The Telecaster in the 1960s


1968 Fender ad introducing the hollowed-out Telecaster Thinline.

In its first decade, the Telecaster® had established and proven itself. It debuted in early 1951 as an innovative new kind of instrument from a small upstart Southern California maker that served the region’s Western swing and dance band guitarists. The Telecaster, however, quite separate from the intentions of its makers, fed the emergence only a few years later of rock ‘n’ roll and the explosion in U.S. youth culture that came with it, and by the end of the 1950s it was an unqualified success as an indispensable workhorse instrument for guitarists of many musical styles and genres nationwide.

Unlike its younger brothers, the Stratocaster and the Precision Bass, the Telecaster made its way through the 1950s remarkably unchanged. As 1959 waned, it stood as the vanguard of a historic series of Fender instruments and amplifiers that were revolutionizing the way popular music was created and experienced worldwide. And while the 1950s certainly rocked, the Telecaster and the rest of the world were about to embark on a wild musical journey like nothing the world had ever seen: the 1960s.

Strangely perhaps, things got off to a slow start, because real rock ‘n’ roll had all but disappeared in the United States by 1960. Elvis Presley was in the Army; Little Richard had traded his piano for the pulpit; Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry and Alan Freed all but vanished amid scandal and legal woes; Buddy Holly perished in a 1959 plane crash and Eddie Cochran was killed in a 1960 automobile accident. The ensuing vacuum was filled with schmaltzy ballads, reverb-drenched prefab teen idols and girl groups that, while they had a charm of their own, weren’t especially guitar oriented. Apart from a few bright spots in the forms of Motown and surf/instrumental music, things looked somewhat bleak for the electric guitar in U.S. pop music in mid-1960.

Real salvation, as it turned out, came from across the Atlantic and from seemingly unlikely saviors. Rock ‘n’ roll, it turned out, was alive and well in the U.K.; rescued by skinny English kids who couldn’t get enough of authentic U.S. blues and rock ‘n’ roll and who eagerly devoured every James Burton and Buddy Holly solo, every Chuck Berry and Cliff Gallup riff, every Eddy Cochran and Muddy Waters lyric and every Scotty Moore chord voicing. They mastered rock ‘n’ roll and made it their own on any third-rate guitar they could get their hands on, never dreaming that in very short order they would be the ones to re-introduce the form—explosively so—to the land of its birth.

Above, Motown house guitarist Joe Messina plays a Telecaster with a Jazzmaster neck in the early 1960s; below, Green Onions (1962) by Booker T. & the M.G.s, one of the first great Telecaster albums of the decade thanks to the impeccable playing of Steve Cropper.

In late 1959, these English kids included 16-year-olds Keith Richards and George Harrison, 15-year-olds Jeff Beck and James Page, 14-year-olds Eric Clapton and Peter Townshend, 13-year-old schoolmates Roger “Syd” Barrett and David Gilmour, 17-year-old Andy Summers and a great many more. They spent 1960-1962 continuing to absorb U.S. rock ‘n’ roll and furthering their mostly self-taught musical educations; some were already performing publicly with their earliest bands.

Back in the United States, the Telecaster bided its time through 1960-1962 as its brothers, the by now well-established Stratocaster (1954) and the Jazzmaster (1958), kept a tenuous hold on the charts by fueling instrumental and vocal surf music by performers and acts such as Dick Dale, the Beach Boys and the Ventures. Nonetheless, interesting Telecaster sounds were in the works. Motown house guitarist Joe Messina often used a Telecaster, and out west, Bakersfield, Calif., singer/guitarist Buck Owens was pioneering a loud, no-frills anti-Nashville country sound dominated by the sound of his Telecaster.

Perhaps the first truly quintessential Telecaster album of the 1960s arrived in October 1962 with the release of Green Onions by instrumental Memphis R&B quartet Booker T. & the M.G.s. Its title track was an enormous hit; both it and the album introduced the world to the impeccable phrasing of Missouri-born guitarist/producer/songwriter Steve Cropper. Throughout the remainder of the decade, as a member of Booker T. & the M.G.s and as a house guitarist for the Stax label, Cropper’s graceful Telecaster work appeared on many seminal hits, including “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” (Otis Redding, 1965), “In the Midnight Hour” (Wilson Pickett, 1965) and “Soul Man” (Sam and Dave, 1967).

In California, meanwhile, Buck Owens’s career had taken off. He first hit the Billboard country chart in 1959 with his tenth and eleventh singles, “Second Fiddle” and “Under Your Spell Again,” and 1960’s “Above and Beyond” reached number three. Owens rebelled against the slick, string-laden Nashville “countrypolitan” sound so popular at the time by championing a loud, raw and stripped-down sound fueled by the brash twang of his Telecaster—what came to be called the “Bakersfield Sound.”

