Deceptive chaps, Telecasters. They may look like electrified planks, and in the wrong hands they can sound even worse, but no product survives for 60 years unless it’s got something a bit special going on. In fact there are those of us for whom, no matter how many guitars might drift in and out of our possession down the years, life without at least one Tele is unthinkable.
This isn’t just down to its historical status as the first mass-produced solidbody guitar; it’s more that that. As the template for almost everything that’s come since, the Tele has shaped the sound of popular music to such an extent that it’s basically, in guitar terms, the voice of God. No little heritage for an anniversary special to live up to.
The Telecaster was first produced in 1950, but the name didn’t arrive until early the following year so this is the 60th anniversary of a christening rather than a birth. Either way, the iconic shape looks as perfect as ever.
Might someone at Fender be having a little bit of a visual joke with that nitrocellulose finish, though? It’s a lighter shade than most blackguards, in a way that calls to mind the locks of a faded beauty who, at 60, isn’t quite as blonde as she used to be.
Well, maybe… anyway the effect is somewhat milky, and it rather clashes with the maple neck, though not in a way that’s going to have people fleeing the room in disgust. This is supposed to be a Thin Skin finish but it looks shinier than that label usually implies, and it reeks like an open pot of lacquer as soon as you open the case.
Beneath the skin is a moderately lightweight three-piece ash body, screwed to a C-shaped all-maple neck (naturally – rosewood didn’t appear on Telecasters until 1958). The profile and radius are pretty much middle of the road and the medium jumbo frets are neatly dressed, their gently rolled ends allowing effortless movement up and down the fingerboard. It’s as playable as you could ever want a Tele to be.
So far, a thoroughly respectful tribute to Leo Fender’s original vision… but the first clear sign that we’re not dealing with a correct replica appears on the bridge, which comes with no sides and has individual Strat-style bent steel saddles rather than the brass barrel types that tradition – and, perhaps, the pursuit of vintage twang – would normally demand.
Obviously six saddles are better than three when it comes to setting intonation, but there are plenty of compensated barrels available nowadays. Then there’s the Micro-Tilt neck adjustment system, which allows for fine-tuning of the body/neck angle using a small Allen key.
Fine, but does it not risk compromising tone and sustain by weakening the contact area between the two halves of the guitar? We’ll put both of these debateable innovations to the test soon enough.
Finally, a modern execution of an old idea is the No Load tone control with an indent at the top of the pot’s travel which bypasses the circuit for a clearer signal path and therefore a touch of extra pep. Fender thought of this in 1950 – it’s what the third position on the switch of the one-pickup Esquire is for.
Of course, most of this is already present on various other US-made Telecasters, and Fender has not gone overboard looking for ways to make this limited-edition model stand out. Finish aside, the only thing that marks it out as a distinctly non-standard 2011 Tele is the commemorative neck plate, an unobtrusively classy touch.
Lawks a-lordy, who needs amplifiers? There’s not much call for unplugged Telecaster sounds in the average studio, but we can’t remember the last time a vibrating lump of timber gave our ears so much pleasure.
Strum a simple E chord and this Tele responds with such sweet, smooth resonance that passing motorists will start sobbing over their dashboards without knowing why. All those reservations about the Micro-Tilt thing… forget ’em.
A blackface Fender amp translates this luscious voice into a beautifully warm and pure clean tone with a delicately sparkling top end. It’s smooth and soulful through the neck pickup, especially on the wound strings, and even with the tone control backed off close to zero it remains articulate, never succumbing to woolliness.
At the other end of the dial, that tone bypass setting offers just a tiny bit of extra top end compared to the point just before it clicks in. It’s a nice feature, though a push/pull pot might have been easier to use than that soft little indent.
The middle setting brings an instant hit of classic Tele chime. It’s an open and expansive sound with a respectable amount of twang – but in a controlled, hi-fi way. The bridge pickup offers more for country pickers to chew on but there’s not a huge deal of upper-mid-range spank coming through.
Chords, half-chords and gentle arpeggios are more rewarding than single notes; this is more of a clucker than a snarler. It does crunch up nicely, riffing away effortlessly through a cranked British amp just as you’d expect from any Tele, but it’s maybe too polite to convince as a rock hero’s primary weapon.
Some of us can only afford to own one Telecaster, but you really ought to have a pair: one beauty and one beast.
A beastly Tele – hot pickups, brass saddles, fag burns – will growl and bite, excelling at aggressive lead work but sounding a little harsh for the clean stuff; a beauteous Tele will strum and pluck like a dream but may have you reaching for the nearest SG come solo time.
Modern US-made Teles often tend to be of the latter kind (at least those with single-coils), and the 60th Anniversary model is no exception. This is not a revolutionary guitar – it’s barely any different to the current American Standard model in terms of spec – but as a celebration of the original blonde bombshell’s feat of longevity, it’s worthy and fitting. Happy birthday, Tele.
You really will outlive us all.