I spend a lot of time fixing guitars. Last week, for the first time, after ten solid years of repairing, restoring, and assembling instruments for other people, I built a Telecaster for myself.
It Starts With Keith
Maritsa, Ben, and I walked into the gate of FedEx Field on Friday night, October 4, 2002. All three of us were fourteen years old. Ben and Maritsa had already been to rock concerts before, but I hadn’t. This was my very first big show, which would later turn out to be the event that steered the course of my life toward playing music for a living. On that Friday night, we were walking into one of the best shows on earth; we were going to see the Rolling Stones.
We got to our seats in Section 102, just one level above the floor. We were just close enough to actually watch the band, and not have to make do with the jumbo-tron. We found our way through the crowds to the edge of our section, the concrete wall separating us from the crowd standing at the foot of the stage. Then, without any warning, the lights went out. All we could see was pitch black, and the sallow orange glow of the parking lot lights bleeding into the arena. There was nothing.
Then, it happened: We heard a muffled “threefour,” and the lights came on hard. Out came Mick Jagger in an shiny white suit jacket, Ronnie Wood smiling hard at the cameras, Charlie Watts pounding away behind the kit, and slinking in from stage left, is a smirking Keith Richards, with a butterscotch blonde Telecaster slung down to his hips.
I knew, exactly then and there, that I had to find a way to play shows like the Stones, and that I should probably get a Telecaster. At the time, I played drums more than I played guitar. Ben and I were in a band called Critical Velocity (to be fair, we were critically panned), and Ben played lead. I didn’t get serious about guitar until about a year later, but I stuck to acoustic. I didn’t buy my first Telecaster until I was 21.
But every time I remember my first Stones show, and every time I think about Keith’s blackguard Tele, I always feel that deep sense of longing– like I wanted to be a part of the club of guys that play Telecasters. Last week, I finally broke down, and took the plunge.
A Very Brief History of Fender’s Tele
Yes, you have definitely seen this guitar before. Keith Richards plays one. Bruce Springsteen, too. Bob Dylan had one for his Blonde on Blonde tour in ’66. Jimmy Page played a paisley-painted Tele for his stint in the Yardbirds. Muddy Waters played one for most of his electric career. Did you ever watch an episode of Saturday Night Live in between the years of 1985 and 1995? You probably saw at least ten seconds of G.E. Smith playing a Telecaster.
It’s a simple design: slab of wood for a body, with two pickups, a three-way selector switch, a single volume knob, a single tone knob, six strings, and a 22-fret neck. It’s a wonder such a simple thing made its way into the hands of thousands of players over the last 70 years. And it all stated in a little barn, in Fullerton, California.
Clarence Leonidas “Leo” Fender was born in 1909, and was raised in the sleepy orange groves of California, in between Fullerton and Anaheim. He picked up an interest in electronics early on, first repairing radios and amplifiers, and then eventually building his own public address systems for bands. He opened a radio repair shop in 1938, and rented his hand-built equipment out of the shop.
Fender began tinkering with amplifying guitars around the early 1940’s. By then, the Hawaiian craze had set in, and lap steel guitars were steadily growing in popularity. Leo teamed up with Doc Kauffman to develop a line of lap steel guitars (little more than a slab of wood, a few strings, and some very rudimentary electronics) they could sell out of the shop. Somewhere along the way, probably around 1948, the two technicians got a crazy idea: what if they could build a fully playable fretted guitar, using the same components as their lap steels?
So, they did. Hand-carving a body and neck out of pine, and installing the same kind of pickup used in the lap steels, Leo and Doc built a prototype for what would come to be the world’s first mass-produced, solid-body electric guitar. And it was ugly.
It was a dramatic break from tradition; the neck was bolted directly to the body instead of being glued into a dovetail or mortis and tenon joint, the pickup was mounted toward the bridge instead of the neck, and the volume and tone controls were mounted directly onto the face of the guitar instead of being subtly hidden under a pickguard. On top of all that, it was made out of a slab of wood, instead of a carved, hollow body. From the prototype, though Fender made adjustments as he lent it to Country and Swing bands in the neighborhood. Finally, by 1949, he was ready to start building more. The first run of these guitars came with one pickup, and necks that were prone to warping under the tension of the strings. Only fifty were made.
Leo and Doc were confident in their design, and took the changes they needed to make in stride. A year later, they announced the release of the new model: the Broadcaster. There was a hiccup in their plan, though. Gretsch already had a drum set model called the “Broadkaster.” Rather than get the pants sued off the company, Leo Fender removed the “Broadcaster” name from the guitars’ headstocks. These models are now known affectionately as “No-Casters,” and sell for upwards of $60,000 when they go up for auction.
By 1952, though, the crazy inventors in Fullerton finally got it right. Television was the newest craze, and Fender wanted to capitalize on its popularity. They dubbed the line of guitars “Telecaster,” and never looked back.
