Ball of Confusion: The 93 Different Varieties of Telecaster

So what if I wanted to take the easy but expensive option, plonk down my Finnair Mastercard at Guitar Center or online and just get a nice brand-new Telecaster[1]?

Well it’s pretty confusing. There are ninety three different types of solid-body Tele available on the Guitar Center website. Ninety three! They range from the $179 Squier Affinity to the $6,320 Fender Custom Shop Master Built By Greg Fessler ’50s Heavy . From a specific luthier – built by Greg! Do you start getting Christmas cards from him if you buy it? At six grand you should!

Fender uses three brands; Squier for entry level, Fender for the mid-range and Fender Custom Shop for the high-end. They also effectively divide their core Fender brand in two by making the less expensive guitars in Mexico (often referred to as MIM guitars for Made In Mexico) and making the more expensive ones in the US.

There are not many price-points left uncovered by this branding and pricing scheme. Especially at the low-end there is always bound to be a slightly better guitar next to the one you came to look at, tempting you to stretch your budget by that extra thirty, fifty or hundred dollars. Fender doesn’t want to leave any money on the table. They want to make sure they’ve wrung every penny out of you when you walk out with your new Tele. Or to put it slightly less cynically, there’s a choice for every budget.

But ninety three is a lot. How to narrow it down?

Well I clearly don’t have the cash to buy the Custom Shop guitars. So that rules them out. Sorry Greg, the kids have got to eat and I want to stay married. But we’re still left with 74 different options. Of course some of them are lefties, but that still leaves a really broad range. How to make a choice?

On price alone, the Affinity looks attractive – but is it just a Telecaster-shaped toy? I’m not a good player by any means, but I like to think I can tell when a guitar is clearly a stinker. I’m not going to rule out the Affinity until I have at least played the thing, but I don’t think a guitar that has clearly been put together with the objective of being as cheap as possible is likely to float my boat, although I’d love to be proved wrong on that. I’m no snob and if it is good enough for me, then maybe I could get a tube practice amp as well[2].

But the guitar that’s right for me is probably somewhere on the spectrum between the Affinity and the Fender American Standard. More likely further down towards the Affinity end of things, but somewhere on that spectrum.

And this is where it gets really geeky. I’ve made a cute little table (!) of some possible options. Tah-dah!

The Incredible Telecaster Comparison Table[3]

Model Country of Origin Body Wood Body Finish Neck Pickup Bridge Pickup Other electronics

Street Price ($)

Squier Affinity China Alder Polyurethane Vintage Style Single-Coil Tele® Neck Tele® Single-Coil Bridge

179

Squier Standard China Agathis Polyurethane Alnico Magnet Single-Coil Neck Tele® Single-Coil Bridge

229

Squier Vintage Modified Special China Basswood Polyester Duncan Designed JM-101N “Jazzmaster” Duncan Designed TE-101B

299

Squier Classic Vibe 50s China Pine Polyester Custom Vintage Style Single-Coil Tele Neck Custom Vintage Style Single-Coil Tele Bridge

349

Fender Standard Mexico Ash/Alder Polyester Standard Tele Standard Tele

449

Fender FSR Standard Mexico Ash Polyester Hot Standard Tele Hot Standard Tele

499

Fender Classic Series ’50s USA Ash Polyester “Vintage Style Single Coil” “Vintage Style Single Coil”

699

Fender Highway One USA Alder Nitro “Hot Alnico 3” “Hot Alnico 3” Greasebucket Circuit

729

Fender Classic Series Baja USA Ash Polyester Custom Shop “Twisted” Tele Single-Coil Custom Shop Broadcaster Single-Coil S-1 Switch

799

Fender American Standard USA Ash/Alder Urethane American Tele American Tele DeltaTone Circuit

999-1149

Fender Custom Shop 1967 NOS USA Alder Nitro 1967 Tele single-coil 1967 Tele single-coil

2549

Fender Custom Shop Pro Closet Classic USA Swamp Ash Nitro Custom Shop “Twisted” Tele Single-Coil Custom Shop “Twisted” Tele Single-Coil Greasebucket Circuit

3680

Update: I goofed in the initial table. American Standard prices vary depending upon the color. Cheapest is Blizzard Pearl, listed at $999 on GC website. Most expensive is 2-tone ‘burst or Natural at $1149.

