The Telecaster in the Modern Era: 1980-Present


Andy Summers played his battered 1961 Telecaster when the Police ruled rock in the early 1980s, and returned to it (or is it the 2007 Fender Custom Shop tribute model?) when the trio reconvened in the mid-2000s for a highly successful reunion tour.
Photo by Steve Pitkin

By the dawn of the 1980s, Fender’s original electric guitar, the Telecaster, had amassed 30 years of remarkably versatile history, each decade of which had its own distinctive musical and cultural identity. Yet the instrument itself changed hardly at all—a Telecaster of 1981 bore no dramatically noticeable outward difference from a Telecaster of 1951.

In the 1950s, James Burton played it on national network television as the lyrical lead instrument on a handful of Ricky Nelson hits, and Paul Burlison used it to play one of the first recorded instances—if not the first recorded instance—of contemporary fuzz guitar on stripped-down rockabilly records by Johnny Burnette and the Rock and Roll Trio. In the 1960s, maverick guitarists as varied as Buck Owens, Steve Cropper, Syd Barrett and Jeff Beck put the Telecaster to front-and center use in their respective genres and on their respective sides of the Atlantic; George Harrison used one to close out the Beatles’ live performance career and, with it, the decade. Ubiquitous well before the 1970s started, the Telecaster ruled that decade too, from “Stairway to Heaven” to “Born to Run” to “Roxanne” to “London Calling.”

No matter where music went and no matter what musicians did, the Telecaster was always right there. As elegantly utilitarian and as seemingly indestructible as ever, it was always the right guitar for the job. Not only was this true also in the 1980s; it was true especially in the 1980s.

The Telecaster charged into its fourth decade of indispensability on the crest of a wave of revitalized U.K. rock and pop. Tight, focused punk- and new wave-based Davids of the late 1970s and early 1980s wrested the charts and the critical acclaim from the blues-based Goliaths of the early- and mid-’70s using the very same instruments—the Telecaster chief among them. Thus, ’70s-dominating U.K. giants such as Led Zeppelin, Yes and Pink Floyd segued into ’80-dominating U.K. giants of an entirely new and different kind, such as the Police, the Clash and the Pretenders.

Especially the Police. The famously blonde trio became the biggest band in the world in the first half of the 1980s, turning out hit after hit and achieving unprecedented visibility thanks to the arrival of MTV, which trumpeted their captivating sound and photogenic looks 24 hours a day. To say nothing of looks and marketing, however, the Police had formidable musical substance to back it all up, and their empire was founded on solid songcraft fueled by the startlingly original Telecaster work of Andy Summers.

Although a seasoned pop veteran by the time the Police convened in 1977, Summers was considered a fresh new voice in rock and pop guitar when the group started scoring hits late in that decade. Throughout the group’s phenomenal career, Summers’ main guitar was a battered 1961 Telecaster he bought used just after finishing college in the early ’70s in California. It wasn’t just beat-up, however; it was heavily modified when he got it with extra electronics including a phase switch, humbucking neck pickup and onboard preamp and overdrive unit.

The Police came out swinging in the new decade, starting with October 1980 third album Zenyatta Mondatta, which became their biggest success yet and was heavily charged with Summers’ innovative and atmospheric Telecaster work. This continued on darker but still musically adventurous 1981 album Ghost in the Machine, by which time Summers was routinely topping best-guitarist polls worldwide. The height of superstardom came with 1983’s Synchronicity; yet another Summers/Telecaster tour de force, but also, as it turned out, their final studio album together.

Fractious in the way that brothers are, the always-volatile Police were no more by the end of 1984, despite an abortive 1986 studio session. Summers, however, had more than earned enduring acclaim as one of rock’s most talented, distinctive and influential modern guitarists. Fender honored him as such in the late 2000s with a meticulously crafted tribute model that replicated his 1961 Telecaster in exacting detail.

The Clash was also at its artistic and commercial peak in the first half of the 1980s. Like Summers, leader Joe Strummer also wielded a battered ’60s-era Telecaster, which he continually plastered with slogans befitting his group’s early-’80s status as “the only band that matters.” Stylistically sprawling epic double album London Calling was released in late 1979, but was truly an album for the 1980s and included the band’s first U.S. Top 40 hit, “Train in Vain.”

1984 single cover for Bruce Springsteen hit “Born in the U.S.A.,” from the album of the same name.

