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The One That Started It All: A Telecaster History
The story behind the versatile guitar that conquered country, blues, rock and punk.
By Jeff Owens
While Leo Fender and the staff of his small Southern California instrument- and amp-making company knew that they’d built a revolutionary new guitar when they introduced the Telecaster in early 1951, they had no idea of the size and scope of the musical revolution their unusual new invention would start. They couldn’t possibly have.
It was not a foregone conclusion that such an instrument would succeed; indeed, some scoffed and laughed at the Telecaster when it was officially unveiled that year at the industry’s largest U.S. trade show, mocking it as a “boat paddle” and a “snow shovel.” This kind of derision didn’t last long, though.
That’s because players quickly realized that Fender had given them something not only new and unusual, but something well-designed, easy-playing, efficient, rugged, affordable and, above all, great-sounding. Although electrified guitars had been around in various forms since the 1920s, Leo Fender and his inner circle had labored mightily throughout the close of the 1940s and the earliest dawn of the new decade to design and perfect something that really didn’t exist before—a mass-produced solid-body Spanish-style electric guitar.
As innovative as it was, little if anything was fancy about the Telecaster. Several of its features were carried over from the Hawaiian steel guitars Fender had already been making since 1945, such as the “ashtray” bridge cover, knurled chrome knobs, Kluson tuners and combination of bridge and bridge pickup in one integral unit. If the maple neck broke or became too worn, there was no complex luthiery involved—you just screwed on a new one. It had a simple black pickguard (of fiber or Bakelite) held on with five screws. Unlike many existing guitars at the time, the Telecaster’s strings were pulled straight over the nut, with all the tuners on one side of the headstock—ideas that Leo himself said he borrowed from 19-century Istrian folk guitars and Viennese Staufer guitars.
The controls were another matter. True, the layout was simple—two knobs and a three-position switch, but their combined function was not as simple as might be supposed at first. The front knob always controlled master volume, but the rear knob was not always a master tone knob. In 1951, putting the selector switch in the rear (bridge) position delivered both pickups, with the rear knob serving as a blend control that governed the amount of neck pickup sound mixed into the bridge pickup sound. The selector switch in the middle position delivered the neck pickup only with its “natural” mellow tone (its chrome cover soaked up extra capacitance), and the switch in the front (neck) position delivered the neck pickup only with extra capacitance that produced a bassier tone; the rear knob affected neither of these settings.
This control arrangement was “simplified” in 1952 to what became known as the conventional Telecaster control layout. After this change, putting the selector switch in the rear (bridge) position delivered the bridge pickup alone, with the rear knob acting as a proper tone control. The selector switch in the middle position delivered the neck pickup alone, with the rear knob again acting as a tone control. The selector switch in the front (neck) position delivered the neck pickup alone with the preset bassier sound and a non-functioning rear knob (as before). In this control scheme, there was no switch setting in which both pickups were on at the same time, an arrangement that lasted until the late 1960s. However, players were quick to discover that the Telecaster’s three-position switch could be precariously balanced in the two “in-between” switch positions to deliver in-phase or out-of-phase sounds (depending on the polarity of the pickups) in which both pickups were on (an unintentional design feature exploited by players to even greater extent on the Stratocaster).
So there was quite a bit of tonal versatility there. Unlike any guitar that came before it, the Telecaster had an incredibly bright, clean and cutting sounding, with a piercing high end and thick midrange and bass.
Even today, 60 years after its invention, a basic modern Telecaster outwardly differs very little from its ancestors of 1951. Its simplicity and efficiency as a solidly reliable workhorse guitar remained hallmarks of its design throughout the 1950s, as indeed they would throughout subsequent decades.
- Buck Owens
- Steve Cropper
- Eric Clapton
- Jimmy Page
- Luther Perkins
- Jimmy Wyble
- Charlie Aldrich
- Jimmy Bryant
- Roy Watkins
- Bill Carson
- Merle Haggard
- Waylon Jennings
- James Burton
- Muddy Waters
- B.B. King
- Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown
- Roy Buchanan
- Pete Townshend
- Syd Barrett (Pink Floyd)
- Clarence White (the Byrds)
- Marty Stuart
- Albert Lee
- Keith Richards
- George Harrison
- Joe Strummer
- Ritchie Kotzen (Winery Dogs, Mr. Big, Poison)
- Danny Gatton
- Andy Summers (the Police)
- Steve Howe (Yes)
- Chrissie Hynde (Pretenders)
- Graham Coxon (Blur)
- Jonny Greenwood (Radiohead)
TELECASTER: THE FULL STORY
Outside the factory, the western swing guitarists who helped Leo perfect his new guitar were the first to fully understand how good the Telecaster really was. Early players such as Jimmy Wyble, Charlie Aldrich, Jimmy Bryant, Roy Watkins and Bill Carson took to the instrument with missionary zeal, and Fender Sales chief Don Randall’s carefully built sales network made sure the appeal of the Telecaster slowly but surely radiated from Southern California all the way to the East Coast.
It bears remembering that when the Telecaster was introduced in 1951, rock ‘n’ roll was still a few years away; Leo Fender and his staff were building guitars and amps mainly for the western swing guitarists whose touring circuits often brought them near the company’s home in sunny Southern California. Nonetheless, Fender’s innovative new instruments fed the rise of the small, loud bands that, by the mid-1950s, had largely supplanted the big bands of the 1930s and 1940s, a phenomenon that in turn fueled the concurrent explosion of U.S. youth culture.
