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The Telecaster in the 1970s

 


Bruce Springsteen’s 1975 breakthrough album Born to Run established him as a major star. With a famous guitar.

Culturally in general and musically in particular, the 1960s were, to put it mildly, a tough act to follow. And yet the Telecaster had one of its greatest decades ever in the 1970s, in terms of how both the instrument and popular music evolved. A truly amazing decade, really.

Some of the greatest masters to ever wield the Telecaster came to the fore in the 1970s. And as rock ‘n’ roll underwent a colorful, exciting and naturally turbulent adolescence in that decade, it continued to grow and evolve into more and more subgenres, all of which put the Telecaster to even greater use than ever before.

Some who championed the guitar in its original 1950s era and had stood by it all along were now rewarded with “legend” status. Some who survived the 1960s either returned to the Telecaster or fully embraced it for the first time, with marvelous results for listeners everywhere. And there were giants in those days—U.K. titans who roamed the Earth with impunity and ruled rock with dazzling and often pulverizing amalgams of blues, rock ‘n’ roll, pop, psychedelia, classical and other forms (and the kitchen sink, too); they all turned to the Telecaster.

In the United States early in the decade, an eccentric Washington, D.C.-area guitarist and veteran sideman flabbergasted his much more famous contemporaries with his jaw-dropping Telecaster work even as true stardom continually eluded him. Mid-decade, a brash New Jersey upstart wielded his Esquire with poetic songwriting smarts and irresistibly joyous abandon that eventually took him all the way to the top.

In the U.K., a Stone came home to the Telecaster. An expat guitarist returned to London from Los Angeles, Telecaster in hand, to join a noisy trio that seemed to have something new and exciting going on. Elsewhere in London, a Tele-wielding pub rock veteran found a new passion that quickly put him at the forefront of a revolution.

And, in the 1970s, rock now found itself old enough to spawn its own reactionary movements. On both sides of the Atlantic, these snowballed with youthful bravado and snarling volatility into viscerally thrilling new forms that would themselves mutate into new kinds of rock and pop destined to rule the world once the decade was over. The Telecaster was part of all that, too.

Twenty years on, then, the Telecaster was in very good hands.

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Enigmatic virtuoso Roy Buchanan (above); early-’70s catalog page showing the revamped humbucking pickup-equipped version of the Telecaster Thinline (below).

The 1970s began for the Telecaster with its two most acclaimed U.S. masters making some big changes. First, James Burton had just joined Elvis Presley’s band the year before, playing a red Telecaster; now he was using the paisley Telecaster that would thereafter become so closely identified with him. Second, Steve Cropper left Stax Records in the fall to establish his own studio, TMI, where he would play with and produce artists such as Jeff Beck, John Lennon, Ringo Starr, Tower of Power, Rod Stewart and many others. The decade would later see further big changes and even more acclaim and success for both men.

Finally, as 1970 drew to a close, an article appeared in the Dec. 9 edition of the Washington Post in which writer Tom Zito described a visit to a dark suburban tavern in Bladensburg, Md., called the Crossroads Restaurant and Supper Club, where he caught a set by house bound Danny Denver and the Soundmasters. Although the venue itself was wholly unimpressive, Zito wrote that “What makes the Crossroads remarkable is the presence of one man, Roy Buchanan, who provides what may well be the best rock guitar picking in the world.”

Zito’s Post piece was reprinted in Rolling Stone two months later in February 1971, and eccentric and phenomenally talented Arkansas-born guitarist Roy Buchanan, 31, suddenly found himself the object of much attention after toiling more than 15 years in relative obscurity (he briefly succeeded Burton in Dale Hawkins’ band in the late 1950s).

It’s difficult, in writing, to do justice to what it was that Buchanan was able to do with a guitar. He simply worked on another level, coaxing jaw-dropping solos, haunting cello-like volume swells, and otherworldly harmonic and feedback sounds from his main instrument, a 1953 Telecaster he nicknamed “Nancy.” Many who saw him came away convinced that they’d just seen the world’s greatest guitarist.

