Guitarchetype III: Fender Telecaster

The Tele was not the first solid body electric, but it was the first to be mass produced. Initially known as the Broadcaster, Leo Fender made the first version in 1948.

The previous two guitarchetypes I’ve written about– the flat top acoustic and the Fender Strat— I actually own. The Telecaster, along with the Gibson Les Paul and ES-335,  I only covet.

It is impossible to think about the Telecaster without also thinking about the Statocaster that succeeded it and in the end has outsold it by an order of magnitude. The Tele was Leo Fender’s first attempt at a solid body electric and its aesthetic remains firmly rooted in the 1940s, whereas the Strat’s design is from the jet age. To attempt an analogy, if the Strat is a Boeing 747, the Tele is a Flying Fortress.

But in terms of construction they’re not that different. The Tele, like the strat is classically made from an ash or alder body, has a bolt-on neck and blonde maple fretboard. The Tele has one less pickup than the Strat, with a single coil at the bridge and another at the neck. The major differences, at first glance, are in styling, with the Tele having flat parallel sides versus the Strat’s highly sculpted body. This sculpting was introduced by Fender to the Strat in response to Tele players complaining that the guitar’s sharp edges could be uncomfortable after extended periods.

But there is more to it than just styling. The Tele has a really distinctive tone, especially when played clean with the bridge pickup selected. On the bass strings it chugs, on the treble it twangs. The Tele remains the go-to instrument for country guitarists.

In rock, two good examples of really distinctive Tele sounds can be found on Prince’s When You Where Mine and Springsteen’s Born To Run (especially the solo).

Apart from Prince and Briuce, there have been many great Tele players in every decade since its introduction. Bluesman Albert Collins was known as The Master of The Telecaster.

There is famous footage of Jimmy Page playing Dazed and Confused on a psychedilc Tele, complete with violin bow. From the late 60s until his death, George Harrison was in the Tele camp.

(The above Youtube video is not actually the Zeppelin footage I was thinking of, but rather an earlier Yardbirds rendition that I stumbled across.)

But of course arguably the greatest Tele player of all, the man who first jumps to mind is the incomparable Keith Richards, whose most famous guitar ‘Micawber’ is a Tele with a humbucker neck pick up taken from a Les Paul that is kept in Open G tuning, with the bottom E string removed and usually featuring a capo at the fourth fret to raise the key to a presumably Jagger-friendly B.

Possibly due to the fact that it sold less, or that the Claptons, Gilmours and Van Halens of this world largely ignored it, the Tele retains a rebel cache that the Strat just does not have anymore. The Tele and the Strat — similarly constructed guitars made by the same company in the same factories– found themselves on opposite sides of the Punk Rock Wars of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Joe Strummer played a Tele, as did Chrissie Hynde and more latterly Graham Coxon and Jonny Greenwood.

Like the Stratocaster, the Tele is available today at a wide variety of pricepoints, from less than $200 for a Squier Affinity, with different models seemingly available at every subsequent $25 interval from there to the cost of a decent car. Vintage specimens are again, highly sought after and highly valuable.

Guitarchetype II: Fender Stratocaster

If you had to get a child to draw a picture of an electric guitar, then they’d probably draw something that looks a lot like a Strat. Lozenge shaped body, softer than the squared-off boxier Telecaster, two cutaways where the bolt-on neck meets the solid body, made from ash (more desirable) or alder (less so). Blonde maple or brunette rosewood fretboard. The classic pickup configuration is three single coils. The sound is precise, resonant, with a sharp attack from the bridge pickup and is warm, round and soulful in the neck position.

The first classic player was arguably Buddy Holly, who pioneered the ‘between bridge and middle positions’ pickup selection by using a matchstick to get that now classic out-of-phase, airy Strat sound. He was followed in the 60s by Hendrix, 70s by Clapton and 80s Stevie Ray Vaughan. But the list of iconic strat players goes on and on; Hank Marvin, Rory Gallagher, Dave Gilmour, Buddy Guy, The Edge. Although Keith Richards is more strongly associated with the Telecaster, he often plays a Strat as well. Jimmy Page unexpectedly picks a Strat over a Les Paul as his first guitar love in the movie It Might Get Loud.

In the 1980s, the Strat also underwent a metamorphosis. Influenced by Eddie Van Halen’s self-built Frankenstrat guitar, makers such as Ibanez, Jackson and Charvel, started creating strat-like guitars with humbucking and active pickups, locking tremolo systems and super-fast necks. These beasts became the weapon of choice for the eighties wave of hair metal and shred players and became known as Superstrats. I used to own a kind of Superstrat-lite: A jet black Japanese built Aria Pro II Wildcat with a humbucker in the bridge position. I got it for my 15th birthday, it was my first decent six string. It fell into disrepair and I gave it away to a friend about ten years later.

