This is the insider’s story of the birth of the Fender Telecaster, the first commercial solidbody electric guitar. The Telecaster was a factory product, stripped down to its essentials, built from easily assembled parts, and made at a relatively affordable price. Guitarists of every stripe have come to love the Tele for its elegant simplicity and for its dry bite and twangy punch. Back when it first appeared in the early 50s, it was, quite simply, a revolutionary instrument. This oral history about the birth of the Telecaster comes from interviews I’ve done over the years for my various books about Fender.
Leo Fender opened his Fender Radio Service store in 1938, and his first guitars were electric lap-steels, made in the mid 40s with his partner, Doc Kauffman, and using the shortlived K&F brand. Doc left, and Leo renamed his new company in 1947 as the Fender Electric Instrument Co, based in Fullerton in Orange County, California, and continuing to produce electric steels and small amplifiers into the 50s.
Fender’s new solidbody electric was at first called the Esquire, advertised in 1950 with a single pickup, which morphed into the two-pickup Broadcaster, first offered in about October of the same year. Gretsch objected to the use of the name Broadcaster, and the snipped-decal ‘Nocaster’ was sold from around February to April ’51. Finally, around April 1951, Fender’s new guitar was given the name that we know best today, the Telecaster. The people you’ll hear from are James Burton, who acquired his first Telecaster in 1953; George Fullerton, who was at Fender from 1948 to 1970; Dale Hyatt, a Fender salesman from 1946 to 1951 and again from 1955 to 1972; and Don Randall, who at first worked for Radio-Tel, Fender’s distributor, from 1946 to 1953, then as Fender’s head of sales from 1953 to 1969.
“Leo was always telling me that he was intending to get into building some more guitars. It was a small place when I started [in 1948], only two or three people there. I went to work repairing instruments and the little amplifiers, and that seemed to be pretty neat. Then Leo started talking about these solid Spanish-type guitars, and course this really interested me. The idea of new instruments and designs was certainly interesting.”
“Leo was a real thinker, working out how to do it. His belief was that anything that was made on the market could be made better, and you could make money doing it. No matter what it was, Leo thought anything he had in his store at the time, anything like that, if
he set out to do it, he could do a better job.
“The main thing we were making in those days was steel guitars. Up until the time that I [first] left the company [in 1951], we were making mostly steel guitars, that was the big thing. That was the craze, and our distributor Radio-Tel, run by Francis Hall and Don Randall, didn’t want to take right off into the Spanish-guitar business. Neither of them thought the Spanish-type guitar was going to be too big a success.”
“We had been making steel guitars, the lap models: student instruments and a nicer deluxe instrument. That was fine for a time, because there were big guitar schools that sold all these things. Then, all of a sudden, rock ’n’ roll began to come about. Guys found out they could learn to play standard Spanish guitar. We were moving towards that more, and the steel guitar was becoming more an instrument in these country and western bands and these big Hawaiian schools that were not faring very well. So we were kind of forced into the so-called Spanish guitar market, the standard guitar. “The guitar player without amplification was lost, because you couldn’t turn up the volume on a guitar… you had so much feedback you couldn’t play it. So with the solidbody guitar, all of a sudden, the guy could play as loud as a drummer, and blow the drummer off. For us, it was just a matter of necessity.”
Designing a new guitar
“Although Leo continued research and development, the factory was not always running at full capacity, and there was a three-month period that we were all but closed down. I was the only one working in the daytime, and Mr Fender would come in in the evening, because the bank was looking for him, trying to foreclose.
“It was not until 1950, because of the demand, that production and distribution eased the financial burden, and we were able to live a little bit easier from that time on.”
“Leo and I started spending an awful lot of time thinking about this electric guitar. Matter of fact, we did a lot of work toward the design of the body and the neck and different type of things, to something that was workable. Leo and I would be there till two or three o’clock in the morning, because during the day, we had to work to help keep the workshop running. Work on new things and new designs, well… about the only time you had left was at night and weekends, so there were weeks and weeks and weeks when we didn’t take a day off. And most of those days were long, long hours.
“Leo was very strong for building something that was very serviceable, durable, easy to repair, and, like he used to call it, ‘built like a tank’, to stand up to rough treatment. We tried to design something that would be strong and do a good job for a playing musician, sound good, be easy to play, easy to repair, all these things. We kind of had our work cut out for us. So we’d set out our design in our own thoughts, but the hard part was accomplishing the entire thing.
