Designed with mid-century modern style in mind, the original 1950’s Fender Telecaster intended to be the “blue-collar working musician’s” guitar. Seventy years later, the original “Blackguard” 1950’s Telecasters still inspire guitarists everywhere with their lightweight, stylish ergonomic design and bright cutting lead pickup tone! Read on to see why original “Blackguard” inspired Telecasters will awaken your guitar tone with a twang all their own!
“You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”-Leo Fender
The above quote from the celebrated 20th-century engineer, inventor, and musical futurist flawlessly describes the Fender mantra during what many would call their “Golden Age” of instrument production. Leo Fender, quite simply, turned the music playing world on its head with the mass production of solid-body electric guitars. Pop culture was forever changed with Fender’s contribution to early rock n’ roll, country and western, electric blues, and rock and pop in the 1950s. Without Leo’s incredible innovation in engineering, much of the popular music we have come to know and love would never have been made possible. It’s safe to say the Fender Telecaster was a walk on home-run, that flew far beyond expectations for Fender Musical Instruments after the development of their solid-body electric guitar prototype in 1949. So many of the original design fundamentals that made the original Telecasters ground-breaking in the 1950s has kept the instrument a top-shelf favorite for players seventy years later!
Starting in the early 1940s with his company Alamo Radio in Fullerton, California, Leo Fender, and later with his partner, Doc Kaufmann, built and repaired high-quality hi-fi amplifiers and lap steel guitars. Fender worked in close collaborations with local Southern California based musicians to help create working tools for working artist’s needs. The company’s goals were always to strive to help musicians solve the problems they had with their touring instruments and equipment, or solving ways of not being heard with innovative amplifier designs.
The first real success for Fender’s fledgling company was designing and manufacturing a new pickup design for lap steels. This revolutionary, new pickup was characteristically bright, with bell tones and a clear, deep bottom end, with an uncanny ability to cut through a band mix so lead lines could be at the forefront. Lap steels, primarily instruments used in Western Swing, were the first solid-bodied electric guitars. The lap steels were so successful that guitarists too started wanting a tool that would put them in the spotlight-with increased sustain, volume, and clarity, not like the feedback prone Spanish electric hollow bodies of the day. To make this dream a reality, Leo Fender completely redesigned the blueprint for the modern electric guitar. Fender’s main goal was to create an instrument that sounded bright with a cutting sustain filled tone, lightweight enough for players to stand up with guaranteed feedback resistance, as well as easy enough to manufacture, repair, and replace old parts.
While Leo’s early prototypes made use of different body shapes and different tonewoods, like in the earliest pine-caster prototype, his piece de resistance the Esquire, the very first mass-produced solid-body electric guitar, was released in early 1950. While its name was later briefly changed to the Broadcaster, and then after a lawsuit from Gretsch due to a dispute over their drums having the same name, the name was finally changed forever to Telecaster in 1951. The Telecaster had a wealth of new features not before seen on any mass-produced guitar of the time. New features included a solid Swamp Ash or Alder body, an adjustable intonation setting bridge with brass saddles, and the ability for strings to be strung through the instrument’s body. Fender also conceived a bolt-on maple neck designed to be easily replaceable if broken, and height-adjustable pickups made with individual magnets to capture each string’s vibration individually.
Nobody ever said changing the world was easy. When Fender first debuted his original creation, he was often mocked by the more traditional musician crowd of the day who were used to the conventional hollow-bodied instruments of the day. Many did not know what to think of Leo Fender’s strange new instrument, with popular “nicknames” for the Telecaster being “the plank” or the “canoe oar.” However, early Western Swing stars like Jimmy Bryant, as well as the King of the Blues himself B.B. King, made the naysayers change their mind with the cutting, biting tone they were suddenly getting out of the slick, easy-playing, new instrument. As simple as an instrument the Telecaster actually is from a construction standpoint, it seems to invariably fit into any genre, as evidenced by the players who prefer playing them. From blues powerhouses Muddy Waters and the frosty Albert Collins, to Memphis session musician great Steve “The Colonel” Cropper, to the timeless styles of pop music stars like the streamlined funk of Prince, the raw bluesy rock of Jimmy Page from Led Zeppelin, the twangy riffs of Keith Richards from the Rolling Stones, to the furiously strummed punk of Joe Strummer from the Clash, the Fender Telecaster smoothly plays and adapts to any genre of music.