I think partly due to this 1980s metal period and the strong association with players such Gilmour and Clapton, the Strat became less than cool by the 1990s, as musicians favoured Les Pauls, Telecasters and semi-hollow guitars instead. The Edge used a black Strat with black pickguard as his main instrument up to and including The Joshua Tree tour, but the time U2 had finished reinventing themselves with Achtung Baby album, he had by and large switched to Gibsons. It is still unusual to see a modern player with any pretensions of hipness using a Strat. Jack White– arguably the most compelling guitarist of this young century– even implicated the Strat in a tirade against “note-pushing Stratocaster white-blues bullshit“. However, I contend the Strat is a design classic. As evocative as an original Coke Bottle, a Coupe de Ville or a Boeing 747. Almost all the great guitarists have at least flirted with them. They’ve been used in the creation of some of the best music ever. Was Electric Ladyland note-pushing Stratocaster bullshit, Jack?

Thanks to Fender, It is now possible to get a Strat for any budget from the very affordable (less than $200 new) Squier Affinity series, through Made in Mexico (‘MIM’) Fender-branded models, to the American Standard and on to expensive artist signature models and Fender Custom Shop creations that go for thousands or even tens of thousands of dollars. Vintage Strats with the right serial numbers or pedigree sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars at auction.

I own a Strat, a Made In Japan Fender sunburst model purchased in 1994 when I got my first pay cheque after university and then paid for in installments, along with a Tascam Portastudio and Trace Elliott Supertramp combo, both of which I also still have.

I love my Strat. It is truly irrepraceable. It’s in storage back in Finland and I miss it very much.

Guitarchetype I: Flat Top Acoustic

The basic. The one that is easiest to just pick up and play. You can take it anywhere, no amp, effects or power needed. Simplicity itself. The archetype of this archetype is arguably a dreadnought such as the Martin D28. The grandaddy of the dreadnoughts. Evolved in pre-World War II America as a folk and bluegrass instrument to be flatpicked in a band with fiddle, banjo and accordion. Solid mahogany back and sides, spruce soundboard. Paul McCartney wrote and recorded Blackbird on a D28.

Another classic body shape is the Martin OM— quieter with less bass and more suitable for fingerstyle. So at stretch one could push that there are actually two flat-top guitarchetypes essential for any collection.

Although Martin arguably remains the big daddy in flat-top acoustics, Gibsons also have iconic status. Think Bob Dylan. In recent decades Taylor have emerged as the third big name in premium flat-tops.

You can now spend as little as $100 on a new buzz box from Guitar Center or absolutely as much as you want on a custom-built Santa Cruz (beloved of one Declan Macmanus), McPherson (with their innovative offset soundholes and cantilevered necks), Collings, Bourgeois among others

I have also always had a hankering– after falling in love with, but not buying, a vintage Hofner President in about 1988– for an archtop acoustic or ‘jazz box’. They just look so cool. If I could get one now for a decent price I would. But I don’t think an archtop qualifies as a ‘guitarchetype’ on its own. Just some kind of subdivision of the overall acoustic lineage, where the essential guitar would have to be a flat top. I am sure your opinion may differ. A similar logic should probably be applied to the resonator or Dobro guitar, the classic acoustic slide blues instrument. You could also make a case for a nylon string classical to be included. Fair enough, but first show me one classic rock’n’roll track that includes it and even then I’d argue it’s a sub-division of the flat-top. Unless you’re serious about playing classical, you are always going to get more use from a steel string guitar.

So there you go, you have to have an acoustic. Probably a dreadnought or smaller more subtle fingerstyle or ‘folk’ flat top. I have both; a cheap Sigma dread (in storage back home in Helsinki and in terrible shape last time I played it) and a more expensive Breedlove fingerstyle type (bought recently here in Arizona).

Guitarchetypes

There are in my opinion several archetypes of guitar– guitarchetypes if you will– that I believe any serious collector can justify to whomever. As in bicycles, the correct number of guitars in a collection is always n+1, where n is the current number of guitars. But I could imagine that the cornerstones of any collection would be as follows:

  • Flat Top Acoustic
  • Fender Stratocaster
  • Fender Telecaster
  • Gibson Les Paul
  • Gibson ES335

These five represent to my mind the major categories of guitar that have shaped rock’n’roll since the 1950s. I am going to expand on this in subsequent posts.