The Rolling Stone reprint led to interest from public television station WNET, flagship of the then-new PBS network, which produced an hour-long documentary, Introducing Roy Buchanan, which aired that November and shifted his career into high gear. With his band, the charmingly named Snakestretchers, he release indie solo debut Buch and the Snakestretchers late in 1971 before inking a deal with Polydor Records, for which he recorded five solo albums before moving to Atlantic Records in 1976. A quietly enigmatic figure who amassed enormous acclaim, Buchanan nonetheless seemed to flee the spotlight, apparently uninterested in achieving the kind of major-league stardom that otherwise seemed due to an artist of his astounding ability.

Roy Buchanan, however, was not the only reason that 1971 was a big year for the Telecaster.

Out on the U.S. West Coast, Fender continued the successful experimentation with the Telecaster that began with 1968’s hollowed-out Thinline model, introducing a new version on which both single-coil pickups were replaced by the company’s first-ever humbucking pickups. These were the Fender Wide Range humbucking pickups developed by Seth Lover, who had pioneered hum-cancelling pickups at Gibson in the mid-1950s (the PAF, most famously) and had joined Fender in 1967. This model proved reasonably popular, as several prominent guitarists had started modding their Telecasters with humbucking pickups (especially at the neck position) in the late 1960s.

In the U.K., Keith Richards got his hands on a butterscotch 1953 Telecaster in 1971 that soon became his number-one instrument for many years thereafter. He made a few notable modifications, including the backwards installation of a PAF humbucking pickup at the bridge (as noted, a popular mod of the era), a six-saddle bridge with the low-E saddle removed to accommodate his preference for a five-string open-G tuning, and a white Stratocaster-style switch tip in place of the original “barrel” tip. Like Buchanan, Richards bestowed a nickname on this guitar—“Micawber,” after a character in Dickens’ David Copperfield.

Richards, in fact, became something of a Telecaster connoisseur during the 1970s, acquiring and further nicknaming instruments of various vintages, including a blonde 1954 model (“Malcolm”) and a sunburst 1966 model (“Sonny”). He uses his Telecasters extensively to this day.


One of the most famous guitar solos ever—Jimmy Page’s memorable finale to 1971 Led Zeppelin classic “Stairway to Heaven” (above), was played on a Telecaster; Fender introduced its humbucking/single-coil Telecaster Custom in 1972 and dual-humbucking Telecaster Deluxe in 1973 (below).

Finally, any survey of the Telecaster in 1971 isn’t complete without noting that early in the year, Jimmy Page used his ’58 model to record the solo on quintessential Led Zeppelin epic “Stairway to Heaven”—one of his most famous guitar solos, if not his most famous solo.

Back at Fender headquarters, Telecaster experimentation continued apace by institutionalizing the most popular mod players had been making for a few years already—replacing the single-coil neck pickup with a fatter-sounding humbucking pickup. With Lover’s Fender Wide Range humbucking pickups successfully in place on the Thinline model, Fender simply stuck one in the neck position on a solid-body Telecaster, added a new pickguard design, upper bout pickup toggle switch and a new four-knob control layout, and there it was—the Telecaster Custom, introduced in 1972.

That year was also noteworthy for the recording of the first album by 22-year-old Long Branch, N.J., native Bruce Springsteen. Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J., released in January 1973, found its energetic young Esquire-wielding creator struggling to translate the sounds he heard in his head into the sounds coming out of the speakers, with breakout stardom still a couple years and a couple albums away. More soulful than rocking, Greetings achieved great critical acclaim if not stellar sales, although U.K. outfit Manfred Mann’s Earth Band scored a number-one hit with a more rocking version of album opener “Blinded By the Light”; one of three Greetings covers they recorded (the other two being “For You” and “Spirit in the Night”).

At Fender, 1973 also saw the last of the three major design revisions to the Telecaster. The Telecaster Thinline and Telecaster Custom were now joined by the Telecaster Deluxe, which featured two humbucking pickups, a Stratocaster-style headstock and a choice of hard-tail or tremolo bridge.

The mid-1970s saw some of the most diverse use the Telecaster has ever been put to. From prog to punk, rockabilly-inflected jazz to FM rock and an unexpected blues revival to chart-topping pop, Fender’s first guitar—still largely unchanged—was more ubiquitous than ever in the middle of its third decade.

