The relationship between what we call “math rock” and the Fender Telecaster is not unlike the symbiosis found between a good bag of chips and the perfect jar of salsa. While fully flavorful on their own, when combined, the results are often a profoundly addictive and rarely challenged combination. The Tele’s fabled twang gives extra weight to things like fretboard tapping, open tunings, and finger-style technique, imparting math rockers everywhere with tingly “just right” feels rooted deep in the center of human sensation.
But why? With roots in Jazz, Country, and Americana, it might come across as an unlikely weapon of choice for such a rhythmically perverse group of players. Thankfully, a quick glance through the instrument’s history makes for a great reminder that it’s value lies not in the styles that made the Telecaster popular at the time, but the ideas the Telecaster made possible in the future.
And in true Bahamas fashion, we went an extra mile or two to get a few hotter-than-a-Tele-in-a-van-on-tour takes from some math rock guitarists we think you might know on the subject.
The year was 1950, and despite most cultural retrospectives’ rosy red hue, not all was well in the world. In the face of nuclear disaster, UFO’s, secret police, and the administering of Myxomatosis to wild Australian rabbits, it was plain to see that humanity was in need of good destruction. Er, distraction.
And that distraction was the Fender Telecaster.
Leo Fender’s prototype, likely developed in the years prior using a porous Swamp Ash, was radically different from other contemporary guitar designs. It had a bolt-on (removable) neck, a maple fretboard, and a sweet yet piercing sound quality that made it ideal for testing parts. But Leo and his partner Clayton Kauffman soon found themselves wondering if they’d stumbled across something bigger than that. Maybe even bigger than UFO’s.
The prototype’s looks were that of an evolved 1930’s Audiovox or Rickenbacker lap-steel but about twice the size, with a pronounced horn on one side, and exaggerated, feminine curves anchored to a heavyweight steel “ash tray” bridge. It was far easier to play while sitting down, and finally possible to play upright without lumbering, feedback-heavy jazz-box guitars. It’s single bridge-position pickup allowed for a distinct personality, and more than enough volume for big band gigs when paired with the right amplifier.
Once Fender put it’s flagship “Esquire” on the market, it was the first solid-body guitar of it’s kind, and players couldn’t get enough.
But it was anything but a simple success story for Fender. For starters, the first several Esquire models were copied from the prototype, which was built without a truss rod; this meant simple intonation issues would ultimately become permanent. One could find themselves requiring a new neck entirely. Though it could be argued that this is the reason they had detachable necks in the first place, knowing that you would have to spend money again in the future on replacements was hardly a selling point.
Fender also had a legal issue with Gretsch, a rival instrument company. During Fender’s overhaul of the Esquire series, production began on a slightly evolved form of the guitar equipped with an additional pickup (one in the bridge, one in the neck) called the “Broadcaster.” Gretsch, who had been selling drums under a registered “Broadkaster” trademark, claimed copyright infringement, and potential disaster loomed in the distance.
But ever the quick thinker, Fender simply did away with the model name altogether, and put a limited number of unlabeled guitars on the market with only a simple Fender logo to identify them. Though a gutsy move, it proved to be the right one for Leo, and now Fender “Nocasters” are known for their extreme value and rarity, with most professional estimates indicating that fewer than 500 of them exist.
The Tele’s twang by this point had been heard around most the known world. Guitar players in country, jazz, and blues were soon taking full advantage of this new and exciting instrument. As early as 1958, blues icon Muddy Waters could be seen performing with Telecasters armed with steel capos. It’s not even a stretch to say he was playing in meters outside of common time, so credit where credit is due, though one could hardly refer to a jam like “Champagne and Reefer” as math rock. But that’s a different conversation altogether.
Around the same time, particularly 1959, a Brazilian rosewood fretboard became available that subtly replaced maple’s piercing qualities with a smooth, organic mid-range. If one were to pop into their neighborhood “Guitar Store,” they could easily separate 50’s and 60’s reissues by sorting maple and rosewood fretboards respectively, assuming they weren’t on the hunt for something exotic like Pao Ferro, Ebony, or exotic “baked” woods.
