The Fender Telecaster: A Not-So-Brief History
When the sun went down, Leo Fender went to work.
It was 1950, and next year, he'd change the world. But for now, he was dodging bank agents who came by daily to serve foreclosure. He'd wagered his successful radio repair shop against something new, but that something new was barely paying the bills.
It was in the last years of the 1940s—1947, to be exact—that Leo and his buddy Doc Kaufmann had officially founded the Fender Electric Instrument Co.
Doc was a lap steel player and had been an inventor for another company called Rickenbacker. Together, he and Leo had joined forces to start building amplified Hawaiian instruments. Leo had patents on pickups he had wound himself, some of the earliest in existence, so the duo put one in a lap steel guitar and started selling it.
But lap steels wouldn't satisfy Leo. It was another idea that captured his attention: building a true solid-body electric guitar.
So, the long hours began as Leo threw himself with abandon behind his new dream. With the help of another friend, George Fullerton, Leo kept the shop running in the day while working the dark hours of the morning to close in on a design for his electric guitar.
As the 40s wound down, so did the big bands that defined the WWII era. New sounds went underground to smaller venues—roadhouses and dancehalls that required a different kind of stringed instrumentation. Guitar players were electrifying their arch-top hollow-bodies, but feedback proved to be a bitch at loud volumes. As a radio maker, Leo knew a solid body could solve a lot of problems.
A quick solution wouldn't cut it. Tossing pickups in a block of wood wasn't enough. Leo's electric guitar had to have style. It needed to look like a guitar, but also look like something new. It needed to be beautiful, manufacturable, and durable. "Built like a tank," Leo said.
After countless moonlit hours, in 1950 Leo debuted a design he called the Esquire. But it wouldn't remained named so for long. Unbeknownst to Leo, he'd released the first version of a guitar that would change the course of history.
The Esquire was truly ahead of its time. So much so that a lot of folks thought it was a joke. People called it a boat paddle. They called it a snow shovel. Legend has it that Fred Gretsch, a guitar maker himself, took one look at Leo's design and offered a one-sentence review: "That thing will never sell."
Gretsch was right—for a time. Through 1950, demand for a solid-body was still stagnant. But Leo stayed the course, kept the shop running on a shoestring, and poured his attention into further improving his Esquire design.
In terms of production, the Esquire was the first electric guitar to be built in parts, then assembled. Critically, the neck was attached to the body with bolts, rather than built right in, allowing for easy repair and replacement.
Leo laid another chrome pickup in the guitar toward the neck, and added a rudimentary toggle that would allow a player to choose a pickup and water the tone to their taste. One thing was certain: Leo's guitar was bright and offered a razored sound that was unmatched in the world, and the world needed to hear it.
Fender dropped the new model as the Fender Broadcaster, but found himself in a lawsuit.
Gretsch already had a trademark on the name Broadkaster. They issued Fender a cease-and-desist and Fender ceased and desisted. Gretsch had stopped Fender's use of the name, but they couldn't stop the guitar itself. Leo had his team sanded off the "Broadcaster" moniker on all models in their inventory and kept selling. This run of nameless guitars came, eventually, to be known as "Nocasters" by collectors.
The Nocasters were selling well enough, but every legend needs a name. At the time, something called "television" was taking off, eclipsing radio broadcasting. It was a Fender's sales chief, Don Randall, who suggested capitalizing on the craze. He floated a new name, and in 1951 the Fender Telecaster was born.
Upon the Telecaster's debut, the ridicule continued. "Boat paddle" and "snow shovel" jokes abounded, but haters never get the last word. It was true guitar players who saw through the foolishness and recognized the Telecaster for what it was: a spry, revolutionary instrument for channeling a new kind of energy into a youthful music scene.
The Telecaster found itself at the heart of a cultural war between the established, exclusive East Coast gatekeepers and a brash new West Coast movement. Fender's scrappy young brand name came to be synonymous with the scrappy young guitar-slingers who were using the Telecaster to add adventurous sonic elements to California swing and western.
With its accessible neck, fast action, and vibrant tone, the Telecaster was inspiring a new style of guitar playing. Aside from western swing, blues players—B.B. King and Muddy Waters among them—were beginning to use the Telecaster as well to deliver fresh sets of licks. Both genres would collide soon enough, and the Telecaster would become a driving force in the coming rock 'n roll revolution.
In the mid-50s, the Telecaster exploded onto the scene, carrying the water in hits across the airwaves by early rock legends like Dale Hawkins, Johnny Burnette, Gene Vincent, and Little Richard. Johnny Cash held down the country-rock side with his guitarist Luther Perkins on a Tele as well.