Strummer wielded his 1966 Telecaster with authoritative swagger through two other hit Clash albums of the period, Sandinista! (1980) and Combat Rock (1982) before the band started to disintegrate. Nonetheless, he remained a revered post-punk figure as the Clash soldiered on until 1986, and he too was honored (posthumously; Strummer passed away in 2002) by Fender in the late 2000s with a tribute Telecaster model that reproduced his battle-hardened guitar down to the last detail.

Countless other U.K. rock and pop acts of all kinds continued to put the Telecaster to great use. The Pretenders, led by Chrissie Hynde, continued to score hits throughout the first half of the decade despite nearly constant changes in the group’s lineup.

In the United States, the main Telecaster triumph of the first half of the 1980s took place in 1984 with the release of Bruce Springsteen’s seventh studio album, Born in the U.S.A. The album was a massive commercial and critical blockbuster, eclipsing even the success of Springsteen’s 1975 breakthrough, Born to Run. The album catapulted Springsteen to worldwide superstardom and, like the Police, he too benefitted immeasurably from the around-the-clock exposure afforded by heavy MTV airplay.

One thing hadn’t changed, though—the joyful abandon with which he wielded his Esquire guitar (which may as well have been a Telecaster given the addition of a neck pickup). Already known for marathon concert performances of unbridled energy, Springsteen now slung his guitar with renewed vigor after a series of late-’70s albums that were darker and moodier.

New talent also reinvigorated mainstream U.S. country music. While old-school Telecaster masters such as Merle Haggard and Waylon Jennings continued to score hits in the ’80s, a new generation of able Telecaster players took their first solo steps. These included former Pure Prairie League member Vince Gill, a truly formidable guitarist, who released debut solo album Turn Me Loose in 1984, and Marty Stuart, who left Johnny Cash’s band mid-decade and released his eponymous solo album in 1986.

Country music got a welcome dose of new talent in the 1980s with the Telecaster-fueled work of artists such as Marty Stuart (1989’s Hillbilly Rock, above) and Vince Gill (2011’s Guitar Slinger, below).

At home at Fender, however, all was not well. After nearly two decades of general neglect, quality control problems and budget cuts under CBS, the Fender of the early 1980s had fallen far from its former greatness. It now suffered from a bleak reputation for producing, as noted guitar author and historian Tom Wheeler put it in his 2011 history of the Fender Custom Shop, The Dream Factory, “boat anchor” guitars, and revenues were starting to decline along with quality. A late ’70s Telecaster may have looked like its 1950s or early 1960s ancestors, but that was about it, and it was around this time that word began to circulate that if you wanted a really good Fender instrument, you needed an old one (this is when the oft-heard term “pre-CBS” originated).

To remedy this situation, CBS enlisted former Yamaha executives William “Bill” Schultz as president of Fender and Dan Smith as director of marketing for electric guitars. Both men set about improving Fender’s fortunes; and one of the first things Smith did was restore the original body shape of the Telecaster, which had changed slightly and none too elegantly in the 1970s to accommodate the abilities of computer-controlled body cutting machinery.

Schultz, seeing that his recommendation for modernizing Fender’s U.S. manufacturing facilities largely meant halting production while machinery was updated and staff was re-trained, suggested building Fender guitars in Japan for the large Japanese market. This would keep Fender instruments in production and combat the cheap copies that were voraciously eating away at Fender’s Far East sales.

Accordingly, Fender Japan was established in March 1982 and began building quality Fender instruments while U.S production was reorganized. One of the earliest results was the Vintage Reissue series, a high-quality new family that appeared in 1982 and featured a well-built and largely historically accurate ’52 Telecaster model. These Vintage series Japanese instruments were soon introduced into the European market under the Squier name.

With U.S. production resumed but not up to full steam by late 1983, Japanese-made Fender guitars—including a’70s-style Squier Telecaster—became available in the United States, too. The U.S. factory did produce the short-lived Elite Telecaster of 1983-1984, which was intended as a high-end model with humbucking pickups and active circuitry.

1984, however, was also the year that CBS decided to sell Fender. Schultz and a group of investors bought Fender in a sale that was completed in March 1985, ending 20 years of unpopular CBS rule. Owning very little in the way of resources—only the name, distribution and some leftover inventory and machinery (no U.S. factory)—Schultz set about rebuilding and revitalizing Fender. While Fender Japan now became the world’s main producer of Fender instruments, Schultz and his staff established headquarters for the newly renamed Fender Musical Instruments Corporation in Brea, Calif., and acquired a 14,000-square-foot factory in Corona, Calif., in October 1985.