When the Thinline Tele was released in 1968, featuring a lightweight semi-hollow body paired with Wide-Range magnets designed by the famous Seth Lover. An experienced yet under appreciated employee at Gibson, Seth presented a double whammy for hire at Fender headquarters: he had not only pioneered noiseless pickups, but had a hand in designing the Maestro Fuzz pedal and Flying V guitar as well.
Lover’s Wide Range pickup set kept Fender’s signature treble-heavy, chime-y, dare we say “twinkle-y” sound intact, but without the annoying background hum. Although they briefly issued an entirely rosewood Telecaster around the same time, particularly enamored with George Harrison‘s public affair with an early prototype, but high production costs made for a short run.
On the other hand, two unique and long-lasting versions of the Telecaster happened to be inspired by a modification popularized by Keith Richards a few short years later: the installation of a humbucker in the neck position in place of the standard single coil. In 1972, Fender fired off a new batch of Tele’s, this time with solid bodies, Wide Range humbuckers in the neck position, a new 4-knob control scheme, and called the Telecaster Custom. They were also identifiable by a sprawling new pick guard design.
The company took things even further with the Telecaster Deluxe, equipped with a stylish Strat-style headstock and complete set of Wide Range pickups, as opposed to keeping a single-coil in the bridge. Though discontinued in 1981, the Deluxe’s cult following grew strong, and the guitar was finally reissued to great success in 2004.
Some Deluxe outfits came with a tremolo-equipped bridge installed if one preferred, but the option fell out of fashion mysteriously. While possible issues with intonation might have been the case, it was more likely part of a larger issue altogether.
Much had changed in the world of guitar, and the culture behind it. Where, ultimately, would this humble yet powerful guitar fit in? A world of pyrotechnic shred, key-tar synthesizers and steroidal super Strats lay just ahead. And that was just the 1980’s.
Companies all over the world like Ibanez, Hohner, and Charvel were spawning their own Fender-inspired instruments (to put it mildly) that catered to the heavier, more diverse needs of growing music scenes. Fender was keeping an eye out for the perfect way to get back into the fold with it’s competitors while maintaining it’s legacy.
But changes in ownership (CBS acquired the rights to Fender from 1965 to 1984) had left several models produced in the 1980’s inconsistent with the company’s former quality and design. Fender’s US production plant slowed to a halt in order to acquaint their staff with new technology. To keep things moving, the Vintage Reissue series was birthed, and operations were swiftly moved to Japan, starting with a back-to-the-basics, period-correct 1952 Telecaster.
In the year 1987.
While the Telecaster managed to re-establish itself as a worthy tool of expression, players were working with wildly different emotions and dynamics, and not with any particular kind of guitar. Designers like Floyd Rose, Lowel Kiesel, and Travis Bean began to cater to the most subtle and obscure of guitar tendencies in small batches or one-off commissions. Guitars that merged the best (and worst) of popular styles of all kinds could be found in nearly every music shop; off-brand copies filled second hand stores across the land, and varied to the extreme in terms of quality. But despite the public’s general ambiguity in the face of so many options, several players noticed higher quality parts and construction in Fender’s Japanese models, with most have held their value to this day.
Interestingly enough, when Leo Fender sold his company to CBS, he became immediately involved with not just one, but two other successful companies that picked up steam in the mid-1970’s. Music Man, a company formerly known as Tri-Sonix, had produced the Stingray bass guitar, which resembled a Fender P-Bass reverse engineered by scientists on the outskirts of Andromeda. Then of course there was G&L, whose guitars were largely thought of as a modern, slightly more elegant take on Fender’s previous ideas, with magnet-driven tremolos and unconventional pickup combinations.
As the heavy syrup of the 1990’s grunge fest plunged the world into a glorious, detuned stupor, it became clear that the purity of the Telecaster’s tone was not quite the center of our rapidly digitizing universe. The torch had been passed. Or perhaps it was just that the fire had been set long ago, and it was simply time for the Telecaster’s kind to die out, so that the wave could live on in jagged, surf-inspired shapes like the Jaguar or Mustang.
But to this day, nearly 70 years after it’s inception, the Telecaster is still found wherever new ground is being broken. Fantastic newer bands like black midi and Rolo Tomassi find ways to elevate the Tele’s purest qualities to new levels of intensity and tonal abstraction.
