For '50s-era guitarists who would soon be playing rock
and roll, the Fender Telecaster hit the music industry with the impact
of the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs. Leo Fender's so-called "plank"
ushered in the era of the commercially successful solidbody -- echoing
the immense industrial and social impact of Henry Ford's Model T. While
Ford was never one of Fender's idols, the car maker bestowed the wonders
of the automobile upon the masses by standardizing a sound design, streamlining
production techniques, and lowering costs. Likewise, Fender's "Model T"
-- initially called the Esquire, then the Broadcaster, and finally the
Telecaster -- was a powerful, affordable tool that helped a vast community
of working guitarists ignite a cultural revolution.
The tumult was so far-reaching that
Gibson was compelled to introduce the Les Paul to compete with the Tele
-- and Leo himself was inspired to develop the Stratocaster in an attempt
o make its older sibling obsolete. These three models are still modern
music's most important guitars -- and they all have Leo Fender's 1949 "standard
guitar" prototype to thank for kick-starting their enduring glory.
THE ARCHTOP ERA
As twilight fell on the Big Band era
toward the end of World War II, small combos playing boogie-woogie, rhythm
and blues, western swing, and honky-tonk formed throughout the United States.
Many of these outfits embraced the electric guitar because it could give
a few players the power of an entire horn section. Pickup-equipped archtops
had reigned in these late-'40s dance bands, but the increasing popularity
of roadhouses and dance halls created a growing need for louder, cheaper,
and more durable axes. Players also needed faster necks and better intonation
to play what the country boys called "take-off lead guitar," and Rickenbacker
Bakelites and other '30s-era solidbodies failed to deliver. Custom-made
solidbodies such as Merle Travis' Bigsby -- as well as kitchen-table
contraptions like Les Paul's "Log" -- pointed in the right direction, but
were beyond the means of the average player. The demand for better electric
guitars was as obvious as their reality was elusive.
ENTER LEO FENDER
Fender recognized the vast potential
for an electric guitar that was easy to hold, easy to tune, and easy to
play. He also recognized that players needed guitars that would not feed
back at dance hall volumes like the typical archtop. (Many guitarists had
to stuff rags into their elegantly crafted guitars to stop the howling.)
In addition, Fender sought a tone that would command attention on the bandstand
and cut through the noise in a bar. By 1949, he had conceptualized the
perfect tone -- a clear, bell-like sound with distinct highs and lows,
but devoid of muddled midrange frequencies that Fender considered "fluff"
-- and began working in earnest on what would become the first Telecaster
at the Fender factory in Fullerton, California.
Although he never admitted it, Fender
seemed to base his practical design on the Rickenbacker Bakelite. One of
the Rickenbacker's strong points -- a detachable neck that made it easy
to make and service -- was not lost on Fender, who was a master at improving
already established designs. (He once said, "It isn't a radically different
thing that becomes a success; it is the thing that offers an improvement
on an already proven item.") Not surprisingly, his first prototype was
a single-pickup guitar with a detachable hard rock maple neck and a pine
body painted white (see Encore, page 160). The seeds of revolution were
Don Randall, who managed Fender's distributor,
the Radio & Television Equipment Company, recognized the commercial
possibilities of the new design and made plans to introduce the instrument
as the Esquire Model. (Although Randall -- the company's de facto namesmith
-- gave the Esquire its moniker, Fender supported the name, saying that
it "sounded regal and implied a certain distinction above other guitars.")
In April 1950, Radio-Tel started promoting
the Esquire -- the first Fender 6-string officially introduced to the public.
The company prepared its Catalog No. 2, picturing a black single-pickup
Esquire with a tweed form-fit case. Another picture showed Jimmy Wyble
of Spade Cooley's band holding a blonde Esquire. These debut models, with
a planned retail price of $139.95, exhibited the utilitarian shape of thousands
of Fender guitars to come.
"The Esquire guitar features
a new style of construction which vastly improves the useability of this
type of instrument," Randall wrote. The claim was further embellished by
stating that the guitar could be played "at extreme volume," and that the
fast neck was an aid to easy fretting.
Randall added, "The neck is also replaceable
and can be changed by the owner in approximately ten minutes time. This
feature eliminates costly repairs and refretting." Fender believed that
the neck was strong enough to resist warping without a trussrod. If a neck
did warp, he planned to mail the customer a new one in a shipping tube.
Unfortunately, the necks didn't turn
out to be as tough as Fender claimed. Randall reported that the necks on
his samples had warped badly while traveling to the 1950 summer trade shows,
and asked that the new guitars be outfitted with reinforced necks. Initially,
Fender had been contentious about the extra effort it would take to design
and manufacture reinforced necks, but then a test guitar in his lab suffered
the same problem. Faced with mounting evidence that his guitar truly needed
a reinforced neck, Fender bought a routing plate to install trussrods on
October 3, 1950.
Randall's primary marketing ploy was
to establish the Esquire in music instruction studios, reasoning that the
affordable, practical guitar would be a hot commodity in those circles.