This is not an exhaustive list. I’ve limited it to those that have the standard twin single coil pick-up arrangement and are cheaper than the Fender USA Standard. I’ve probably missed a few that meet this criteria, but this is a good selection to examine. I’ve included a couple of high-end Custom Shop guitars, just for reference. I know already that I want a maple fretboard, so that rules out the Squier Standard, which seems to only come with rosewood, but I left it in there as it is clearly one of the cornerstones of the portfolio.

Paralysis by Analysis

What follows is a discussion of these different guitars just based on the specs. I haven’t played them yet and of course that’s the ultimate test, but on paper, I’m interested to try and work out, which guitars offer the best value?

Outside of branding, one of the big price drivers unsurprisingly appears to be Country of Origin. But I’m not sure that matters in and of itself because the Telecaster, like the Model T Ford was designed to be easily mass produced. Obviously if you are going to make a guitar as cheap as possible you want to locate the factory in a low-cost country, but I expect that the techniques and machinery used to put the guitar together are pretty similar around the globe (unless we’re talking about the Custom Shop Master Built beauties: Hi Greg!).  But quality assurance and attention to detail also cost money, so Squier could skimp on that, resulting in overall poorer fit and finish on the cheaper Asian models, although that might also be somewhat correctable with a decent setup or a bit of light woodwork?

Probably the more important differentiators are the materials and components used to make the guitar.

The traditional Tele tonewoods are ash and alder, with swamp-ash[4] being the most desirable and expensive. Interestingly the cheapo Affinity model has a body made of alder! This is a real outlier. The more expensive Squiers use agathis, basswood and pine and you have to get a MIM guitar to get an ash/alder option again. So my guess is that the Affinity alder is either of a very low grade or of a slightly different species than the higher end models. It’s also possible that it’s some kind of alder laminate and not a solid piece of wood. I don’t know. I’ll have to ask in the store about this. Agathis and basswood are roundly dissed as tonewoods on-line, but there appears to be a range of opinions about pine.

Body finish is also said to be very important to guitar tone, with a thin finish producing better results[5]. The classic, vintage finish is achieved by a thin coating of nitrocellulose lacquer (‘nitro’), which still seems to be standard on the Custom Shop guitars. It’s really interesting that the USA made Highway One comes with a nitro finish, but the more expensive American Standard does not.

Pickups: Vintage! Hot! Alnico! Classic! Custom! (WTF?)

Another big difference is the pickups. This is where it gets really confusing. No guitar seems to have the same set and there are very few available details about them. Lots of buzzwords are thrown in there such as “vintage”, “hot”, “alnico”, “classic” and “twisted”. These pickup models also don’t seem to be available as after-market parts, so looking at how they are priced separately is not possible.

It’s strange, because they have very clear positioning for almost everything else

  • Brand: Custom Shop > Fender > Squier[6]
  • Country of Origin: USA > Mexico > China
  • Tonewood: Swamp ash > ash/alder > cheapo tonewoods
  • Body Finish: Nitro > Polyester > Polyurethane

But their pickup branding, at least for the Tele is extremely confusing. I can’t tell at all what is meant to be ‘better’ than what.

I assume the more expensive guitars have the ‘better’ pickups, but I have no basis to make that judgment other than the price of the guitar itself.  If the Highway One “Hot Alnico 3” pickups are roughly as good as the American Standard pickups, then surely that’s a much better deal? When the pickup portfolio is so opaque, I can’t be too influenced by a choice of one pickup over another.

But luckily pickups seem to be just about the most upgradable part of the guitar, and even a set of Custom Shop branded Telecaster pickups can be had for $160 new. These are presumably the ones that Greg uses, so I can always upgrade to those later.

The marketing confusion seems to extend to the other electronics available in the high end guitars. The ‘Greasebucket’ and ‘DeltaTone’ brands (who came up with those names?) refer to different tone control options that seem relatively cheap and easy to retrofit to a guitar yourself. So I’m going to forget about extra electronics as well.

I left a lot of details off the comparison table, such as hardware (tuners, knobs, bridge, nut, truss rod). These might also be really important, but I just don’t know – if you do, then please leave a comment! At least they should all also be upgradable.

Yeah, so what?

