Different worlds, same guitar: The Telecaster in the hands of (clockwise from upper left) Jimmy Bryant (circa early 1950s), John 5, Marty Stuart and the Smithereens’ Jim Babjak.
Thoughts on the musically fascinating double life of Fender’s original electric guitar.
If there was ever a guitar with a split personality, it’s the Telecaster.
One the one hand, it’s universally regarded as the number-one country electric guitar. The Telecaster was built for western swing guitarists, introduced by that name in 1951 and thus pre-dating rock ‘n’ roll by nearly half a decade. Its bright signature twang became one of the defining and enduring sounds of country music, and it was the electric guitar of choice for pioneer hit makers such as Merle Haggard, Buck Owens and Waylon Jennings, and for noted sidemen such as James Burton
and Luther Perkins. More than half a century later, the Telecaster’s status as the king of country hasn’t diminished a bit. It’s still preferred by the sharpest players and songwriters atop the modern country charts—artists such as Brad Paisley, Marty Stuart, Vince Gill, Keith Urban and many others.
Far removed from the twang of Nashville and Bakersfield, though, the Telecaster has led a fascinating double life. For on the other hand—and often on the other side of the Atlantic—the Telecaster has been the weapon of choice for some of rock’s most inventive legends, innovators and iconoclasts.
Rock ‘n’ roll embraced the Telecaster with open arms and open minds. Rock royals Keith Richards, George Harrison, Pete Townshend, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Ray Davies have all played it. So did 1960s psychedelic godfathers Syd Barrett and Jimmy Page. In the mid-1970s, punk patriarch Joe Strummer led a revolution while brandishing a Telecaster. Later that decade, the Police at first flew the punk flag but made no attempt to disguise the smart chops and startling creativity of Andy Summers, who forged a widely imitated post-punk guitar sound with his battered Telecaster as the trio rose to chart-topping world success in the 1980s. A decade later in the mid-1990s, an inventive new generation of Britpop guitarists emerged, led by Blur’s Graham Coxon and Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood, both of whom were devoted Telecaster players.
How strange and wonderful then that the same guitar that is the plaintive sound of Waylon Jennings’ sly “Mental Revenge” (1966) is also the seismic sound of one of rock’s most famous debut albums, Led Zeppelin (1969).
And how interesting that the same electric guitar that was put to such dexterous use in the 1950s by lightning-fast western swing ace Jimmy Bryant still exists in the 2000s—and basically unchanged, at that—and is put to equally nimble use by Rob Zombie’s talented shredder, John 5.
The Telecaster provides the main instrumental sound of both these albums, 1969’s Led Zeppelin (above) and Brad Paisley’s 2009 American Saturday Night.
How curious, too, that the same electric guitar that the great Muddy Waters once used to electrify the Delta blues so forcefully in the 1940s and ’50s is the same guitar that bemasked Slipknot guitarist Jim Root currently uses to pulverize metal audiences worldwide.
The Telecaster inhabits different musical worlds that couldn’t possibly be farther apart, yet it manages to sound right at home on a foot-tapping ’60s-era Buck Owens single, an atmospheric ’70s-era Pink Floyd album, a chiming ’80s-era pop hit by the Pretenders, an artsy ’90s-era electronic excursion by Radiohead and a 2000-era de-tuned nu-metal onslaught by Slipknot.
All this from the greatest country music guitar ever. Indeed, the Telecaster still rules the form for which it was intended and invented. Real country music still sounds the way it does because a Telecaster still sounds like, well, like itself.
No other famous electric guitar model seems to enjoy such a musically versatile dichotomy. You think of the Telecaster’s ubiquitous sibling, the Stratocaster®, and you think mainly of famous rock players and blues legends. It’s not necessarily the first electric guitar that leaps to mind at the mention of country music even though plenty of country players swear by it. As indispensable as the Stratocaster is, it doesn’t have quite the air that its older brother has that it naturally lives in two different places at once.
The Telecaster does leap to mind at the mention of both country music and rock music. And as modern music continues to grow around the Telecaster, the more unusual that feat seems. And so perhaps we shouldn’t say that the time-honored Telecaster suffers from a split personality. Rather, we should say that the Telecaster enjoys a split personality. The great players and forces that drive the creation of music, it appears, wouldn’t have had it any other way.
A selection of great guitarists across the popular music spectrum who currently play the Telecaster or who have played it at some point in their careers:
Country, blues, jazz, roots, etc: