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.
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.