How the Fender Telecaster Kickstarted the Electric Revolution

The word “legend” is frequently overused in the world of popular music. It’s thrown out repeatedly and hyperbolically by PR men and hack journalists, usually in relation to second-tier figures that aren’t worthy of the title. 

Leo Fender, though, is a legend in the true sense. The man who pioneered and popularized the solid-body electric guitar, Leo was the game changer that electrified rock and roll music.

And it all started with one instrument: the Fender Telecaster.

Upon its release in 1950, the Fender Telecaster started an electric guitar revolution, and the world has never been the same since. Today, we’re taking a look at that iconic instrument and how it came to be.

Fender’s Radio Service

The story of the Tele begins in the late 1940s in an electronics repair shop called Fender’s Radio Service. Leo Fender didn’t actually start out making instruments; he started out fixing them. And, throughout the 1940s, much of his business came from retrofitting electromagnetic pick-ups to instruments such as acoustic guitars and mandolins.

By the ‘40s, the notion of “going electric” was nothing new. Popular musicians had been “wiring up” their instruments for greater volume since the late 1920s, and semi-acoustic instruments such as the Gibson ES-150 had long been available.

But, while wiring up was a necessity for musicians wanting to play for bigger audiences, little concern had been given to the tonal possibilities that an electrified instrument could bring.

All that changed in 1943 when Leo, along with partner Clayton Orr “Doc” Kaufmann, built an instrument that sent shockwaves around the country scene in their native Fullerton, California.

The instrument in question came about more by accident than design. A crude, solid bodied wooden guitar, it was constructed as a test-rig for the pair’s electromagnetic pickups. But, when local country players used the test-rig, the were charmed by its bright, sustaining sound and started borrowing it for gigs.

The prototype

Bolstered by the positive feedback from the local country scene, Fender got the idea that a solid-bodied “electric” guitar could be marketable commodity and set about refining his prototype. After much tinkering, a new version emerged in 1949. An anonymous white guitar, it didn’t yet feature the iconic Fender headstock. That aside though, it strongly resembles the Telecaster as we know it today.

Inspired by the solid-bodied Hawaiian guitars that “Rickenbacher” (later to become noted guitar manufacturer and Fender competitor, Rickenbacker) were making at the time – simple units of Bakelite and aluminium with parts bolted together – Fender set out to make an instrument that was simple and inexpensive to produce and easy to repair, yet maintained the bright, sustaining tone of his test-unit. The neck was a bolt-on, cut from a single piece of maple without a separate fingerboard (unlike most acoustic guitars of the era) and the electronics were uncomplicated and easy to access. With this new proto-Tele, much of the winning Fender formula was now in place.

Necks on the line…

Following the 1949 prototype, Fender produced his first production run of solid bodied electrics – now known as the Fender Esquire – in 1950. But, the Esquire wasn’t a roaring success on its initial unveiling. In fact, fewer than 50 guitars were produced, most of which Fender ended up replacing. The reason was a key manufacturing problem that the guitar-maker hadn’t counted on. Specifically, the Esquires were built without a truss rod, and their necks would inevitably bend as a result.

By the end of the year, and inundated with banana necks, Fender discontinued the Esquire line. In its place, a refined version of the guitar was launched. He added the much-needed truss rod to the neck (a standard feature on all Fender guitars from then on) as well as a second pick-up near the neck for increased tonal options.

 

(Bent necks or not, original Esquires are worth a mint today)

From Broadcaster to Nocaster to Telecaster

The Telecaster as we know it today had arrived, though under a different name. Reflecting its amplifiability, Fender elected to call the new instrument the “Broadcaster.” But, the name got him in hot water with fellow instrument manufacturer Gretsch. Gretsch already produced a “Broadkaster” range of drums which, while difficult to confuse with Fender’s solidbody electric, were enough to bring the threat of legal action.

For a brief period, Fender’s guitar became the “Nocaster” (so called because there was no name, other than Fender’s on the headstock) before “Telecaster” was settled on in 1951 and the legend was born. Rapidly gaining a foothold in the marketplace, the Fender Telecaster kickstarted the electric guitar revolution, prompting established manufacturers like Gibson, Gretsch and Rickenbacker to start building their own solid-bodied electrics in 1952. The world of popular music would never be the same again…

Are you a Telecaster player? Which do you prefer – the Stratocaster or the Telecaster? Share your thoughts in the comments.   

