Gear

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A Classic Evolved: The Telecaster Custom Story

How adding a humbucking pickup to the traditional Telecaster offered even more tonal options to this workhorse model.

THE RUNDOWN

The classic single-coil stylings of a traditional Fender Telecaster certainly boasts legions of fans around the world, but a growing number of guitarists in the mid-1960s were trending towards the thicker sound of humbucker-equipped instruments and over-driven amplifiers.

As Fender noticed more and more players outfitting their guitars with humbucking pickups, they enlisted the renowned pickup innovator Seth Lover to work on a proprietary version of a humbucker.

After several years of development, Lover had perfected a humbucker that was all Fender, and the Telecaster Custom was born.

THE GUITAR

Even though the venerable Telecaster has remained largely true to the form it took when officially introduced in the early 1950s, it underwent what many consider its most dramatic change in 1972 when Fender released a production model with a humbucking pickup in the neck position.

This was the second iteration of what was known as the Telecaster Custom. From 1959-72, the Fender Custom Telecaster lived as a standard Tele with a bound body. The new Telecaster Custom that was available until 1981 boasted a Seth Lover-designed humbucker in the neck position to pair with the traditional and beloved Telecaster single-coil bridge pickup.

custom

THE PLAYERS

  • Keith Richards
  • Mick Green (Bryan Ferry, Paul McCartney)
  • The Edge
  • Win Butler (Arcade Fire)
  • Anthony Gonzalez (M83)
  • Russell Lissack (Bloc Party)
  • Tom Smith, Justin Lockey (Editors)
  • Brody Dalle

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THE FULL STORY
In his invaluable reference work, Six Decades of the Fender Telecaster, author Tony Bacon notes that, ”As far as the Telecaster was concerned, the 1970s might well be described as the decade of the humbucker.

It had not gone unnoticed at Fender headquarters that the bright single-coil sound of the 1950s and 1960s—a sound that Fender practically owned—was giving way in popularity by the late ’60s to the warmer, thicker sound of the humbucking pickups characteristic of instruments by other guitar makers.

To establish its own foothold in this guitar sound, Fender hired Seth Lover in 1967. Lover had invented the humbucking pickup while working for Gibson in the mid-1950s, and he now set about designing a new humbucking pickup for Fender, noting that, as quoted in Six Decades of the Fender Telecaster:

*"The Fender sales force wanted a copy of a Gibson humbucking pickup; wanted it to sound exactly like that. The patent had not quite run out, so I designed them a pickup that looked a little different. Also I used cunife magnets [an alloy of copper-nickel-iron], not Gibson’s alnico [aluminum-nickel-cobalt]. I hesitated in making it sound exactly like the Gibson—I figured Fender was known for a brilliant-type sound, so I kept a little more brilliance in the Fender pickup than there was in the Gibson." * Lover had perfected his new Fender pickup, called the Wide Range humbucking pickup, by late 1970. They were first offered in 1971 on a redesigned version of the semi-hollow Telecaster Thinline model, with two of them replacing the Thinline’s two single-coil pickups.


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The Telecaster Thinline, however, was only mildly successful during its early years. The great many who still loved the Telecaster in the late 1960s and early 1970s typically did so because of the famously bright, snappy sound of the guitar’s single-coil bridge pickup. Its mellow single-coil neck pickup contributed less to its signature tone, and many guitarists put less emphasis on it or didn’t use it at all. Consequently, an increasingly common player modification of that era was to retrofit Telecasters with humbucking pickups, but only in the neck position. High-profile players including Keith Richards, Steve Marriott, Mike Bloomfield, Albert Lee and, later, Steve Howe and Andy Summers all resorted to this hot-rod Telecaster trend.

This too did not go unnoticed by Fender, which institutionalized this modification in mid-1972 by introducing a new solid-body Telecaster model with a humbucking pickup in the neck position and the beloved single-coil lead pickup still in the bridge position. This was the Telecaster Custom. It listed in January 1973 for $315, about $30 more than a standard Telecaster.

Fender had introduced a model called the Custom Telecaster in 1959, but this guitar was merely a standard Telecaster with a bound body; it was in the Fender line until 1972 in its original run, with subsequent reissues.

Apart from its body shape and bridge pickup, however, the Telecaster Custom of 1972 bore little resemblance to any previous Telecaster model. Like the humbucking-equipped version of the Thinline, it had an elongated pickguard that encompassed both pickups, although the Custom’s pickguard covered even more of the upper bout. Unlike any previous Telecaster model, the Custom had four skirted black control knobs (volume and tone for each pickup) and a toggle-type pickup selector switch mounted on the upper bout, all of which were also encompassed by the pickguard.


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Other features included a slab body in a variety of gloss urethane finishes, maple or rosewood fingerboard, bullet truss rod and a three-screw neck plate with tilt adjustment.

As with its humbucking-equipped predecessor, the Telecaster Thinline, and the subsequent dual-humbucking Telecaster Deluxe of 1973, the Telecaster Custom enjoyed modest sales and was kept in the Fender line until 1981, when it was discontinued along with the Deluxe (the Thinline having been discontinued in 1979).

As Fender’s fortunes improved in the wake of the CBS years, all three humbucking pickup-equipped Telecaster models were eventually reissued. Fender Japan was first to reissue the model, introducing its Telecaster Custom ’72 in 1986; it remained in production through 1998. Fender Mexico offered a Telecaster model with a humbucking neck pickup and a single-coil bridge pickup-the Tele Special-from 1994-96, but this was not a Telecaster Custom model.

With interest in all three humbucker-equipped Telecaster models resurgent among scores of new bands in the 1990s and 2000s, an actual Telecaster Custom reissue model built in Mexico, the Classic Series ’72 Telecaster Custom, which was released in 1999. Fender’s value brand, Squier, also boasts two models, the Vintage Modified Telecaster Custom (2003) and the Classic Vibe Telecaster Custom (2010), although the former has two humbucking pickups and the latter has two single-coil pickups. All three of these modern Telecaster Custom models remain in the Fender and Squier lines today.