Leo Fender had provided a sturdy, cool, and affordable duo of electric guitars, the Telecaster and the continued, cheaper Esquire, to a young market that was eager to participate in the new wave of rockabilly energy that began to sweep America. It wasn't just a star's guitar, although it certainly fit in the spotlight. The Telecaster was well suited for beginners, and still is. For the first time, young players had the ability not just to observe their musical heroes, but to play the same guitar.
With the Telecaster at the helm, rock and roll claimed the 1950s for its own, confirming Leo's vision and craftsmanship. The original Tele was so well built and sounded so good that barely any changes were made in the 50s—or in any coming decade.
However, a few small changes did attend the Telecaster in its first decade. The original control layout proved to be wonky and inconvenient, and a fresh arrangement simplified player access to the Telecaster's sonic fruits.
The new controls featured a triple switch that could swing the signal from the bridge pickup to the neck pickup, and let the player spin the tone switch on both modes. Additionally, players were quick to figure out that the triple switch could be balanced between pickup selections, adding a wider range of interesting tones to their arsenal.
Aesthetically, eventually the stock pickguard on Fender Telecasters changed from black to white, and Fender began to offer color finishes for a few extra bucks. Vintage colors that make collectors drool found their first issue in the 1950s. Also of note, Fender introduced a spin-off model in 1959, the Telecaster Custom which featured a rosewood pickguard and a bound body.
Through the hustle and bustle of America's first decade of rock, the Telecaster prevailed as a reliable and powerful guitar, and cemented its place as a staple piece for musicians of all skill levels and tastes. Simply, the Telecaster of 1952 was the Telecaster of 1960—and more and more players were coming to love it.
But as the 1960s dawned, everything was about to change.
If "live fast and die young" is the heart of rock 'n roll philosophy, America got it right the first time.
At the end of the rockabilly decade, the US rock legacy had, by many measures, lived up to the chaos the uncool accused it of encouraging. Gene Vincent was dead. Buddy Holly was dead. Jerry Lee Lewis went into hiding at his lawyers' behest—for reasons we won't discuss here. Ironically, entering the Army might have saved Elvis's life. This is purely speculation, of course.
Either way, the King was in green and off the scene, and a lot of the hotrodders were already six feet deep. But America, unwittingly, had sent a messenger with a Telecaster to the Homeland that would sow invisible seeds and save rock 'n roll from itself.
When Muddy Waters toured the UK in 1958, kids no one had ever heard of set eyes on a Telecaster for the first time, and witnessed its particular power. With his Delta soul and undeniable guitar talent, the Hoochie Coochie Man lit a new fuse, and got countless teens dreaming of stardom.
All across the Old World, rock 'n roll was falling, along with the Telecaster, into the capable hands and hearts of what would become some of the most talented players and songwriters in history—
Richards. Page. Clapton. Townshend. Beck. Harrison. In the 60s, anonymous young British men would grasp (and smash) the Telecaster and use it to become household names, and life-long Telecaster enthusiasts.
Chief among them: KEEF. Keith Richards' thrilling rise to fame with the Rolling Stones saw him wielding Telecasters with an unmatched swagger. The Rolling Stones themselves were blues acolytes, and it stands to reason that Keith developed his initial predilection for the Tele through his love for the holy work black American bluesmen were doing.
By 1967, Keith had begun to experiment with his guitar tunings—a trait that would come to mark his playing. It was the Telecaster he bonded with through his experimentation: "...And what I found was," Keith later recalled, "of all the guitars, the Telecaster really lent itself well to a dry, rhythm, five-string drone thing. In a way that tuning kept me developing as a guitarist." That's high praise.
With Telecaster-mad Keith, the Stones led the worldwide ascendency of UK rock that would come to be called the BRITISH INVASION, along with another band of four: The Beatles.
Both guitarist George Harrison and co-frontman Paul McCartney would come to love the Telecaster as well, for influential touring and studio sessions in the 60s. Harrison's Telecaster play would become so recognizable that Fender would eventually honor him with a custom rosewood Tele to play the bittersweet notes of the Beatles' "Let It Be" album and farewell atop Apple company headquarters in London.
With the help of the Telecaster, epic British rock bands formed and legendary players arose in one of the greatest pop-culture booms in modern history. The times were indeed changing, but not all of the changes would lead to results worthy of the Telecaster's initial history.
In 1965, Leo Fender sold Fender to CBS, Colombia Broadcast Systems, and a long and troubled corporate rule began with mixed results. The Telecaster, however, remained buoyant amid the changes, and experienced some of the first notable innovations since its birth.