U.K. prog outfit Yes was at the peak its original-era success during the first half of the 1970s, and guitarist Steve Howe was already topping guitar-great polls by mid-decade. Howe was one of the many guitarists who installed a humbucking bridge pickup on his Telecaster, and it was to his so-modified 1955 model that he turned nearly exclusively for the recording of 1974’s Relayer, widely considered one of Yes’s most progressive albums. An aficionado of many guitar makes and models, Howe again returned to his Telecaster for portions of 1977 Yes album Going For the One and throughout his subsequent prolific solo work.

An archetypal Telecaster moment came in 1975 when Bruce Springsteen achieved breakout success with his third album, the epic Born to Run. The album established Springsteen as a major star, and its famous black-and-white cover showed him leaning on Clarence “The Big Man” Clemmons’ shoulder and slinging his … Esquire? Telecaster? The guitar is often said to be the former, but has two pickups like the latter. So which is it?

An Esquire. Springsteen himself and his techs have been known to say so, citing the Boss’s guitar as an early-’50s Esquire. However, as author Dave Hunter notes in his Star Guitars: 101 Guitars that Rocked the World, “Closer examination of this hallowed instrument, however, shows that there might be a little more going on under the hood.”

Springsteen bough the guitar in the early 1970s from New Jersey luthier Phil Petillo, who then continued to care for the guitar for a while afterward. According to Hunter’s book, reports indicate that Petillo bough the guitar at New York recording studio liquidations ale, at which point it was already modified with a neck pickup and “a considerable amount of wood routed from beneath the pickguard to accommodate extra pickups, in addition to the previously unused factory route for the neck pickup.”

Hunter notes that the heavily worn butterscotch blonde finish and black pickguard of Springsteen’s Esquire support a 1953 or 1954 date estimate, but that the style and positioning of the headstock’s “butterfly” string guide date to mid-1956 at the earliest. Hunter further notes that the guitar’s soft-V neck profile is a style that dates to 1955-1957 (with earlier necks being thicker overall), and suggests the possibility that Springsteen’s Esquire is actually a 1956 or 1957 white-pickguard model “with a swapped-in black guard.”

On the Born to Run cover, the Esquire still has its original three-saddle 1950s bridge with a stamped steel base plate (subsequently replaced by Petillo with a six-saddle titanium bridge), although it does have a set of replacement tuners.

1975 is also notable in the Telecaster story because of the release of a relatively obscure debut album, American Music, by a Washington, D.C., trio called Danny and the Fat Boys. “Danny” in this case being Danny Gatton, a stylistically eclectic guitar virtuoso regarded throughout the remainder of his career as one of the most technically dazzling players ever to wield a Telecaster.

Like the other great D.C.-area Telecaster master of that era, Buchanan, Gatton (who’d played with Buchanan) astounded everyone with his mastery of the instrument, and he too favored a 1953 model modified with Joe Barden pickups until Fender honored him with a signature model in the early 1990s. Fusing jazz, blues, rockabilly, bluegrass and rock into his own dazzling concoction, Gatton earned the respect and admiration of peers such as Les Paul, Eric Clapton, Steve Earle, Alvin Lee and Jimmie Vaughan among many others, but, much like Buchanan, he never seemed to achieve the commercial success that seemed his due.

As the mid-1970s gave way to the latter part of the decade, Burton and Cropper remained busier than ever. Burton gigged extensively with Presley until the star’s death in August 1977; he’d also found time to record and perform with Emmylou Harris and John Denver. Cropper once again found himself in the spotlight with the unexpectedly successful 1978 formation of blues/soul revival outfit the Blues Brothers by Saturday Night Live alumni John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd. As a member of the duo’s backing band that year, Cropper appeared with them on Saturday Night Live and on chart-topping debut album Briefcase Full of Blues.


The Telecaster served as the versatile voice of two very different albums that illustrate just how dramatically rock continued to evolve within only a couple years mid-decade; prog epic Relayer (Yes, late 1974) and seminal eponymous punk debut The Clash (early 1977).

Across the Atlantic, sweeping change had struck the U.K. music scene in mid-decade. Punk reared its reactionary spiky-haired head, thumbing its safety-pinned nose at the establishment and at the lumbering blues-based, psychedelic and prog giants who ruled the first half of the 1970s (Johnny Rotten’s “I hate Pink Floyd” shirt leaps to mind). But the ever-ubiquitous Telecaster found itself right at home there, too.

