Fender Telecasters – Hip To Be Square
Though out-flashed by the curvy Strat and Jazzmaster, the plank-bodied Telecaster showed that a simple country boy could have a telling role in the 1960s, the Decade Of Love. Dave Hunter has the story
The abiding image of the Fender Telecaster is one lit in a 1950s monochrome. We see it in the contrasting patina of burnished nickel, scuffed black pickguard, and worn blonde nitro on an ash body with maple neck; Jimmy Bryant’s western boot toeing an early Broadcaster; Paul Burlison’s knife-creased slacks propping a white-guard Esquire. It all plays so well in black and white. However, come the decade of love, of peace, of flower power and of colour, perhaps the Telecaster was looking a shade dull. The beat was booming, the electric guitar was bursting out in multifarious shapes, hues and designs, and the square hard-tailed plank was already looking so, well, yesterday.
Look past the flares, the hair, and the patchouli, though, and the old Telecaster was often still proving the sharpest tool in the box, and making some of the most radical sounds in what was arguably the most innovative decade in the history of popular music. Meanwhile, Fender wasn’t willing to let its original solidbody electric sit idle either, and sought to update it in several significant ways, without ever really altering the main lines of the blueprint that Leo had got so right in the first place. Far from fading through the ’60s, the Telecaster earned a new lease of life, even if its main turns were less often in the spotlight than they had been a decade before. Join us to follow the twisting tale of the Telecaster in the 1960s…
very guitar fan knows the story, or the bones of it at least. In 1950 Fender scored a major first with the release of a guitar briefly called the Esquire, then Broadcaster, then Telecaster (while the Esquire became its single-pickup sibling). It was the first solidbody electric guitar put into mass production, and represented a complete redrawing of the form of the Spanish guitar. And if much of the music world first laughed at his ‘canoe paddle’, Leo was the one laughing by the end of the decade. Gibson’s far more complex stab at a solidbody was fading fast after less than eight years on the market, while the Telecaster, even in the wake of the far sexier Stratocaster, was still selling strongly, firmly established as an industry standard. And then the clock ticked, the decade turned, and so many things seemed to change. The Telecaster was simply cruising, or was allowed to, it might seem, while new developments all over the scene aimed for sharp points and radical curves.
The 1965 catalogue shows a blonde Esquire, a rare mahogany-body Tele and a sunburst Custom Telecaster
The Competition Gets Spacey
The normally staid, traditional Gibson took a couple of real space shots in 1958 with the stylistically adventurous yet commercially doomed Explorer and Flying V, then updated the Les Paul Standard in 1961 to the radical, devil-horned SG body style. Two years later, Kalamazoo followed this trick with the chic Detroit-influenced, reverse-bodied Firebird. Gretsch had long been dabbling heavily in sparkle, flash colours and lots of fancy knobs, while even Fender had closed the decade with the hip new Jazzmaster, and partnered it with the equally curvaceous Jaguar in 1962.
Sure, the Telecaster had received some of the minor specs and components updates that were applied to the Fender line in general, but it appeared quaintly dated nonetheless. This guitar had kicked off a revolution, but was quickly being left in its wake. Was it possible that the Telecaster was actually becoming redundant as the new decade dawned?
As the ’50s rolled into the ’60s, the Telecaster was still unapologetically Fender’s shot at the Country & Western player, and a huge success as such. Leo and cohorts had developed it with the close consultation of several leading guitarists on the scene and it fit the bill perfectly, nailing a bright, cutting, steel-guitar-like twang that sliced through a lo-fi recording or a muddy stage mix. The truth is, that was still a big, big market sector for Fender, and while the company wanted to grab the new surfers and rock’n’rollers, it wasn’t worth changing the Telecaster so much that it no longer suited the many players who still embraced it. Sales records from the era are difficult to pin down, but the most reliable reports indicate that the Telecaster continued to outstrip the Stratocaster throughout the ’60s, remaining Fender’s biggest seller.
A Subtle Evolution
For all this, the Telecaster really did evolve in many ways over the course of the decade, while serving as a platform for some interesting new variations on the form. A standard Telecaster from 1969 looks far more like a Tele from 1959 than, say, two Strats from the same years, but there were changes made on a steady basis.
