Sometimes you get it right the first time. There is a sound that is heard on the radio almost around the world. It is found in jazz, country, rock, pop, punk, new age, acid rock, psychedelic, fusion, death rock, country punk, pub rock, country swing, and klezmer polka. It is the sound of a tool made of wood, wire, plastic and more wire, a tool in the shape of an art deco canoe paddle. It crept onto the music scene quietly in the late 1940s to laughter, scepticism and factory orders.
Twang Hoid Around the Woild
Today there is hardly a country in the world that does not have a few hundred of these instruments or legal and illegal copies of it within its borders. Millions of albums have been sold with its sound imprinted on them. Hundreds of famous musicians would not be seen without one. A few dozen have immortalised the instrument in their concerts and album covers to the point where no one would recognise them without one.
Bruce Springsteen, Joe Strummer, Merle Haggard, Roy Buchanan, The Hellecasters, Danny Gatton, Albert Lee, Bob Weir, Jimmy Page, Dave Gilmour, Terri Clark, Jeff Beck, Ray Davies, Status Quo, Prince, Muddy Waters, Ralph Macchio, Graham Parker, James Burton, BB King, Buck Owens, George Harrison, Keith Richards, Albert Collins, Robben Ford, Steve Cropper and Johnny Burnette all became infected with the insidious virus known as the Telecaster.
Somebody's Missing a Cutting Board Somewheres Tonight...
The Telecaster is a 'solid body' electric guitar. Designed by Leo Fender and George Fullerton1 in the period from 1948 to 1949, and first introduced in 1950, it was the first 'Spanish-style' guitar to come from a true assembly line. Before the Telecaster, guitars were produced in the main by artisans working for a manufacturer such as Rickenbacker, Martin or Gibson. Although these guitars were of a very high quality the labour costs involved in the production of these guitars put them out of reach for most people.
In 1948 Leo Fender decided that he could assemble and produce a quality instrument at a price equivalent to a labourer's monthly wage2 if he adopted the techniques used by producers of the new 'white goods' industry and the aircraft factories that had surrounded him during the recent war. The Telecaster has a bolt-on neck instead of a neck that was glued to the body semi-permanently, as was the case with Gibson guitars. This enabled Fender to produce necks and bodies in two different areas of the plant and if one part were to fail the remaining guitar could be easily recycled.
It's Amazing What You Can Do...
...with a toolbox, some old radio parts, a little wood, some power tools and a garage.
Pickups and control plates were fixed using screws so the electronics could be manufactured away from the wood shop and later simply 'dropped' in as a module, with just a couple of wires to solder. These utilitarian devices did not exclude innovation. Leo Fender's Telecaster was the first production electric guitar to have two single coil pickups with a three-way tone circuit, all-metal adjustable bridge, six-tuners-on-a-side peghead, and a four-bolt neck with a truss rod in it.
Telecasters are traditionally made out of ash of varying density and grain figuring. The strings usually go through the back of the body, through little thimble-things called ferrules, before they come up through the bridge plate and across the bridge pieces, which were originally brass, but later became steel, sometimes with threads, like a screw. Leo used readily-available woodworking machinery, such as pin-routers and table saws, to shape the inexpensive wood planks and neck blanks. If a piece of wood was too narrow, he didn't bother book-matching, he just glued together two slightly similar grained pieces and threw on a relatively opaque stained varnish or some paint in order to cover the mismatch.
Leo also wasn't reticent when it came to buying readily-available electronic components in bulk from wholesale suppliers. His years in the repair business had made him conscious of just how profitable thriftiness could be. The almost milspec nature of the instrument also allowed him to have his pickups wound in the factory on specially-ordered plastic bobbins and to chrome-plate the plainly stamped steel bridges and control plates on-site. The only things he didn't make were the tuners, which were generic items bought from Kluson, the pickup selector switch (supplier named later), the potentiometers (ditto), and the screws that held the whole thing together.
In Der Beginning Was Der... um, Beginning
The original production model, known as the Esquire, normally had only one pickup in the specially-designed covered bridge, but a version with two pickups, including a neck one, could be ordered. The two-pickup guitar was eventually called the Broadcaster. It was later changed to the Telecaster (after a short period without a name) as another manufacturer - Gretsch3, already had set of drums called Broadkaster. Like most innovators dipping their toe into a new technology and wishing they'd brought wellies, Leo and his boys learned a few things they wished they could have skipped in the first few months of production. One of the sales people, possibly Forrest White, took a carload of Esquires to show some gigging musicians during a break. The first guitar out of the case didn't work. The second didn't either. None of them did. The humiliated rep returned to the factory, where it was discovered that a vital wire had been pinched when the bridge plate was screwed down. Then there was Leo's belief, apparently based on his lap steel experience that a good stiff wood neck wouldn't warp... Well, it did, and most of the early Esquires ended up being recalled and recycled, with the new version featuring a truss rod in the neck and a notch in the body to allow a screwdriver to adjust the said rod. The instrument, after these teething pains, was a gradual overnight success and has never been out of production, unlike its decade-mate, the Gibson Les Paul, which had been out of production for a few years when Bloomfield and Clapton discovered it.
