What is a Telecaster?
The Fender Telecaster is the first mass-produced, solid body electric guitar by Fender. The Telecaster jump-started a revolution in guitar making and has since earned its place in the electric guitar pantheon. The Tele is known for its distinctive sound, affectionately referred to as the “Tele twang.” Its classic defining features include:
- Single-Cutaway “T” Shape Body
- Two Single-Coil Pickups
- Ashtray Style Bridge
- Maple Neck and Fretboard
- Knurled Chrome Knobs
Why a Telecaster?
Though originally designed for jazz, it was quickly adopted by country players and has expanded to the furthest reaches of the music universe since then. Suffice to say, few guitars are quite as versatile. Perhaps this is most evident in the diverse array of famous Tele players, which includes artists like Joe Strummer of The Clash, country icon Brad Paisley, and Marilyn Manson’s guitarist John 5.
The Telecaster’s broad range is reflected in the variety of songs in which it’s featured. Jeff Buckley played his haunting version of “Hallelujah” with a Telecaster and nothing more. Andy Summers recorded the riffs for many Police hits, such as “Message in a Bottle,” with his customized Tele. Brian May took a break from his homemade guitar, the Red Special, to play a Tele in Queen’s “Crazy Little Thing Called Love.” Brad Paisley favors Teles for most of his hits, including “Alcohol.” You can even hear Steve Cropper’s Tele sound in the timeless blues-rock standard “Green Onions” by Booker T. & the M.G.’s.
The Telecaster has a rich history, with many different variations on its basic style. The most sought after Teles for collectors are referred to as “blackguards.” These guitars were built between 1950 and 1954, and demonstrate the evolution of the Telecaster model. The very first of these bore the name “Esquire,” and possessed only one single-coil pickup. Only 50 Esquires were made and most of them no longer have the original neck as it had no truss rod to prevent it from bending.
There was also a dual pickup Esquire model, which was soon renamed the “Broadcaster.” Gretsch, the renowned guitar and drum manufacturer, claimed that Fender’s Broadcaster name infringed upon its Broadkaster drums trademark and in response Fender stopped using the name. The proto-Telecaster models produced during this time bore no name on the headstock, earning them the nickname “Nocasters.” This makes them especially unique since Esquires and Broadcasters have their model names printed on their headstocks, as do most other Fender guitars following the Nocaster. Ultimately, Fender named the model “Telecaster,” capitalizing on the popularity of television.
Classic Telecaster Features
Before we get to all the variations, let’s take a look at some classic Telecaster features:
- Ash or Alder Body
- Single-Cutaway “T” Style
- Bolt-On Maple Neck
- Maple or Rosewood Fingerboard
- Two Single-Coil Pickups
- Three-Position Pickup Selector
- One Volume and One Tone Control
- Ashtray Bridge
Common Variations in Telecaster Features:
Since its inception, the Telecaster has featured a number of awesome variations. Here are some of the most common differences you’ll find from Telecaster to Telecaster.
Wood: The Telecaster’s body is typically shaped from a slab of ash or alder, though other woods like basswood and poplar are used from time to time on the entry and mid-level models. Most Teles are solid body, though the Thinline Telecaster model sports a semi-hollow body with a single F-hole on top.
Color/Finish: There are almost too many color and finish options for the Telecaster to keep track of. Fender offers custom colors, unique artist model designs, and on occasion, limited editions.
Neck Profile: Telecasters overwhelmingly have a “C” shape neck. A small number feature Deep “C” neck profiles, Modern “C”, “U”, or “V” shape necks. You may occasionally come across other variations as well.
Fingerboard Radius: Most modern Telecasters have a 9.5″ radius, with vintage models having a 7.25″ radius. American Elites boast a compound radius which transitions from 9.5″ to 14″. Similar to necks, occasionally Telecaster models will have another radius, such as 12″.
Pickup Configuration: The classic Telecaster pickup configuration sports an angled bridge single-coil surrounded by the ashtray bridge, and a thinner, metallic-encased single-coil at the neck. Other Telecaster models have two humbuckers, or one humbucker and one single-coil. A few Deluxe Telecaster’s have three single-coil pickups.