The most noticeable telltale sign of an early ’60s Tele actually came to the format shortly before the turn of the decade. In 1959, Fender gave its original solidbody the rosewood fingerboard that had debuted on the new Jazzmaster the year before. From that point on, the last of the revered pre-CBS Telecasters and Esquires all had these darker rosewood-fronted necks, other than some very rare reported custom-order maple neck examples. Fender dealers, and many Fender sales reps, had inquired about the possibility of a darker fingerboard for years. The look would ally Fender guitars with more traditional instruments, making it easier to win over customers who were still hesitant to embrace the ‘plank’. Equally importantly, it would do away with the grimy image of the smudged, dirty-looking maple necks that were being seen so often by this time, nearly 10 years into the model’s run, as repeated playing wore away these fingerboards’ clear nitrocellulose finishes.
Fender initially applied these fingerboards by milling the front of the maple neck flat and gluing on a thick piece of rosewood with a similarly flat underside, producing guitars with what have come to be known as ‘slab-board’ necks. From around mid-’62, Fender began radiusing the face of the maple neck and attaching a rosewood fingerboard that was radiused on its underside as well as on its playing surface. Some players look back on the later curved ‘laminated’ or ‘round-lam’ fingerboards as inferior, largely because, well, they’re thinner. They clearly took more effort to construct, however, in an era when good rosewood was still fairly plentiful, so it wasn’t really a cost-saving exercise on the maker’s part.
Current Fender Custom Shop Master Builder Chris Fleming has his own thoughts on the subject: ‘Somebody asked me why I thought Leo decided to do round lams, and although I can’t know for sure, I think it was for a couple of reasons, one is that he liked the idea that it was kind of a custom way to do it… it was proprietary. And I’d also like to think that he liked the sound of it. I feel like the slab ’board was the way they did it because they had to figure out how to do it quickly. Then they had to tool up to make the rounded ’board, and never looked back.’
The addition of either type of rosewood fingerboard, whether slab or round-lam, does alter the Telecaster’s sonic signature ever so slightly, adding a little roundness and warmth and subtracting just a tiny bit of the characteristic maple ‘snap’ from the attack. That being said, the tonal influence of that fillet of rosewood is minimal, and arguably always overwhelmed by the character of the Telecaster’s distinctive pickups, the all-important bridge construction, and the swamp ash or alder body. Put another way, the Tele still had its twang, and the darker fingerboard didn’t seem to turn country players against it in the least.
A veneer-fingerboard ’63 Tele with a single-ply white scratchplate
Martin Lends A Hand
Another arrival to the Tele’s décor in 1959, but seen in greater numbers in guitars made in the early ’60s, was the white binding added to the Custom Telecaster and Esquire models. Along with a sunburst finish, not often seen on a Tele before that time, the binding seemed enough of a touch to justify the ‘Custom’ prefix, although even that proved tricky enough for Fender to master in the early days.
Help came, according to then-Fender executive Forrest White, as revealed in his book Fender: The Inside Story, from an unexpected quarter: ‘Fred Martin, of the Martin Guitar Company, had been kind enough to show me through his factory. He showed me the special tool they made to cut binding strips, and what material and what adhesive to use.’ Whatever the extent of Martin’s assistance, vintage Customs today exhibit few issues with binding deterioration.
The three-ply nitrate pickguard was another addition first made to the Custom Telecaster and Esquire, and it eventually replaced the single-ply plastic ’guard on the standard models in 1963. It seems these highly flammable pickguards were, however, prone to causing difficulties – and dangers – in production, and were replaced early in 1965 by a three-ply guard made from modern plastics – a good call, since the newer plastic ones would also prove less susceptible to cracking and shrinkage over the years. Even so, the earlier three-ply ‘green guard,’ so called for the nitrate’s minty hue, has become another indicator of the more collectible pre-CBS 1963-’64 Telecaster.
A slab-board in fiesta red with a three-ply ‘green’ guard and bridge cover in place.
Woods and Custom Colours
The highly desirable custom colours were available as an official factory option from the late ’50s, but became far more common – if still not the norm – in the ’60s. The relatively conservative Telecaster was treated to custom colours somewhat less often than the Stratocaster, or the surf-certified Jazzmaster and Jaguar, but when it did, the livelier finish also signalled a substantial change in the makeup of the guitar itself. As supplies of light, well-aged swamp ash became more difficult to obtain, Fender moved more and more toward alder.
It was in prevalent use on the Strat from the later-mid ’50s, but became the wood of choice on custom-coloured Teles, while ash’s broad, distinctive grain was still thought to be essential beneath the original blonde finish. More than cosmetic, the change of tonewood also brought a sonic shift to these guitars. While swamp ash is considered to be a very lively, slightly ‘snarly’ sounding wood, alder is generally more open and balanced, with firm lows and clear highs. The difference is subtle, but it exists. At the time, though, that change was never noted in Fender literature, and most players very likely had no idea what lurked beneath their daphne blue or dakota red finish.
