The Fender Telecaster in the Late 1960s

Bob Leggitt | Saturday, 16 May 2020 |



The late 1960s period was a fascinating one for Fender, and particularly the Telecaster. Heavy rock was emerging from the blues boom and the transitional tail of white mod music. But there were numerous competing genres, such as psychedelia/hippie, the folk scene, R&B, and the thrilling black soul led by people like Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding and Tina Turner. No one really knew which styles would take the lead among amateur guitarists. The jawdropping innovation and showmanship of Hendrix was set to enshrine the Stratocaster’s format into stone for the foreseeable. But what about the Tele? Where would that fit into Fender’s five year plan? Did it need gimmicks? New features? Stronger cosmetics?...

In late 1966, before Hendrix began to reach a mass audience, it was fair to say that Fender had higher hopes for the Telecaster than for the Strat. Indeed, at that time there was an emerging identity crisis for Fender. The twangy Surf craze was over, The Beatles had not been Fender users, and many of the new musical developments had focused on the more substantial sounds of Gibson or Rickenbacker guitars. At times like that, it made sense to prioritise and re-target your most enduring instrument – and for Fender, that was the Telecaster.

The Fender Telecaster had started its life as a crude and nameless prototype in 1949, which had progressed to a pre-production (but publicised), single-pickup, black finish Esquire by spring 1950. Then came a small run of mainly blonde Esquires, some of which had two pickups, and some of which retained the solid black finish. And after those, the first mass production run, focusing on the blonde two-pickup variant, which by then had its own model name – the Broadcaster. After a trademark challenge from Gretsch in early 1951, the Broadcaster became the Telecaster, but it was all the same historically-dynamic guitar, and its impact on the world of modern music had been truly game-changing.

Although by 1966 the Telecaster was no longer fashion flavour of the year, it did have a hard core of very loyal support – particularly in the country genre. And country music was not an island. Its often technically spectacular guitarists not only strongly influenced players in other genres, but also themselves landed gigs with some of the biggest mainstream artists on the world stage. Then there was Muddy Waters – Tele diehard, deeply authentic bluesman, and untold influence. And in large part due to people like Muddy Waters, the Tele had found favour with young and trendy players in the UK’s white mod and blues groups too. They were starting to drift away towards Rickenbacker and Gibson, but they could be won back, surely?…

So albeit a challenging time for Fender, the Telecaster was not going to be written off. It just needed to be revitalised, without compromising its appeal to the trad market. The ideal way to achieve that goal was by retaining the standard model (which was very much an “ain’t broke, don’t fix it” affair), and adding new variants which could integrate the essence of the Tele into emerging trends.

THE STANDARD TELECASTER



The standard Telecaster of the late 1960s had a fairly wishy-washy blonde finish, white 3-ply scratcplate, and rosewood fingerboard.

The regular Tele of late ’66 was not greatly different in design from the early 1950s model that had sparked the craze for solid Spanish guitars. As had always been the case, the regular Tele only came in one standard finish, and that was blonde. But there were, by the 1960s, plenty of custom finishes that could be found, including sunburst, black, olympic white, candy apple red, fiesta red, dakota red, sonic blue, ice blue, ocean turqoise, sea foam green, teal green, firemist gold, firemist silver and charcoal frost. Although natural finishes would be standard on some models of late 1960s Tele, they were not an option on the regular Fender Telecaster until 1972.

The main changes to the standard Tele between its original version and its basic late ’66 version were…

  • Evolution of the blonde finish from the original butterscotch colour to a much more pallid yellowy-white, which most would say was not as enticing. 1960s blonde finishes were also a little less translucent than the earliest butterscotch blondes. Butterscotch had disappeared early on, in the mid 1950s, after which Fender had progressively whitened the shade, and then moderately yellowed it.
  • Progressive modernisation of the neck profile.
  • Dropping of the original brass bridge saddles in favour of steel (mid 1950s), but otherwise retention of the two-strings-per-saddle arrangement, rather than a six-saddle bridge.
  • A blanket switch at the end of the ‘fifties from a one-piece maple neck to a rosewood fingerboard. A rosewood board was still the only standard option on regular edition Teles going into the late 1960s.
  • Progressive updates to the scratchplate, which had taken a single-ply black bakelite plate with five fixing screws, through to a 3-ply white plastic plate with eight fixing screws (by 1965). In between, there had been a single ply white plastic guard with five screws (from 1954), then a single-ply white plastic guard with eight (from 1959), and then a greenish nitrate 3-ply with eight (from 1963). There appeared to be no firm consensus that the white plate was a cosmetic improvement on a standard blonde Tele. It was most likely just a manufacturing streamliner after the Stratocaster was introduced with a white plate, This theory was circumstantially supported by the fact that white-plate Teles began to appear very shortly after the Strat’s full introduction.
  • An upgrate to the tuners from the old Klusons to an F-stamped Schaller product with chromed rather than nickel-plated backs and pegs, but still a nickel-plated post.
  • A switch from flush poles on the bridge pickup to staggered poles, with the two centre magnets raised. The neck pickup, under the metal cover, retained its un-staggered poles. There had also been a revison to the pickup winding process, which had made the pickups more predictable in sound, but on average, lower in output and thickness as compared with the typical 1950s Tele.


The logos on early 1960s Telecasters had poor visibility even from a relatively short distance, and the model name couldn't be seen at all. But the black logo introduced in '68 would advertise the guitar much better. Early in the 1960s, the standard Tele had a single-ply white plate with eight fixing screws, and the surf craze was making custom colours such as sea foam green increasingly popular.

THE 1967/68 UPDATES


So quite a few changes, some significant. But 1967 and 1968 would see a raft of further revisions which suggested that CBS Fender – doubtless jolted by Gibson and Rickenbacker’s invasion of the ‘trend market’ – were now keen to listen, modernise, increase sales, and increase manufacturing volume. This highly active period brought…

  • The return of all-maple necks. Through the decade, players had shown that despite its susceptibility to grubby patching as the lacquer wore away, they still wanted the light coloured fingerboard. It was thus officially reintroduced on the Telecaster as a custom option in 1967. But since Fender had dumped the tooling for one-piece construction, they simply fitted separate maple fingerboards instead of the rosewood. These “maple board” necks, which don’t have the walnut truss channel blob above the nut on the headstock, were a pretty sure giveaway sign of late ’60s Fender manufacture. They were not listed before ’67, and the company began producing one-piece maple necks again before the end of the decade so the maple boards were dropped.
  • Replacement of the old nitro-cellulose lacquer finishing process with polyester coating.
  • A move from the early 1950s wiring circuit, to the circuit we know best today. In ’66, Teles were still factory wired with the “neck bass” circuit, which did not offer the combination sound of both the bridge and the neck pickup together. Instead, the third position on the 3-way dropped the neck pickup across a 0.1 microfarad capacitor which filtered down its sound to a glob of bass. The harmonically-stripped tone had originally been intended to actually provide electric bass in the days when no one had electric basses, so it was way out of date. But 1967 saw the factory wiring changed to dump the glob of bass and facilitate a pickup combination on the centre position of the selector.
  • Introduction of a Bigsby vibrato option for Telecasters – a sign of the Strat’s flagging popularity if ever there was one.
  • A switch from the old vintage honey tint on the necks, to a new, lighter coloured natural finish.
  • A change in the logo and model branding design. Seems like a minor update, but it was actually one of the most sales-conscious decisions of all. The 1968 black logo, with much larger model name, was all about turning high profile use of the company’s guitars into free brand advertising. Previous silver or gold logos were not greatly conspicuous during performances, and the model names couldn’t be seen at all. But the bold black logo could catch the eye in any lighting. At the same time, Fender remedied the problem of the logos getting scratched off their headstock faces by putting them beneath the lacquer, rather than on top as bare transfers.
  • A departure from cloth-insulated internal connection wire in favour of plastic-insulated.

That lot, it was hoped, would set Fender up to produce and sell more Telecasters. But it was only the hors d’oeuvre, as Fender planned to broaden the Telecaster range, orientating new variants towards new trends…

SPECIAL EDITION STANDARDS



The pink paisley Telecaster was the visual epitome of late 'sixties counterculture, but would it catch on?...

1968 saw a barrage of Telecaster firsts – among them two special finish editions which musicians have never really been sure whether to describe as famous or infamous. Even with the cosmetics set aside, the pink paisley and blue flower Telecasters were not exactly standard models, because their default neck had a maple fingerboard rather than rosewood. But the rest of the basic build was totally routine.

The glaring departure was that the special editions’ bodies were wallpapered front and back, sealed, edgeburst with solid paint, and finished in clear lacquer. To max out the cosmetic effect of this, the scratchplates were see-through with strategic spray painting on the underside to hide the pickup cavity.