CBS introduced a reconfigured Tele in 1968 with a switch setting that allowed for both pickups to be activated at the same time. A year later, Fender introduced the first Telecaster that represented a major design departure from the original—the Thinline Telecaster, engineered by German luthier Roger Rossmeisl. Rossmeisl hollowed out the Telecaster body, allowing it to breathe with a tasteful F-hole above a revamped pickguard. Players took to it quickly, and have continued to enjoy its unique musical offerings ever since.
CBS-controlled Fender also leaned into the flower child vogue, releasing a pair of psychedelic Telecasters—Paisley Red and Blue Flower—that had a short moment in the sun, but faded relatively quickly.
Overall, though, CBS's involvement in the Fender brand came to prioritize corporate sales and quantity over the craftsmanship that had made Fender great. Many of the guitars produced during the CBS era came to seen as inferior to the Fender guitars that preceded it. While many unforgettable tunes were recorded on Telecasters in the late 60s and 70s, Stairway to Heaven among them, the Telecasters used by players like Jimmy Page were often late-50s models—not CBS produced guitars.
A reckoning was coming for the CBS-controlled Fender and would arrive in the early 80s. Nevertheless, the Telecaster had plans to transcend the corporate bullshit and keep growing through the 70s. The decade included some of the most notable innovations in Telecaster tech since its inception.
The Telecaster Custom arrived in 1972, a nearly glorious redesign that included a four-knob control layout set sweetly in a fresh pickguard design, with a beefy humbucker in the neck position, officializing a modification Tele players were already affectionate for.
A year later, the Custom was Classic were joined by the Telecaster Deluxe, another formidable variation on the Telecaster's magic that included some adventurous aesthetic options, including a Stratocaster headstock and double chrome humbuckers.
Even in the context of corporation nonsense, fate had favored the Telecaster—attracting technicians and talents that would cement its legacy in the context of a decade during which quality began to decline at Fender.
The boat-paddle guitar just kept paddling.
The 70s and 80s saw global explosions of musical experimentation and genre-bending. The mid-century dialectic of rock 'n roll vs everything else had been eclipsed as supreme talents expanded the world's sonic palette. And in every genre and sub-genre, one thing remained the same: the Telecaster always found a role to play.
Springsteen. Strummer. Sting. Hynde. From Americana rock to punk to new wave, legends continued choosing the Telecaster as their axe of choice, using it to reimagine the confines of popular music time and again.
The more music expanded, the more the Telecaster expanded with it. With the triple threat of its three models—Classic, Custom, and Deluxe—the Telecaster could morph its tone to find a home in almost any guitarist's heart.
But by the early the 1980s, Fender was on the fritz. The CBS reckoning had arrived—it had become impossible to ignore the falling quality of newly produced guitars, and Fender's modern reputation was on the line. Almost an act of blasphemy, the Telecaster's body-shape had been slightly warped to accommodate computer-controlled machinery.
To course correct, CBS brought in Bill Schultz as the new president of Fender. Under Schultz's direction, Fender set about modernizing it's US manufacturing facilities, shifting the center of production to Japan while the new American facilities got outfitted. Telecasters from the Japanese era included curios such as a Vintage Reissue series and a 70s-style Squi Telecaster
Schultz oversaw the successful rehabilitation of Fender's brand, and the return of the Telecaster to its glory as a testament to superior craftsmanship. Fender's new president actually joined together with a group of investors to buy Fender from CBS in 1984, and three years later, in 1987, they established the now world-famous Fender Custom Shop—the creative source of the some of the most epic electric guitars in history.
More than one timeless Telecaster has emerged from the Custom Shop. If Bill Schultz's Fender legacy was measured on that one item alone, it could be considered a success.
Since the 90s, the Telecaster has conquered another three decades of musical innovation, expansion, and reinvention. Despite the continual fracturing of rock into seemingly limitless sub-genres, the Telecaster never wears out its welcome, and has stood with some of the greatest alt-rockers of all time, Radiohead's Johnny Greenwood included.
Fender has never stopped tinkering and further tailoring the Telecaster to accommodate and appeal to more and more players around the world. After more than 50 years, it remains at the forefront of Fender's brand image, and has undergone a great number of rereleases and limited modifications, including a rarified 50th anniversary model of which only 50 were made—all boasting Leo Fender's signature on the headstock. Other variations include the Telecaster Deluxe Shawbucker, Classic player, Road Worn, American Special, and American Professional Telecaster.
As it approaches its 75th anniversary, the Telecaster stands apart as an unrivaled achievement. It is, without a doubt, one of the most consequential inventions in the history of mankind, a symbol of simple dedication to craft—the perfect combination of form and function. In Fender's entire history, the Telecaster remains unparalleled but for one other gift it gave the world: the Stratocaster.
But that, of course, is a whole different story.