Set Your Own Hours, Be Your Own Boss! Learn to Fix Stuff!
Leo Fender and Doc Kauffman were technicians who repaired radios and amps and manufactured amps, PA systems and electric lap steel guitars. Doc sold out his half of the business to Leo in 1945 when Leo made his commitment to the electric guitar business a large part of his future plans. While the lap steel (also known as the Hawaiian) guitar is often seen as a progenitor of the solid body electric, they are very different in their use and manufacturing requirements. The lap steel is played on the lap, across the thighs, or on a strap horizontally4 and gets its distinctive sound from a heavy bar of metal called a 'slide' or 'steel'. It is undoubtedly true that Leo probably would not have gone on to work on the Telecaster if he hadn't had experience with lap steels, but since the strings on such things are not in contact with the neck (having no frets) and chords are rarely played in the Segovia manner, it is a big step from a lap steel to a Spanish guitar, which is played on a strap vertically or held, in the Segovia manner, when seated.
Leo made an experimental instrument that used a lap steel pickup on a very vestigial body with a squarish lap steel neck fitted with hastily-installed frets. He handed it around to a few fellows, but they didn't like it because it was, well, unlikeable.
Learn While You Earn
This experience with the instruments and electronics of the time led to a series of thought processes in Leo's engineering mind that produced improved amps tailored to specific needs and, in some cases, particular players. Leo had a habit of thrusting his experiments and prototypes into the hands of working musicians and listened carefully to what they told him.
Early guitars suffered from intonation, tuning and neck problems. Additionally, they suffered from poorly-designed amps, household and stage mains circuits that were designed for lights and appliances and control circuitry that was poorly shielded. They were difficult to repair, requiring almost as much or more skill from the repairman as they did from the factory workers.
Leo saw that a slab body with a bolt-on neck and dropped-in circuitry would not only allow a guitar to be assembled efficiently, but also to be repaired quickly, while providing a ready market for parts. It would also make it possible for a customer to mail the neck or the body to the factory for repairs or warranty work without the same possibility of damage that they would face with a hollow-bodied instrument.
Chance Favours the Prepared Mind
Not happy with just providing a platform for strings and a pickup, with an almost fully adjustable bridge, Leo went further and took the slab guitar beyond the simulation of a box guitar by the addition of adjustable circuitry. Creative use of capacitors and thoughtful attention to the volume and tone-pots and the heights of the pole pieces on the pickups, as well as the grounding and shielding of the bridge plate, wires and pots, led to the production of a space-age instrument whose potential was greater than its 'boat paddle' appearance would suggest.
Oddly enough, as opposed to the general experience in the industry at the time, Leo made amps first and guitars second. Thus, he had an understanding of the needs of the amp circuitry and the requirements of the amplified musician. Unlike most guitars of the time, which often looked prettier than they sounded, Leo's early instruments were precision tools to be used by craftsmen and amateurs alike. The entire instrument was built to serve the needs of the operator and the amplifier to the greatest variable extent that Leo could think of at the time. While the original circuitry and pickups of the Telecaster are now considered 'noisy' when compared to other pickups available at the time, which were basically designed to be added to a box or archtop guitar, they sound very quiet and don't suffer from the microphonic oddness of the add-ons. You could actually announce the next song or ask if there was a doctor in the house with some poorly-designed pickups. While feedback is now considered a desirable quality, Leo's radio technician's ear thought otherwise back then and he shielded and grounded his instruments and amps to the best of his ability - a quality appreciated by professional musicians who were tired of ghostly harmonics and radio dispatcher voices horning in on their virtuosity.
A Little Testing Goes Along Way
Leo also was a master and an innovator in the world of marketing. He'd taken courses in accounting and marketing at night school. He never lost an opportunity to stay in touch with the players, often giving prototypes to working musicians in order to see what would happen. Legend has it that Leo was non-musical. The boys at the factory, as late as the G and L period just before his death on 21 March, 1991, used to joke that they would tune the guitar Leo was testing just enough so the plinking wouldn't be so monotonous. While it is true that he couldn't play the guitar, an early school photo shows him with a saxophone and several biographies state that he took piano lessons. It is probable that the several strokes and the Parkinson's Disease that Leo suffered from during his final years contributed to this joke. He continued to go into work in his lab up until the day before he died.
A prototype exists of the first Esquire-style Telecaster. It is fairly ugly and looks like the test-bed it is. It reflects Leo's abilities with the lap steel and his look forward to the future. The body is already sawn into the famous Telecaster shape. The electronics are simple, the bridge rudimentary and the neck positively primitive. We don't know how much use the thing got, but it spent most of its life in a closet until it re-emerged into the limelight a little bit after his death. It has since been sold for an obscene amount of money and some custom-builders are now making expensive copies of it. All told, it must have cost Leo five dollars in parts and a couple of days' labour.
