The Cultural Significance of... the Telecaster

Half a century after its invention, the mass-produced and virtually indestructible Telecaster is still the discerning guitarist's favourite - the world wouldn't sound the same without it, says Steve Jelbert, in our series on cultural icons
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The Independent Culture

It was 50 years ago this summer that Leo Fender, a trained accountant and former radio repair man from Orange County, California, first gave his invention the name Telecaster. Though early, unreliable versions had existed for a year or so under names such as the Esquire and the Broadcaster ­ as is so common with rock'n'roll's prehistory the details are somewhat murky ­ it's certain that the Tele was the world's first practical mass-produced electric guitar.

Derided by rivals as a "canoe paddle", or even a "toilet seat with strings", Fender's practical, simply manufactured instrument had no real rivals, or more importantly, ancestors. As a design it's up there with the Jeep or the skateboard ­ until its invention, no one had any opinion as to how it should look. Fender, an engineer who never learnt how to play an instrument, followed, presumably unconsciously, the Bauhaus dictum that form should follow function. To this day it defines the electric guitar. And of course, until this moment no one had even had the opportunity to spank a plank.

Since the Thirties musicians in search of volume had been using amplification, but the early offerings from companies such as Rickenbacker and Gibson were either steel guitars, for the country and western or then popular Hawaiian markets, or in effect archtop acoustics, familiar from jazz, with a pick-up added. Fender's basic Telecaster took nothing from centuries of the guitar-maker's art, instead continuing an American make-do tradition.

For decades the United States had led the world in manufacturing processes through necessity, for the country had no great craft traditions to fall back on. Though it had never been short of religious and political dissenters, they hadn't necessarily been the most practical types. It was no coincidence that machine tools to make weapons were perfected there first. Americans had invented successful machine guns and pistols long before Britain and France, but apart from mowing down the remaining bison and indigenous tribes there was little use for them in a nation with a tiny standing army.

So the mass production techniques of Henry Ford, and later Henry Kaiser, the steel magnate and creator of "Liberty Ships" ­ vessels thrown together in days by unskilled workers ­ were already a US speciality. Adapting such methods to a musical instrument might be seen as Fender's unique achievement. Bodies and necks were made in batches, then fitted together as required; one reason why early guitars are notoriously difficult to date.

Though the image of the trained expert working his magic is hard to resist (to this day an Aston Martin engine bears a plate with the name of the worker responsible for building it), the care behind the Telecaster was in its initial design. It's more Volkswagen Beetle than Rolls-Royce. It does its job. The car analogy is closer than you might think; the impressive selection of colours Fender later offered to Fifties buyers, such as Lake Placid Blue and Burgundy Mist, weren't just inspired by automotive fashion. They were actual DuPont car paints, adapted for the purpose.

It wasn't cheap, though. A 1953 Memphis truck driver like, say, Elvis Presley would have needed a month's wages to buy a Telecaster, then retailing for $189.50. But it worked. Sessionmen loved it. It stayed in tune, the sound was versatile and it played well. They might have preferred to be seen with something more stylish, but the Telecaster became the sound of country, the electric blues and, in time, rock'n'roll and soul.

Its very neutrality has always been a major part of its appeal. It really is just a couple of pieces of wood bolted together, shaped for simplicity of construction. It's entirely up to the players to impose their own cultural fantasies on it. What better way for Bruce Springsteen to represent the working man than by playing the working man's guitar? (Come to think of it, what was someone called "The Boss" doing representing the working man anyway?) And what better definition of "prolecult" is there than the sight of Status Quo's Rossi and Parfitt, legs apart, heads nodding?

On the other hand, nice middle-class lads such as Blur's Graham Coxon and Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood surround themselves with arrays of effects units as complicated as their Teles are basic. It defies fashion, even at its most lurid. When the session ace James Burton accompanied Elvis during his late Sixties Las Vegas residencies, his pink Paisley model was almost tasteful by the standards of the spectacle.

Although The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz would have us believe that musicians have been describing any instrument which could be carried in a case as an "axe" for decades, it's hard to imagine that an "axeman" who whipped out a clarinet or a trumpet would impress anyone. Fender's simple, and frankly axe-shaped design truly gave the world of rock criticism one of its enduring clichés. Some have taken it literally. These days a diplomat's son and former public schoolboy like The Clash's Joe Strummer would probably be fighting in a dog suit or worrying pensioners for purposes of entertainment, but the famous cover of 1979's London Calling captured him attempting to dismember an American stage with, yes, a Fender Telecaster.

That's just the sort of iconic image that endears old guitars to men of a certain age whose best years are behind them, but whose most lucrative ones have just arrived. It's not by chance that Doug Willis, hero of David Gates's novel Preston Falls, attempts to cope with his mid-life crisis by fleeing to the second home his soul-corroding advertising job has bought him to thrash out a few Neil Young riffs on his vintage Telecaster. It's something of a surprise that Fender haven't attempted to capitalise on this trend by introducing a Mid-Life Crisis model for the gentleman whose desires now outweigh his desirability. It's noticeable that the Tele looks good on women, such as Chrissie Hynde and Sharleen Spiteri, while its fairly small size tends to make middle-aged men look even fatter.

The inescapable fact, however, is that the guitar is nigh on indestructible. Strummer's best efforts damaged the venue, but only dented his guitar. During The Who's Sixties auto-destructive phase, their management continually begged Pete Townshend to smash easily repairable Fenders rather than the fragile Rickenbackers he favoured. To have any chance of breaking a Fender (should you ever get the opportunity, this applies to the entire range) you must smash the wide base into the ground to separate it from the neck. Chances are it'll still keep howling. This is a guitar whose strength was demonstrated by salesmen balancing it across two chairs then standing on it. In a touching display of faith in US mass production, the left-handed Jimi Hendrix supposedly chose to play a right-handed Fender guitar on the assumption that the more were made, the stronger the likelihood of finding a decent example.

Perhaps the greatest tribute one can pay to the Telecaster (the name, incidentally, was coined by Don Randall, the distributor of Fender's equipment) is that the world would sound different without it. The electric guitar was about to be perfected around 1950, that much is obvious, but it was Fender who saw the possibilities of standardising it.

Then there was the Precision bass guitar, which followed in October 1951, the first practical amplified and fretted instrument of its kind. Though it took longer to catch on, what would modern music be without the contributions and influence of Motown legend James Jamerson, Paul McCartney or Robbie Shakespeare? But the low frequencies are another story entirely.

The only Telecasters to gain a bad reputation were late Fifties models that lacked through-body stringing. Yes, the "Toploader", as it was known, was soon derided and discarded. How prescient is that?