I have always loved Fender Telecaster guitars.
Something about their simple, yet classic design, and their surprising stylistic versatility (they’ve been used in genres from country, to rock, to soul, to RnB, to jazz, to heavy metal and many more) always has me coming back to them.
My own musical home incorporates that Bakersfield country sound and a little rock ‘n’ roll, so the Telecaster’s ability to switch between a rich, bright tone (as often heard in country), and a warm, bluesy tone depending on the pick-up used, has been invaluable to me on stage.
Like many things that go on to change the world and how we operate, the Telecaster hails from fairly humble beginnings.
Leo Fender was born in Anaheim, California in 1909, and he showed interest in playing with electronics from an early age.
Having lost two different jobs thanks to the onset of the Great Depression, in 1938 Leo began his own radio repair shop, called Fender Radio Service, having borrowed $600 ($6,274 in 2019).
Musicians began visiting him for PA systems, and then instrument amplification, since the local music scene saw big band and jazz music take hold, whilst country performers began incorporating lap steel.
This led Leo to meet lap steel player Doc Kauffman in the early 1940s, and the pair decided to go into business together. They initially sold only Hawaiian guitars with pick-ups, but as the 40s progressed and big band fell out of fashion, western swing, honky-tonk and rhythm and blues took its place and created a demand for louder and cheaper instruments that could handle the abuse of roadhouses and dance halls.
Leo recognized the demand and wanted to build a guitar that would meet these needs as well as being easier to tune and play.
In 1950 the Fender Esquire was born, at first with only one pick-up. The following year a second pick-up was added and the guitar was re-named the Fender Telecaster.
Thanks to its solid body, the Telecaster was able to produce a much clearer and sustained sound than its rivals, which was vital in cutting through the noisy settings of honky-tonks and maintaining prominence through the cacophony of string band instruments.
It was also able to emulate steel guitar sounds. Both of these factors meant it was a perfect fit for the country music of the day, as well as being able to cross over into funk, electric blues, and the about-to-break rock ‘n’ roll. It was versatile enough that it was able to achieve longevity, despite the arguably more sophisticated build of the Stratocaster arriving as early as 1954.
While many other guitar styles and designs have come and gone in the almost 70 years since the Telecaster debuted, it remains a popular choice for many artists across genres, but perhaps most notably country music.
It was a staple of rock music throughout the 1960s and 1970s, with loyal players such as George Harrison, Pete Townshend, Keith Richards, Bruce Springsteen, Joe Strummer, and even Jimmy Page’s earlier recordings with Led Zeppelin, whose iconic “Stairway To Heaven” utilizes a tele.
When Bob Dylan controversially “went electric,” he favored an early 60s model, but the Telecaster’s appeal went beyond the folk revival and rock ‘n’ roll into the Bakersfield Sound, pioneered by the likes of Buck Owens, Don Rich and Merle Haggard. Both artists built the scene and their careers off the back of Telecaster guitars, while Johnny Cash’s guitarist Luther Perkins used the earlier Esquire model to create the famous “boom-chicka” rhythms from much of Johnny’s music.
Marty Stuart, and Waylon Jennings were also well known for their Telecaster use throughout their careers.
And they’re still used to inform the sounds of country music today.
Keith Urban is a frequent tele player, particularly one that features decorative binding and three pick-ups.
Brad Paisley has made Telecaster a signature aspect of his brand. Brad owns an extensive collection of them, including a ’68 Red Paisley model called “Old Pink”, that he refers to as his “warhorse.”
More recently Brad has instead been using custom tele-inspired guitars made by Crook Custom Guitars, but in 2017 Fender released a signature Brad Paisley tele in a silver sparkle roadworn finish.
I love Fender Telecasters for the same reason that country music at large does: because they are simple yet versatile, and produce a classic sound that you just can’t beat.
And after 70 years in the biz, and I don’t think they’re going anywhere just yet. Thank God!