A Brief History Of The Telecaster

A Better Electric Guitar

When Leo Fender designed 'a better electric guitar' in the late 1940's he was heavily influenced by the design and manufacturing methods in use in the U.S.A. at the that time. Factory or production line manufacturing allowed complex products to be broken down into a number of simpler components, each relatively easy to manufacture, that could be brought together to form the finished article. This technique was heavily used by American manufacturers throughout World War Two to produce such iconic instruments of war as the Sherman Tank and Mustang (P51) fighter. Leo Fender applied the technique to the manufacture of a guitar by breaking the design down into a number of simpler components, easy to manufacture in a factory environment. The Telecaster was born.

Well, actually the first Fender solid bodied electric guitar commercially available was called the "Esquire" and appeared in single and double pickup form early in 1950. The Esquire was not a commercial success. Leo Fender refined the design for his next model, "The Broadcaster", which appeared at the end of 1950, but since Gretsch had already established use of that name for a series of drums, the name was quickly dropped. For a few months Fender continued producing Broadcaster guitars with the model name cut from the headstock logo, so that it simply read "Fender". These guitars are known colloquially as "no-casters". By spring 1951, Leo Fender had researched and got clearance for a new name for his dual pickup solid body guitar - The Telecaster - but the name didn't actually appear on guitars produced in the Fullerton factory until late summer 1951.

From 1951 until 1964, Leo Fender remained in direct control of the production of Fender guitars. The Telecaster was refined a little and production techniques improved, both in scale and quality. In 1954, the Telecaster was joined by its upstart sister, the Stratocaster and, in 1958 by the Jazzmaster, while production and sales of the Telecaster grew steadily. The original butterscotch blonde finish gradually lightened in colour through the fifties until it became a creamy off-white. Custom colours were offered but rarely taken up. There are a few sunburst finish telecasters around from this period, but they are rare. It wasn't until the 1960's that coloured Telecasters appeared in any numbers. Other variations were tried, such as the introduction of rosewood fingerboards on a two part maple neck to replace the original one piece maple neck and fingerboard.

The CBS Years

In 1964, Leo Fender sold the Fender company to CBS who retained ownership until 1984. There is a lot of discussion about Telecasters produced in the CBS years, both for and against. CBS Musical Instruments was a large corporate entity, with a different, more commercial approach to instrument making than the original Fender company. The way in which Telecasters were manufactured changed, the components changed although the design remained fundamentally the same. Whether a CBS Fender Telecaster is better or worse than a pre-CBS instrument is a matter of opinion. Certainly the production costs were rationalised and minimised and this had an effect on the resulting instrument, but it was still recognisably a Telecaster.

Many people consider the 1970's as the nadir of the Telecaster. The CBS corporate culture had used the Telecaster as a cash cow - taking as much out as possible without putting much back in, but in truth a few 'classic' Telecaster variations appeared during this time. The semi-acoustic Thinline was introduced in 1969 and later upgraded with humbucker pickups to match the solid bodied "Custom' variant with humbuckers. To the purist, a Telecaster is a single coil pickup guitar, but the addition of a humbucking variant attracted many new players.

Cost cutting measures in production resulted in the toploader bridge design, where instead of the strings passing through the bridge and body to be retained by metal ferrules flush with the back of the body, the strings simply pass through the back of the bridge mounting. Sold as making it easier to change strings, the toploader bridge also featured six individual saddles instead of the three saddles of the original bridge design. The toploader bridge subtly changed the Telecaster sound, characterised by a general decrease in the guitars resonance and sustain, although this was mediated by more upgraded pickups. Individual saddles allowed a more precise setting of the instrument's intonation at the expense of some sustain which the greater mass of the original shared saddles of the vintage bridge afforded.

Back to Basics

In 1984, with profits falling in the Fender division of CBS Musical Instruments, a management buy out was acepted by the larger corporation. The resulting company, Fender Musical instruments Corp. was a much smaller, more focused organisation and set about rebuilding the reputation of Fender instruments.

What they bought from CBS was little more than paper - trademarks, designs, patents and a little real estate. The reborn Fender had very limited production capacity in the U.S.A. and was initially reliant on outsourcing guitar manufacture to overseas companies while they re-established themselves in new factories in Corona, California. The new company also has a keen commercial awareness and has continued to exploit lower manufacturing costs where it can around the world. Telecasters are still produced in California, but these are the premium models, usually commanding the highest prices. Fender Teles are also produced in both Mexico and Japan, while the Fender owned budget range of Squier guitars have been manufactured in Japan, Korea, Indonesia and China. The basic design of a solid body guitar, easily assembled in a factory environment from relatively simple component parts lends itself well to being manufactured wherever is most convenient and cost-effective.