I guess I’m looking for a decent tonewood and ideally a nice thin finish. To me these seem to be the most important things that define the value of a Telecaster. A good body should provide a good platform for future upgrades should I decide to do them.

If you ignore the ‘alder’ Affinity, the use of obviously cheap tonewoods for Squiers casts them in a poor light, with the exception of the pine Classic Vibe, where the picture is less clear. But the ash/alder MIM standard comes in at just $100 more (less after available discounts), so on paper at least the Classic Vibe doesn’t appear to be such a great deal.

I also think, if you hold with the idea that tonewood and finish are where it’s at (as opposed to country of origin or pickups), that the American guitars are well overpriced relative to the MIM – with the exception of the Highway One, which at least provides a nitro finish for the higher price.

So in the end I get to quite a short shortlist of the guitars that look the best value on paper:

  • Fender (MIM) Standard $449
  • Fender (USA) Highway One $729

Assuming there’s something fishy with the Affinity alder, the MIM guitar is the cheapest guitar to get you to one of the classic Tele tonewoods (ash or alder) and the Highway One is the cheapest one that gets you to the classic nitro finish as well. I’ll be particularly keen to try out this pair, but really the choice will be made on how they feel, sound and look. So I’ll also want to try out the Squiers, some other US built Teles and anything else I can get my paws on.

Although  I think it’s good to understand what you’re looking at and at least have a hypothesis of what might be good (and how much it is worth) before you hit the store or Craigslist, I’d like to emphasize that I know the experience of playing these instruments will likely turn all this analysis on its head. In the end the purchase of a guitar is an emotional thing and rational analysis (if that’s what this is!) can only get you so far.


[1] This, I need to point out, just in case Mrs Axestogrind is reading, remains a purely hypothetical scenario at this stage. Don’t worry darling!

[2] Hypothetical darling! Hypothetical!

[3] Sources: guitarcenter.com, fender.com and a little guesswork

[4] Trees that grow in the boggy, wet and marshy areas of the American South produce the most sought after Fender tonewood

[5] John Lennon and George Harrison famously stripped down their Epiphone Casino guitars to the wood after being advised by a guru in India to let their guitars ‘breath’. The John Lennon tribute edition of the Casino now comes with a natural finish

[6] I’m using the ‘>’ sign to denote ‘better than’ or ‘more valuable than’

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The Guitar Podcast

I’m a big fan of podcasts and have been listening to them since about 2005 — I remember when the Ricky Gervais one was free! They are a great way to consume information and entertainment when you are doing something else such as commuting, household chores, working out, shopping, whatever.

Since I started this guitar blog thing, I’ve also started listening to an excellent show, with the elegantly simple moniker of The Guitar Podcast. The show is hosted by Mr. Loren Hunt, a man who clearly has a deep knowledge and passion for all things axe. I started listening around the time he did a show about the whole Partscaster idea. I believe he recorded it as an entirely unscripted monologue while driving his car somewhere (talk about multitasking!) but that’s by the by, it was jammed full of useful nuggets of information. I know I’m going to have to go back and take notes.

Loren’s latest but one show (I am gradually listening back to all the shows I missed, there’s over 60 of them) consists of him responding to listener feedback and during the course of one discussion he began talking about the five ‘essential’ or ‘foundation guitars’ which were absolutely identical to the five I picked as the Guitarchetypes. It seems great minds really do think alike!

Loren is planning to unpack his view of these five guitars over the course of upcoming podcasts and I am really looking forward to them. Unlike me, he’s a proper gigging musician and a real guitar expert with a vast amount of experience. It’s going to be very interesting to hear what he has to say.

In the same episode, he also recounted his experiences with the custom made Ruokangas guitars. A Finnish outfit that I’d shamefully never heard of before, despite having lived nearly ten years in Helsinki. I guess at $5000 per guitar they’re just a bit out of reach for me. But if I ever win that Veikkaus Lotto

So there you go, if you’re really into guitars you should subscribe to this show. It’s available on iTunes. I hyperlinked to the website earlier on, but here’s the URL in full:

http://www.theguitarpodcast.net/index.html

Something old, something new or something cobbled together out of various parts (How does one purchase a Tele?)

So… now I think I’ve decided I want a Telecaster of some kind, but I still need to work out how to get one. As I mentioned, my budget is – shall we say— ‘limited’, and my ideas about what I want within the general Telecaster type are somewhat vague.

