We explore the titans of the longstanding Fender single-cut.
Music as we know it today simply wouldn’t be the same without the existence of the Fender Telecaster.
As one of the earliest mass-produced solid body electric models introduced to a curious post-war world, the Telecaster’s distinctive twangy tone and no-frills aesthetic was an instant hit with guitarists, and subsequently became a vital tool in the development of the blues, rock ‘n roll, country and R&B.
Over its near seventy years of existence, the Telecaster has fallen into the hands of many an iconic player – however, as well all know, there’s bound to be some who’ve rocked it better than the rest.
It’s these players that we’re exploring today, as we dive into the most notable Telecaster players of all time and the history behind their chosen instruments.
- Introduced to the world as the Broadcaster in 1950, the Fender Telecaster broke new ground for music and is considered to be one of the most important solid body guitars of all time.
- Due to its simple design, easy playability and dynamic tones, the Telecaster has become renowned as a workhorse guitar for guitarists playing rock, funk, country, blues and pop.
- Some of the most notable guitarists to adopt the Telecaster over the years include old school icons like Keith Richards and Jimmy Page, as well as contemporary artists such as Jonny Greenwood and Graham Coxon.
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Keith Richards – The Rolling Stones
It’s a well-known fact that riff master Keef has sported many a Telecaster over the years.
However, there’s one Tele that has defined his sound, and cemented him as arguably the most iconic proponent of the instrument. Richards’ 1950s “Micawber” was gifted to him by Eric Clapton on The Stones guitarist’s 27th birthday, just as the band were about to embark on their seminal record Exile On Main Street.
Originally, the guitar boasted your usual single-coil neck pickup, but following The Stones’ 1972 tour, Richards replaced it with a ‘50s Gibson PAF humbucker for some extra grit.
Fascinatingly, Keef decided to install the humbucker backwards, so that the magnet poles actually faced the tail end of the Tele. You’ll hear this unmistakeable tone on Stones classics such as ‘Honky Tonk Women’ and ‘Brown Sugar’. Here’s The Stones performing the latter in front of 1.5 million people at Copacabana Beach, Brazil.
Steve Cropper – Booker T. & The M.G.’s / Otis Redding
“I get asked all the time, why a Telecaster? I’ll tell you why… if you use any other brand, it’s fine, but when you hit a six string chord you get a lot of distortion. A lot of harmonic distortion, not like a piano. So the engineers loved the cleanness of the Telecaster.”
Steve Cropper is one of the unsung heroes of the guitar world. His tasteful Tele playing can be heard on some of the most revered tracks of the ‘60s, including Booker T.’s ‘Green Onions’ and Otis Redding’s timeless ‘Sitting On The Dock Of The Bay’, which the guitarist co-wrote with the late soul legend.
In this 2017 clip of Cropper performing alongside Booker T., he uses a custom streamlined Peavey Telecaster: this copy has all the perks of your traditional Tele, except it’s a bit lighter, and it’s got an active toggle for some added bite.
The loss of Jeff Buckley at the mere age of 30 is undoubtedly one of rock music’s most significant tragedies. While many singers hold Buckley in the highest esteem, it’s important to note that he was nothing short of a phenomenal guitarist.
Buckley’s iconic 1983 blonde USA Fender Telecaster – now owned by Muse’s Matt Bellamy – features a mirror scratchplate installed by its original owner. Buckley himself replaced the stock bridge pickup with a Seymour Duncan stacked humbucker, which added a warmer dimension to the instrument.
Some of Buckley’s finest fretwork can be heard on his seminal LP Grace, with the title track highlighting the ‘90s songbird’s ability to craft an intricately unforgettable riff.
Graham Coxon – Blur
“You can get a lot of volume from a Tele, and it can still be clear, and have a sort of ‘creak’ underneath the sound that no other guitars really have.”
One of the craftiest guitarists of the ‘90s, Coxon’s Telecaster is the focal point of some of Blur’s most memorable tracks. His main axe is a 1952 Telecaster reissue, with a maple neck, cream coloured finish and two single coil pickups.
Coxon makes the most of the tonal versatility of the Tele, oftentimes opting to dial down the tone and strive for a George Harrison Abbey Road timbre. Some of his more intricate riff-work is best heard on a number of Blur’s early hits; on ‘Chemical World’, his Tele is infused with some trippy phasing, adding to the sheer charm of the instrument.