Attack Of The Clones

The first Telecaster copy guitars began to appear in the USA in the 1960's when the rock and roll boom really took off, but the demand for them was low and Fender carefully guarded their patents. Compared to the other big name competition, Fenders were competitively priced and as production at the Fullerton factories steadily increased, in good supply. The copies that did appear in the USA were often Japanese made and brought home by G.I.s who picked them up cheaply on leave in Japan or the Phillipines.

In Europe, however, it was a different story. Electric guitars were hard to come by and expensive. Imported american guitars were as rare as hen's teeth in the early sixties, so the demand was satisfied by a number of European manufacturers. Many guitar makers, particularly in the UK, opted to produce their own designs of guitar, often loosely based on classic american designs in an attempt to create their own dynasty of guitars. However, the pop stars appearing regularly on their televisions mostly had American made guitars, spawning a desire amongst the fans to emulate their heroes and play the same instruments. That demand was filled by copy guitars, mostly made in Italy where there was already a tradition of stringed instrument manufacture. Companies like Eko manufactured guitars for ostensibly british companies like Vox.

The 1970's saw an increase in Telecaster copy guitars as Fender's reputation tarnished. Guitars, closely modelled on the Telecaster begain to appear in large numbers from factories in Europe and Japan. When the copies got too good or their sales reached the attention of the big company lawyers they tended to get closed down, so many of these companies had only two or three years of Telecaster production before they were forced to change

Japanese companies, aware that there was still some prejudice against their nation usually adopted a western name for their products. Some of today's well respected brand names such as Ibanez, Burns and Aria boomed in the seventies by making copy guitars, often xold under other brand names. Gibson copies were more common than Fenders as the price differential was greatest, but some recognisable Telecaster copies reached the west. One of the earliest was the Greco KF190, made by Ibanez, which appeared in 1968. Ibanez became increasingly bold as the seventies unfolded, producing Telecaster variants based on the Thinline (Elgar 2368F); single humbucker Custom (Elgar 2352) and the dual humbucker deluxe until they were eventually taken to court at the end of the decade. That signalled a change in direction for Ibanez and many other Japanese copy manufacturers who began to produce their own successful designs. Other seventies Japanese manufacured telecaster copies were made by Jedson, Teisco, Zenta and Electra which are now much sought after by collectors.

The copy guitar market really peaked in the 1970's. Many department store chains offered their own brand guitars, including Telecaster clones, usualy manufactured in Japan. Remember Woolworths Audition range? In the USA, many domestic manufacturers jumped on the copy guitar bandwagon. Martin guitars produced a Telecaster Deluxe copy, the SBF2-6), National guitars produced the delightfully named FT440 'Finger Talker' and Ampeg the GEH150, to name just a few.

In the 1980's Korea begain to establish itself as a low cost good quality manufacturing base. Many big name guitar companies exploited this and the guitar making expertise in the country grew. Soon Korean made copy guitars were replacing Japanese copies. By the 1990's the majority of copy guitars sold worldwide were being produced in Korea. And to a high standard often rivalling their original counterparts in build quality and playability at a fraction of the cost.

The same pattern is emerging now with China as a manufacturing base. Cheap and plentiful labour attracts guitar manufacturers into a country where they teach the local workforce how to make good quality instruments only to find that the new territory begins to match and rival the original manufacturing base. Some of the Telecasters coming out of the far east today are actually better built than the cherished vintage models they emulate!

If You Can't Beat Them....

As the American economy strengthened through the fifties, sixties and seventies; and the standard of living continually rose, genuine Fender Telecaster prices rose too, often taking them out of the reach of musicians elsewhere in the world. Sales of Telecaster copies boomed. Recognising both the demand for budget guitars and that the tide of clones was almost unstoppable, Fender themselves entered the copy guitar market in 1982 with the Squier brand. The Squier name had been acquired by CBS Fender when they bought the Squier company, originally manufacturers of violins and other orchestral stringed instruments. In the early 1980's Fender Japan began producing budget guitars alongside the 'vintage' Fender models that they were manufacturing. These budget models were the first guitars to carry the Squier name in 1982.

The Japanese Fender facility today produces high quality Telecasters that many feel are equal to, if not better than, their American made counterparts. Japan, however, ceased to be a low cost manufacturing base in the 1990's, so Fender moved production of Sqiuer guitars to Korea. As costs rose in there during the second half of the nineties, Squier manufacture was moved to Indonesia. The same story of rising costs there relulted in Squier manufacture moving again, this time to China, where it currently resides.




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'53 Esquire