CBS takes the Reins
Plenty of great guitars were made in Fullerton after CBS bought the company from Leo Fender toward the end of 1964, but most players and collectors still demarcate the pre/post-CBS eras in terms of quality, and indeed there would eventually be a noticeable slide into the ’70s. More immediately noticeable, though, were the changes brought to several models – first the enlarged logo, and soon after, the wider ‘hippy era’ Strat headstock.
The Telecaster’s humbler status in terms of flash and pop-rock sex appeal helped it escape these alterations a little longer than Fender’s other guitars, so Teles well into the latter-mid ’60s still offer a lot of pre-CBS character. The Tele retained its ‘spaghetti’ logo for roughly a year after the Strat’s went fat, bold and flared, and the standard Telecaster and Esquire never lost their elegantly petite headstock shape.
The return of a maple fingerboard option in 1967 meant that a good old blonde Tele looked more like its predecessor of 10 years before than it had for some time. The seminal fingerboard was back courtesy of a new process in which Fender cut a slice of maple from the carved one-piece neck, installed a truss-rod from the front, instead of using a channel in the back that would need filling with a ‘skunk stripe,’ and re-glued the board to the neck back, resulting in what has come to be known as a ‘maple-cap’ neck.
However much the post-CBS Fenders are derided, several major players have noted that these ‘maple-cap’ Teles, and others of their era, can be of excellent quality, and usually sound great and play superbly. Brad Paisley, for one, has praised the magic of these, and has logged some of Nashville’s biggest hits of recent years on a 1968 paisley Tele with maple-cap neck. ‘I feel the maple-capped neck is one of the factors that makes those such good instruments,’ he told Vintage Guitar magazine in 2005. ‘Also, some of the lightest guitars Fender ever made were from the late ’60s.’
A Custom Telecaster from 1963
The Tele goes wild
The Red Paisley Telecaster was one of two special models unveiled in 1968 in an effort to jump on the flower-power bandwagon. Both guitars, the Blue Flower Telecaster alongside it, were created by applying stick-on wallpaper to the front and back of the bodies, finishing the body edges in colour-matched paint, spraying it with a clear coat, and protecting the surface with a clear Plexiglas pickguard. This ‘hippy’s nightmare’ look apparently didn’t succeed with many genuine hippies and both were dropped after 1969, but both guitars have become among the more collectible post-CBS Teles in the years since.
Also in 1968, Fender unveiled a longer-lasting variant on the form in the Telecaster Thinline. This model, available in natural-finished ash or mahogany, made a virtue out of some earlier efforts to lighten heavy timbers with hidden chambers by adding a decorative f-hole on the bass-side bout to show off the air inside. The routed chambers altered the classic Tele tone only slightly, adding some roundness to the guitar’s resonance, but launched a look that appealed to many. It also provided Fender the first opportunity in 18 years to change the classic pickguard shape with a large, sweeping curve of white pearloid.
The final significant Tele-themed release of the 1960s was one seen only in small numbers, but which has garnered some cult status thanks to the ‘Beatle effect.’ Late in 1968 Fender constructed two prototype Telecasters made from two slabs of solid rosewood with a thin maple layer between, and a solid rosewood neck. Legend has it that the best body and best neck of the pair were put together, and the resultant guitar flown to London in its own seat to be delivered to George Harrison in person by Fender head Don Randall. However it got there, the Rosewood Telecaster was used extensively by Harrison for the recording of Let It Be in January of 1969, and made a live appearance in the famous Beatles rooftop concert atop the Apple building in London shortly after. The Rosewood Telecaster was produced in extremely limited numbers between 1969 and ’72; all but the earliest had chambered bodies to cut down on that tonewood’s excessive weight.
From Twang To Rock
One of the ironies of Fender in the ’60s is, perhaps, that however much they tried to tart up the Telecaster to appeal to new waves of players – hard rockers or psychedelic popsters – the most prominent Tele-fuelled noises of the decade were usually being made on good old standard models. Latch on to first images your mind’s eye coughs up to fit the phrase ‘1960s guitar hero’ and you’re likely to come away with someone wielding a phat-toned Les Paul or SG, or a whammy-loaded Stratocaster. The fact is, though, that many of the upper-echelon trendsetters who strutted the stage with these iconic instruments also made musical history on a Telecaster at one time or another, and often simultaneously.