While the Telecaster has gone through a few small cosmetic changes in specs over the years, including changes in how the pickup switches worked, the removal of the “dark circuit” in neck pickups, various hardware changes, and blackguard vs. whiteguard visual differences- the basic functionality of the instrument hasn’t changed in seventy years! If you’ve never had the pleasure of playing a Telecaster, grab one at your local music store and check it out!
This was the innovative pickup design Leo Fender made exclusively for lap steels like the Champion in late 1949’s. He later decided to include it in his solid-body electric guitar design, and well, the rest you could say is history. Flat pole pickups allow for the electric guitar to have higher output overall than other pickups, with an increased bass response on the lower strings, so the strings don’t get lost in the mix, as well as an increased presence on the overall tone. The results are a glassy, bold, yet rude twangy tone in the flat-pole bridge position. Flat pole pickups also give you increased string separation and balance to your overall tone due to the individual magnets centered on each string. My favorite thing about flat-pole tone is that my high-e string doesn’t get lost in the mix, and my G string never sounds overpowered. This is why Keith Richards likes early Telecasters for all his Rolling Stones open tuning riffs. Original examples of flat-pole pickups range within 5.6-9k ohms (originally measured at 7-9kohms in the ’50s for bridge pickups), have beveled edges, and were lacquered once installed on guitars at the Fender factory.
A big part of Leo Fender’s success with the Telecaster is attributed to the easy playability of Fender’s neck. Fender chose to make his Blackguard Telecaster necks out of single pieces of maple, which was unlike his competitors of the era who used mahogany backs topped with rosewood or ebony fingerboards. The use of maple in the neck construction made for a bright, snappy, spunkier guitar tone. He believed his maple necks were so strong they wouldn’t require reinforcing steel truss rods inside the neck to compensate for the massive amount of string tension on the instrument. This prediction, unfortunately never came true, as Leo eventually added truss rods to all his instruments on the manufacturing line. Frets were applied straight into the face of the neck, with dot position markers added before the necks were sprayed in finish lacquer. Every early fifties Telecaster I’ve had the pleasure of playing had different neck shapes. While this could be attributed to vintage guitars wearing out over time from being played heavily, I like to think this is more in part to necks being shaped by hand by different craftsmen and employees of the day like Tadeo Gomez. Some vintage examples have necks as large as baseball bats, to some feeling like a “V-profile,” to some more like a medium-sized “U-shape.” What I can tell you about the right Blackguard Telecaster neck is once you find the one that fits you, it’s a match made in heaven. I tend to prefer a small taper, also known as the “Tadeo Taper,” in the first three positions to make it easier to grab the neck for chording cowboy chords. Still, even the more giant baseball “U-shaped” examples seem to cradle in your left hand very comfortably. It’s this cradling feeling that makes these instruments so easy to play. Average neck width measurements were around 1.65 -1.99 inches and had average depth measurements of 0.96 in.- 1 inches
Brass Saddles and the Thin Steel Bridge Plate:
Early Fender Telecasters, going back to first examples of Esquires and Broadcasters, originally had steel saddles. Later, Leo Fender made the switch to brass saddles. The brass saddles helped tame some of the high end from the Telecaster, and the notched brass saddles allowed for lower setup height adjustments. It’s the brass saddles you hear when you hear that twangy, balanced tone. The other half of the “Blackguard” tone also has to do with the thin steel bridge plate. The lightweight, cold-rolled steel bridge plate adds to the “twang” of the Telecaster in the bridge position, by allowing the sound of the metal resonance to be audibly picked up by the Telecaster’s bridge pickup. Better tonewood finished in lacquer will ring for days with one of these thin steel bridges!