The pink paisley and blue flower Teles epitomised late 1960s hippie counterculture and fashion, and looked in theory as though they might storm the market. But for whatever reason (I suspect not least their price – which was higher than that of the Custom Tele), initial uptake was very poor. Had James Burton not adopted the paisley version as his stage guitar the year after introduction, both finishes would probably reside in the commercial disaster file today.

The special cosmetics also proved deeply incompatible with both the lifestyle and lifespan of a typical electric guitar. If you keep the instrument in a case at room temperature and just get it out and look at it once in a while, you’ll probably be fine. But usage, exposure and rapid climate adjustments can really wreck these things.

Without protection from the light, the clear lacquer coats will normally yellow, so the area protected by the scratchplate slowly alienates itself from the rest of the body. It’s like going out to get a sun tan with a headband round your forehead. Then there’s the greater problem of wallpaper adhesion, and what happens when the lacquer gets worn or chipped away. The paper doesn’t wear gracefully away like paint. It peels up, and when that happens the brittle top coats above it are going to get damaged. Guitarists could address the “uneven tan” issue by fitting an opaque scratchplate – as some did. But if the paper loses its adhesion, there may well come a point where the owner decides to pass off the guitar as a custom colour standard, with a pro refinish. It would be interesting to know how many of the “custom colour” Teles from the late 1960s were originally paisleys or blue flowers whose finishes became intolerably unsightly.

The original pink paisley and blue flower Telecasters died with the decade, as the hippie counterculture they’d represented gave way to new fashions, and the rediscovered Stratocaster once again became the main focus of the Fender range.

THE ORIGINAL TELECASTER THINLINE



A result of weight-reduction experiments which began in 1967, 1968’s Telecaster Thinline was introduced with a default spec of separate maple fingerboard and natural finish on either ash or mahogany. However, Fender subsequently added sunburst and rosewood fingerboard options to the advertised listings. Solid colours were produced but were rare. The ’60s type Thinlines are fabulously comfortable.

If the late 1960s bestowed upon the world a true guitar gem, it must surely have been the Telecaster Thinline.

Although it’s often thought that the original Telecaster Thinline came out of a quest for a semi-acoustic sound, that was not the case. And in fact, Tele Thinlines do not sound significantly different from standard Teles of the period.

The brief in 1967 when early work on the concept was taking shape, was simply to create a much lighter weight guitar. With supplies of ash getting heavier as CBS sought to cut production costs, and no contouring or vibrato cavity on the Telecaster body, the Tele’s weight was becoming an issue for some players. I’ve gigged using Teles with heavy ash bodies and it’s like having a medieval masonry block hanging round your neck.

The success of Rickenbacker’s lightweight guitars probably had a major bearing on Fender’s decision to reduce the Tele’s weight, and indeed it was the brains behind the Rick’s design – Roger Rossmeisl – upon whom Fender called for assistance.

Originally, the lightweight Tele design was presented in a visually identical format to the standard Telecaster. The cavities were sunk from the front and then hidden by a standard scratchplate. There was no F-hole, because that area of the body was still solid. However, this concept didn’t remove enough wood to produce a really lightweight instrument, so Fender adopted the already successful Rossmeisl technique of pocketing out the body from the rear and then back-capping it like a Rickenbacker.

The completed original Thinline was fully introduced in mid 1968 as the most expensive Telecaster on the Fender list. It was markedly dearer than the wallpaper sisters, and dearer still than the Custom Tele. And it would only last until the end of 1971, before it was replaced with a twin humbucker Thinline model – not as pretty, individual or versatile in my view. So, an original product lifespan of just three and a half years. A tragedy considering it was as close to a perfect Jack-of-all-trades electric guitar as Fender have ever made.



Fender Japan’s Telecaster Thinline reissue of the 1980s (above) was based on the 1968 model, but gorgeous as it was, it was not a wholly accurate replica. Most critically, the marker dots were incorrectly spaced at the 12th fret – not something the owner could realistically correct. Additionally, the machineheads were of a later design – better, but not period. In smaller detail, the bridge pickup did not have staggered poles like the original, the headstock did not feature the two patent numbers carried by late ’60s Teles, and there were clear differences under the scratchplate relating to both component production and component budget.

CUSTOM TELECASTER


The Custom Telecaster was not specifically a product of the late ‘60s. It was a late 1950s design that did pretty well in the second half of the ‘sixties – probably because cosmetic tastes began to fall more into line with its feature set. Indeed, it’s a guitar I often imagine Fender would have introduced around ’67, had it not already been a thing. Its sales were possibly helped further because its value for money was accentuated by the higher prices of special edition Teles that many considered more tacky. By 1969 the Custom had dropped from the top of the Telecaster price list to literally mid table.