Because the guitars were so inexpensively manufactured and assembled, they came with a price tag significantly lower than the hand-built Gibson guitars of the same era. A cheaper guitar meant a more widely available guitar. The players who would later come to invent Rock and Roll fell in love with the sturdy construction of the Telecaster, the stable and dependable sound, and the interchangeable parts. If the neck were run over by a truck, a new neck was only a phone call away.
The Telecaster’s story is one of the most iconic and enduring American stories: humble beginnings, stubbornness mixed with ingenuity, and a creative way to make a buck. It’s a crazy product that finally found a market. It’s an underdog that finally found success. It’s a slab of wood with strings and pickups, and it’s at the heart of popular music.
Why Build a Your Own?
If Leo and Doc built such an iconic instrument, why would anyone want to build their own? Why not just walk into the nearest reputable Fender dealer, and walk out with a brand-new Telecaster (WITH A HARDSHELL CASE, A FREE SET OF STRINGS, CABLE, TUNER, AND CERTIFICATE OF AUTHENTICITY!), and just deal with having a guitar that looks, sounds, and plays like the ones in 1952?
Because guitarists never want to sound like everyone else.
One of the things that makes the Telecaster so iconic is its potential for customization. The split-shaft 250k potentiometers used in the early Telecasters were the same dimensions as most amplifiers. When Muddy Waters lost the classic dome-top knurled metal knobs on his candy-apple red tele, he replaced them with amplifier knobs. The Fender Custom Shop Muddy Waters signature model includes a pair of old amp knobs on the control plate.
Over the years, players found ways of customizing their Telecasters. Bigsby tailpieces were added to get a string-bending vibrato effect. The “lipstick tube” cover on the neck pickup was removed to increase brightness and clarity. Because all the components on the guitar were designed to be adjusted, there were suddenly thousands of ways to turn a generic tele into a one-of-a-kind instrument.
The first Telecaster I bought is a Squier Affinity Telecaster. This is the bottom-of-the-barrel model. It’s manufactured by a subsidiary of Fender, in a factory that also used to produce bicycle horns and Barbie dolls. I bought the guitar for $95 on Craigslist a week before my 21st birthday and decided I would never change any of the components. Like most stubborn 20-somethings, I was out to prove a point: I don’t need an expensive guitar to sound good. I toured with that Tele all over the country, played it every week at Madam’s Organ with my band, and even played it at my first Kennedy Center Millennium Stage gig.
I still had a nagging desire in the back of my skull to build something special; something unique, that nobody else has. I held off for years, though. I believed that if I built a guitar, it would need to be something I could use every night, it would need to be comfortable to play, but also sound amazing, and it would need to look cool.
I am not Leo Fender. I do not have a radio repair shop, or a barn to try out weird ideas. I live in a one-bedroom condo with my partner and dog. Sometimes, they’ll allow me to use the counter to set up a workbench for guitar repairs, but I’m in a pretty limited space. This means I can’t build a guitar completely from scratch.
I do, however, have an open account at Reverb.com, which allows me to buy parts needed for guitar repairs. Over the past few years, Reverb has worked hard to develop an online marketplace for gear, including a whole section for electric guitar bodies. From there, it was just a matter of finding one I liked, and getting the hardware to match. The pickups were an easy choice, too. Seymour Duncan makes a noise-cancelling version of the classic Telecaster pickups. It’s all the brightness and sparkle of the classic Fenders, without the nasty 60-cycle-hum. The neck is an entirely different matter, though.
In 1965, CBS acquired Fender. Right away, they started tinkering with the design of the world-famous guitars. One of the more subtle, but still noticeable changes they made was to enlarge the Stratocaster’s headstock. This was done for exactly one reason: a bigger headstock meant a bigger logo. Fender’s tiny, elegant script was gone in a matter of months. The new CBS headstocks proudly shouted “STRATOCASTER” in a bold, blocky font.
In spite the shrewd reasons for making a bigger headstock, I still love the cartoonish, goofy-looking 70’s-style Strat necks. Mighty Mite makes a great 70’s-style neck, but with a blank headstock. I opted for one of those. I wanted to keep it blank. I took Seymour Duncan’s name off the bridge pickup, too. I didn’t want anyone’s name on the instrument. Fender and Duncan didn’t build my guitar. I did.
Assembly, Wiring, and Metal Shavings
I would love to tell you that putting a guitar together requires years of arcane knowledge, handed down by esoteric luthiers in the dark. I can’t. It’s actually pretty easy. I built a guitar from parts for the first time (for a customer) when I was 19-years-old. I didn’t have any more trouble then than I did last week when I built my Telecaster. Just like any recipe, dance, or piece of IKEA furniture, it’s just a matter of following the steps:
- Attach the neck to the body: Mighty Mite necks don’t come pre-drilled. This means you have to put the neck into the pocket, screw the four neck bolts into the guitar so that just the very point of the screw pokes into the heel of the neck. Removing the neck from the pocket, you’ll see four neat little indentations in the wood. Those are the spots you’ll need to drill. It’s important to use a bit that is slightly narrower than the neck bolts, so the threads of the screws actually grip the wood. It’s also important to tape off the bit a the stopping point, so you don’t drill all the way through the neck.
