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The Fender Telecaster, colloquially known as the Tele /ˈtɛli/, is the world's first commercial solid-body, single-cutaway electric guitar made by Fender, typically dual-pickup in configuration.
Its simple yet effective design and revolutionary sound broke ground and set trends in electric guitar manufacturing and popular music. Introduced for national distribution as the Broadcaster in the autumn of 1950, it was the first guitar of its kind produced on a substantial scale. Its commercial production can be traced as far back as March 1950, when the single- and dual-pickup Esquire models were first sold. The Telecaster has been in continuous production in one form or another since its first incarnation.
The Fender Telecaster was developed by Leo Fender in Fullerton, California in 1950. In the period roughly between 1932 and 1949, several craftsmen and companies experimented with solid-body electric guitars, but none had made a significant impact on the market. Leo Fender's Telecaster was the design that finally put the solid-body guitar on the map.
Fender had an electronics repair shop called Fender's Radio Service where he first repaired, then designed, amplifiers and electromagnetic pickups for musicians—chiefly players of electric semi-acoustic guitars, electric Hawaiian (lap steel) guitars, and mandolins. Players had been 'wiring up' their instruments in search of greater volume and projection since the late 1920s, and electric semi-acoustics (such as the Gibson ES-150) had long been widely available. Tone had never, until then, been the primary reason for a guitarist to go electric, but in 1943, when Fender and his partner, Clayton Orr "Doc" Kauffman, built a crude wooden guitar as a pickup test rig, local country players started asking to borrow it for gigs. It sounded shiny and sustaining. Fender was intrigued, and in 1949, when it was long understood that solid construction offered great advantages in electric instruments, but before any commercial solidbody Spanish guitars had caught on (then small Audiovox company apparently offered a modern, solidbody electric guitar as early as the mid-1930s), he built a better prototype.
That hand-built prototype, an anonymous white guitar, had most of the features of what would become the Telecaster. It was designed in the spirit of the solid-body Hawaiian guitars manufactured by Rickenbacker – small, simple units made of Bakelite and aluminum with the parts bolted together—but with wooden construction. (Rickenbacker, then spelled 'Rickenbacher,' also offered a solid Bakelite-bodied electric Spanish guitar in 1935 that seemed to presage details of Fender's design.)
The initial single-pickup production model appeared in 1950, and was called the Esquire. Fewer than fifty guitars were originally produced under that name, and most were replaced under warranty because of early manufacturing problems. In particular, the Esquire necks had no truss rod and many were replaced due to bent necks. Later in 1950, this single-pickup model was discontinued, and a two-pickup model was renamed the Broadcaster. From this point onwards all Fender necks incorporated truss rods. The Esquire was reintroduced as a one-pickup Telecaster, at a lower price.
The so-called Nocaster was a short-lived variant of Telecaster. Produced in early to mid-1951, it was the result of legal action from the Gretsch company over the guitar's previous name, the Broadcaster (Gretsch already had the "Broadkaster" name registered for a line of drums). In the interim, before Fender had come up with an alternate name and printed appropriately revised headstock decals, factory workers simply snipped the "Broadcaster" name from its existing stock of decals, so guitars with these decals are identified simply as "Fender", without any model name. By the summer of 1951 the guitar was officially renamed as the Telecaster and has been known as such ever since.
The term Nocaster was originally coined by collectors to denote these transitional guitars that appeared without a model name on the headstock. Since they were manufactured in this form for only a few months very early in the Broadcaster/Telecaster's history, original Nocasters are highly prized and expensive collector's items. There are no official production numbers, but experts estimate that fewer than 500 Nocasters were produced. Fender has since registered Nocaster as a trademark to denote its modern replicas of this famous rarity.
In 1951, Fender also released the Precision Bass as a stablemate to the Telecaster. This was later released as the Fender Telecaster Bass in 1968 when Fender updated the Precision Bass to more closely resemble the Stratocaster in 1957.
"I think it's one of the greatest designs of the 20th century. It has never been bettered – partly because it fits the human body so well. With something like a Gibson Les Paul, it's a very heavy chunk of wood. I always had a problem holding it, especially standing up. But the weight of the Telecaster is just right. And its sound just cuts through everything. Everything I did in the Police was on a Telecaster."