After the Sex Pistols opened an April 3, 1976, show at the Nashville Rooms in London for his band, the 101’ers, pub rocker John Mellor—better known by the stage name he’d taken the year before, Joe Strummer—switched from pub to punk. Strummer accepted an invitation to be lead singer in a new band with guitarists Mick Jones and Keith Levene, bassist Paul Simonon and drummer Terry Chimes. Strummer brought his battered 1966 Telecaster along with him.

The new band, the Clash, made its live debut three months later, opening for—as fate would have it—the Sex Pistols at the Black Swan in Sheffield, England, on July 4, 1976. A mere six months later, Levene had been fired, Chimes had left and the Clash signed to CBS Records. Soon labeled “the only band that matters,” the Clash blazed an enormously influential path through the rest of the decade and well beyond, with Strummer and his Telecaster front and center.

Elsewhere in London of that era, another band coalesced that would achieve even greater heights; the very loftiest heights, in fact. Veteran U.K. guitarist Andy Summers (Dantalian’s Chariot, Soft Machine, the Animals) returned to England in 1977 after a few years in United States during which he studied music at California State University, Northridge. During his years in California, he bought a battered 1961 Custom Telecaster from one of his guitar students; the instrument was heavily modified with a humbucking neck pickup, phase switch, onboard preamp and overdrive unit, maple fingerboard and more.

Having returned to London in ’77, Summers recorded and performed with several acts before accepting a mid-year invitation by musician Mike Howlett (ex-Gong) to join a new act called Strontium 90. That’s when Summers met Howlett’s other recruits, bassist/vocalist Gordon “Sting” Sumner and drummer Stewart Copeland, who had already formed a trio of their own earlier that year called the Police. Strontium 90 only lasted a few gigs and several furtive demos, but the Sting-Copeland-Summers combination showed fantastic chemistry, and Summers replaced original Police guitarist Henry Padovani that August.

The rest is history. The Police embarked on a phenomenal career that saw them become the biggest band in the world through the first half of the subsequent decade, with artfully inventive guitar work by Summers running from screamingly rocking to airily atmospheric. And from the first slashing staccato chords of 1978’s “Roxanne” to the chaotic fadeout of 1983’s “Synchronicity II,” Summers used his Telecaster on all of the group’s chart-topping singles and albums.

Northwest of London in March 1978, in Hereford, Ohio-born singer, songwriter and Telecaster-wielding guitarist Chrissie Hynde assembled a four-piece band with a lineup that quickly settled on her, guitarist James Honeyman-Scott, bassist Pete Farndon and drummer Martin Chambers. Hynde named the band the Pretenders, and they recorded their first single, a cover of the Kinks’ “Stop Your Sobbing,” later that year.

In what amounted to a new U.K. pop renaissance, the Clash, the Police and the Pretenders all went on to finish out the 1970s with records that were enormously popular and influential on both sides of the Atlantic. The Clash had The Clash (1977, debut), Give ’Em Enough Rope (1978) and the magnificent London Calling (1979). The Police began their ascent with the exotically titled Outlandos d’Amour (1978, debut) and Reggatta de Blanc (1979). The Pretenders recorded their eponymous debut album, Pretenders, in 1979; it topped the U.K. album charts for a month after its early-1980 release and reached number nine on the Billboard Pop Albums chart that year. All went gold (indeed, all eventually went platinum except for the first two Clash albums) and all were fueled by the Telecasters of Strummer, Summers and Hynde.


U.K. pop ruled the late 1970s, typified by the Telecaster-fueled debut albums by the Police (Outlandos d’Amour, with Andy Summers at center, above) and the Pretenders (with Chrissie Hynde second from left).

 

And so the Telecaster struck the final notes of its third decade, put to greater use than ever by U.S. and U.K. guitarists, veterans and newcomers alike. In the 1970s, as always, the guitar itself had changed hardly at while music had mutated wildly. As the 1980s dawned, Fender itself was in for seismic change—for the better, fortunately—and its first electric guitar once again found itself in the hands of seasoned pros who now revered it with a newfound sense of history and a fresh young generation of imaginative newcomers who would chart new musical territory and define their own new decade with it.

In the latter 2000s, Fender introduced Joe Strummer (left) and Andy Summers (right) tribute Telecaster models.

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