Owens and his band, the Buckaroos, recorded Johnny Russell-penned song “Act Naturally” in Los Angeles in February 1963 at a session marked by Buckaroos fiddle player Don Rich’s first appearance on lead guitar (Owens’s Telecaster). With its infectious Telecaster riff, “Act Naturally” was released that March, hit the Billboard chart in April and made Owens a star when it became his first number-one hit in June. Thus firmly established, the Telecaster-driven Bakersfield Sound would rival Nashville throughout the decade as its other hit-making artists ascended the charts.

The British Invasion of 1964 needs little introduction. In the wake of the Beatles’ phenomenal success first at home in the U.K. and then worldwide, mainstream rock music became intensely (and at times wildly) guitar-driven as it never had before. Fender guitars made their way to England in ever-greater numbers and began making appearances of great portent in the hands of those kids—now young men—who so rabidly devoured the U.S. sounds of the 1950s.

The versatility of the Telecaster in the 1960s is well illustrated by two great players, Buck Owens (above, with Don Rich on fiddle) and Esquire-wielding Jeff Beck with the Yardbirds (below, far right).

In July 1964, a London quintet called the Yardbirds appeared on Granada Television program Go Tell it on the Mountain, playing “Louise” and “I Wish You Would.” What was noteworthy about the appearance is that while so many British groups at first played guitars by makers other than Fender, the Yardbirds’ 19-year-old guitarist, Eric Clapton, tore up both songs on a red Telecaster. Clapton was still a relative newcomer in the group, having left his first band, the Roosters, in August 1963 and replacing original Yardbirds guitarist Anthony “Top” Topham that October. The world would hear a great deal more from Clapton as the 1960s unfolded.

Elsewhere in London, in 1965, Who guitarist Pete Townshend faced a vexing issue. The Who had become known not only for their visceral sound, but also for their violent stage act, which by late 1965 regularly culminated in Townshend smashing his guitar at the end of set-closing anthem “My Generation.” Smashing up the delicate Rickenbacker guitars Towshend was known for playing had become prohibitively expensive, however, and in a money-saving move he began switching to Telecasters for “My Generation,” as they were less expensive and certainly easier to repair. Thus began Townshend’s lifelong affinity for the Telecaster (which he continued to smash well into 1966).

Also of note in 1965 is Clapton’s departure from the Yardbirds that March. Clapton recommended his friend Jimmy Page as a replacement, but Page was reluctant to give up his lucrative session career and in turn suggested his friend Jeff Beck, who then joined the group. Beck’s innovative and experimental guitar work typified the Yardbirds’ most successful period; his 18-month stint featured hits such as “Heart Full of Soul,” “I’m a Man,” “Shapes of Things” and “Over Under Sideways Down,” most of which he played on a battered 1954 Esquire.

Back in the United States in the mid-1960s, the Telecaster-bred Bakersfield sound continued to grow in popularity. Nearly every album and single Owens released from late 1963 to early 1968 hit number one on the Billboard country chart. A fellow Californian and early Bakersfield Sound devotee also started racking up impressive chart successes, too—in late 1966, Merle Haggard and the Strangers hit number one with their seventh single, “I’m a Lonesome Fugitive.”

Perhaps no single 12-month period during the 1960s testified to the Telecaster’s amazing workhorse versatility more than the musically explosive year of 1967. Muddy Waters, the lion of Delta blues, played his ever-present Telecaster on the Super Blues album with Bo Diddley and Little Walter. At London’s Abbey Road Studios on March 28, Paul McCartney used an Esquire to record guitar parts in “Good Morning Good Morning” and “Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite” for the Beatles’ momentous eighth album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. In the same building at the same time, Syd Barrett used his Telecaster and Esquire models to record Pink Floyd debut album The Piper at the Gates of Dawn.

Further testament to the ongoing ’60s-era ubiquity of the Telecaster: Merle Haggard’s I’m a Lonesome Fugitive (1966, above) and Pink Floyd debut album The Piper at the Gates of Dawn (1967, below).

Two noteworthy Telecaster technical developments also marked 1967. First, Fender (sold by Leo Fender in 1965 and now under the corporate banner of CBS) reconfigured the guitar’s controls so that the three-way switch delivered neck pickup/both pickups/bridge pickup operation. This meant that, for the first time since 1952, the Telecaster once again had a switch setting that activated both pickups simultaneously. Second, musicians Gene Parsons and Clarence White (the Byrds, Nashville West) invented the Parsons/White String Pull, later known as the B-Bender, and equipped White’s 1956 Telecaster with it (Fender would release its own B-Bender-equipped Telecaster 33 years later).

Equally major artistic and technical developments were in store for the Telecaster in 1968. Indeed, it was the year that saw the first truly significant design departure for the model in the lightweight form of the Thinline Telecaster. As is so often the case with Fender instrument designs, its genesis was rooted in efficiency and economy. What happened was that by 1967, Fender faced a dwindling supply of lightweight ash for Telecaster bodies, although heavier ash was plentiful. Fender sought ways to lighten Telecasters made with this heavier wood, and the factory experimented with routing cavities beneath the pickguard to accomplish this without changing the guitar’s appearance. Several such guitars were made in summer 1967, but the approach was deemed unsatisfactory and Fender began planning an instrument that would be much more of a true semi-hollow-body Telecaster.