- Install the tuners: Self-explanitory, no? Most tuners will drop right into the pre-drilled holed. The little tabs on the ends of the tuning machines can easily be squared up using the flat side of a straight-edge. A string tree on the E and B strings helps create an exaggerated break angle off the back of the nut. I used the string tree from my old Squier for this. Again, using a scaled-down drill bit, and taping off the depth stop are both wise ideas.
- Check the center line: Chef Marco Pierre White is fond of telling his sous-chefs “taste, taste, taste.” It’s impossible to know the final results ahead of time, unless you check your work as you go. Just like the chefs, it’s important to check and make sure the neck is sitting flush against the pocket, so that the strings travel straight across the neck, not at an angle. The easiest way to check this is by installing the bridge (which screws directly into the top of the guitar) stringing up the first and sixth strings, and measuring the distance between the edge of the string and the edge of the fretboard. If the distances are not equal, and the neck tilts to one side, you can fix this by loosening the neck bolts by an eighth of a turn, holding the horn of the body in one hand, and yanking on the neck in the direction it’s supposed to go. Don’t forget; a new neck is only a phone call away.
- Wiring: Some pickup manufacturers use two-conductor wire on their pickups, some use five-conductor wire, some use complicated pre-amps with six kinds of wire, and absolutely none of them share the same schematics. Luckily, schematics and wiring diagrams are easy enough to find online. The red and white wires are soldered together, then shrink-tubed off. The green and bare wires are soldered together, and sent to ground. The black wire carries the signal from the pickup to the switch. The switch then goes to the volume potentiometer (you also need to send the tone pot to the volume pot), and then to the output jack. Provided you follow the directions through all of this, you probably won’t shock yourself across the room.
- Installing the Pickups: This should be easy enough– wood screws mount the neck pickup directly into the body, and machine screws mount the bridge pickup under the bridge plate. While Seymour Duncan provides surgical tubing to keep the pickups from wobbling around, I’ve found packing foam mounted directly under the pickup works much better.
- Fretwork: For all of the metal hardware used in the construction of these guitars, most of the instrument is still made out of wood. As such, they can change depending on the climate they’re in. Necks can sometimes sit on a warehouse shelf for a year before getting shipped to a builder. Invariably, new necks might come with fret ends poking out of the sides of the neck. Filing the sharp edges back is easy, if you have the right tools. This step requires a lot of patience, especially in cleaning the bits of metal shavings out of the wood. The last thing you’ll want is nickel dust embedded in a brand-new fretboard. Murphy’s with steel wool, followed by a simple mineral oil works pretty well.
- Strap Locks: Yes, you should install these. No, you don’t really have an excuse not to. If you have your guitar slung over your shoulder, you ought to have strap locks. No exceptions.
Strings on, tuned up to pitch. This is the last step, and possibly the one that will have the biggest influence on the overall sound. It starts with setting the string height.
(NOTE: this is sometimes mistakenly called “action” by some guitarists. “Action” refers more to how the guitar plays, rather than the overall distance between the strings and fretboard. If you utter the words “high action” in front of a guitar repair tech worth their salt, they will usually correct you.)
The first component to adjust is the truss rod, which is steel beam inside the neck. Don’t forget; the guitar has upwards of 145 pounds of tension on the neck. The truss rod is there to reinforce the neck against the tension of the strings. If it’s flexing too hard, and bending away from the body, the strings sit low, right on top of the frets. If it’s not flexing hard enough, the strings sit high, way above the frets. Like most things in life, finding the proper truss rod tension is a balancing act.
Then, it’s onto the bridge saddles. The Telecaster traditionally comes with three saddles, each with two height-adjustment screws on the ends. This is allows for finer adjustments in getting the strings to a uniform height. It’s important to note that fretboards are usually not flat; they have a slight curvature (“radius”), for playability. A radius gauge is used to guide the strings to the proper height. This prevents one string sitting higher than another, and makes the guitar a lot easier and more comfortable to play.
After, it’s a matter of checking the nut slots for proper depth, checking for high frets, putting the pickups at the right height, testing the electronics for consistent grounding, and finally adjusting the intonation screws on the back of the saddles, it’s time to plug it in.
How It Sounds
It’s surprisingly bright for a pair of noise-cancelling pickups. It’s got a responsive, slightly springy mid-range that makes it fun for slide guitar. It doesn’t sound a thing like my old Squier, or like other stock Fender-made Teles. Come to think of it, it doesn’t sound like any guitar I’ve played.