Fender USA '52 Telecaster Reissue (1992)

Bob Leggitt | Saturday, 14 July 2012 |

Whilst the subject of this retrospective was made twenty years ago, it replicates an instrument built in the dim and distant post-war decade, a full sixty years ago. The 1952 Fender Telecaster, inseparable from its one and only butterscotch blonde finish, is undeniably one of the most iconic visions of the electric guitar world. Widely regarded as the design that started the age of the solid guitar, and the instrument without which other classics like the Gibson Les Paul would simply not have been produced, this early incarnation of the Telecaster has a historical importance of even greater magnitude than its stunning, simplistic beauty.

But what really established the Telecaster as a dream guitar in the early 1950s, was what it offered to the player. Even now, in completely unchanged format, that precise specification of electric guitar more than satisfies the demanding needs of many of today’s players. After sixty years of technological advancement, the 1952 Telecaster is STILL considered a highly desirable tool for demanding guitarists across a wide range of modern genres and styles. Just imagine what a marvel it must have been deep in the steam-powered age of the early 1950s.

Fender USA Vintage Reissue '52 Telecaster (early 1990s)

After a 1949 solid-bodied prototype, and some early experimentation with the single pickup Fender Esquire in 1950, Fender introduced the twin pickup Broadcaster. The Broadcaster’s model name was changed to Telecaster in 1951 after an alleged trademark infringement, but it was the same model, and aside from the pickup spec, it was also the same model as the Esquire. If you ignore a couple of small tweaks and changes to the model name, the Telecaster encapsulated in this Fender USA ‘52 Reissue, was the company’s first production guitar.

In broad terms there’s not much difference between this, the original Telecaster design, and the American Fender Standard Telecaster of 2012. But for the connoisseur, a wealth of detail and spec idiosyncrasies make the ’52 Tele a more enticing proposition.

This USA ‘52 Tele Reissue (circa 1992) is characterised by…
  • A translucent blonde finish on an ash body, with a fully accurate rendition of the highly-prized butterscotch colouring, achieved the expensive way, with nitro-cellulose lacquer.
  • A honey-coloured ‘one-piece’ maple neck, also finished in nitro-cellulose, with a silver ‘spaghetti’ logo headstock transfer applied in the traditional way – above, not beneath the lacquer.
  • A black, single-layer bakelite scratchplate.
  • Three adjustable brass bridge saddles.
  • Original design alnico V pickups, made to vintage spec.
  • Cloth-covered, as opposed to plastic-insulated internal wiring, and an authentic latter 1952 electrical circuit, without the option to combine the sound of the bridge and neck pickups. On the three positions of the switch you can either get: bridge pickup alone, neck pickup alone, or neck pickup drastically low-pass filtered for the woolliest, bassy tone you can imagine. Interestingly, the very earliest Tele wiring circuit, used briefly by Fender prior to this one, actually did allow twin pickup sounds. But because the combination was achieved via a rotary pot rather than the selector switch, there was no room for a standard, capacitor-filtered tone control. Hence, players could not remove any of the bright top end from the bridge pickup. In implementing a standard tone control to address this problem in 1952, Fender were faced with a choice. They could either lose the mega-woolly bass sound from the switch selections to accommodate the neck/bridge combined tone, or they could keep the woolly bass and forego the neck/bridge combination altogether. The woolly bass won the day (well, it was 1952), and a combined neck/bridge pickup tone did not re-appear on Telecasters until 1967, when the third pickup switching circuit (neck-both-bridge) was brought in. The third circuit has been standard on regular Telecasters to this day, and has even been used (inaccurately) on many Fender pre-CBS Reissues.
  • Nickel-plated Kluson-type machine heads.
  • Flat-head (as opposed to cross-head) mounting and fixing screws.

Today’s American Standard Telecaster doesn’t have any of the above features. It has a cheaper, quicker and less attractive poly finish on both neck and body, uses modern plastic in place of the old-school materials like bakelite and cloth, has different pickup spec, different machine heads, etc. To someone who appreciates the subtleties and beauty of the vintage feature set, this ’52 Reissue holds immense charm and appeal.

THE EXAMPLE IN QUESTION

This particular example is, as I mentioned, an early ‘90s recreation. Its finish is stunning, and captures very convincingly that slight semi-opaque colouring over the ash body, as well as nailing the shade to perfection. In contrast, the finish on the current version of this USA ’52 Reissue, as depicted on the Fender site, doesn’t look right to me. The translucency of the blonde looks too great, and the colour looks too weak, giving something more like a natural finish than a vintage blonde. Maybe it’s just the photo Fender have used – I don’t know – but this early ‘90s job looks much more realistic to me. I suppose that potentially takes us into the slightly wacky territory of old vintage reissues being better than new vintage reissues, and vintage reissues made two decades ago acquiring a ‘vintage’ merit of their own.