 



15 Responses

Wes Lambert
Wes Lambert

July 02, 2018

I have owned several Teles over the past 50 years. My first was in the early 60’s. It was a good guitar but the tone wasn’t what I was looking for at the time so I did the Gibson thing for the next few years. I went back to a Tele in the 70’s and as I was working in a cover band playing a wide variety of music styles I did some serious modifications to it so I could cover all the various types of music without having to carry multiple guitars. These mods included a Kahler locking tremolo, Gibson humbucker in the neck position and a hot strat pickup in the middle and some added switching for a variety of tonal options. That guitar along with a few pedals and a trusty Twin Reverb loaded with JBL D-120’s was the bomb. It wan’t pretty but it did it all and did it to perfection and did it for a lot of years.
These days I own a couple of Strats, a very nicie 2012 American Deluxe Tele loaded with Porter 9T pickups and a late 80’s Epi Sheraton that is awesome in tone and build quality.
But that Tele I had in the 80’s was one of those once in a lifetime instruments. This may sound sacrilegious to the purists but while the Tele earned it’s legendary and well deserved status in it’s stock form a long time ago the possibilities for personalization are endless.
Kind of like my old Harley Davidson. It was good coming from the factory but over the years I have made it a great one.
Nuff Said!

lynn a
lynn a

July 01, 2018

I’ve had a bunch of telecasters ; an affinity , a FSR w/active mid boost (the prettiest one), a Muddy Waters signature ( by far the best one) , a Baja tele and a G&L ASAT recently . Haven’t been able to bond with one . I try to like them but I guess I’m not a tele guy . I do have 3 strats , a G&L Legacy and a Les Paul . But my fave is my 2012 ES-339 . I’m a Gibson guy at heart having been born just down the road from Kalamazoo ….
Michael Majerus
Michael Majerus

June 30, 2018

I have 2 Teles, one a Fender and the other built by Mike Skansie here in Washington State. My Skansie has been my main gigging guitar for almost 30 years. I own 10 guitars from Gibsons to Epiphones to an SD Curlee and that Tele outshines them all.

Nick France
Nick France

June 29, 2018

I own a strat for many years now but I really want a tele as well. They’re both wonderful guitars. Great article.

Doug Dickeson
Doug Dickeson

June 29, 2018

I briefly had an Esquire in about ’69. Should have held onto it, of course… but 20/20 hindsight and all that. However, I did hold onto my ’65 Strat, still have it today. My only Tele is a Jim Adkins Tele, which is almost more Gibson style than Fender. But I love it.

Mike D.
Mike D.

June 29, 2018

I’ve never even held a Tele. I have a ‘96 AmStd Strat. It’s nice, but I’ve always been a Gibson – particularly an ES-335 – kinda guy. However, my pockets are only Epiphone deep. So I recently bought an Epi ES-339 Pro. Natural finish with split-coil humbuckers. As that fast-food joint would say… I’m lovin’ it.

John Lewis
John Lewis

June 29, 2018

I’m lucky enough to own a ’52 Blackguard Tele and a ’62 Sonic Blue (over Sunburst) Strat. Two very different guitars each as good as the other in their own way.

Victor Harris
Victor Harris

June 28, 2018

I have never played a Tele, I am a Gibson player, starting with a 1949 L7C, then 1967 SG, then Les Paul and so on. I did buy a Strat and enjoy playing it. My favorite has to be the Les Paul for my style of playing.

S4L
S4L

June 28, 2018

If I had to choose 1 guitar to live with for the rest of my life, it’d be my Strat. It took me 20 years to get my 1st Tele. Just didn’t care for them. Then I bought one….. Amazing guitars! But I’ll forever be a Strat guy.

Larry Gosch
Larry Gosch

June 28, 2018

We should all have one of each. After all—how many guitars does a guitar player need? ONE MORE!

Tim Jones
Tim Jones

June 28, 2018

I one of “those” guys and I’ve collected and sold/traded guitars since the 70s. My second electric was a 68-ish Telecaster that was well worn and quite disgusting, but it played well. I traded it to a local music store for a used 1970 Gibson SG. Why? Well, that’s what Tony Iommi played! We ALL wanted to be like Black Sabbath then. Fast forward to today and I have a ‘96 MiM metallic blue Tele that is my second favorite guitar. It’s well setup with NYXL 10’s and a dream player, but my Epi Sheraton II is hands down my favorite for it’s wide range of sounds.

Robert Hadfield
Robert Hadfield

June 28, 2018

It will always be the Tele for me. Ive played one all my life and although I have owned dozens of fine and expensive guitars I always come back to the Tele.

Mike Coffey
Mike Coffey

June 28, 2018

My first guitar was a 1970 Telecaster which I still have. I also have a 92 Strat. But the Tele is my first love and always will be. Though I have many guitars and amps of different brands, my 70 Tele and my 74 Fender Twin are my pride and joy and my go to instruments.

Greg Bogoshian, RockBeach Guitars
Greg Bogoshian, RockBeach Guitars

June 28, 2018

My personal preference is the Telecaster because to my ear, you hear more of the wood in the guitar’s overall tone. The pickup rout is so large on the Strat with the pickups mounted to the plastic pickguard that you definitely hear more of the influence of the pickguard than of the wood in the overall tone. Yes, the Strat is a versatile guitar and it has its well-earned place, but if I were to test an amplifier, no guitar better than a Tele will give you its true character. I am a luthier and I have a TON of respect for the Telecaster!

Hervé MAUGERY
Hervé MAUGERY

June 28, 2018

I have a Tele and a Strat. On stage I prefer to play the Telecaster.

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