“Leo was an intelligent man and did a lot of wonderful things, but he was not a musician. He could not tune a guitar. The only time that Leo learned to tune a guitar was in later years, really later, when strobe tuners came out. I used to say to Leo: ‘Look, why don’t you take a few lessons, learn to play a chord or two on the guitar?’ Never would touch it. He did not know one chord position on guitar. It’s amazing! So as a guitar builder, I do not believe Leo would have been so successful in building guitars if he had been the sole person doing it. He had lots of knowledge of electronics, but not of other things.”
The Bigsby connection
“The original Esquire was just a block of wood sawed out. It had a semi-lute-type head on it, which came as close as you could imagine to the fancy one that Paul Bigsby had made.”
“The only other instrument that was on the market that had a cutaway [belonged to] Merle Travis, who had a guitar that was built by Paul Bigsby. And of course we knew Paul Bigsby, he was in Downey, about 15 miles from Fullerton. Course, we knew Merle Travis, used to see him play at different places. That Paul Bigsby guitar was a new thing and very different, and of course I’m sure that had a great deal of influence on our thinking, that cutaway.
“The first [prototype], we had keys on each side of the neck. But there again, in those days nothing was available, we had to redo and undo all kinds of things. We moved to keys on one side of the head. I know Merle Travis always had the feeling that Leo copied his guitar – his basic idea that he had for Paul Bigsby, that was his idea – but you know, that was notMerle Travis’s idea. That idea goes back to the 1800s, because I’ve seen pictures of old guitars with that head.
I’ll tell you one of the reasons why Leo liked it, and he was very strong for this. On most guitars that had keys on one side, the strings would go up to the bone nut and then they would slant off to one side. Leo liked it so they were straight from the bridge to the post, with no bending sideways. That was one of the basic things about it that made it look good and made it work wonderfully well. It was a design thing, rather than trying to copy somebody, that made it a better tool for the musician.”
Esquire and Broadcaster
“I took an early one to the trade show in Chicago. And a guy from National/Valco, Al Frost, came and looked at it. He said: “Don, do you have a neck [truss] rod in it?” I said: ‘No, it’s just a solid maple neck, we don’t need one.’ He said: ‘Look, I want to tell you one thing. If you don’t have a neck rod in it, you’re in for a lot of trouble. We’ve been through this and I can tell you first-hand.’
“So I contacted Leo and I say: ‘Leo, we’ve got to have a neck rod in there.’ ‘No, we don’t need one, it’s rock maple.’ I said: ‘I tell you one thing, either we put a neck rod in that or we don’t sell it, now make up your mind to it.’ And this was the way I had to handle Leo. He was actually kind of afraid of me, I don’t why. I was the only guy who could handle him and make him do things. Rest of them it was: ‘Oh yeah Leo, yes Mr Fender.’ But Leo was about two-thirds afraid ofme because I really leaned on him and got him to make changes that were necessary. So we put out just a few of them without a neck rod, and then we put a neck rod in.”
“The original guitar, when we started out, it was only a single pickup, and it was called an Esquire. The first prototypes only had a single pickup, but it really didn’t have a name then, but when it became a production item, it had two pickups and was called Broadcaster. We started with the single pickup, mainly to get the thing designed and working. We were basically interested in those fabulous highs from that bridge, and by [slanting] the pickup, we got better bass on it. And that proved to be the thing that a lot of the country players especially liked. Rock and every kind of music likes it, and still do.
“We got tooled up, machines set up, to build this Broadcaster model. It was still brand new, and we went to work with a few local people. But it was hard, because in those days, guitar players were like cowboys and not a very well-accepted type of thing. Not only did you have this little slab of wood, as they called it, but they had been used to these real old things. So the guitar player would kind of look down his nose at this piece-of-wood thing.”
“Some bandstand somewhere, if there was some group playing, I was out there with the guitar. Even clear up into the San Francisco area, where my brother lived, little place called Manteca. He said bring it up here, we got an awful lot of country western music here – and they did. Went up there, and it was kinda like going back to Oklahoma. They had these nightclubs going and these guys were playing honky-tonk, country western. I remember the first time going up there, I took five units with me, these were the early one-pickup Esquires. Took ’em up there, I got a guy playing one, he quite liked it, and all of a sudden it just quit. Didn’t know what was wrong with it, and it was embarrassing.
“So I went out to the truck and got another one. It lasted about 30 minutes and it quit. Then they started saying: ‘There he goes, ladies and gentlemen, wonder how many he’s got?’ Anyway, the third one kept on going and worked for the rest of the evening.
