Many players search for that one guitar that can “do it all.” You know what I’m talking about – the axe that covers both single-coil and humbucking tones, and sounds great doing so. In past columns, we’ve examined the Gibson L-6S and the PRS CE. Both are excellent guitars that emphasize the Gibson/humbucker side of the equation. This month’s example, the Telecaster Custom, does it all for Fender-style players and may be just what you’re looking for. It’s economical, gets a variety of authentic sounds and is available on the used guitar market with regularity.
The Telecaster design simply refuses to die. Fender keeps churning out the homely single-cutaway shape that first came to market in the years following World War II. It’s ironic that most Tele players are using an instrument that was also available for their fathers and (gasp!) grandfathers, if they were players.
The distinctive tone created by the bridge pickup (aided considerably by the unwieldy bridgeplate it mounts to) has accounted for untold numbers of hit records in many styles. The neck pickup, however, is often considered a weak link on the original Tele.
A popular modification with players as far back as the late ’60s was adding a humbucker in the neck position. This enabled players to obtain a loud (albeit dark) tone that contrasts starkly with the sharp, clangy treble pickup. Fender soon got wind of this and in ’72 introduced the Telecaster Custom. This model differed from earlier Tele and Esquire Customs, which were simply a sunburst finish with body binding. The new guitar featured volume and tone controls for both pickups, a large pickguard, and the bane of ’70s Fenders – the three-bolt neck with “micro tilt.”
Keith Richards, among other players, has used this model for quite a while, even though it doesn’t really have a vintage look. This month’s feature, made in Mexico in the early/mid ’90s, looks just like an old Tele with a couple of hip mods.
This Tele Custom features the traditional 21-fret maple neck complete, with the old “spaghetti” logo, joining the body with the original four-bolt pattern. This is much better than the three-bolt design, which sometimes let the neck shift with the pocket – a real problem if you jump off drum risers, etc. The instrument has a nice C shape to it – my favorite Fender neck profile.
The original body design is complemented by the smaller pickguard, original bridge shape, and single-coil bridge pickup (minus the “ashtray” cover). One excellent modification is the six-piece bridge saddle assembly, arguably the weakest part of the original guitar. This allows precise intonation for critical recording and live gigs. The neck position humbucker has all six polepiece screws in a single line, unlike the ’70s era guitar, which split the screws into bass and treble sides, on opposite sides of the pickup cover. The five-way switch allows all three normal positions (neck, both, bridge) is addition to out-of-phase variations on positions two and four. Our test model is in an attractive red color that allows the grain to show through at certain angles. Paired with the black pickguard and maple neck, this is a striking guitar.
Five minutes with a Tele and then a Strat will confirm there’s no reason to play a Tele unless the sound is there – the body shape is just too uncomfortable. However, pros know a Tele has sounds that really can’t be replicated by other guitars.
The bridge pickup creates the fabulous “Tele twang” heard on more country records than any other electric guitar. This setting coupled with a fuzztone, gave the memorable crunch to Steppenwolf’s “Born To Be Wild.”
The neck pickup sounds lovely and, in conjunction with beefy strings, gets a great jazz tone with the tone knob rolled off. Ed Bickert, the Canadian jazz whiz, along with Ted Greene and Mike Stern, have used this setup for many memorable recordings. Maybe the neatest tone is the combination of both pickups simultaneously. The power of the humbucker combined with the bright sharpness of the back single-coil creates a powerful but clean tone that cuts through nicely on leads or rhythm parts. Having phase options creates even more tone colors on a guitar that already offers three excellent tones.
This axe isn’t without problems. The single-coil pickup hums (as is to be expected), and so do positions two and four, especially with distorted amp sounds. There’s the body shape, and the original input jack often breaks. While I like the original Fender’s slotted tuning machines, they aren’t the most accurate and often slip more than modern designs.
These are small potatoes to a dedicated Fender player. This Tele Custom does make historic tones at a bargain price. A friend found his used in a local store for just $300, so this is a Gigmeister classic, folks. Nice job, Ensenada!
Special thanks to David Meyers for use of his Tele for this review.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s Sept. ’00 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.