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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11 thoughts on “Ball of Confusion: The 93 Different Varieties of Telecaster

  1. Yeah… it’s a total geek out…

    The idea is just to compare Teles based on their specs and try and see if any look better value than others — and give reasoning why.

    I’m also trying to educate myself on what a Telecaster is. I think I’m more likely to buy used, but I don’t want to overpay.

  2. Pingback: Geekageddon II: Ramblings on buying a used Tele | axestogrind

  3. Pingback: Middle-Aged British Male Succumbs to Guitar Acquisition Syndrome (GAS) in Scottsdale AZ | axestogrind

  4. You’re off to a great start… Please give them each a round of playing. How hard is it that? Then post more. That would make your post a real stand-out comparison. I do like the fact that you have initial, pre-play thoughts… But then I realized there’s no play. Otherwise, well-done, for what it is.

  5. This is well thought out. Kudos for that. BUT… Yeah, there’s a big “but” (which is nicer than a big butt but not by much). The “but” is this: Most of things said here are the popular wisdom which is based equally on hearsay and advertising.

    An example: “Tone wood.” Leo Fender chose what wood his guitars would be built out of based on easy availability, easy workmanship and low cost. “Tone” had little if anything to do with it. Pine at first was chosen but it was soft and tended to be knotty, That made finishing a challenge. Then ash was used but many pieces, as it turned out, had open grain which again caused finish adherence and general appearance issues. Then came alder which was easily available, inexpensive (he glued together as many as five pieces to make one large enough or the guitar body a,d took a finish reasonably well (This, btw, is still done.)

    Ah yes, finishes. Fender used what was available. In the fifties that was nitrocellulose lacquer. The same stuff used on cars. Really, the same stuff. (Was it used there for “tone”?)

    Today environmental laws make use of such finishes on mass-produced products impossible so new finishes are used. Ones that do not dry (which releases solvents into the air), but harden. (Again, like automobiles) There are products that are called “nitro cellulose” but they are not the same as the old products. They are, however, thinner than the less expensive and more easily applied polys. The thinner coat slowly soaks into the wood creating a “patina” (or “wear” — guess which word is preferred?) as time passes.

    Does this effect tone. Ar risk of being stoned…. No. At least not significantly. But it is sold as important. And people buy it — both literally and figuratively.

    For some years the difference between American, Mexican and Asian guitars were largely dependent on the skill level and time put into each guitar. Now computers control the routing and finishing so the differences are smaller, and those that are there are there to keep the tiers you mention; the pecking order. Less expensive parts can still be substituted but getting crap electronics in Asia is no mean trick. Fender seems to have all but given up looking for it. Squiers today have pretty fine electrical components. (Thus the say-nothing nomenclature you observed for pickup types. When the “BIG!” difference is cloth covered wires instead of vinyl covered the jig is up. Its up.

    One area does remain. One thing that machines cannot quite do. That is final setup and inspection. For Squires that has largely fell to the purchaser. No biggie. There are dozens of short videos on the web that can teach anyone who is interested in doing so to do so.

    Btw, I own American made guitars. I own Mexican made guitars I own Asian made guitars. My most commonly played are Asian. That ain’t to save money. 😉

    • Don. Thanks so much for stopping by! Your reply I think is more detailed and informative than the original post. 😀

      When I go back and read my original article, I think “Man, you had so much time on your hands!”. So thanks for wading through it!

      You make really interesting points about woods, pickups and finishes. There is a whole lotta marketing blended in there. I don’t know if you can stand to read more witterings on Telecasters, but I did eventually buy a MIM Standard

      https://axestogrind.wordpress.com/2012/04/12/the-new-addition-7/

      I have been thoroughly satisfied with it and it gets a lot of use. Along with my MIJ Strat (the oldest guitar I have) and my Agile Les Paul copy (an Asian budget gem) it is the guitar that gets the most playing time.

      A couple of things did occur to me while reading your reply. Firstly, I was thinking although Leo did use cheaply available materials and construction methods (e.g. bolt-on necks), it could be that these materials and methods are what came to define the sound of rock’n’roll? There’s no denying that Strats and Teles sound a deal different than more expensively made Gibsons.

      Secondly I was thinking that when we are looking at guitars it is impossible to be rational. We like the fact the specs say swamp ash and nitro, because that’s what our heroes played. Even if it doesn’t make any difference to the sound or playability. This is not a rationale pursuit. Which kind of goes against the whole point of my original article so I will stop typing now 😀

      Thanks again for stopping by. Much appreciated!

      • Thank you for the link! I very much look forward to reading it.

        You have made some excellent points. And all of these considerations — “rational” or not is part of the joy of guitar ownership (and so many other things!).

        As to Fender’s effect on music, I most heartily concur. Indeed it is something on touched on in an article I wrote for PJ Lifestyle entitled “What Exciting New Technology Led to Rock ‘n’ Roll?” (Found here: http://pjmedia.com/lifestyle/2014/05/21/what-exciting-new-technology-led-to-rock-n-roll/)

        How life enriching all of this is! And reading your blog, and thus sharing your journey, is to me an enormous pleasure. 🙂

        BTW, I’ve been playing since the early `60s. Pro then, for pleasure now. Here is my latest “release” — latest, but in another sense, earliest! Yes, as the song says, “Rock and Roll is here to Stay”!

        Write on! 🙂

        http://www.break-a-way.de/bands/abtracts.html

      • As a short addenda, as a lover of Teles, have you seen Squier’s take on the once Custom Shop only “Cabronita”? Wonderful! They took a Gretsch-like Fender Fideritron PUP, mounted it in the neck position of a Tele and added both a Bigsby and a Jazzmaster-derived rocking bridge.

        Here it in action in quickie video I made yesterday… http://youtu.be/d8TW823oros

        🙂

      • That’s great! Nice sound and nice playing! I have seen the Cabronita around and it does look an inspired design. I have never played a Bigsby, because although I love the look of them, I am a little intimidated by them. I worry they are not very practical. I lost the vibrato arm from my strat a good few years ago and keep meaning to block out the mechanism. But a Bigsby has a certain charisma to it!

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