Circuitry: Often Telecaster’s keep it simple, with one volume and one tone knob, and three-way switching. On these traditional models, you can engage each pickup individually, or both together. A few Fender series change up this classic design. The American Performer Telecaster Hum, for instance, has a DoubleTap humbucker and a push/pull tone knob which engages the coil-tapping feature of the humbucker.
Hardware: Hardware refers to appointments like the tuning machines, pickup covers, and other parts like the bridge and switch plates. Hardware on Telecasters is commonly available in nickel and chrome finishes.
Bridge: One of the more iconic features of the classic Telecaster is the ashtray bridge. It showcases a large metallic cover which envelopes the bridge pickup, a string-thru bridge design, and 3 barrel saddles. Some Telecasters sport ashtray bridges with 6 block saddles, and a few don’t use the ashtray bridge at all.
Tuners: A number of different style tuners are found on Telecasters including standard cast-sealed and deluxe cast-sealed locking tuners. The American Performer Series introduced ClassicGear tuners, which sport vintage looks with a modern 18:1 gear ratio.
There’s undoubtedly a Telecaster model for every style of musician, but there’s also one for every budget and skill level. Here’s a rundown of the different ranges and models of Telecasters, to make your choice a bit easier.
A Squier Telecaster is an excellent choice for the first-time electric guitar player. Squiers are built to Fender’s specifications in Asia, so they still have all the traditional Telecaster features, including great feel and classic Tele sound. Squier’s Telecaster range also includes the Classic Vibe Series Telecasters, which have cool vintage features from the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s. So while Squier Teles may not have all of the same fancy electronics as the Fender versions, they’re still great quality instruments.
These Telecasters are produced in Fender’s factory in Ensenada, Baja California, Mexico. They are often referred to as Mexican Telecasters. These guitars are made to Fender’s specifications with excellent quality parts, but come at a more affordable price than the American models. Some of these models are offered in a Road Worn finish, for a very cool aesthetic. Telecaster Series from this factory include:
- Fender Player Telecaster: The Player Tele includes all the great Tele specs you want, with no-frills, at an excellent price. It comes in the standard two single-coil configuration or as a dual humbucker (HH) model.
- Fender Classic Telecaster: This Series faithfully recreates vintage models with period-correct design and specs.
- Fender Deluxe Telecaster: A few models of Telecasters get the “Deluxe” designation when they’re sporting an interesting upgrade, such as three pickups or four-way switching.
Fender American Telecasters are manufactured in Fender’s primary factory in Corona, California, USA. These are the highest quality, non-custom Teles that Fender produces.
- American Performer Telecaster: The most affordable of the American Telecasters, this series sports ClassicGear tuners, powerful Yosemite single-coil pickups, and Fender DoubleTap humbuckers. At this level, you can really start to feel the combination of excellent craftsmanship and incredible playability.
- American Professional Telecaster: This excellent American line features pickups designed by the legendary Tim Shaw, a treble bleed circuit, and a Deep “C” neck profile.
- American Original Telecaster: With the incredible craftsmanship of Fender today and the humbling design of vintage Fender models, the Original series faithfully reconstructs the Telecaster in the style of the ’50s and ’60s. It showcases period-accurate pickups, era-specific neck profiles, and nitrocellulose lacquer finishes.
- American Elite Telecaster: The pinnacle of Fender Telecaster builds—the best pickups, finest neck, and perfectly adjusted hardware.
These are very special Telecaster models, intended as fine additions for the guitar aficionado’s collection. They are usually limited production items, built to honor a legendary player or a specific commemorative occasion. They are handcrafted in the USA by Fender’s best craftsmen. Of course, if you’re feeling really generous with yourself, you can order a custom built Telecaster, made to your exact specifications, from these master craftsman.
No matter your budget or musical style, the simplistic beauty and wide-ranging sound of the Telecaster allow it to sit perfectly in your hands.
Want to learn about the history of the Fender Telecaster? Check out our article The Fender Telecaster: A Popular Music Icon and Inspiration.