Fender is known the world over for its Stratocaster model, but did you know the Telecaster actually came first? The telecaster shape was the shape of the Fender esquire, which was the first solid-body electric guitar Leo Fender and co ever made.
From there, after various design and name changes, the Telecaster was born, and the subsequent revolution it inspired could never have been imagined or predicted by anyone.
The Telecaster, like the Fender corporation itself, has gone through many periods of change over the years, mainly stemming from different periods of ownership over the years. This has left it with somewhat of a checkered past, and for a potential buyer, it means not all telecasters are created equal.
Table of Contents
- Fender Telecaster: An Overview
- The First Golden Age of the Telecaster
- The CBS Transition Years
- The Dark Days of the CBS Era
- Fender’s Resurgence
- Fender’s Second Dark Age – The FMIC Era
- Fender’s Modern Golden Age
Fender Telecaster: An Overview
So what makes a Telecaster a Telecaster? Aside from its instantly recognizable body shape, it was the guitar’s sound that allowed it to push out ahead of the competition back in the days of its initial release.
Known for its characteristic bright, rich tone with the ability to cut through the mix and stand out, coupled with the warm, jazzy timbre when the pickup is switched.
When the guitar first emerged, however, it was known as the esquire, then the broadcaster, before finally settling into its new, forever name, the Telecaster. The main difference between these early versions and the Telecaster we all know and love is the pickup, or rather a lack of it in Esquire’s case.
It was these electrical changes, plus the addition of a truss rod and removable bolt-on neck, that transformed the esquire into the broadcaster. And it was a dispute with Gretsch that forced the name change to the Telecaster.
The First Golden Age of the Telecaster
1950 – 1959
As with the Stratocaster, the most sought-after models are the vintage classics. These all came about in Fender’s first golden age, from the 1950s to the mid-1960s. Fender was in top form in these years – everything was produced using high-quality materials, and assembly was not rushed.
Production targets were realistic, and supply was able to keep up with demand, despite that demand increasing all the time.
Starting in 1950, the newly named Telecasters were made using ash for the body and a solid one-piece maple neck. The addition of an easily attached and removed neck was groundbreaking.
The Telecaster was the first mass-produced electric guitar to feature a neck that wasn’t glued to the body, making manufacturing easier and faster, and facilitating quick repairs.
These early-era Telecasters are known for a few distinctive features: the ‘ashtray’ bridge guard, the bolt-on neck, and the tone switch to flick between pickups. They were also known for their butterscotch finish and black pickguard, earning them the moniker Fender blackguards.
1960 – 1964
Toward the end of 1959, Fender made the decision to switch to alder as its main tonewood of choice, mainly for cost issues. The price of swamp ash was too high to be viable with the amount of guitars fender was producing at this time, especially since the launch of the Stratocaster had pushed demand through the roof.
Sonically, this made little difference to the guitars and was a wise and mostly unavoidable decision for Fender as a company. The tonal differences would be hard for even the keenest audiophile to detect.
Rosewood fretboards were also introduced in this era – mainly for cosmetic reasons but also to negate the issues around staining that can arise with maple. Rosewood also possesses some desirable qualities as a tonewood; it can serve to balance high-end frequencies, and with the Telecaster’s famous twang, this was a conscious decision on Fender’s behalf.
Variations began to appear in aesthetics around this time. Sunburst finishes, rosewood fingerboards, and a white binding to protect edges were all implemented with the launch of the Telecaster custom.
Some Telecasters produced in these years featured a top-loading bridge, where the strings are fed through the bottom of the saddle instead of through the body of the guitar, which was always the case with the Telecaster up until now.
How Much Will a Golden Era Vintage Telecaster Cost?
If you’re looking to buy a Telecaster from this period, I hope you have some money in the bank because they are highly sought-after instruments. Starting at around $6,000 and reaching all the way up to around $150,000, a golden-era Telecaster is not a cheap investment.
Robbie Robertson, who played with The Band and Bob Dylan, had a Telecaster that he played at Woodstock and was also played by Eric Clapton and George Harrison. This fetched £598,000 at an auction!
The CBS Transition Years
1965 – 1972
Many believe that Fender immediately went downhill the moment Leo Fender sold the company to CBS in the mid-60s (for $13 million!), but that’s not actually the case. Fender continued to produce many high-quality guitars during this period.
Many changes were initially made as money-saving moves meant to expedite the manufacturing process and cut costs on the production line. All the changes were phased in gradually, so there are a lot of guitars made in a sort of transition period that have both pre-CBS and post-CBS features.
That said, there were some changes that some felt signaled the downfall that was yet to come…
Switch in Lacquer
Fender had always used nitrocellulose for the finish on all their models, but CBS switched to polyurethane for its longevity and tendency not to turn yellowish in color as it wore down over time. Some claim that polyurethane is applied in a thicker layer, therefore dampening the resonance of the tone woods.