In addition, a healthy response for the one-pickup version would prime
the market for the more expensive two-pickup model that Fender already
had in mind.
In fact, Fender's choice of a 3-position
lever switch -- which allowed three distinct guitar tones -- probably coincided
with his plans to add a rhythm pickup. Fortunately, the Esquire's body
design easily lent itself to both one- and two-pickup configurations. Ultimately,
all production models had cavities routed for two pickups because Fender
wanted players to have the option of adding a pickup in the future. (The
one-pickup models hid an empty cavity under the pickguard.)
The two-pickup Esquires were manufactured
with the second (rhythm) pickup positioned under the strings near the end
of the fingerboard. Fender shielded the rhythm pickup with a metal cover
to cut high harmonics and to emphasize fundamental tones. A handy blend
control knob mixed the rhythm pickup signal with that of the lead pickup
when the pickup selector was in its lead position. Putting the selector
in the middle position activated the rhythm pickup alone. In the forward
position, the rhythm pickup was also selected, but along with a capacitor
that rolled off high frequencies. (Fender called this sound "deep rhythm,"
and reasoned that guitarists could use the position to play bass lines.)
Dual-pickup Fender guitars featured these same electronics until 1952.
Although the single-pickup guitars
used capacitors to mimic the mellow sound of a rhythm pickup, the real
thing sounded better. Jimmy Bryant, who epitomized the new wave of postwar
electric-guitar wizards, liked the jazzier sound of the dual-pickup guitar,
as did Fender himself.
The factory finally went into full
production in late October or early November 1950. However, as Fender wanted
his best guitar in the hands of professionals as soon as possible, the
factory produced only dual-pickup Esquires. Fender's decision compromised
Radio-Tel's earlier marketing strategy, forcing Randall to hold orders
for the single-pickup Esquire and come up with a new name for the two-pickup
model. The name Randall chose was "Broadcaster." No one is sure of the
exact day he coined the name, but it coincided with the introduction of
the trussrod, as no authentic non-trussrod Broadcasters are known to exist.
(Dealers who insisted on Esquires had to wait until the single-pickup guitars
went into full production in January 1951 and were delivered the following
Musical Merchandise magazine carried
the first announcement for the Broadcaster in February 1951 with a full-page
insert that described it in detail. The guitar had what Randall called
a "Modern cut-away body" and a "Modern styled head." And what player could
resist the "Adjustable solo-lead pickup" that was "completely adjustable
for tone-balance by means of three elevating screws"?
Finally the industry had an up-to-date
production solidbody. (Fender sold 87 Broadcasters on the guitar's initial
release in January 1951.) Many people took note -- including Gretsch, who
claimed the Broadcaster name infringed on the company's trademark "Broadkaster."
Faced with this fact, Randall wrote a letter to his salespeople on February
21, advising them that Radio-Tel was abandoning the Broadcaster name and
requesting suggestions for a new one.
On February 24, Randall, who had some good
ideas of his own, announced that the Broadcaster was renamed the "Telecaster."
The Broadcaster-to-Telecaster name
change cost Radio-Tel hundreds of dollars, and derailed the initial marketing
effort. Brochures and envelope inserts were destroyed, and some unlucky
worker had to clip the word "Broadcaster" from hundreds of headstock decals
with a pair of scissors. For several months, the new twin-pickup guitars
sported nothing but the word "Fender." Years later, collectors would
coin the term "No-caster" for these early-to-mid-'51 uitars.
In 1952, Fender replaced the Telecaster's
blend control circuit with a conventional tone control. Now the switch's
rear position selected the lead pickup, the middle position selected the
rhythm pickup, and the front position delivered the "deep rhythm" sound.
Teles were equipped this way until the mid-'60s, when the modern switch
setup was introduced: the middle position selected both pickups, the front
position selected the rhythm pickup, and the rear position selected the
One drawback of the 1952 to mid-'60s
wiring is obvious today: The wiring made a two-pickup combination impossible
unless the player delicately positioned the spring-loaded switch between
settings. However, once players learned this trick, they received a tonal
surprise: Different models produced different dual-pickup sounds, depending
on the rhythm pickup's magnetic polarity. The "between" setting -- which
helped define the mystique of vintage Telecasters -- could offer the robust
tone provided by both pickups or produce a snarly growl similar to the
Stratocaster's half-switch sound. (James Burton, playing his '53 Telecaster,
exploited this unique tone on Ricky Nelson's "Travelin' Man.")
However, it was the Tele's lead pickup
that captured the hearts of most players. Early "level-pole" units offered
outstanding tone with significant bass content and non-offensive highs
(although manufacturing inconsistencies caused a small number of these
pickups to produce an out-of-balance, bass-heavy low-E sound). In mid-1955,
Fender staggered the polepiece heights as he had on Strat pickups. The
results were mixed. The volume balance from string to string was better,
but the Tele's overall sound was harsh.