Leo Fender's simple and modular design was geared to mass production, and made servicing broken guitars easier. Guitars were not constructed individually, as in traditional luthiery. Rather, components were produced quickly and inexpensively in quantity and assembled into a guitar on an assembly line. The bodies were bandsawn and routed from slabs, rather than hand-carved individually, as with other guitars made at the time, such as Gibsons. Fender did not use the traditional glued-in neck, but rather a "bolt-on" neck (which is actually affixed using screws, not bolts). This not only made production easier, but allowed the neck to be quickly removed and serviced, or replaced entirely. In addition, the classic Telecaster neck was fashioned from a single piece of maple without a separate fingerboard, and the frets were slid directly into the side of the maple surface—a highly unorthodox approach in its day (guitars traditionally featured rosewood or ebony fingerboards glued onto mahogany necks). The electronics were easily accessed for repair or replacement through a removable control plate, a great advantage over the construction of the then-predominant hollow-body instruments, in which the electronics could only be accessed through the soundholes.
In its classic form, the guitar is simply constructed, with the neck and fingerboard comprising a single piece of maple, screwed to an ash or alder body inexpensively jigged with flat surfaces on the front and back. The hardware includes two single coil pickups controlled by a three-way selector switch, and one each of volume and tone controls. The pickguard was first Bakelite, soon thereafter it was celluloid (later other plastics), screwed directly onto the body with five (later eight) screws. The bridge has three adjustable saddles, with strings doubled up on each. In its original design nearly all components are secured using only screws (body, neck, tuners, bridge, scratchplate, pickups to body, control plate, output socket); with glue used to secure the nut, and solder used to connect the electronic components. With the introduction of the truss rod, and later a rosewood fingerboard, more gluing was required during construction. The guitar quickly gained a following, and soon other, more established guitar companies (such as Gibson, whose Les Paul model was introduced in 1952; and later Gretsch, Rickenbacker, and others) began working on wooden solid-body production models of their own. A large chromed cover, often called the "ashtray", was fitted over the bridge for improved shielding, but this is rarely seen as most players find it impedes their style.
A huge range of aftermarket components are manufactured, including bridges with three vintage-look brass saddles, compensated (by having two separate string separation points on each saddle) to improve intonation. There are also "vertical stack" humbuckers which fit into a standard bridge in place of the traditional single-coil units and maintain the original appearance.
The original switch configuration used from 1950 to 1952 allowed selection of neck pickup with treble tone cut in the first position (for a bassier sound), the neck pickup with its natural tone in the second position with no tone, and in the third switch position both pickups together with the neck pickup blended into the bridge, depending on the position of the second "tone" knob. The first knob functioned normally as a master volume control. This configuration did not have a true tone control knob.
In 1952 the pickup selection circuit was modified by Fender to incorporate a real tone control. Between 1953 and 1967 the neck could be selected alone with a pre-set bassy sound and no tone control, in the middle switch the neck could be selected alone with the tone control and finally the bridge could be selected with the tone control. Although this provided the player with a proper tone control, this assembly did away with any sort of pickup combination. Eventually from late 1967 Fender again modified the circuit for the final time to give the Telecaster a more traditional twin pickup switching system: neck pickup alone with tone control in the first position, both pickups together with the tone control in the middle position and in the third position the bridge pickup alone with the tone control.
Typical modern Telecasters (such as the American Standard version) incorporate several details different from the classic form. They typically feature 22 frets (rather than 21) and truss rod adjustment is made at the headstock end, rather than the body end, which had required removal of the neck on the original (the Custom Shop Bajo Sexto Baritone Tele was the only Telecaster featuring a two-octave 24-fret neck). The three-saddle bridge of the original has been replaced with a six-saddle version, allowing independent length and height adjustment for each string. The long saddle bridge screws allow a wide range of saddle bridge positions for intonation tuning. The stamped metal bridge plate has been replaced with a plain, flat plate, and the bridge grounding cover (which, while helping with the shielding, impedes players who like to mute strings at the bridge with the side of the palm, and makes it impossible to pick near the saddles to produce the characteristic Telecaster 'twang') has been discontinued for most models.
During the CBS era in the 1970s, the Telecaster body style was changed to a new "notchless" shape, having a less pronounced notch in the crook where the upper bout meets the neck. The notchless body style was discontinued in 1982.
The short-lived Elite Telecaster of 1983 incorporated two specially designed humbucking pickups powered by an active circuitry that featured a "TBX" guitar expander and an MDX midrange booster with 12 dB of gain. Other features included a "Freeflyte" hardtail bridge and die-cast tuning machines with pearloid buttons. This guitar was among the latest CBS-era Fenders to feature a BiFlex truss-rod system, low-friction EasyGlider string trees and active electronics. After CBS sold Fender to a group of employees led by Bill C. Schultz in 1985, production ceased on the Elite Telecaster and other Elite models. Fender Japan made its own version of the Elite Telecaster in late 1984, which featured a 22-fret neck with medium-jumbo fretwire and a modern 9.5 inch fingerboard radius. Notable Elite Telecaster players include Johnny Hallyday, Dave Davies of The Kinks, Michael Houser with Widespread Panic, and Andy Summers of The Police.