Classic Gear: “The Telecaster”
The Fender Telecaster is perhaps the most iconic and revered electric guitar. Maybe 2nd fiddle to its brother the Stratocaster, championed by Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix, the Tele (telly) is simply cooler, still in style today thanks to its boxier, understated design. Distinguishing guitar models by their sound is usually a job only for guitar geeks, but the Tele’s clean treble cut can be heard a mile away by anyone.
One of the neat things about the Telecaster is an element nobody uses. The bottom pickup, close to the bridge and mainly responsible for the Tele’s characteristic high tones, was originally designed with a faceplate (like so) dubbed an “ashtray.” But since it would get in the way of so many player’s strumming hand, the ashtray would be ripped off in nearly every case, influencing future designs to forego the plate completely, leaving an uncovered and unfinished metal bracket encasing the pickup. Accidental design couldn’t get much better.
The Telecaster is known for its many modifications though, and often is a guitar hot-rodder’s first pick. The most common mod is the addition of humbucker pickups, used to fatten up the sound. Another popular modification is the addition of a B-Bender, used by country guitarists to emulate the pedal steel (see below). While the model pictured to the right is the classic, popular variants include the Thinline, featuring a small hollow body section with a fancy F-hole, and the Deluxe, though these models both use humbuckers and tend to lose the characteristic sound to a degree.
The hard body and close bridge pickup give the Tele its thin, gritty sound that has been a staple for the genres of country, rock, blues, and funk music – Sly Stone, among others, proved this guitar was perfect for the high-end choppy rhythms that drive the genre. As for the rest let’s take a listen:
Buck Owens and his Buckaroos defined the guitar-bassline and chickin pickin’ style integral to the Bakersfield sound. Don Rich, Buck’s right hand man, was not only a fine singer but an excellent country guitar player and hero for the telecaster. This song is straight up country rock ahead of its time:
Buck Owens and his Buckaroos – Buckaroo
Keith Richards popularized use of the Telecaster in a rock context using alternate tunings and strumming the hell out of it. Probably the best riff-based guitarist out there, his licks are one of a kind and owe a lot to the Telecaster.
The Rolling Stones – Midnight Rambler
Co-inventor of the B-Bender and a big favorite around these parts, Clarence White owned one of baddest Telecasters of all time (now apparently heisted by Marty Stuart). A set of complex mechanics in the back enabled CW to bend his 2nd highest string upwards a full step, mimicking the sound of a pedal steel guitar. In the track below, an excellent instrumental version of this classic, listen to him pluck the harmonic note and bend it up… nasty. For more on how the B-Bender works, take a look at this guy’s video. [EDIT: Okay, I just learned this Nashville West recording was pre-bender, must be a whammy bar].
Nashville West – Ode To Billy Joe
Speaking of badass Tele’s, you’ve got to respect Joe Strummer’s committment to a good guitar, using his beautiful beat-to-death axe exclusively his whole life. “Ignore Alien Orders” read the sticker that defined his guitar for so many… sometimes you just need a good sticker on your Tele.
The Clash – The Right Profile
As always, let us know about your own favorite Tele players or recordings…