The earliest guitars featured steel
bridges that were ground flat on the bottom. By the end of 1950, Broadcasters
boasted brass bridges with the same tooling marks as the earlier steel
ones. In 1953, the factory began notching the two outer brass bridge pieces
under the low E and high E, which allowed a lower adjustment for these
strings. By 1954, Telecasters employed steel bridges again, but they were
rounded and made from a smaller-diameter stock than the 1950 bridges. By
1958, the bridge pieces were changed yet again to a threaded stock with
less mass, and the factory stopped putting the strings through the body.
As a result, late-'50s models represent the shrillest-sounding and perhaps
the least desirable Telecasters made during the pre-CBS (pre-'65) era.
In 1959, Fender introduced the Telecaster
Custom and Esquire Custom, fancy versions of the originals with white binding
that helped protect the edges from wear. These guitars had Jazzmaster-like
rosewood fingerboards, which looked more traditional and wore better thanone-piece
maple necks. Some early-'60s, pre-CBS Custom Telecasters had necks capped
with maple fingerboards made in the same manner as the necks capped with
rosewood. However, at no time during the pre-CBS years did Fender regularly
produce Customs with the older-style maple neck. (The only exceptions may
have been unlikely special orders.) While the standard Telecasters and
Esquires came with blonde finishes, the Customs were offered with sunburst
finishes. A few even had more expensive custom colors. Moreover, Fender
made some Teles with mahogany bodies in the '60s.
THE PLAYER'S PERSPECTIVE
In the early 1950s, a broad spectrum
of Tele players established themselves in combos -- even young blues legend-to-be
B.B. King spanked the plank. With its versatile sound, ease of playing,
and reasonable cost, what better guitar to yellow with perspiration and
cigarette smoke? Most serious students could afford the $189.50 price,
ensuring a new guitar generation would grow up on Fenders. Still, most
players preferred top-of-the-line instruments, and almost all professional
jazz and pop players employed something other than a Fender. And after
Fender introduced the Stratocaster in '54, the Tele wasn't even Fender's
Then an interesting thing happened.
By the late '50s, the Telecaster was becoming an integral part of the session
player's arsenal. California-based guitarist Howard Roberts endorsed Gibson
and Epiphone but also played an old Telecaster on countless rock sessions,
as did Tommy Tedesco. These players knew what models recorded best and
pleased record producers. The Telecaster and its solidbody cohorts produced
the teenage sound that proclaimed a guitar generation gap: old versus new,
jazz and pop conformity versus rock rebellion. At the same time, the Tele
was heard increasingly on pure country recordings, treading in the big-box
domain of Chet Atkins and Hank Garland (who sounded anything but twangy).
As the '60s unfolded and rock guitar playing
matured, the Telecaster's role, onstage and off, solidified. While the
guitar played a small part in the rise and fall of instrumental rock and
surf music, Steve Cropper played one with Booker T. and the MGs, as did
the Ventures' Nokie Edwards. James Burton and Tele moved from Ricky Nelson's
band to TV's Shindogs, all the while chalking up hours as L.A.'s premier
session stylist in rock and country.
Much of the British Invasion had the
look of Rickenbackers and Gretsches, but Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck recorded
many of their milestone sides with the Yardbirds on a Telecaster and Esquire,
respectively. Mike Bloomfield chose a Tele for his highly influential mid-'60s
work with Paul Butterfield and Bob Dylan, and Jimmy Page played one on
Led Zeppelin's first album and on the solo of "Stairway to Heaven."
As Roy Buchanan told Guitar Player
in '76, "The Telecaster sounded a lot like a steel, and I liked that
tone. I like the old Teles because of the wood, the way the pickups are
wound, the capacitors, and the whole works."
THE TELE LEGACY
By the late '60s, it was clear the
Telecaster had shaken the foundations of the music industry. The Tele --
and the host of solidbody models introduced as a result of its success
-- changed the way the world heard, played, and composed music. Ironically,
Leo Fender, who worked incessantly after '51 developing new models such
as the Strat, Jazzmaster, and Jaguar (and then, in the '70s and '80s, formulating
Music Man and G&L models), had a very hard time topping what he accomplished
in his first go-round.
"Everyone thought his first guitar
was his best, but no one would tell him that," said longtime friend and
pioneering electric stylist Alvino Rey in the '80s. The Tele was Leo Fender's
Model T, but, unlike the old Fords, it didn't go away. For thousands of
guitarists, the Telecaster is still state of the art -- an enduring battle
ax for rock, country, or anything amplified.
THE WHOLE STORY
For a more comprehensive tome
on the history of Fender guitars, check out Richard R. Smith's Fender:
The Sound Heard 'Round the World [Garfish Publishing]. In addition to curating
the 1993-94 exhibition "Five Decades of Fender" at the Fullerton Museum
Center and writing articles for numerous guitar publications, Smith worked
with Leo Fender himself, testing the master's late-career prototypes.