Fender’s 1951-’54 Telecaster

In Detail
Click to enlarge. 1952 Fender Telecaster: VG Archive. Instrument courtesy Steve Bauman.

Leo’s Simple Legend

The world’s greatest electric guitar was invented by a radio repairman.

Okay, we could debate just what is the world’s greatest electric guitar, but the fact is that one of the legends of collectible solidbodies was invented by a guy who wasn’t even a musician; Leo Fender had just started building amplifiers and lap steels when he saw Merle Travis play a solidbody guitar built by Paul Bigsby.

1) Control plate with master volume and pickup selector. On early-’52 models, the tone control worked as a blender/pan, then adopted the standard wiring, which allowed tone manipulation in the neck postition only. CHECK! Original potentiometers are an important element of any vintage guitar; look for naturally aged solder joints and correct pot codes.
2) “Micro-Adjustable” bridge with elevating screws allows height adjustment of each string. Two-strings-per saddles are made of brass. Four-digit serial number is stamped on bridgeplate.
3) Very early models has black fibre pickguards, then black Bakelite standard. Changed to white plastic in late ’54. CHECK! Pickguard screws changed to Philips-head in ’52.
4) Two single-coil pickups, each with six individual Alnico magnet pole pieces, but different specifications.

Fender’s first Spanish-style guitar was a lesson in functional simplicity: a solid body (feedback was a huge problem for amplified instruments of the day), one pickup, and a bolt-on neck. And it wasn’t just that Leo wanted the guitar to be easy to service and maintain; beyond being pragmatic, Leo was frugal. His guitar had to be made using the same machinery that made Fender lap steels, so there would be no fancy set neck or body carve.

Work on Leo’s first guitar began in late 1949. The shape was “designed” by George Fullerton, who Leo had hired to help repair amps and lap steels. And his concept has been maintained since its inception – a prototype made in ’49 looks very much like any Tele from any era, save for its lapsteel-like headstock. And when it debuted at the July, 1950, NAMM show it carried the name “Esquire.”

5) The ’50s Telecaster body is made of ash and measures 125/8” wide at the lower bout, 16″ long, and 13/4” deep. CHECK! Wear should be consistent with that on the neck and fretboard.
6) 12th-fret markers were 5/8” apart in early ’52, and 13/16” afterward and until the ’60s.
7) All 1951-’mid-’59s Telecasters have a detachable 21-fret, one-piece maple neck/fretboard with ¼” black-plastic-dot position markers. It joins the body near the 16th fret and has a scale length of 25 ½”. CHECK! When authenticating, be sure dates on neck, in cavities, and on potentiometers are all within four months of each other. Exceptions are rare.

Though response wasn’t strong, feedback from players led to improvements including a steel truss rod and a second pickup close to the neck. Later that summer, the guitar was introduced to the market as the “Broadcaster,” in tribute to the radio – the means by which most of its notes would supposedly be heard. It listed for $169.95. But soon after, Gretsch asked Fender to drop the name because it had been granted a trademark for its use on drums. Fender abided, and from February until August of ’51, finishers clipped the word “Broadcaster” from headstock decals. Thus was born the “Nocaster,” a name never adopted by Fender, but well-known amongst vintage guitar enthusiasts. The final burst of inspiration came when Leo borrowed a name from the television – the cutting-edge broadcast technology of the day.

The guitar surprised naysayers by selling well in its first few years. And shortly thereafter, the solidbody guitar took flight as other companies jumped into the fray.

8) Six-on-a-side tuners made the headstock dramatically different than Fender’s lap steels. CHECK! All early models had Kluson tuners characterized by a split shaft and oval-shaped metal buttons. 1952 and ’53 models do not have a brand stamp on tuner shells.
9) Asymmetric peghead with straight string pull to the tuners and silver-with-black-trim “spaghetti” logo and “Telecaster” with inverted commas.
The first version was called the Esquire. The second version was briefly called the Broadcaster, then “NoCaster” and finally, Telecaster, in homage to the the primary broadcast technologies of the day – television and radio. CHECK! Today, an original Tele thermometer case can add $2,000 to $3,000 in value.
Bruce Springsteen: Ken Settle.

As Played By

• Jimmy Bryant
• Jeff Beck
• Roy Buchanan
• B.B. King
• Paul Burlison
• Roy Nichols
• Don Rich
• Muddy Waters
• Steve Cropper
• Jimmy Page
• Albert Lee
• Bruce Springsteen
• Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown
• Keith Richards
• Etc., Etc., Etc.!

Further Facts

• Pickups are both fully height-adjustable.
• String ferrules are recessed into the back of the body.
• Fender employees typically penciled in build dates on body-end of necks, in body neck cavity, and/or bridge pickup cavity (the latter often on masking tape).
• Neck screws changed to Philips-head in early ’52.
• Audio controls in ’52 used 250K-ohm potentiometers (pots), one .05-microfarad capacitor between the switch and master volume pot, and one 15K-ohm resistor soldered to the pickup selector; in ’53, the selector resistor was changed to a .1-microfarad.
• Offered only in “blond” finish.

Order July 2005 in the Vintage Guitar Store.

Special thanks to S.J. “Frog” Forgey (Elderly Instruments), Kenny Rardin (Solidbodyguitar.com), George Gruhn, Sam Calveard, and Phil Jones (Gruhn’s Guitars), Dave Rogers (Dave’s Guitars), Dave Hinson (Killer Vintage), and Nate Westgor (Willie’s American Guitars). For an in-depth look at the Telecaster, grab A.R. Duchossoir’s The Fender Telecaster: The Detailed Story of America’s Senior Solid Body Electric Guitar.


This article originally appeared in VG July 2005 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.


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