It is at this point that the modern-era history of the Telecaster begins.

With that new mid-’80s beginning under Bill Schultz, Fender started by concentrating on quality rather than quantity, beginning with a small number of vintage reissue guitars and redesigned back-to-basics modern instruments dubbed American Standard models. The American Standard Telecaster appeared in 1988, updated with 22 frets, a more robust-sounding bridge pickup and a six-saddle bridge.

1982 Fender catalog page showing a Japanese-built ’52 reissue model.

Meanwhile, the Fender Custom Shop had been established in 1987, and one of the very first orders it took was for a custom left-handed Telecaster Thinline for Cars guitarist Elliot Easton. From that year onward, the Custom Shop would repeatedly elevate the Telecaster from mere utilitarian workhorse to work of art.

Since that late-’80s resurrection, the Telecaster once again reigns supreme as a must-have instrument for guitarists of all types and styles worldwide. Many variations have been offered ever since, but at it its heart the Telecaster very much remains the same great instrument it was when the world first heard it in the early 1950s. It continues to embody the spirit of Fender innovation and dedication to tonal and performance excellence. And it can still take a beating.

And in its modern era, new masters have discovered the Telecaster while stalwarts have stayed with it and still others, sadly, have departed.

The modern Telecaster was seen in the early 1990s being wielded by many a grunge guitarist for the intensely meteoric few years when that genre dominated rock. In the mid-1990s in the U.K., inventive Britpop guitarists such as Blur’s phenomenally talented Graham Coxon, Oasis’s Noel Gallagher and Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood put the Telecaster to remarkably creative (and hit-making) use.

Veterans stuck with it on both sides of the Atlantic. In 1990, James Burton enjoyed the distinction of becoming Fender’s first signature Telecaster artist, followed later that year by Albert Collins and Danny Gatton signature models. Longtime Telecaster devotees including Keith Richards, Steve Cropper, Bruce Springsteen, Pete Townshend, Andy Summers, Chrissie Hynde, Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard and a great many others continued to rely on the instrument, as they do to this day.

Tragically, the world lost two of its greatest Telecaster masters with the deaths of Roy Buchanan in 1988 and Danny Gatton in 1994. Both remain highly revered and influential players who bequeathed incredible Telecaster-fueled musical legacies.

Blur guitarist Graham Coxon, seen with his 2011 signature Telecaster model, rose to prominence during the mid-’90s Britpop movement in the U.K.
Photo by Carl Lyttle

In the 2000s, the Telecaster was positively everywhere, from modern country (Brad Paisley, Keith Urban, Dierks Bentley) to modern metal (Fender signature artists John 5 and Jim Root) to modern alt-indie (Frank Black, Franz Ferdinand, Bloc Party, Jimmy Eat World and countless others) and a great deal more.

As the 50th anniversary of the Telecaster approached, the Fender Custom Shop celebrated by introducing a limited edition run of 50 Leo Fender Broadcaster models in 2000 that featured Leo Fender’s signature on the headstock in place of the standard logo. That year also saw the introduction of the American Nashville B-Bender Telecaster, which uses a mechanical device that raises the pitch of the B string by a whole tone (up to C#), producing plaintive, sinuous bends very much like those produced on a pedal steel guitar.

Since then Fender has offered a wealth of modern Telecaster models designed to suit the playing, personality and pockets of any guitarist. In addition to many artist models and the ongoing and perennially reliable American Standard, American Deluxe and American Vintage series Telecaster guitars (themselves periodically redefined), Fender has introduced a variety of Telecaster variations, from authentically traditional to distinctively modified, from pristine to battered and from high-end to budget-conscious. Some of these models include Highway One and Classic Player (2006), Hot Rod (2007), Road Worn (2009), Blacktop and American Special (2010) and Road Worn Player (2011), all of which have kept the Telecaster at the forefront of modern electric guitar.

Much of the history of modern popular music owes a great deal of its sound to the Telecaster, and to the spirit of innovation and design excellence embodied in its elegantly shapely form. Its look and sound are still instantly identifiable, and it is still the workhorse instrument of countless musicians worldwide who praise its form and function as much or more today than they did in the 1950s and every decade since. The Telecaster is an original that remains, simply and more than ever, indispensable.


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