John Osborne, one half of the excellent country duo Brothers Osborne, knows how Telecasters should feel. His main workhorse guitar’s neck is taken from a 1968 Tele – so it’s perhaps unsurprising that the duo are part of the launch of Fender’s new American Vintage II range.
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Given his work with Brothers Osborne it’s unsurprising that John has a deep love for that classic country sound: the Telecaster’s ‘twang.’ The secrets of the ‘twang’ are not particularly mysterious. “It’s that bridge pickup,” John says. “It’s bright, it’s aggressive. And it really allows the guitar to speak through a band. And I just, I just fell in love with it. You know, I had a lot of friends that went one way, towards guitars with active pickups and all the knobs – I went the complete opposite way. I saw the Tele with two pickups, two knobs and a switch, and thought: ‘That is my speed right there.’ There’s a reason why they haven’t really changed the design over the years. Because it’s perfect.
“It has its quirks just like all guitars, it’s not trying to do absolutely everything. But I feel like I can do almost anything with a Telecaster.
John’s playing style isn’t purely indebted to the twang: there’s a lot of classic country guitar vocabulary in there, but you can also tell he has a healthy appreciation for Stevie Ray Vaughan as much as he does Roy Nichols. But the blues and country, for John, don’t have to be so distinct: “We’re all kind of saying the same thing, but just with a different accent. If you listen to a country lick, it’s just a quarter-step bend away from a blues lick. It’s microscopic – and it’s a lot to do with the right hand. It’s being able to play in a certain percussive way and get the guitar to react to you – and the Telecaster’s twang is such a big part of that.”
Which brings us to Fender’s new American Vintage II range. All of the ways in which you can reissue a vintage guitar require a little bit of imagination. You might be asked to imagine that the 70-year-old design was made, somehow, with modern amenities in mind. You might be asked to imagine that the guitar is actually a well-worn relic, with decades of hands (rather than tools) digging out chunks of wood and chipping away at the finish.
The American Vintage II guitars ask you to imagine what it would be like to walk into a guitar shop in the 1950s and pick one off the wall: they’re exactingly spec’d out, all the way down to the kind of screws that hold the pickguard in place.
This approach is perhaps less common than the purely aesthetic throwback, or the relic’d one. So how did the guitars stack up when they found themselves in the hands of John Osborne? “As well as being a musician I’m a collector on the side,” he tells us. “So when I went to play the American Vintage II series Fenders it was clear that they made them perfectly to spec.”
“When you pick them up, they feel basically the same as something like my blackguard Tele, but right as it came out of the factory. It’s quite amazing. The weight, the neck – they just feel right. The only difference is the fact it feels new: the lacquer is thicker, the frets are the original size, and they haven’t tried to adjust out the radius with the levelling.”
The guitars feature no modern concessions such as flatter fretboard radii or six-saddle bridges: these are as you would buy them new in their respective launch years. Even for a vintage collector like John, the commitment to the old-school radius was surprising. “It was a bit of a learning curve – I’ve never owned an instrument that was in perfect, right-off-the-assembly-line condition. I would say that every vintage instrument I’ve owned – which is a lot – has had the frets changed and some other things done to it. And that can make a big difference for the feel of the guitar, as you can adjust the radius and how things feel in levelling the frets.”
Soloing on an old-school 7.25-inch radius ‘board with vintage frets can be quite a challenge, as John found out when recording a video for the range’s launch. “At first, I went for a big bend and that fretted out. And I thought then, ‘oh, ok, so this is right off the factory line in 1952’ – I thought that they might adjust for that, but from what I understand they wanted to not adjust anything at all. Fender wanted it to feel like you were transported back to 1952, you went to a music store and you bought yourself your first Telecaster. And I love that.
“Getting into different guitars, you have to change the way you play, especially with vintage instruments. They’ve been around a lot longer than we have – the last thing they want to do is accommodate you, you have to accommodate the guitar. the And that’s just part of the relationship with vintage guitars: learning how to play each one.”
The idea that you might actually play your vintage guitars at all, let alone refret them to make doing so easier, isn’t one shared by all collectors. The threshold for what ‘heresy’ is when it comes to messing with the instruments can vary: some might even say that changing out the original frets does a disservice to whatever vintage mojo is stored within them. “I don’t adhere to that,” John says. “I would say a refinish is heresy, but even then, I mean, I have a lot of refinished guitars that are absolutely wonderful. And at the time I probably couldn’t have afforded them if they weren’t refinished.”
The Ship Of Theseus that is the Fender guitar is inherently at odds with an ultra-preservationist attitude. As John explains: “The necks are bolted on because Leo Fender’s idea was that once the frets wear down, you take the neck off, and you just throw a new neck on it. I mean, he was building these things like cars – when something broke on it, you just pulled it out, and you put a new one in. So I don’t think he would mind the idea of having to change the frets out. He understood that the guitar is a tool to make music.
“Gibson has a different approach with the set necks, and they put a lot of love into the aesthetics of them and we’re all in love with how those guitars look and play, but the Fender is like the working man’s guitar. The fact that you find a Fender with new frets, maybe like a tone pot or the tuners swapped out, all that stuff, it’s part of the brand that Leo Fender designed.”
John sums it up simply. “To know that a guitar was played,” he says, “and wanted to be played – that’s a big deal.”
Just take the neck off
John’s put these playing-first ideas about vintage guitars into practice, as his main instrument for several years now is effectively a parts guitar. Its story begins with his first ‘real’ vintage guitar: “It was a 1968 Fender Telecaster. And that was my main guitar for a long time – it was all original, the body was all beat up and I loved it. I played that for years and years and years. And then when we tracked our second record, Port Saint Joe, I wanted to have some b-bender on it. And I borrowed a friend of mine’s b-bender guitar, Keith Gattis. He had one that was from the ‘70s, I believe, and I loved it.
“So I literally just went on eBay and found a body with a pre-loaded b-bender. I took that neck off the 1968 Tele and I put it on that body – that’s when I realised, 90 per cent of it is in the neck. I mean, that’s where all the mojo is, that’s where you’re touching the guitar most of the time, that’s where you’re fretting. That’s where the sound comes from. So the neck is, I think, the most important thing on a guitar. It’s like putting on a broken-in pair of boots versus a brand new pair. Once you’re used to the way that it feels, you pick it up, and it’s home. That’s what that guitar feels like to me.”
“Later on, I did buy a 1953 blackguard Telecaster from Carter Vintage,” John adds. “And I absolutely love it. It’s one of the more premier vintage instruments that I own. However I don’t take it out a lot because of its value and its rarity.”
Even if you’re not precious about vintage instruments at all, the idea of taking a router to the back of a 1953 blackguard Telecaster to fit a b-bender in there might make you wince. “And I think that’s what’s so great about the American Vintage II stuff,” John says. “Now, I don’t have to put a b-bender in my 1953 blackguard, I can put one in the American Vintage II Tele!”
John is keen to stress that his exaltation of the vintage Telecaster – and Telecasters in general – is his alone to make: “Everyone has their opinions on music and guitar and how it should be played and how it shouldn’t be played. I think that’s all bullshit. If you want the guitar with three active pickups and 50 knobs and nine strings, and that’s how you express yourself, I think that’s phenomenal. I mean, I see musicians like that, that I absolutely admire, and I could never do it.
“I just have a little more fun playing vintage instruments than I do new stuff,” john concludes. “And if I had to play a new instrument, I would prefer to play something with vintage spec, because that’s what my hands and my ears are used to. We’re all just trying to express our feelings through 12 notes – it just comes down to making art.”
The new American Vintage II range is out now. Find out more at Fender.com.