Fender and its new Telecaster guitar were ideally placed to take advantage of all of this, because Fender didn’t belong to the stodgy old world of high-end guitar craft. Fender was brash, young, innovative and West Coast; not old, staid and East Coast. Fender instruments and amps were fun, tough and affordable rather than delicate and expensive. All those kids who found themselves with a powerful new cultural movement of their own in the post-war mid-1950s could get their hands on great-sounding, solidly built Fender guitars easily enough.
Consequently, by mid-decade the Telecaster was finding its way into the inventive hands of rock ‘n’ roll, R&B and country guitarists and onto their recordings. In Nashville in July 1956, Johnny Burnette and the Rock and Roll Trio recorded an energetic rock version of 1951 jump blues song “The Train Kept-A-Rollin”; lead guitarist Paul Burlison used his Telecaster to play one of the first recorded instances—if not the first recorded instance—of a contemporary fuzz guitar sound. In July 1957, Dale Hawkins scored what was probably the first Telecaster-fueled U.S. Top 40 hit with “Suzie Q,” a song built on a catchy guitar lick by his band’s young guitarist, James Burton.
When Burton later joined teen idol Ricky Nelson’s band (at age 18), thousands of U.S. TV viewers saw him play a Telecaster on The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet in the late ’50s and early ’60s, performing songs such as “Just a Little Too Much,” “It’s Late,” and "Believe What You Say."
And in what is widely regarded as the greatest rock ‘n’ roll film ever made, 1956’s The Girl Can’t Help It, the Telecaster (in its single-pickup Esquire version) puts in a pair of appearances. It’s first seen in the hands of Little Richard’s guitarist (likely either Ray Montrell or Ed Blanchard) during the hard rocking “Ready Teddy” and “She’s Got It”; guitarist Russell Willaford plays one later in the film during Gene Vincent and His Blue Caps’ smoldering “Be Bop a Lula.”
In the R&B world, players such as B.B. King and Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown took readily to the Telecaster. And when the great Muddy Waters, the man who electrified Delta blues, first visited England in 1958, he shocked audiences who were expecting folksy acoustic sounds by blasting out loud, stinging blues on his Telecaster. For many young players in the U.K., Waters’ October 1958 tour was the first time they ever saw a Telecaster in real life. The dramatic effects of this would become palpably evident in the decade that followed.
In the country world, Luther Perkins accompanied Johnny Cash from 1954 on by playing bright, catchy lines on a Telecaster and an Esquire. Farther west, in Bakersfield, Calif., Buck Owens was discovering how to put the Telecaster to work in a loud and stripped-down country style that stood in stark contrast to the slick, string-heavy country sound then in vogue in Nashville. The Telecaster would become the foundation of the “Bakersfield Sound” pioneered in the later 1950s and popularized in the 1960s by Owens and his band, the Buckaroos, Merle Haggard and the Strangers, and others.
The Telecaster also made great inroads in the 1950s as a must-have studio session instrument. It didn’t take long to become an essential element in the arsenal of studio veterans nationwide and A-list session veterans Barney Kessel, Howard Roberts and Tommy Tedesco all got Telecasters.
Though largely unchanged during the 1950s, a few minor tweaks to the Telecaster were implemented in the guitar’s first decade though. The color of the pickguard was changed from black to white in 1954; its pickup selector switch tip was changed from the original round type to the “top hat” type in 1955. Perhaps the biggest change of the decade came in 1958, when the once blonde-finish-only Telecaster first became available with eye-catching custom color finishes for an additional 5 percent cost. The first significant new version of the model didn’t appear until 1959, when the Custom Telecaster was introduced, with a bound body and rosewood fingerboard.
All in all, the Telecaster was a great success story in the decade of its birth. The 1950s saw it rise from regional obscurity to nationwide indispensability (with worldwide acclaim looming) as rock ‘n’ roll proved to be more than a passing fad and youth culture bloomed as it never before had in the United States. The Telecaster had both the style and substance; the form and function to endure indefinitely as both a valuable tool and a potent symbol. It was a great idea whose time had come, and it changed music in the ’50s-era United States.
In late 1959, with the decade rapidly closing, quite a few of these English kids were eagerly soaking up every Telecaster-fueled note they could get their hands on. These 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 all immersed themselves in the sounds of the Telecaster in the 1950s, and they all eventually got their hands on Telecaster guitars.
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.
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 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 solo, every Chuck Berry riff, every Eddy Cochran 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Buck 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.
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) 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. 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 basically hollowed out a Telecaster body, routing sections on both sides from the rear and gluing a thin panel over the back. The Telecaster Thinline debuted in 1968 and became an enduring success.
Also introduced in 1968 was 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.
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.
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.
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 band 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.
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.
At Fender, 1973 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.
An archetypal Telecaster moment came in 1975 when Long Branch, N.J., native 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. On the Born to Run cover photo, it 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.
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.
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. 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.
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 and the rest is history.
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.
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.
The 1980s and Beyond …
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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 and Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood put the Telecaster to remarkably creative (and hit-making) use.
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 American Vintage series Telecaster guitars, 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 Classic Player (2006), Road Worn (2009) and American Special (2010), all of which have kept the Telecaster at the forefront of modern electric guitar. In 2017 Fender released the American Professional Telecaster (also available for lefties and the Telecaster Deluxe Shawbucker featuring classic design and innovative new features.
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.