Andy Summers – The Police
Summers had just completed college in Southern California in the early ‘70s, when one of his guitar students offered to sell him a battered 1961 Tele that had been modified by its previous owner. At this point in time, he was heavily focused on classical guitar, and hadn’t touched the electric for a rather long time.
Summers explained how the guitar “stirred something within me… I found that I couldn’t stop playing it; it sparked something in me and I had to have it.” He bought the guitar for $200, and a few years later joined The Police.
Alongside the vocal chops and songwriting guile of Sting, and the unpredictable ingenuity of Stewart Copeland’s drumming, Summers’ Telecaster work defined some of their most enduring songs. Their bustling 1979 instrumental ‘Regatta de Blanc’ showcases this to a tee.
Often cited as the “father of modern Chicago blues”, Muddy Waters possessed an arsenal of guitars: both electric and acoustic.
After having his first electric guitar stolen, then utilising a Gretsch and subsequently a 1952 Gibson Les Paul Gold Top, Waters eventually settled on a brand new Fender Telecaster in 1957.
Originally donning a maple neck and white finish, Waters replaced the maple with rosewood a few years later, and had the guitar painted a distinctive candy apple red. The Mississippian extracted the heart and soul out of the Telecaster like no other guitarist; his crying, sliding tone embodies the pain that fertilised blues music in the first place.
Jimmy Page – Led Zeppelin
Has there ever existed a Telecaster as iconic as Jimmy Page’s Dragon? Page’s 1958 Blonde Tele was given to him by fellow blues-rock legend Jeff Beck while both were members of the Yardbirds, and features on some of Led Zeppelin’s most beloved early tracks, including ‘Stairway To Heaven’.
In late 1967, shortly before the formation of Led Zep, Page stripped the paint off his guitar and spent an evening hand-painting an inspired psychedelic artwork on the body. Years later, Page’s craftwork was painted over by a friend who genuinely thought he was doing the guitarist an artistic favour, much to Page’s dismay.
However, the Tele legend has recently worked closely with Fender to recreate the original artwork on a commercial basis, much to the delight of many a psych-rock aficionado.
George Harrison – The Beatles
While The Beatles did occasionally utilise Fender guitars in the studio, it was a different story on stage. In terms of live performances, The Beatles were never publicly perceived as Fender proponents – for the most part, Harrison and Lennon respectively opted for Rickenbacker and Epiphone guitars instead.
This didn’t sit too well with Fender, who vehemently attempted to have The Beatles appear in public with Fender instruments. After a meeting with the company’s head salesman, The Beatles agreed to endorse the brand in some public capacity, and were gifted a stack of Fender instruments.
One of these was George Harrison’s Rosewood Telecaster, which sported a thin layer of maple sandwiched between a rosewood two-piece top and back. The neck and fingerboard were also, of course, rosewood.
Harrison’s expression as a guitarist became even more profound as a result of his shift to the Telecaster, and his contribution to the last two Beatles albums with the Rosewood Tele is simply unparalleled.
On ‘Thunder Road’, Springsteen sings: “I’ve got this guitar, and I learned to make it talk”. This guitar The Boss is referring to is his 1952 Telecaster, nicknamed “The Mutt”.
Purchased in 1973, Springsteen has toured with The Mutt for close to 50 years, and has appeared on numerous LP and single covers with it. The Tele originally belonged to a dodgy record company throughout the ‘60s, and a huge area beneath the black pickguard had been carved out in order to make room for an assemblage of added electronics.
According to Phil Petillo, who sold the guitar to Springsteen, these electronics were eventually taken out, rendering the already lightweight guitar virtually gossamer. This made The Mutt ideal for The Boss’s marathon live sets, and accorded it with a distinctive, quasi-acoustic timbre.
Jonny Greenwood – Radiohead
Jonny Greenwood is perhaps one of the most startling guitarists of the modern age, and has consistently favoured a Fender Telecaster over the brunt of his career with Radiohead for his mangled, frenetic style of playing.
Greenwood’s weapon of choice is a relatively scarce Telecaster Plus model with Lace Sensor pickups from the early ’90s, featuring an array of modifications such as a momentary killswitch and a ball-end of a guitar string screwed into the body near the neck pickup, which he uses to hook his high E string onto for obscene bends.
When paired with his wide array of effects pedals, Greenwood’s ability to harness otherworldly tones with his Telecaster is simply awe-inspiring – even if he is a little harsh on the guitar from time to time…
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