personalized expeditions in music from a musician who doesn't matter

DR. TWANGSLOVE, or how I learned to stop worrying and love the Telecaster

Posted by r on February 5, 2014

Although I’m still loathe to give new acquaintances this information until they know me well enough to understand I’m not a complete douchebag, I’ve played electric guitar for twenty-six years (…man, that is one terrifying number, and certainly not one that reflects my degree of “mastery” of the instrument in any way).

For most of the first 24-ought years of that time, I was a dyed-in-the-wool Les Paul Guy (or, at least, being a naturally contrarian anti-Fender / -Gibson snob in my instrument choices, I was a Les Paul-Derived Guy). In the last couple of years, I’ve had the sort of change of heart that most guitarists would consider on par with switching political-party affiliation overnight… that is to say, somehow, somewhere in my mid-30s, I woke up and found I’d become a rather militant Telecaster Guy.

It’s not just because I developed an obsession with trucker country and steel guitars half a decade ago, either (the Tele, of course, having the strongest association of all “traditional” electric guitar designs with country music). As sad an excuse as I make for a guitarist generally, I’m certainly no blazing chicken-picker makin’ jaws drop on a Nashville club stage.

But in the spirit of the listicle-times, here are the five most significant reasons why I’ve decided, in my old age and “wisdom,” that the “lowly” Telecaster– Leo Fender’s unabashed attempt to make the cheapest, dirtiest functional electric guitar that he could bring to mass market in the early 1950s– has an awful lot to offer over the Les Paul-style instruments that I thought were the end-all-be-all of electric guitar design for far too long.

1. No bourgeosie bullshit. The Les Paul and all of its sundry Gibson relatives are usually decked out with luxury accoutrements– carved flame maple tops, binding everywhere, scarf headstock joints (which are only too happy to come apart when the guitar falls off the stand), a comparatively difficult / expensive set-neck “architecture”– that look awfully funny if not outright garish in our new, economically-lean times in the West. The design frankly reeks of bygone rock excess. (Yet, when you try to strip some of the original bling away, as Gibson has recently done in trying to bring out more affordable versions of its classic instruments for players in our current thin-wallet reality, the result just looks flat-out cheap.)

At its core, the Telecaster has always been basically a rough-cut slab of any ol’ wood crudely bolted onto a neck, with the simplest of possible hardware to hold strings on and electrify the result. It is the tiny / Tumbleweed house of the electric guitar world.

2. Simple guitar = simple maintenance and repair. Anybody can slap together a playable Tele, as I found out myself a few years back. Changing strings, with the fixed-bridge design and the headstock tuners all very conveniently on the same side, is far easier / faster than on any other electric guitar design save perhaps a Steinberger. Unlike Gibsons, the wiring and cavities are all accessible from the top of the body, so there’s no flipping the thing over constantly during more “major” maintenance operations like pickup swaps or pot replacements.

Biggest plus of the bolt-on design (aside from the potential for easily building Frankenteles, which is a big plus from my vantage point): if you snap your neck / headstock or break the truss rod on a Paul, you’re in for a multi-hundred-dollar visit to the luthier and (probably) a serious downgrade in resale value thereafter; if you do the same on a Telecaster– which by nature of the design is actually much harder to do accidentally in the first place– just go get another neck for a few Jacksons and bolt the damn thing on yourself in five minutes.

3. Sounds as lean / mean as its build. A Tele with a carefully-chosen set of single-coil pickups cuts through a loud rock mix like nothing else. Dissonances soar through your distortion stompboxes unmuddied. In a band setting, you quickly learn with a Telecaster that you need far less distortion than you used to think you needed anyway.

4. Conventional wisdom about “correct applications” for Pauls vs. Teles is largely nonsense. The conventional wisdom I speak of: “Teles are thin-sounding funk-and-country-only guitars,” “Pauls have better sustain,” “…sound better / fatter for rock,” etc. Teles are crazily versatile / genre-agnostic instruments in a way a Paul could never be.

Undoubtedly, Pauls have somewhat better sustain – but not so much better that it matters if you can actually sort of play a guitar properly, and also at the cost of the clarity and additional expressive range the Tele brings to the table. With creative use / possible modification of electronics and/or careful control of your fingers, you can come “close enough” to the rolled-off, Les Paul-like rock tone with a Telecaster; good luck ever getting anything like the angry, glassy Tele “spank” out of a Paul.

5. Conventional wisdom about the “better” nature of set necks vs. the Tele’s bolt-on design is TOTAL nonsense.  I drank the Kool-Aid on this seemingly universal MI-industry claim for a very long time, but spending much more time with Telecasters due to all of the reasons above finally made it clear to me that the “set necks are better” cliche was a decades-long myth motivated by a desire to sell more (more expensive) Gibsons.

It doesn’t take much undue added weight / pressure on the neck, in the heat of a particularly aggressive musical moment, to make my set-neck Gibson-style guitars bend just enough to go “temporarily out of tune” while I’m playing them. And yes, I’m talking about multiple pro-grade set-neck instruments that have forced me to be super-careful to avoid inadvertently flexing the neck in live play.

The Tele’s bolt-on neck joint, being a less intimate connection to the body with some degree of built-in play in the system, doesn’t have this problem; feel free to flail-bash away within reason, the thing still stays in tune. I find even my beater Teles actually hold their tuning longer / better just generally, across the board, than any high-falutin’ Paul-clone I’ve ever had.

The other widespread belief about bolt-ons vs. set necks is that Paul-style set necks have a comparative “sustain advantage,” which I’ve already mentioned above – in my experience, nothing but BS, BS, BS. Maybe it would matter to a narcissistic lead player who wants to vibrato-hold a single note for eight bars while making the “O” face, and/or to Sunn0))). But for actual-listenable-music purposes, the difference in sustain between a Paul and Tele doesn’t matter much if at all in the majority of musical contexts.

None of which is to say I’m so over the Paul / selling all of my previous-favorite Paul-clones or whatever. I still love ’em, and there will always be a use for them, especially in my home recordings. But they’re definitely seeing a heck of a lot less play time these days, as Leo’s pine slab gets spanked over and over. Yes, I meant to sound like I was accidentally talking about masturbating, because what lengthy discussion of a particular guitar’s merits would be complete without some double-entendre-or-not phrase that read like a colorful description of the author’s personal time the first time through?

Note: if I ever end up writing this same sort of thing about the primary-guitar merits of thin-sounding, thin-feeling, pure-rock-douche-associated Stratocasters (or at least, Stratocasters in their original 3-single-coil Fender-conceived form) 20+ years from now, please send me to the nursing home with all due haste.

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