There are three main options for obtaining the instrument

Buying new would be logical and safe. Painless, except for the wallet. Low risk. You know what you’re getting. Either it will come with a pretty good setup out of the box or I can have the store do a setup. Any problems with the guitar should be covered by the manufacturer’s warranty. But of course not the cheapest way to do it.

Of course used would be cheapest[i].  The Tele is a robust solid bodied instrument that seemingly lasts forever. I also believe that they depreciate circa 30-50% when they leave the store[ii], but then hold their value pretty well. So as a bonus down the line, if I decided to sell, I’d likely get something close to what I paid for it. However, comes at extra risk. The local Craigslist market for Telecasters here in Phoenix doesn’t seem to be particularly liquid. Lots of Strats for sale of all different kinds, but precious few Teles, so my choice would be limited. There’s of course a bigger market on eBay, but that means I wouldn’t be able to play the guitar before purchase, which increases the risk I won’t like it when it arrives

The Tele is a modular guitar, so building my own from a mix of new and second hand parts could be an option. All components can be swapped. Building these ‘Frankenstein’ or ‘Partscaster’ guitars is a time honoured tradition. If it’s good enough for Clapton and Van Halen, it’s good enough for me. Various things such as bodies, pickups, necks come available all the time on eBay and Craigslist. This might be a fun thing to do, and open up almost limitless choice, but would also be time-consuming and place a burden on me as a ‘builder’. I’m not known for my practical nature, so I could really balls it up if I’m not careful. Also, such ‘Recycled’ guitars don’t hold their value as well as unmodified examples.

I like the idea of getting something used and maybe finding some choice parts to swap in and out, but I feel I need to understand what kinds of guitars are out there and how the market values them. The logical place to start to do that is to look at Fender’s current portfolio.


[i] I’m going to steer clear of the term ‘vintage’ as to me it just means ‘used and expensive’.

[ii] This is a pure guess, based on what I see on Craigslist and eBay. But of course a Squier is likely to depreciate 50% and an American made model maybe only 20-30%, before it ‘goes vintage’ 20 years down the line and begins to increase in value.

I think it’s a Tele

As my very small but hopefully loyal readership knows by now,  I believe there are five essential types of guitar I ‘need’, The Guitarchetypes. Two of which I already own; an acoustic and a Strat. That leaves the Telecaster, Les Paul and ES335 as the potential candidates as The Next Thing.

I miss  my Strat a lot and although I have a solid body electric travel guitar, when I am messing about with GarageBand, I really miss the strat. But I’ve already got one of those. So it has to be one of the other three.

I love Les Pauls, but rightly or wrongly, I see them as a lead instrument, or as a hard-rock riff machine. The domain of aspiring Pages or Bonamassas. I see myself more as a rhythm player, an accompanist.

So that leaves the Telecaster and the Gibson ES335 types. I think I can get a broader range of tones from a Tele than an ES335. Semi-hollow guitars also start at a higher price bracket than solid bodies, so I think I might also get better value out of a Tele. There’s also a lot more to go wrong on an ES335 compared to a Tele, so the risk of getting a lemon might be higher.

There may be Gibsons (or more likely Epiphones) in my future, but I think next it’s a Tele.

Of course that doesn’t narrow it down much. The range of possibilities within the overall Telecaster class of guitar are bewildering. So that’s the next step, to try and work out what kind of Tele I want to get. For one reason and another, our family’s finances are somewhat more restricted this year, so I have no idea even what the budget is going to be. But I know what I’d like, ideally

  • Maple fretboard. For some reason– and  this is something I have always felt really strongly about– Teles and Strats just look better with maple fret-boards. I broke this rule once, 18 years ago when I got my Strat with rosewood fretboard, just because I liked that particular guitar so much, but this time it has to be maple
  • Traditional pick-up arrangement. The chrome covered single coil neck pick-up and the open single coil set at that rakish angle for the bridge. Although I am quite tempted by a humbucker neck pickup per Keith Richards. But maybe that’s a mod I could do myself down the line if I feel like it
  • Butterscotch blonde and a black or tortoiseshell pickguard would be great, but I have also seen nice sunburst guitars, natural finish etc.
  • Solid body. None of this thinline nonsense.