Fender Japan's 1980s reissue of the early '60s Custom Telecaster.

There’s sometimes confusion relating to the Custom Telecaster, Telecaster Custom and humbucking pickups. The main cause of the confusion was the modding craze, which saw a large number of Customs that were not built with humbuckers, updated to carry one.

There were two separate models of Telecaster that were marketed with the “Custom” identifier. The first was the Custom Telecaster, which ran in production from 1959 to 1972. This had an edgebound body, but was fitted with two single coils, exactly like standard Teles. When this model was conceived in the late ‘fifties, the “custom” features were purely cosmetic. In addition to the body binding, there was a 3-ply scratchplate, and a rosewood fingerboard, neither of which had at that stage been implemented on standard Teles. And the Custom Tele's default finish was 3-tone sunburst, as opposed to the standard Tele's blonde. There was also a Custom Esquire, which was the same as the Custom Tele, but without any neck pickup.

The second model ran from 1972 to 1980, and was called the Telecaster Custom. The Tele Custom was not about cosmetics, but about practical features. It had the regular single coil at the bridge, but a humbucker in the neck position, and a much larger scratchplate roughly similar in shape to that on the Thinlines of the late ‘sixties. It came with Gibson-style dual volume and tone circuits, and a “bullet” tilt neck, which the standard Tele did not receive. The body binding was dropped, and there were no fancy cosmetics at all.

So the 1960s Teles with bound edge bodies and humbuckers at the neck are third-party modified – normally with a Gibson humbucker. Some highly influential players used these modded Custom Telecasters, including blues legend Albert Collins and individual post-punk maverick Andy Summers. And a wide range of other top players modded standard Teles in the same way. The result was that a lot of amateur guitarists copied the mod, eventually putting even more humbucking Custom Teles into the system.


When you see this edgebound model of late 1960s Custom Telecaster with a humbucker in the neck position, it's been modified, as the guitars were factory fitted with single coils.

The rule of thumb is, provided it’s not a reissue… If it has a bound body and a classic Tele scratchplate, it was built with the regular two single coils, between 1959 and 1972, and it’s called a Custom Telecaster. Any humbuckers on these guitars are retrofits. But if it has the large scratchplate, no binding, and is branded “Telecaster Custom”, it was built with the neck humbucker from new, between 1972 and 1980.

1969


The final major fling for late 1960s Telecaster development was put to market in 1969, in the form of the Rosewood Telecaster. This was an attractive, natural-finished all-rosewood instrument, which had initially been thrust into the hands of George Harrison as a one-off, by Fender’s kindly artist-schmoozers, in ’68 – most likely at the behest of marketing-maestro Don Randall. They were probably expecting Harrison to lovingly place the weighty behemoth in a corner of a room and maybe give some of their other guitars some consideration at some point in the future.

But after the Beatle actually began using the Rosewood Tele, Fender quickly sprang into action with a limited production run. The production instrument nudged the Thinline off the top of the Telecaster price list, becoming the most expensive Telecaster on the company’s books. Harrison’s original had featured a solid wood body, but this was considered too heavy for the commercial model, so the body was cavitied.

The other significant technical change in 1969 was the return of one-piece neck manufacture, this time to run alongside the two-piece, separate fingerboard process. The one-piece process was obviously re-established with maple necks in mind, but it also allowed the Rosewood Telecaster’s neck to be made without the separate fingerboard which had been fitted to George Harrison’s original.

GOING FORWARD


Having thrown the kitchen sink at the Telecaster, expanding its family to seven models including the one-pickup Esquire (eight if you count the wallpaper sisters as two separate models), Fender must surely have been left wallowing in irony. Far from it being one of the imaginative Telecasters which had polarised guitarists’ hankerings, it was actually the bog standard Stratocaster.

Realising that more wasn’t always… well, more, Fender began slimming down the Telecaster range, dropping the wallpaper sisters, the Esquire and the Custom Esquire. Some good had come out of the wild period of experimentation, but now it was time to let the Telecaster be a Telecaster, and make some truly “worldbeating” updates to the newly re-crowned Strat.

In the early ‘seventies, the non-standard Telecaster designs would take up a new role as humbucking rock machines, and the limited Rosewood model would bite the dust. But until then, it was time to give the grandfather of commercial solids a bit of a break.

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