard and the Strangers in 1997, perfectly channeling the sound and technique of Roy Nichols—and then some. His fleet-fingered mastery of Telecaster twang—often clean and sometimes with a touch of overdrive—effortlessly blends country, rock, jazz, swing, surf and more. An accomplished and prolific solo artist, Volkaert was nominated for a 2004 Grammy for “Best Country Instrumental Performance” when he appeared on Brad Paisley’s “Spaghetti Western Swing.” Volkaert also appeared on noted 2008 Paisley instrumental track “Cluster Pluck.”
Speaking of Paisley, the West Virginia-born Telecaster shredder is only one of the most electrifying live performers in country music. Each one of his eight studio albums have been certified gold, and 18 of his singles have shot to the top of the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart. All of these and more are fueled by Paisley’s strong voice, consistently fine songwriting and extraordinary skill on a Telecaster, which ranges from traditional country phrasing to some pretty out-there work, and from delicate clean-tone passages to dizzying solo flights that once earned him a description in Guitar One magazine as “Eddie Van Halen on cornbread.” Paisley’s 2008 instrumental track “Cluster Pluck” featured three other guitarists on this list: Redd Volkaert, Vince Gill and James Burton
Sure, Gill earned initial acclaim for his work with Pure Prairie League in the late 1970s, but when he went out on his own, the Oklahoma native achieved truly tremendous success. Among his many prodigious musical talents—singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, et al.—Vince Gill can play a Telecaster just about any way there is to play one. With his compressed, snappy tone, he’s a master of country Tele techniques and is at home in seemingly any genre, be it traditional country, bluegrass, R&B, country rock and much more. His impeccably tasteful melodic approach and sheer surplus of chops often evokes masterful Telecaster predecessors such as James Burton and Don Rich. However he plays it, Gill has landed more than 40 singles on the Billboard Hot Country chart, has been honored 18 times by the Country Music Association (including two “Entertainer of the Year” awards and five “Male Vocalist of the Year” nods), and is undoubtedly one of country’s most decorated artists. Along with Redd Volkaert and James Burton, who are also on this list, Gill appeared on 2008 Brad Paisley instrumental track “Cluster Pluck.”
With traditional clean Telecaster tone typically running straight into the amp (usually a Princeton Reverb or Deluxe Reverb) and often drenched in shimmering reverb, country hit-maker Marty Stuart deftly rolls Don Rich, Ralph Mooney and Clarence White all into one and makes it look easy. Stuart is the prime exponent in modern country of the sinuous pedal steel sound of the B-Bender Telecaster; he in fact owns and often performs with the original B-Bender Telecaster formerly owned and used by the instrument’s co-inventor, influential Byrds/Nashville West guitarist White (“Hummingbyrd” from 2010 album Ghost Train: The Studio B Sessions is a tribute to White, a fine showcase of Stuart’s tone and techniques, and the 2011 Grammy winner for “Best Country Instrumental Performance”).
Rock and Roll Hall of Famer and original-era Telecaster elder statesman Burton is equally acclaimed and comfortable in the country world. His straight, no-nonsense tone and impeccable phrasing as one of the first practitioners of the electric guitar solo first brought him to widespread attention in the 1950s, when millions of TV viewers saw him and his Telecaster backing up heartthrob Ricky Nelson on The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. Telecaster chicken pickin’ basically starts with Burton, who was a major influence on everyone on this list and later lent his considerable Tele talent to artists including Emmylou Harris, Gram Parsons, John Denver, Elvis Costello and, most famously, Elvis Presley (as a key member of Presley’s venerable ’70s-era TCB Band). Along with Redd Volkaert and Vince Gill, who also appear on this list, Burton appeared on 2008 Brad Paisley instrumental track “Cluster Pluck.” One of Fender’s original signature artists, Burton lent his name and design input to the long-running James Burton Telecaster (1990-present) and James Burton Standard Telecaster (1996-present) models.