Switch in Tone Woods
While Fender had previously used both southern swamp ash and alder for their guitar bodies, CBS took cost-cutting measures even further and changed almost all production woods to the cheaper northern ash variety. Claims of further loss of resonance followed.
Although this was purely a marketing choice, meant so the logo would show up better on TV, some felt it threw off the balance and look of the guitars and added a top heavyweight that, although minor, was unwarranted.
The Dark Days of the CBS Era
1972 – 1981
In this period, CBS made many changes that fans thought drastically downgraded the quality and performance of Fender’s beloved guitars, the Telecaster included.
The use of cheap northern ash continued, adding weight to the guitars and causing them to lose some aspects of playability. The weight of a classic, pre-CBS era Telecaster was around 3.5kg or 7.7 lbs. The weight of a northern ash CBS-era Telecaster almost doubled, weighing in at around 5.8kg or 12.8 lbs.
CBS also switched from traditional PAF pickups to wide-range pickups, which many guitarists complained didn’t offer anywhere near as much tonal range or vibrancy. Some even found that CBS was actually using cheap, poor-quality PAF pickups in a wide-range pickup shell, which further reduced sound quality.
Of course, not all guitars made by Fender in this CBS period are awful. Even a bad CBS-era Telecaster is better than a non-brand cheap imitation. But for the most part, standards had declined, and the quality was not what most had come to expect from one of the world’s leading guitar manufacturers.
1981 – 1985
Wishing to turn the tide of bad press and falling sales, Fender brought in three expert hires from Yamaha’s American Division; Dan Smith, Bill Schultz, and John McLaren.
This era also saw the launch of Fender Squier guitars in 1982, an attempt to compete with the much cheaper Asian-made models of the time.
These three made a number of changes to the way the company was run and the specifics behind the manufacture of Fender guitars.
Lowered Production Targets
Smith, Schultz, and McLaren knew that if the quality was to improve, then the output would have to decrease, so workers could spend more time on each individual guitar that came down the production line. Reducing the production targets helped with this.
Modernized Production Equipment
The Fullerton factory was completely shut down so machinery could be upgraded and replaced to keep up with the demand for quality products.
Reissue of Classic Models
In 1982, the Vintage Reissue Series went on sale, including a 1952 butterscotch Telecaster – a modernized version of the classic blackguard. For this model, a one-piece maple neck and southern swamp ash body were used, and the guitar was received with great praise. This heralded the beginning of a turnaround for Fender. These ‘52 reissues now sell for up to $5,000.
The Standard Series Launches
A hugely popular and lauded series, the Standard Series featured classic designs and modern technology combined to make a superb range of Telecasters. Two pickups, four tonal controls, and a top-loading bridge make the Standard Series Telecasters highly sought-after models.
Fender’s Second Dark Age – The FMIC Era
1985 – 1989
In 1985, CBS sold Fender to FMIC, the Fender Musical Instrument Corporation, a management group run by Bill Schultz. However, the sale didn’t include all of the patents or machinery, or indeed the Fullerton factory. This meant that most of the guitars made by Fender in 1985 were actually produced in Japan.
In 1986, FMIC opened a brand new factory in Corona, California, and then in 1987, another in Ensenada, Mexico.
At this point, FMIC was $11 million in debt.
1989 – 1997
The late ‘80s saw a boost in sales for Fender due to the change of ownership and the opening of two new production plants. However, this, in turn, led to a demand in sales that FMIC simply couldn’t keep up with. As a result of trying to balance supply and demand, cost-cutting measures were introduced once again, this time with far worse results.
The Poplar Body Telecaster
Poplar is a far cheaper wood to procure, and so FMIC decided to use it for all their guitars to save money, so they could keep up with production demands.
Poplar on its own is not a terrible tonewood, but FMIC decided to apply maple and ash veneers to the poplar bodies, perhaps in an attempt to mask the fact that a prestigious company like Fender was using poplar.
This led to guitars with unsightly joints running along their sides, and black lacquers were used to disguise them.
Fender’s Modern Golden Age
1998 – Present
In this era, FMIC brought in smart measures to save Fender’s reputation. Telecasters switch back from poplar with veneers to solid alder and split production between Fender plants in America and Squier factories in Asia.
This leads to a resurgence of high-quality guitars made in America, many of which are produced to vintage specs, with contemporary electronic advancements and high-quality materials.
This trend continues up into the modern day, with Fender’s output showing no signs of decline.
Much like the Stratocaster, Fender’s most desirable Telecasters are the ones produced in the golden days of the pre-CBS classics, i.e., 1950 – 1964. But this does not mean that you can’t find a great-sounding Telecaster from another time period.
And while many urge us to avoid the ‘70s and mid-to-late ‘80s, there are still well-made Telecasters from those periods out there. You just have to try them and see (or hear) what you think!
Guitars, like most musical instruments, are personal, and musicians often need to get a ‘feel’ for how an instrument handles and sounds in their hands. So don’t put too much stock in what others say – the best way to find the Telecaster for you is to try as many as you can for yourself.