The Fender Telecaster: From Boat Paddle to Must-Have Axe

The Fender Telecaster: From Boat Paddle to Must-Have Axe

In this blog, we'll be talking about the iconic Fender Telecaster and her history and impact on the industry. Enjoy!

When it comes to the world of legendary instruments, the Fender Telecaster tops the list of iconic guitars. Before it came along, mass-produced electric guitar bodies were hollow. Think of acoustic guitars with pickups screwed on, like Gibson’s ES-5. Others were lap-steel guitars.


When the Telecaster’s first version - the production model Esquire - was brought to market with its wooden solid body in 1950, musicians and guitar manufacturers alike were baffled. Some were intrigued, while others made Leo Fender’s new “plank” guitar the butt of jokes. Should they paddle a canoe or whack a baseball with it?


It wasn’t long before those who mocked Fender’s creation realized how wrong they were about the guitar they likened to a “toilet seat with strings.” But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. How exactly did the much-loved Tele come about? Read on for today’s post about the history of the Fender Telecaster.


The first ‘modern’ electric guitar


Guitars have been electrified, so to speak, since the 1920s. Instrument manufacturers have continually tried, and often failed, to capture a specific guitar sound and make it louder without relying on an amp or dealing with feedback. This was the state of the playing field that self-taught electronic engineer Clarence Leonidas “Leo” Fender found himself in.


Fender, whose company manufactured musical instruments and amps, had been trying to come up with an electric guitar design that’s entirely different from the electrified acoustics of the time. They’d already been making Hawaiian steel guitars since 1945, and when Fender got the idea to design a Spanish-style electric guitar with a solid body, he decided to carry over several of the steel guitars’ features to his new design.


Fun fact: Leo Fender never learned to play the guitar. He didn’t know one chord position. He didn’t even know how to tune a guitar. He only learned to tune guitars in later years when strobe tuners became available.


Not letting his inability to play get in the way of innovation, Leo Fender, with the help of his team of guitar builders (who thankfully played guitar), worked on a solid-body guitar that would not only be resistant to feedback but also easy to play and repair. The company worked on several prototypes and, by the end of 1949, selected one to be its first solid-body production guitar.


The guitar had a single cutaway, allowing access to notes high on the neck, and a single-coil pickup close to the bridge. There were two knobs, one for volume and another for tone. The maple neck, instead of being glued to the body as was the standard, was bolted on to the body with four screws. Just a few more tweaks and it was ready for commercial production and a name: the Fender Esquire.


The Fender Telecaster through the years


To test the waters, Fender released the Esquire in the spring of 1950 and displayed it at the Chicago NAMM show in July that same year.


The Esquire that was presented at the trade show had an opaque black finish and a white pickguard, which possibly concealed a pine body. It had a novel push-button tone switch, which would later be replaced by a three-way selector switch. The first few Esquires had no neck/truss rod, but after some people pointed out that this would be a problem, Fender gave in and put a truss rod in the rest of the Esquires.


The next version was called the Broadcaster and was equipped with a pair of single-coil pickups. However, it wouldn’t keep its name. The Gretsch Musical Instrument Company sent Fender a telegram pointing out that it was already using the name ‘Broadkaster’ for an existing line of drum kits. To avoid any legal disputes, Fender immediately scrubbed off the ‘Broadcaster’ label from the guitar’s headstock and continued to sell it. The unlabeled guitar was then referred to as the Nocaster.


Nocaster sales continued until around April 1951, when Fender’s two-pickup solid-body electric guitar was given the name that everyone now knows it by: the Telecaster.


At first, the Telecaster’s tonal options were quite limited. The pickup at the neck rolled off the tone to a considerable extent, resulting in a bass-like sound. Leo Fender kept on making modifications to the guitar’s circuit for a clearer signal, greater functionality and wider tonal variety.


Telecaster variants


By the late ‘50s, the Fender Telecaster has grown in popularity with a multitude of musicians wanting to have one (or more) in their arsenal. To keep up with demand and expand the Tele line, Fender started offering other builds. The Telecaster Custom, produced from 1959-1968, featured a rosewood fingerboard and double body binding, and was available in colors other than the standard white and butterscotch blonde.


Next came the Telecaster Thinline in 1969, which was probably inspired by the visual appeal of hollow-body and semi-hollow guitars. The semi-hollow Thinline sported an F-hole, a feature that would be carried over to a later 1972 version with a double-coil pickup called the Wide Range humbucker.


Fender released another Telecaster Custom in 1972, but this one had a Wide Range humbucker at the neck instead of the classic single-coil pickup. It also featured dual tone and volume controls as well as a three-way pickup toggle switch, offering greater versatility and tonal exploration.


The 1972 Telecaster Custom was very quickly followed by the Telecaster Deluxe, which sported two Wide Range humbucking pickups. It had the same control configuration as the Custom but featured a Stratocaster-style neck. In 1973-1974, Fender offered the Deluxe with a tremolo bridge. Another variant was the Telecaster Plus, which was installed with Lace Sensor single-coil and humbucking pickups in the neck and bridge, respectively.


Since then, Fender has come up with several versions of its revolutionary guitar, such as the Fender American Professional Telecaster. While there have been small changes to the Tele configuration, colors and design over the years, its iconic shape and bright sound - indeed, the Telecaster’s core characteristics - remain the same. That’s exactly why we love it, and why future generations of musicians will, without a doubt, continue to make the Fender Telecaster their go-to axe.


If you’d like to know more about the much-loved Tele, we found the book The Fender Telecaster: The Life and Times of the Electric Guitar That Changed the World by Dave Hunter highly informative and entertaining. Give it a read and tell us what you think!


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