“Unbeknown to us at the time, the windings around the coil, we only relied upon the coating that was on the wire for insulation, but in those rough magnets it wore through and caused a short. The coating wasn’t thick enough to insulate it. That was what was wrong with the instruments, as simple as that. But anyhow, that was the start of it. That gentleman came down to my brother’s house the next day and brought his son’s electric train set, wanted to trade it for one of the guitars. Another of the first ones sold of what we now know as the Telecaster – it might have been the second or third I sold, I’m not sure – was to a gentleman in Long Beach. He was one of the very first people to buy Leo Fender’s solidbody guitar, and I know he played that thing for years and years.”
Jimmy Bryant starts a prairie fire
“Leo and I were out one night, some place way over in Los Angeles, and took one of these guitars, one of the first ones. Went to this club over there, the Riverside Rancho, a dancehall [in Glendale]. We went to one side of the stage, and what we wanted to do was wait until the rest time, we wanted the guitar player to look at this guitar. So during this time there was a young fella came in, good-looking young guy, came right over there to where we were and started talking with us. Saw this guitar, he picked it up, looked at it, tried it a little bit. He just kind of backed up and sat on the side of the stage, just picking on this.
“So the band’s rest period comes, the guitar player came over that was in the band, and this guy asked the player if he could play right through his amplifier. He says sure, so they moved the amplifier to the side of the stage, plugged that thing in, and there he sat with this guitar, playing it. Well, he got to do a lot of neat things on this guitar, and pretty soon all these people who’d been dancing were crowding around listening to what he was doing. It wasn’t long before the whole band was standing around. He was the centre of attention. And it was Jimmy Bryant, probably one of his biggest steps in getting on. But we didn’t know his name at that time – he told us, but it didn’t make any sense to us.
“Jimmy was one of the most fabulous guitar players around. Course, Les Paul was high on the charts, but Les Paul was a different kind of player than Jimmy. Jimmy played things on guitar that nobody could play. And, of course, this was an electric with low action – and with that cutaway, he could go right up the neck. So, naturally, we put one in his hand, and this was like starting a prairie fire.
“Pretty soon, we couldn’t make enough of those guitars. That wasn’t the only reason, but it was a lot of it, because Jimmy was on television shows, personal appearances, and everybody wanted a guitar like Jimmy Bryant’s. That was one of the starting points of that guitar.”
“At the start of that guitar, we had what we called the ‘guinea pig process’. A guitar would start out, and we’d put it in the hands of the player, and tell him to play it and tell us what he liked and didn’t like about it. This would go on, and the guy’d say: ‘This knob ought to be here, and this one here, this switch ought to be so-and-so,’ things of that nature. Finally, after three or four guinea pigs, you’d come up with a composite of these various ideas, and it would pretty well satisfy most of the players. That’s really the way the guitars happened.”
Broadcaster = Telecaster
“The ‘Broadcaster’ name came up because in those days, broadcasting was the name of the game, the big thing. But we had to eliminate that because Gretsch was using the name. So we changed to ‘Telecaster’, and that was a natural thing. Leo had his radio-repair shop, and when television was brand new, he probably had the only place in town that had televisions. He had one that he’d put in the window, facing out into the street, speaker outside. At night there’d be a crowd of people round, watching wrestling or whatever was on. Every night, Leo had this set up. He was always interested in people and what people thought and what people did.
“So, many a night I’d go over there, stood in front of his place, he used to have wrestling on a lot, and sometimes it would be cold and foggy, but there’d still be this crowd of people. That was the sort of thing Leo Fender did – he didn’t have to do it, but he liked to do it because it was a new thing, and of course it advertised his business. Leo wanted people involved in whatever he did, and so naturally he picked up Telecaster as a name for that new guitar.”
Play that thing
“The Telecaster is my buddy: we’ve been friends for a long time. I started playing when I was 13. I just happened to be walking down Milam Street in my hometown of Shreveport, Louisiana, and there’s a music store called J&S Music. In the window, they had this beautiful blonde Fender Telecaster, and I stopped and admired that guitar for the longest. I went home and told my mother about it. I was already starting to play a little bit. My dad came home from work, she told him, and he said: ‘Well, take him down there if that’s what he wants and get it for him.’ So we did. I guess that was a new ’52 or ’53 model.
“I played it the next day. That first one was such a sweetheart. I’ve recorded with many different artists, on thousands and thousands of records, and that guitar for me works for a very wide range of music. When you do studio music, they say: ‘Oh, you’ve got to have this guitar for this, that guitar for that. And I say: ‘Why do I need all those guitars? It’s right here. Know what I’m saying?’”