I used to own this guitar, having bought it brand new, in a tweed case, in 1992. There’s no denying that I loved the look, and the construction quality was truly sublime. However, as I mentioned elsewhere on this site, between 1983 and 1985 I owned the Squier version of this reissue – an original JV Series ’52 Tele, which was actually my first ever electric guitar. Inevitably, I was going to compare this USA ’52 Reissue with the Squier, which was essentially exactly the same instrument bar its (poly) finish, and its use of a fake bakelite scratchplate rather than a real one. On paper, the US model was more in keeping with the real ‘52, but in practice the Squier, if you’ll pardon the expression, kicked US reissue’s ass. The Squier was lighter in weight and more boisterous in tone.

By the early 1990s, I’d also owned a number of other Telecasters, the best of which was a sunburst MIJ ’62 Reissue, which I still own today. So not only was I comparing the US ’52 Reissue with the Squier I’d formerly owned – I was also comparing it with other Teles, in some cases, side by side. Much as I loved and appreciated the seminal image and vintage accuracy of this butterscotch blonde, I rarely played it because I didn’t find it as exciting in use, or as easy to play, as the MIJ ’62. The neck on this USA ’52 reissue is pretty bulky and I found it quite slow. The profile is probably authentic to the letter, but is it gonna keep me playing for hours on end? No.

I suppose it’s at this point that you start to question whether building vintage reissues exactly like the originals is such a great idea. It could be argued that if you don’t want the exact spec of a ’52 Tele, then you shouldn’t be buying a ’52 Reissue. But equally it could be argued that it’s tragic to be precluded from enjoying the beauty and charm of a guitar like this because the neck’s too bulky. And in fact, those who say that a vintage reissue should offer some concessions to the modern age, have an extra piece of ammunition as regards this Telecaster. If a replica is 100% accurate, then yes, it matters if you take a bit of licence with a given feature. But this replica isn’t 100% accurate in the first place. The spacing of the two dot markers at the twelfth fret is too narrow. Pre-CBS replicas from Fender USA have widely suffered from this problem – caused by a change in the mass production tooling at the American factory during the early ‘60s. An inaccuracy like this makes an insistence on reproducing ‘slow’ neck profiles a bit pointless. Ironically enough, the Squier version had both a faster neck, and the correct twelfth fret dot spacing. Two more reasons to prefer it to this American Fender job.

The sounds from the USA '52 Reissue Tele are not the same as those from a modern Standard. With a different wiring circuit under the control plate that's inevitable, but details like the '52's brass bridge saddles, and of course its vintage-replica pickups, further help to impart a more retro tonal character. Even with the tone control full up, the '52's bridge pickup sounds pretty full and rounded. It does have some Fender bite, but as Telecasters go it's quite subdued and mellow. An attractive sound, but heading more towards 'steel guitar' than clattering indie rock or Wilko Johnson territory. The middle selection on the three-way switch gives the neck pickup alone on this guitar, and again it's pretty rounded and mellow, with a strong bottom end.

You expect, what with the ash/maple wood combination, that this Tele is going to be overtly bright, but it's not. In the grand spectrum of trad-style Teles, it's a sweetie. Think of the average Tele sound, back the tone off a touch, add some bass boost, compress the sustain a little, and you have a good sense of what this one's like. The final position on the selector switch (the front position) gives that unusable bass tone only. Stripped of harmonics, it has no treble cut whatsoever. I quite seriously can't think of anything you'd play with it - not while you were sober, anyway. You have to forgive the Fender company of 1952 for that one selection though. Given the extent of the features and sounds which have fitted perfectly into 21st century styles, designing this instrument just a few years after World War Two has to rank as an almost surreal, almost psychic, example of foresight.

I do miss being able to open a guitar case and see one of these blonde beauties staring out at me. But I know if I’d kept this instrument it wouldn’t have seen much use, and perhaps the only thing I really question is why I bought it in the first place. I guess it was party the irresistible looks, and partly an attempt to replace my much missed Squier JV '52 from nearly a decade earlier. With unlimited funds at my disposal, I'd have kept the USA '52, just to look at. But, constantly in need of extra cash, I was bound, in the end, to question the point of keeping a guitar I wasn't playing.

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