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.

The guy who relic'ed mine did a fairly good job in several respects. He got carried away though and managed to knock out a couple of pretty sizable wood chips from the body. (You can click on most of the photos in this post to enlarge them). I just hated that! And there was no way to satisfactorily cover those missing hunks of wood. Fender makes a really nice replica of their old 1952 Telecaster in the original butterscotch color. I love the look of those guitars for the most part—at least the color scheme.

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.

I really liked the neck on this Mexican made tele I had, so I decided to keep it. I would have to make some changes on it, but it wasn't a big problem. I first unbolted the neck, then took off all the hardware, and finally stripped the finish off the body. I was very disappointed to find that the poly finish had seeped so far into the wood grain that it would be impossible to sand it all out. This left me with only two options. 1) Paint the guitar. 2) Get a different body. Well I wanted a 50s butterscotch stain, so I sure wasn't gonna paint it. I began scouring the net for deals on tele bodies—both new and used. I found a really good deal on a new one that was listed as having a "warm butterscotch" color. The picture they showed of it looked a tad dark compared to a real 50s tele, but it was darn close. But when it showed up in the mail it was this color:

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.

Fortunately, the guy who had the guitar before had already swapped out the saddles for the older 3-barrel brass ones I like so much. They produce a thicker, bluesier tone than the old steel saddles. And the newer style saddles Fender makes are pathetically wimpy sounding. I rubbed them down with some Brasso, and they shined up pretty good. I had to buy a new vintage style bridge plate though (and yes, it says Fender Patent Applied For on it just like the old ones) along with new volume/tone knobs and a control plate. You'll notice here one big departure from original tele stock and that's the pickup selector switch. I never could stand the ones Fender made and have swapped them out for a standard Gibson style on every tele I've ever owned. Fender makes great guitars, but their selector switches leave a lot to be desired.

I ordered a control plate that only had holes drilled for the two small screws at each end that secure it to the guitar body. I drilled out the holes for the tone, volume, and selector switches myself so I could put them in the order I wanted and have the correct size hole for the Gibson switch. So now I have the volume in front, the tone behind it, and the switch at the back. This makes manipulating the volume and tone controls much easier while I'm playing.

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.

I didn't mess with the back of the neck at all. It looked good enough to suit me. The fretboard did have some very grungy looking spots though, so I sanded it down here and there when I sanded the peg head. You'll notice that the old string tree left a hole. When I put the new circular one on I wanted to place it exactly where fender did in the old days, and that was further up the peg head a bit. So I had to fill the hole with some wood filler. After I refinished the peg head, that wood filler would stand out, but fortunately the new logo would be placed right over that old hole, so you'd never know it was there.

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.

It looks to me like an absolutely perfect match for Fender's old shellac, and I'm really happy with the way it came out. By the way, the logo Fender uses is a water-slide type. What you'll want to do when applying these is to apply one or two coats of shellac to the peg head first. After it dries, lightly sand it with very fine steel wool. Then put your decal on. After the decal dries you can add as many more coats of shellac as you need. This way the decal gets placed between coats of shellac and doesn't come off. It also makes the edges of the logo harder to see than they would have been if you placed the logo on the bare wood. I should also mention that the frets were getting pretty old on this neck, so I had it refretted by a luthier friend in St. Louis. I've done refrets before but didn't feel like messing with it. He didn't do the best job in the world though, and I still spent a couple of hours filing down rough ends. Obviously I did this before I began any finishing work on the neck. I applied some of the amber shellac all over the front of the neck after roughing things up a bit. There was no real need to take off all the old finish because it was so worn anyhow. It worked out pretty well I thought. The only other problem I had with the guitar was that the holes in the new body didn't align with the holes in the heel of the neck. I was able to just drill out some new holes in the heel, so it came out okay.

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.

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