When the Broadcaster was launched in 1949, I don’t think Leo Fender could have imagined such a bright future it. After several incarnations, declines in popularity and rises to fame, the Tele is almost 70 years old, yet it shows no metaphysical signs of aging! The sound of blues, rock, funk and even jazz was strongly shaped by the Tele. Often imitated, never duplicated, one might say. The Tele was very popular when it was released. So much so that the big guitar companies of the day started to develop their own solidbody guitar. Gibson’s Les Paul was one of those guitars, although it proved to be a completely different beast on its own. A fatter, more growly tone with more lows compared to the bright, shimmering highs with lots of twang of the Tele.
Teles and Les Pauls each have their own legions of fans, and a surprising amount of players play both guitars. It’s often not just one or the other, but both. I tried to get past the looks of the Tele for years. I simply couldn’t (and still can’t!) stand the look of a Tele. But that tone… Some Tele recordings sound so amazing, I really had to have one! A great one, too! But in my search I discovered that a great Tele – at least as I see it – is almost as hard to find as the Golden Fleece! A Tele is often too bright, jangly and piercing, or just dull and flat. I wanted a guitar with a huge midrange and lots of bite, but not the piercing icepick highs I associated with ‘cheaper’ guitars. It had to have a lot of push but not so much output, in order to retain clarity, versatility and diversity. The neck pickup had to have a super-clean, warm, lush tone without getting muddy or mushy or woofy in the low end. To put it another way: I wanted the tone of a Les Paul in a Tele shape but with less ‘oomph’ in the lows and more clarity in the highs.
At first I tried a Tele with an Alder body with a Maple neck and fretboard. To me, Alder has a soft attack and soft midrange but a tighter low end. Combined with the Tele pickups, this Alder Tele lacked the bite and crunch that I wanted. Maybe the neck was too thin? To my ears, a thinner neck lacks power, balls and oomph. So I tried a Tele with a thicker Maple neck with a Maple fingerboard, paired with an Alder body, to minimize the changing variables. This was better, much better! The low end improved drastically but the bite and crunch still was minimal. If it were a Strat I’d be drooling all over it, but I wanted just a bit more from a Tele.
Then, one rainy day in Amsterdam, I strolled into a guitar store and found the Tele of Teles. Old, hard Ash yet lightweight with a Maple neck so thick you could hit a homerun with it! The finish on the Maple was so worn it turned almost as brown as Rosewood. Only an untouched part of the headstock revealed the wood’s true identity. The tone was perfect for me.
This particular guitar was not for sale, unfortunately, but it did inspire me to try out other guitars with the same specs (except for the age!). The final result was the Tele I assembled a couple of months ago. But then I had to find proper pickups! The guitars I tried had vintage output pickups so that’s where I started my search, beginning with the Vintage ’54 Lead pickup. I love this pickup, I really do. It’s an amazing clean, clear pickup but it isn’t really raunchy. Due to the constraints I gave myself I continued my search in the field of ‘vintage’ voiced pickups rather than hotter pickups like stacks and rails.
After due deliberation I settled on the Jerry Donahue Tele Lead APTL-3JD. The reason behind the choice is the slightly boosted output compared to the ’54 Lead, as well as the boost in the mids but without any sacrifice of the bite, crunch and twang – and not to mention pricing. I was considering Antiquities but for what I had in mind I wanted something less expensive. The Donahue Lead is so good that I play that pickup on a fairly regular basis! Even though the Tele it found its place in is a true Tele in every sense of the word, I really enjoy the guitar. It’s not a humbucker, it’s not a Les Paul, and even then: it’s amazing.
I think that’s the true testimony of the awesomeness of that pickup. It converted a hardcore Les Paul player to the ‘gospel of the Tele’ and without any regrets whatsoever.
Since Donahue used an Alnico II Pro singlecoil in the neck position of his Tele I figured I might as well use that pickup, too. It was a direct hit. The smooth clarity of that pickup makes it excellent for chording. Kick in a booster pedal and you’ve got yourself a touch more compression making it ideal for fat, over the top leads. Of course, my path to single coil ‘salvation’ is not necessarily the true and only path. I just want to tell my story with hopes of inspiring others to dive into other styles of guitars and music. To me, the inspiration, fun and joy of trying out out new gear and new styles with those new guitars is something I almost forgot after having played the same style of guitar for years!