Late 1980s Squier Telecaster (Korea)

Bob Leggitt | Tuesday, 22 November 2011 |

I must formally apologise to anyone who’s not into Fender type guitars for yet another retrospective on a Telecaster. This piece, however, explores different territory, looking at a guitar which featured low-budget production, but has nevertheless begun to gain itself some kudos in more recent times. This is a late 1980s Korean Squier Telecaster, costing £189 brand new in its day. It’s a model which has become known for higher quality than later Korean Squiers. So what exactly is the deal? Were/are these really "great guitars", or simply the best of a bad lot?

UPDATE: I must also apologise for the alterations which have been necessary regarding this article. when I wrote it, I believed the Telecaster had been manufactured by Samick. After further investigation, however, it appears this was not the case, and the likelihood is that it was made by Young Chang. Please ignore any remaining references to the specific manufacturer. 

By the time I photographed the guitar for the pic below, I’d refinished it in sea foam green, replaced the bridge, machine heads and electrics (including the switch cap and knobs), and installed new pickups, which were home-wound to the traditional Telecaster spec. The text, however, deals with the instrument in both its original and modified form, and should answer some of the questions which have been raised about the inherent quality of the model ‘off the peg’. So, starting with some attention to a big talking point of recent years, here’s my unbiased look back at the early Korean Squier Telecaster…

Late 1980s Squier Telecaster Korea
SOLID WOOD BODY?

There's a belief that many of the early Korea Squier Teles had solid, as opposed to plywood bodies. I can only go on what I know about my own guitar, and literature I’ve retained from the period, but I think I can shed some light on the matter. Firstly, my Tele definitely had a plywood body. I completely stripped the paintwork and refinished the guitar – twice. Additionally, any literature I have from the time which makes reference to the construction, bills the guitars as having plywood bodies. No mention, as far as I can ascertain, was ever made of solid wood bodies in relation to these instruments. Given that it would have been expressly in the trade’s interests to trumpet any news of solid wood construction from the rooftops, I think it can be assumed that there was no intentional shipping of late '80s Korean Squiers with solid wood bodies. Not to the UK, anyway.

There was, however, a mention in the June 1989 issue of Guitarist magazine, of the Fender Special Series guitars, by that time made in Japan, formerly being made in Korea. These were guitars which looked just like the Korean Squiers, had the same spec, electrics, etc – except that they had solid wood bodies, and Fender logos, rather than Squier.

I don’t remember being aware in the late ‘eighties that the Fender Special Series guitars were initially made in Korea, but if that was the case (and Guitarist mag rarely printed inaccurate info), then there would have been solid wood Strats and Teles coming out of Korea in the late '80s (UPDATE: this 'Special' Fender Tele definitely was briefly made in Korea).  As I say, these instruments were Fender-branded, so it still doesn’t account for any solid wood Korean Squiers. I suppose an accidental switch of bodies between the Squiers and the Fenders (or the Squiers and Young Chang's Fenix Teles) is possible, but it's hard to imagine a factory being that disorganised. A much more likely explanation for talk of solid wood Korean Squiers, I believe, concerns the construction method…

When I dismantled my Tele and stripped the original (rather tacky-looking) blonde finish, I had quite a surprise. I was expecting to see plywood, but I didn’t. Not immediately, anyway. The edges of the body were not striped with the stacked layers of wood you’d normally see on plywood guitars. They looked like the edges of a solid wood body. Also, the guitar didn't show any obvious evidence of plywood stacking even in the body cavities, such was the thickness of the original finish.

However, once I’d fully stripped and sanded the body, it became evident that it was encased in veneering. This not only stopped the wood layers showing through any sinking in the paintwork around the body edges (as was the case on some ply guitars) – it also meant that if a big chunk of the finish was chipped or worn away on the edge of the body, it would look to the guitar’s owner like solid wood underneath. To me, this seems the most likely explanation for the confusion. An absence of obvious evidence relating to the ply construction, and therefore an assumption that the guitars had solid wood bodies. But I'm still open minded to the prospect of some models having solid wood bodies. All I can say is that they clearly weren't supposed to, and this one definitely didn't.

QUALITY

I said in my retrospective on the 1983 Japanese Squier ’52 Tele reissue, that the subsequent wave of Korean Squiers was in a different league, and markedly inferior. On the face of it, they looked well enough made, with everything fitting as it should. ‘Off the peg’ they didn’t have the aesthetic appeal of the original JV series or anything like it, but neither did they have unprofessional finishes or skewed scratchplates screaming the word “rubbish!” at the customer.

However, a competent construction doesn’t necessarily make a high quality guitar. I reiterate that these models had plywood bodies, and they didn’t have the classic Telecaster sound. The body composition alone was enough to make getting a traditional Tele sound difficult, but that was far from the only reason these things didn’t sound like ‘proper’ Teles…

The strings didn’t pass through the body and were instead anchored behind the six adjustable bridge saddles. And worst of all, the pickups were not of the same spec as the traditional Tele unit, and on my guitar, they were horrendously microphonic. The instrument sounded perfectly acceptable in the shop (if rather nondescript in its tone and lacking in high-end bite), but turn the volume up in rehearsal, and it squealed like a pig with its tackle in a vice. Sure enough, removing the pickups I found the coil windings to be ridiculously loose. Neither the bridge nor the neck unit was up to the job. Additionally, the original electrical components were of poor quality, with comparatively flimsy miniature potentiometers.

What passes for ‘good quality’ today may be quite different from what passed for good quality in the Thatcher years. But whatever effect time has had on perception, these guitars were undeniably inferior to the original, Made in Japan Squiers.


The guitar after further customisation, sporting a home-wound Tele bridge pickup, home-wound staggered Strat pickups in the neck and middle positions, and a five-way switch. The strings still don't go through the body. Stupidly, I removed the Squier Korea markings and refinished the headstock a good couple of decades back, so the serial number is long gone. I used the guitar in this guise for a fair number of gigs between late 1989 and early 1991. Today the guitar is owned by a friend.

CONCLUSION

It’s possible to get carried away with particular models of guitar when they start to gain an enhanced reputation of some sort. Nostalgia enters the fray, and the resultant wave of ‘adulation by proxy’ tends to encourage owners to head for ebay with long and poetically-worded eulogies, which in themselves add to the hype. It should be clearly recognised, however, that none of the batches of late '80s Korean Squier Telecasters were really worth getting excited about. As purchased, this example didn’t look particularly inspiring. The sound was okay at low volume, but (and this is the fundamental issue) because of the microphonic pickups, the guitar could not be used at stage volume, with a band. After customisation, my Squier Tele was fully giggable and it certainly sounded a lot more like a Telecaster. But by then I’d put in many hours of work making the instrument look and sound much more appealing, not to mention fit for purpose.

I sold this Telecaster to a friend back in 1992. He got a good deal, and he’s held onto the Tele. But despite the massive amount of effort and customisation lavished on the guitar (including a nice cellulose finish), I don't regret letting it go. Under all the glamour and fancy parts, there’s still that veneered plywood body. I can’t look at the instrument without being reminded of the cheap, basically unusable contraption it was when I first bought it. In its current state it’s a bit like extreme junk food I suppose. Looks incredibly appetising, you’re quite happy with the taste, and you even enjoy eating it – until you find out how it was made.

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