This task was entrusted to renowned German luthier Roger Rossmeisl, who arrived at Fender in early 1962 after an enormously influential career at Rickenbacker and successfully engineered Fender’s entry into the world of acoustic guitars. Rossmeisl basically hollowed out a Telecaster body, routing sections on both sides from the rear and gluing a thin panel over the back. The guitar was given a single f hole and an elongated pearloid pickguard that extended from the neck pickup down to the lower bout, encompassing the pickup switch and both control knobs. It had two single-coil pickups and came in a natural-finish ash or mahogany body with a maple-cap fingerboard. Its neck, electronics and hardware were identical to a standard Telecaster of the time, but the instrument weighed only half as much. The Telecaster Thinline debuted in 1968 and became an enduring success.

1968 also saw the appearance of the psychedelic “Paisley Red” and “Blue Flower” Telecaster models, so named for the color and pattern of the self-adhesive wallpaper (!) used to decorate their tops (each guitar had a clear pickguard). Although James Burton became closely associated with the Paisley Red guitar, neither model lasted long.

Artistically, the Telecaster served as the main musical voice of two monumental debut albums recorded in 1968, both by U.K. artists. The first was Black Claw & Country Fever, by virtuoso country/rockabilly/rock/R&B guitarist Albert Lee, subsequently widely known to many as “Mr. Telecaster.” The second was the eponymous debut album by Led Zeppelin, which Jimmy Page had formed from the ashes of the Yardbirds. On Led Zeppelin, Jimmy Page played a psychedelic-painted Telecaster (given to him by Jeff Beck) on tracks including “Dazed and Confused,” “Good Times Bad Times,” “Communication Breakdown,” “How Many More Times,” “You Shook Me” and more.

The Telecaster Thinline (1968) is seen here in its first appearance in a Fender catalog.

No group epitomized the 1960s more than the Beatles, however, and as the decade wound to a close, so did the band’s phenomenal career. Ever since recording “Ticket to Ride” in February 1965 with a droning Stratocaster part, the Beatles had made steadily increasing use of Fender gear, and it was in the group’s final chapter that the Telecaster came into significant play.

George Harrison received a prototype custom all-rosewood Telecaster built by Fender’s Philip Kubicki. Harrison played this guitar on the final Beatles album, Let It Be, and played it atop the London headquarters of the Beatles’ company, Apple, during the famous Jan. 20, 1969, rooftop concert that would be the Beatles’ final live performance (as seen in 1970 documentary Let It Be). Fender briefly put the guitar into production, but its unusual tonality and considerable weight made it a short-lived addition to the line. Soon after the rooftop concert, Harrison gave his rosewood Telecaster to Delaney Bramlett of Delaney & Bonnie (Delaney put the guitar up for auction in 2003; it was bought by actor Ed Begley Jr. on behalf of the Harrison estate).

And so the 1960s closed with Fender’s original electric guitar enjoying wider and more varied use than ever, with the company starting to explore innovative new takes on the Telecaster that would continue well into the decade to come.

And what of this new decade? The 1960s were such a wild ride—what could possibly follow it? As 1970 dawned, rock ‘n’ roll was no longer in its infancy of the 1950s or its childhood of the 1960s. As 1970 dawned, rock faced the transforming growth of adolescence—and all the turmoil that comes with it.

Jimmy Page used his Telecaster for most of Led Zeppelin’s eponymous 1969 debut album, which pointed in the heavy direction rock was heading as the 1960s clsoed and the 1970s loomed.

Once again, though, a new generation of guitarists was waiting in the wings on both sides of the Atlantic, cultivating their passion for music and honing their ability to create it just as their predecessors and influences had before them. They too would discover and rediscover the Telecaster in ways that would continue to surprise, enthrall and transform.

At the end of 1969 in London, 17-year old John Mellor had already cultivated a love of rock music well before joining his first band and taking the stage name Joe Strummer. In Los Angeles, 27-year-old British guitarist Andy Summers was immersed in studies at California State University, Northridge, after moderate success at home in the U.K. with Zoot Money’s Big Roll Band, Dantalions’ Chariot, Soft Machine and the Animals; he would soon have a chance encounter with a battered 1961 Telecaster that would change his life. Near Washington, D.C., phenomenally talented but largely unknown guitarist Roy Buchanan, 30, was briefly working as a barber when he had his own fateful encounter with a weathered 1953 Telecaster. On the U.S. mid-Atlantic college circuit, 20-year-old New Jersey native Bruce Springsteen had started making a name for himself and his new band, Steel Mill.

They and many others would ensure that the Telecaster continued to play a front-and-center role in the fascinating musical evolutions—and musical revolutions—that characterized the fascinating decade to come. The 1970s.


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