The Man and His Legacy. Small Ego, Big Shadow
Leo never lost touch with the Telecaster. His final company, G and L, made models with futuristic and progressive versions of the original body and electronics. Leo attempted to sell an anniversary version called the Broadcaster, but the same legality reared its ugly little head. As a result, he called it the ASAT, which is still made today. Fender itself, which Leo had little or nothing to do with after it was sold to CBS in 1965, still make the Telecaster in a bewildering number of makes and models, some of which are almost blasphemous in their contravention of the original concept.
Soon after Leo and George Fullerton began farming out the early versions of the Esquire and the Broadcaster to gigging musicians, people who really liked most of the features of the guitar began throwing them back to Leo requesting a little relief in the rib and forearm areas. Various examples of factory and home modification of the 'blockiness' of the body exist. There were others who weren't quite happy with the bridge assembly. Originally shipped with a gigantic chrome cover (known to lovers and haters as the 'ashtray') that snapped onto the square bridge plate and hid the bridge pieces and the rear pickup, the majority of players tossed the thing away or used it as... an ashtray. This bothered Leo a bit because he thought the ashtray...er...cover provided a greater degree of extraneous signal shielding for the rear pickup, which was unlike the neck pickup in that it didn't have a tight-fitting chromed cover. The casting aside of the ashtray meant that the player's hand had to deal with the upturned edges of the bridge plate where the cover was supposed to be snapped on. However, more people were a bit unhappy with the control circuitry, which also was a product of Leo's non-playing mentality. It wasn't more than a couple of months after the Telecaster was on its feet and running that ideas for more and dissimilar guitar models began to fester within the factory.
First among the siblings was the Precision Bass or, as it was known for years, the 'Fender Bass'. This appellation became generically and wrongly applied to any similar product for many years, with people going into music shops asking for that 'Fender Bass' while pointing to a Gibson or a Rickenbacher. One of the reasons for this is that the Precision created the category, as we know it. Leo not only created the Precision, but also designed and had the strings made for it, which meant half the battle for the other manufacturers who chose to make their own electric bass guitar. There was also the fact that Fender, for many years, was the only amplifier manufacturer to make one specifically for the electric bass guitar, making buyers of the other brands have to use his equipment until the other amp people caught up.
The original Telecaster pickup selector switch circuitry included a treble-cutting 0.5 capacitor setting that also took the tone pot out of the circuit and made the neck pickup sound very 'boomy'. This was designed to allow bands without a doghouse bass player to simulate one. While this was clever of Leo, most guitarists wanted further options in the control circuitry involving the two pickups separately or together instead of the original bridge, both and boom as well as something less thin-sounding in the bass category. Regardless of the circuitry's abilities, the lesser mass of the guitar strings didn't come close to duplicating the fat sound of a real bass. So, within a year of the commercial introduction of the Esquire and the Broadcaster, Leo put out the Bass. It immediately changed the way in which many bands sounded, as the bass player, who was often now a guitar player who didn't make the cut as the lead, was now very much in the audience's face and competing with the drums and other guitars for sonic space. It also had the dubious honour of allowing any idiot with a pick to whack away with booming consequences and making trained upright bass players seriously consider their career options. For many years bass players in some Musician's Local Unions had to register separately for the real bass and the Fender Bass and if you could only play one, you got called on for fewer dates.
The Stratocaster of 1954 was another of the innovative progressions from the Telecaster experience. It was supposed to be a wholly different instrument, taking style, technology, and metalworking to a new level. He sold less than 300 in that first sales year, which began in May. The very first one was supposedly given to Eldin Shamblin, of Bob Will's 'Texas Playboys' and it was used on one of their classic recordings, 'Endless Love' almost immediately.
The Strat was a goosey thing in its infancy, with a tremolo (or whammy) bar attached to a complicated bridge that caused tuning problems, a fragile three-position pickup switch that still provided too few options, and a volume knob that was in just the right place for a slightly vigorous player to hit it and bump the volume too high or too low. Just like the Fender Bass, it required that previously accomplished players master new skills.
While the Telecaster has been a consistent seller for the Fender company in its successive corporate incarnations over the years, there was a slack period in the mid-60s when CBS (the owner then) is said to have considered discontinuing the Stratocaster. Legend also has it that Chas Chandler, the bass player for the Animals, changed those plans in late September of 1966 when he bought a plane ticket to London for an itinerant musician named Jimi Hendrix. Meanwhile, an unsuspecting Jeff Beck was still whanging away on an Esquire he'd inherited from Jimmy Page when they traded roles in the Yardbirds. Jimmy didn't miss it, as he'd picked up several other Telecasters cheap during the surf-guitar craze when Jaguars and Jazzmasters (later siblings in the Fender family) were more popular. He later used one of those Teles to record the first Led Zeppelin album.