The Telecaster was the first real solid bodied electric guitar to make any impact on the guitar market. It was the start of an evolution in guitars, one that has settled down but is still rolling on today, and not a hell of a lot has changed since that first Tele. Gibson went a step further with their double neck guitar, but other than that the guitar as an instrument hasn’t changed that much.
It wasn’t the first solid body guitar, they’d been in production in small numbers since 1932, but they didn’t really take off. There was less call for them back in the day, as there was less need for guitar amplification than there is today. Leo Fender and Doc Kauffman started experimenting with materials in the 1940s, hand building guitars to see how they could make them work with a solid wooden base and amplification, whilst getting a good sound at the same time.
In their experimental days, the pair came up with the Broadcaster. One of the first musicians to use the Broadcaster was Arthur “Guitar Boogie” Smith. He used it to record “Guitar Boogie” in 1947. It wasn’t until 1950 that the Broadcaster was produced in any numbers under the name Esquire, and then it went national. The original version of the Esquire did not have a truss rod in the neck, which meant that most of the small number produced were recalled under warranty.
Renamed the Broadcaster, the newer version had a truss rod in the neck, and dual pick up, as opposed to the original single pick up version. The neck wasn’t the only problem, the name Broadcaster itself became a potential trademark problem. Fender’s competitor Gretsch complained that the name Broadcaster was an infringement on their trademark for their Broadcaster line of drums. Fender relented, and for a while the guitar was called the ‘Nocaster’, which obviously wasn’t going to last as a name, and in 1951 the Telecaster was released.
Even since then, the Telecaster has been in continuous production, and still remains the most popular hard bodied electric guitar in the world. Although there was a bit of ‘popularity blip’ when CBS took over production, there hasn’t really been much cause for concern from the Tele producers. Guitarists go for a certain sound which luckily means there is room in the market for people like Gibson, and Fender to do well without being too much of a threat to each other.
The pickup setup on the Tele produces a distinctive bright and crisp tone. The sound was a real move away from the hollow guitar sound of ranges like Gretsch guitars, as there was always going to be the potential feedback problem. The distinctive sound has been made the most of by many players, and it’s rock solid body has been to effect by Keith Richards when he famously swung it at an unwanted stage invader.
The list of other famous players is huge, and from many musical genres. Country players were the first to pick up on the Tele, including Buck Owens and Waylon Jennings. Blues players included Muddy Waters. It really took off in the sixties and with players such as Clapton, and continued into the eighties with Joe Strummer among others, and the story continues. The Tele was used by Jimmy Page on Zeppelin’s ‘Stairway To Heaven’, probably one of the most famous guitar solos of all time, and a bane to music store assistants who hear it being played badly on a daily basis. Jimmy Page is one of the the guitar greats who like Clapton experiments with different guitars, and makes sure he’s got the one with the right sound for the mood of the song.
Although the Tele has had variants over the years, it is still near enough the same guitar which went into production in the 1950s, which is quite an amazing accomplishment, and says a lot about what the guitar actually means to people. The telecaster, the strat, and very few other guitars have defined the guitar sound of rock, whereas rockabilly is more defined by makes such as Gretsch.
Unless rock itself goes out of fashion, the Telecaster is here to stay.