I am pretty open minded on what kind of wood for the body, although ash would be nice. Ideally I’d like it to be American made and have Fender on the headstock as opposed to Squier or some other brand, but that’s secondary to finding the guitar that feels right, sounds right and looks right. I also suspect that an Californian made Fender may be beyond my budget.

So there you go, the next step is to work out what kind of Tele might be right for me. That’s where it’s likely to get really geeky…

What makes a good guitar?

Clearly the obvious answer is “a good player”. Back home in Finland I have the Haines Manual for the Fender Stratocaster. In one passage, the author refers to Jimi Hendrix’s habit of recording demos by connecting his guitar directly into the mixing desk without amp or effects (“DI-ing”). He comments “it still sounds like Jimi Hendrix playing a strat”.

On the track Brothers by Stevie Ray and Jimmy Vaughan. The siblings famously swap guitars midway through, while maintaining the same amp settings. Stevie Ray takes over from Jimmy at about the 2.00 mark and it’s clear as day.

So given that the most important part of the system is the guitarist, what makes a good guitar for a given player? I’d say it is down to the following things

  • Playability. Jack White may say he likes to fight against the guitar and reputedly likes to find his instruments in cheap second-hand stores. But he’s a genius and I’m not. I like guitars that are easy to play, having a reasonably low action (clearance between neck and strings), have no fret-buzz and that stay in tune. I like my guitars to play easy. Fortunately most guitars can be made easy to play via a good set-up, but how a guitar feels to hold, its weight and its balance are not possible to compensate for.
  • Tone. How it sounds. This is a really important and very complex issue, that has almost mystical status among guitarists. There are countless websites, magazine articles and probably even books dedicated to the subject. Although a lot of ‘tone’ can be created via effects and amps, the input device — the guitar– has a huge role to play
  • Looks. Guitars are used by performers, who stand in front of people and get stared at. They thus have to look good. Like it or not, guitars are iconic objects. When you select one, you are consciously or unconsciously tapping into musical history. Each guitar has its specific symbolism and associations. You also want a guitar that is a pleasing object, that invites you to play it and looks good lying around your home. Of course what ‘looking good’ means is entirely subjective. My own taste leans more towards the classics. You won’t see me with a BC Rich Warlock

Ugh

Santana Live in Shanghai

I just got back from a work trip to Shanghai in China. I was really impressed by the city,  but unfortunately got really sick while I was there. Spent most of one day in bed, was just generally feeling really bad all week. It also didn’t help that it was around 0C, with rain and snow.

However, I did get to see Santana up close. No sign of his famous signature PRS Custom 24 though.

The vast majority of taxis in China appear to be locally produced VW Santana cars. They’re about the size of a Jetta and appear to have been designed n around 1990. According to the locals there is no rule that forces drivers to pick these cars, but in terms of cost to purchase, running costs and fitness for purpose it has no competitors.

What’s the point?

While writing the Les Paul post in the Guitarchetypes series, I seriously lost the will to live. I began to wonder if this blog was really such a good idea after all, especially if I’m not enjoying writing it. I think I started feeling like that because I committed myself to writing 5 posts on the five different types of guitar. I’d locked myself into a pattern I couldn’t break. So that’s why I dashed off the ES335 one as quickly as I could.

But the whole Guitarchetype concept does have a point I feel. As I said at the outset, these 5 guitars should be the cornerstones of any collection. Of course what I really meant is that these are the guitars I aspire to have in my collection. They’re all distinctive classics that I believe can be justified on musical grounds. A painter needs a palette of colours to work with, no?

So really this whole Guitarchetype thing was just an extended setup to pose the question:

What kind of guitar do I want to get next?

I already have a nice flat top acoustic (Guitarchetype I) and a Fender Stratocaster (Guitarchetype II). So next it has to be either a Telecaster, Les Paul or ES335 type.

Please note; I believe that these five guitars represent types, I don’t necessarily think I need to own exactly these guitars. In an ideal world I would, but they are just so expensive. Especially the Gibsons cost over $2k each, even used. I just don’t have that kind of disposable income.

But there are a huge range of options within these types. For the ES335 it would be possible to get the Epiphone version rather than the Gibson, or instead go Gretsch or Ibanez Artcore. For a Les Paul I could consider an Epiphone or a similar ESP-LTD type.

I am looking for maximum bang for my limited bucks and I don’t know yet where I will find it.