Things have come a long way from Leo’s 1950’s prototype. These days, metalheads, prog-rockers, and punks alike can score the perfect Telecaster for them, in nearly any price range. Of course, there are also some models that exist solely to please collectors like country-goth shredders like John 5, but Tele-crazed players everywhere are all the richer for it.
As far as spending one’s life savings on a room entirely full of them, we’ll have to leave that up to the discretion of individual readers (do it) but the instrument’s authoritative mid-range bloom and warm sustain make it an easy fit for any player looking for clarity and projection in their musical journey.
And if you don’t believe it after all of that, check out these Tele-Testemonials from these cool and calculating players of math rock.
“I love the simplicity of Telecasters—just a couple of pickups, one volume and tone knob, and a three-way selector,” says Will Ashby of New York’s enigmatic The Graphic World. “It can do anything from jazz to djent.”
“When I was younger I didn’t like Tele’s because I associated them with country music which I rebelled against when I was a teen,” says Heirloom‘s Jayce Benton Greenleaf. “What I learned over time is that the Telecaster is such a no frills guitar that is easy to maintain and sturdy as anything. I think there is also something for me about how the action on a Telecaster feels the most like an acoustic guitar, which is what I’m most comfortable on.”
“Something about the tone is so wooden, plunky, twangy and unique, yet it’s a tone that is so versatile to any genre of music,” says Sam Mendoza of Cactus and Spiller. “Mine LOOKS hella cute because I painted it, but it’s kinda stiff on the neck.”
“They’re simple, reliable guitars. I think the tele pickups also have a good grit to them, and you can kind of tame them with compression,” according to Owen Xia of Seattle’s Armature. “My absolute favorite part of my White Whale Guitars SN069 Tele is its roasted maple neck. Feels absolutely amazing.”
“Initially I wanted one because of the rosewood Tele Harrison plays in the roof top videos. Eventually got one because I like the pickup placement for the tone I like to achieve, says Murray Burg of New York post-math rockers It Came From Space. “I now play a G&L ASAT special. I get the aggressive single coil tone I never seemed to be able to get with a standard Tele.
“The warm, buttery, sticky-icky ’72 Deluxe maple neck is unlike anything else I’ve gotten my hands on,” says Bri Childs of Childspeak. “I have been playing the same tele for thirteen years and just can’t get over it. I feel like my hands have to stop the sound rather than create it on that neck; it is just so easy to play.” (Full Disclosure: This author plays a second Telecaster in the same band.)
“I came across a frankenstein Tele on Reverb with a half bridge (no ashtray) and that caught my attention, as well as all the upgrades and insane price tag,” says Jairo Munoz, guitarist of Florida’s Elders. I’ve been in love with it since!”
“I’m a big Tele guy, but I heard so many sick single guitarist bands slaying tone-wise with strats, so I got a Reverend Eastsider S,” says Jack Hooley of Derby, UK’s Low Poly. “it’s a Tele body with Strat electronics! Also it’s pink, so that’s very cool too.”
“I mean, let’s face it. All guitars are a piece of wood, some pickups, and some strings,” elates Tim Jim Smith of Gazelle(s). “But the Tele. Goddamn. For me, it’s all about the neck. Tele necks are the best in the business… I got to play a ’62 American Tele in Joshua Tree, and even though it was the heaviest Telecaster I’ve ever played, it was so clean, had perfect action, and the bridge pickup on a Tele is one of my favorite tones ever, just clean through a Twin Reverb. I love that the music world is embracing boutique brands and small build companies… But I still think that luthiers are always trying to catch a Tele sound in their guitars.”
“Probably the purest example of ‘getting it right the first time’ I can think of, it’s the most wonderfully versatile guitar ever made. Sounds amazing in any context, people tend to think of it as a country guitar or whatever but honestly the best heavy tone you’ll ever hear comes from a tele. Bite and heft in equal measure. I love them. Plus, they’re so nuts and bolts that you can throw them around and they look and feel all the better for a few dings.” says Tom Peters from Alpha Male Tea Party.
Want more gear stories? Check out ‘Math And Machines: The Devices of Math Rock‘ for an in-depth exploration of guitar pedals and effects.