Wednesday, October 20, 2010
Rebuilding the Perfect Telecaster
I bought a 1995 made in Mexico Telecaster last year. The guy who had it before me relic'ed it. If you're not a guitar player then you may be unfamiliar with the term. Relic'ing is when you take a newer guitar and try to make it look like a really worn old one. It's become such a popular thing to do that Fender started making their own relic'ed guitars a few years back under the moniker of "Road Worn." Personally, I don't much care for the practice. I mean, I love to see an old guitar that's really been played to death and looks like it. All those scratches and missing paint chips are just part of the love. An old guitar that still looks new... well to me that's a guitar that ain't been loved enough. But to take a new guitar and try to fake an old look... that's phony love. That's Anna Nicole Smith love. I just don't dig it. The aging process should happen naturally.
They're expensive though at $1600 (street price). And there are some things I definitely don't like about them. Fender used flathead screws on the pickguard and other parts during that year, and they really stick out like a sore thumb. The 52 tele also had a more curved fretboard than later years, and I don't care for that either. They also had pickups that were very so-so compared to some of the more modern pups you can get. In fact, there's no single year for teles during the 50s (or since) that had every feature I like. Each year had something to offer and something to take away. So... I decided it was time to build my own and get exactly what I was after.
Now I ask you, does that look anything like the butterscotch Fender? Man, the one they sent me was way darker. Brown even. Well... at least the price was right, and it seemed very well made. It also looked very nice even if it wasn't really the color I wanted. So I decided to keep it. The old Mexican made body was alder. The new one is made from swamp ash just like the early 50s teles. And no, it sounds no different whatsoever. Almost all of a solid body guitar's sound comes from a combination of the pickups, bridge, and neck (actually the density of the neck effects the tone much more than the wood type). The body hardly vibrates at all and simply has very little effect on things. Both bodies weigh around 5Lbs.
I found an original 50s style bakelite black pickguard on Ebay really cheap from a guy who makes them himself. It has only five screw holes just like the old teles did. It also has no holes for mounting the front pickup like newer teles do, so you have to mount the pup to the body. This looks much better and cleaner to me than having screws all over the place they way new teles do.
I found a used, but new looking, set of Texas Special pups on Craigslist for a fair price and installed the front one. (As far as I'm concerned there are no better sounding pickups made for a tele). I wanted to install the rear one too, but the brass plate on the bottom of it was a little too big to fit through the hole they routed for this body. I could have routed it out some more but decided not to. The guy I got my old tele from had some after market pups in it. The front one was a dog, but the rear had a lot of bite. There's no writing or numbers on it, so I have no idea who it's made by, but I've gotten a lot of compliments on it. Anyhow, it fit the hole (just barely), so I kept it. (I was probably going to end up going with that pup anyhow, but I would have at least liked to have heard what the Texas Special rear pup sounded like in there)! I kept the old pots. I'm not sure if they're original or not, but they work fine and are the electrical values I wanted. I also like the more modern tone circuit fender started using in the 60s. The 50s circuit gave you a typical rear pickup when the selector switch was in the rear, but when you moved it to the center position you didn't get the combination of the front and rear pickups together like teles made after 1960 or so do. You instead got the front pickup. Then in the front position you got the front pickup with a capacitor in the circuit that took out some of the highs leaving you the sound of the front pup with the tone control rolled back. They did this because jazz was so in vogue at the time. Almost nobody liked this pickup configuration though, and even by the mid 50s people had started rewiring teles to get the typical front-middle-rear type of switch action we know today. I kept things modern in that regard.
I bought some new string ferrules too, but they were too big for the pre-drilled holes in the body. I ended up drilling out the holes a bit to make them fit. Then I put on a set of strap locks and a shiny new neck plate, and the body was done. Now on to the neck.
Unfortunately, I never thought to take a photo of the old Fender logo that was on the headstock. Aside from the fact that it said Made in Mexico on it, for the last several decades Fender has placed the logo further up toward the top of the peg head. They also switched from the circular string retainer to the butterfly shaped one in the late 50s. I much prefer the early 50s peg head look and decided to replicate it. I was going to try and design a logo myself in Flash, but after searching the net I found somebody selling a 50s replica. (You can make your own since it's your guitar, but Fender doesn't like it when people make copies of their designs and then sell them to others, so they threaten legal action whenever they find someone online selling these copies. As a result, dealers only keep websites up for a short period, and then change their name and move on, so it's hard to find these logos sometimes. You have to hit the net at just the right time. Anyhow, I didn't have any reservations about buying one since it was for my personal guitar. It's not like I'm planning to sell this guitar to somebody and represent it as being an original 50s Telecaster)! You can find replicas of Fender's original circular string tree all over the net, so that was no problem. And in case you're wondering, Fender licenses manufacturers to make replicas of their hardware. It's just the logos they don't want people to make in order to sell.
Fender tinted their necks with an amber shellac during the 50s, so they were a little darker and a bit reddish compared to later necks. I found an amber shellac called Bull's Eye at Lowes that's made by Zinsser.
I also kept the original tuning machines instead of opting for a vintage set. From the front you can hardly tell the difference, and it's just not a big deal to me. As long as they say Fender on them it's all good.
Well, I finally have the tele I always wanted at less than a third the price of a 52 reissue. And what's more, it's got every good feature any tele ever had, and none of the bad stuff.
If Fender would just put out a tele that looks like the 52, but with Phillips screws, Texas Special pups, a modern tone circuit, a Gibson style toggle switch, a modern C-shape neck with a flatter radius (oh, and maybe slightly wider at the nut) they'd finally have the perfect tele. In the meantime, you'll have to roll your own.