Even most hardcore Tele fanatics will concede that the single-cutaway plank didn’t quite have the sex appeal of the other big players of the day, and that might have a lot to do with our perception of Jimmy Page strutting the stage with a Les Paul slung low beneath his hips, or Jimi Hendrix tonguing a sleek Stratocaster, lighter fluid at the ready. Few will need reminding, though, that Hendrix recorded the solo to Purple Haze on a Tele borrowed from bassist Noel Redding, or that Page used a 1959 Telecaster with rosewood fingerboard (a gift from Jeff Beck) heavily on Led Zeppelin’s first album, and frequently thereafter, including the famed solo on Stairway To Heaven from Led Zeppelin IV.
A 1968 Red Paisley Telecaster, as played by James Burton
Yet even before these iconic late-decade rock sightings, the Telecaster was rippin’ it up with the best of ’em. In the early part of the decade Steve Cropper launched a boatload of Top 40 hits on riffs fuelled by his late-’50s Esquire and early-’60s Tele, with Booker T and the MGs and backing artists like Sam and Dave or Otis Redding. Rolling further up the Delta, Muddy Waters laid down his seminal electric blues on a refinished Telecaster repaired with an early ’60s Custom Tele neck with rosewood fingerboard (note that this guitar lacked the Custom’s defining body binding), while Chicago boy Mike Bloomfield took the blues a step closer to rock, and backed Bob Dylan’s infamous electric debut at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, wielding a 1964 Telecaster.
Over in the country corner, iconic ’50s Telecasters remained big players in the hands of several top artists, but one of the biggest hit-makers of the era, Buck Owens, and his sidekick Don Rich both traded their maple-neck Teles for glitter-painted, rosewood-neck Custom Telecasters, twang machines that embodied both the tone and the look of the ‘Bakersfield sound’. And, around the middle of the decade, Clarence White established a sound that would come to define one avenue of country playing. Seeking to replicate a pedal-steel sound, he and drummer cohort Gene Parsons installed an elaborate B-Bender system in the back of his maple-board 1954 Telecaster, used to bewilderingly impressive effect on records by the Byrds, Gram Parsons, and others.
A rosewood ‘board mahogany bodied Telecaster Thinline.
Back across the pond, while Hank Marvin was playing a Strat he had bought because he assumed it must be the Fender James Burton was playing with Ricky Nelson (he actually used a Telecaster), Mick Green was wowing young Britons with his lead/rhythm mash-up style with Johnny Kidd and the Pirates, and then Billy J Kramer and the Dakotas. All three of the most significant Yardbirds played a Tele or an Esquire, even trading off a red early ’60s model that belonged to the band itself. Eric Clapton moved quickly along to Gibsons, then Strats; Jimmy Page maintained a steady allegiance to the plank; and Jeff Beck acquired his own legendary Esquire before evolving to Les Pauls and Strats.
One of the most telling appearances of a Telecaster playing against type, though, came at the hands of sonic explorer Syd Barrett with Pink Floyd. The humble Telecaster, a psychedelic-rock trendsetter? Most certainly, if you cover it in silver plastic sheeting and glue on several reflective metal discs – then, more significantly, use it to power extended, semi-formless art-rock noise jams at London clubs like UFO and the Roundhouse. Barrett’s guitar was actually an Esquire, believed to be a 1964 model, which attained its performance-art look shortly after the art student teamed up with Roger Waters, Nick Mason, and Rick Wright to form Pink Floyd. Barrett swapped the Esquire for a black Custom Telecaster in the late ’60s, having left Pink Floyd in 1968. In 1971 he told Rolling Stone magazine, ‘I never felt so close to a guitar as that silver one with mirrors that I used on stage all the time.’
An original issue Rosewood Telecaster both this and the Thinline were made in 1969
Despite the myriad minor changes through the course of the ’60s, the Telecaster experienced no severe decline in quality, and lost little of its characteristic tone – a classic blend of beef and bite, with a firm low-end and unparalleled cutting power in the mids and highs – until the very end of the decade. The standard Tele and Esquire never suffered the indignities of the overcooked Strat headstock or, in the early ’70s, the much-loathed three-bolt Micro-Tilt system and bullet-head truss-rod nut. The thick polyester finishes of the end of the decade did signal the start of a downhill slide, which hit a serious plummet in the early ’70s when Fender got the shape of the Tele’s rounded upper bout wrong on its new routing machinery.
Through the better part of the ’60s, though, the Telecaster was still the Telecaster, and its essential voice remained intact. It was no longer the new kid on the block, no longer shocking in any way itself, yet the Telecaster and Esquire still found themselves at the centre of much of the most shocking and most groundbreaking music being made, even amid an age shot through with one musical revolution atop another
Dave Hunter is the author of The Fender Telecaster, The Life and Times of The Electric Guitar That Changed The World. Voyageur Press
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