The Vintage Telecaster Set: My Story
I never really liked Telecasters. I felt that the body shape was OK, but that the control plate and pickguard were a strange concoction (but completely logical, considering Leo Fender’s philosophy regarding guitar manufacturing). The headstock was to me the most akward of designs. It doesn’t really lend itself to be hanged on a wall hanger, it looks like some pieces melted off a Strat headstock, and the string trees are a neccesity but a horrible way to solve the break angle issue of a Tele. And then there is the tone, to my ears it was biting and piercing or dull, flat and flacid. I preferred the warm roar of a Les Paul with its singing leads and crunchy rhythm. But as they say, with age comes wisdom.
The awkward headstock started to grow on me, and the overall look of the 50s-style Telecaster with its blonde body with the chrome control plate and black pickguard started to gain some appeal. The only point of dislike that remained was the control cavity itself. It was always too shallow and narrow for my comfort. But I am of course used to Les Pauls with their huge control cavity. In other words: I was spoiled beyond belief.
But four years ago something strange (almost unthinkable) happened. Many players around me moved away from complicated systems. Their 19” racks made way for little combo amps or 2X12 cabs with 50 or 100 watt heads (sometimes even more than one head, but still less gear than a 19” rack!). MIDI units seemed to be abandoned en masse, and complicated wiring schematics were pulled out of guitars to make way for easier switching. Less possibilities but more useful options. This trend to move towards simpler guitar solutions also seemed to entail a revival of the Telecaster.
I know players who use one guitar for almost everything. They have that guitar for, literally, decades. Pickups were swapped several times. Tuners, nuts and pots were replaced if needed, but that guitar remained. So imagine my surprise when these guys decided to go the ‘Tele route’, as some of them called it! Not a Les Paul-version of Strat-ish version of the Tele, but really the old, vintage deal. Ash body, maple neck and fingerboard, a bridge with brass saddles, just two pots and a switch and two single coil pickups. Nothing more, maybe something less. And one year ago, the Tele-virus caught me too… I was terminally ill, and not even ‘more cowbell’ could cure me. I had to have a tele, and preferably as barebone and raw as possible.
With a little help of my friends, I made the decision to make a Tele myself, meaning getting parts and assembling the Tele. One of my closer friends had some parts laying around and he decided that he had no use for them and we traded gear. I got my hands on a Telecaster body and a neck to match. There was a lot of work to be done before I could play it. The headstock had to be recut, the bridge had to be positioned, drilled and attached to the body, the other hardware had to be fixed too, etc etc. Everything you’d expect when getting parts that are halfway done. But that’s the fun part of it!
So while I was waiting for my pickups to arrive, I was slowly making a Tele. But what kind of Tele? A solid rosewood body, for starters! Made of two pieces solid Indian rosewood, this body feels very, very heavy and when tapped, has an incredible ring to it, as if you’re tapping on a bell! I have two other guitars with rosewood in the body: one as a body back (paired with a single-piece purpleheart top) and one as a lovely top (paired on a purpleheart back), so I thought I knew what I was getting into. The neck was a nice chunky shaft of mahogany, topped with a rosewood fretboard. I choose mahogany over maple because I wanted to maintain that warm rosewood Telecaster vibe of the 60s but with a bit more edge to it. To me, a rosewood neck has softer highs and spongier lows than mahogany and I wanted to have a bit more snap than that, but not as much bite, presence and natural compression as maple. So, mahogany it was. I expected the final guitar to generate a lot of highs, so I chose a bridge that was made of a material that would attenuate some of the highs: aluminium. I started with 500k pots and took it from there. If it had too much brightness I could always make them 250k.
So, finally, after two weeks of tinkering and waiting, the pickups came! I had to made some adjustments to the pickup cavities: they were so deep and the pickup screws were so short, the pickups would be almost an inch below the strings: too low for my taste! I made some platters of mahogany to fill up the cavities, screwed in the pickups, soldered them in place, strung up the guitar and plugged the guitar in my favorite Marshall (of that moment), my modded-to-1959SLP specs-’74 Marshall Artiste. I expected a thin, screeching sound because of the strange combination, but I was completely taken by surprise. A clear yet warm roar welcomed the guitar to life. I didn’t expect huge amounts of sustain, and I was right in that aspect. To me, single coil guitars have by definition less sustain than a humbucker equiped Les Paul, but it wasn’t as bad as a Jaguar or Jazzmaster. But let’s not digress: what was the tone like?
The bridge pickup is a Seymour Duncan Vintage single coil. It’s wound to approximately 7k and has Alnico V slugs. This pickup is very clear and twangy with a sweet, vintage output. It’s not a voltage monster, nor should it be. This pickup is designed to sound and feel like vintage Telecaster pickups of yesteryear. This pickup has a very unique character, something I wasn’t familiar with when playing humbuckers. Clarity, incredible clarity. This pickup is really unforgiving. Moments of brilliance are rewarded with great tone and moments of neglegance are punished by a terrible tone. The placement of my picking hand is also crucial to the tone, much more so than with almost any other guitar I own. Using the tone knob won’t just make the sound warmer. It will change the way the pickup responds (more friendly and smooth) and also change the voicing of the pickup. It becomes more vocal, mellow… like a French horn.
The neck pickup is its perfect match. Also wound to approximately 7k (a bit less) with Alnico V poles, this pickup is tonally extremely well suited to be matched with the ’54 Telecaster vintage bridge. The neck pickup is clear, clean, lean, mellow. Those terms are what I get from this pickup. Even with high gain, every note in complex chords is audible. But it won’t get smooth and fat, it will always remain clear. Even with the tone pot backed down, this neck pickup will be clear. Always, clarity up front.
For the sake of argument, I put this set in another Telecaster I had lying around (borrowed from a friend). This one was much more historically correct: alder body, maple neck and rosewood board, like a 60s Tele. And I was amazed on how this set sounded so similar in both guitars! The highs are softer than the sound associated with a 50s-style Tele. Those guitars can be quite piercing and biting.
I am loving this set and guitar. It opened new musical doors I never knew I had or liked. Older rock, blues and even jazz go extremely well. This set is, in my opinion, not really well suited for high gain stuff. Not because you get uncontrolable feedback, but because the voicing just doesn’t work. You can always boost your gain with stomp boxes, but for high gain stuff you want more compression and more smoothness. You want to maintain the articulation but a bit less clarity for your leads and this set is, in my idea, a bit too clear for comfort. For those styles anyway!
Just take a look at the clip below to get a feeling on how awesome this pickup sounds!