By Dave Eichenberger
In the beginning, there was the Esquire. Almost 70 years ago, the genesis of the Telecater started with its one-pickup father, which contained a single bridge pickup with a 3-way switch giving us a few sounds that couldn’t be found on the later Telecaster. Among those were position 1, which bypassed the tone control completely, and position 3, which sent the pickup through a capacitor and resistor array giving a very muted bass preset sound designed to approximate a bass*. A few months later, the two-pickup model was introduced. By the end of the year, this two-pickup model was renamed the Broadcaster, then eventually the Telecaster. Now, a Tele is known for a lot of great tones, but these are mostly associated with the bridge pickup. This article is about that other one: that shiny metal bar known as the rhythm pickup.
*This sounded nothing like a bass as we know it.
Why put it there in the first place?
Esquire players (or 1 pickup Tele players) are a rare breed. They can get lots of great sounds out of that lone bridge pickup. Jeff Beck’s famous Esquire (now owned by Seymour Duncan) can seemingly get a whole history of classic guitar sounds out of that one pickup. So why add another one? Well, Leo Fender thought it was a good idea to expand the tonal options of the basic Esquire, and since Fender had introduced a Precision Bass model, the bass end of things was covered. He also thought that this neck pickup’s warmer tone would be good for rhythms, while the stinging bridge pickup would cut through a big band. This new pickup was a shiny metal bar placed at the end of the neck, with the adjustment screws under the pickguard. It naturally had a bassier sound (the original wiring retained a different sort of bass preset wiring), but it eventually settled into the switching system we have today, with a normal neck/both/bridge switch featuring a master tone control.
No one uses this pickup, right?
Well, it isn’t quite as popular as a humbucker, or traditional Strat single coil. You don’t tend to see the Tele’s rhythm pickup crammed in too many Les Pauls, Strats, or shred sticks. In fact many people tend to replace them with either Strat pickups, humbuckers, mini-humbuckers, or P-90s. This of course can mean you’d have to at least replace your pickguard, if not route out a space for those larger replacements. See, the rhythm pickup’s sound was designed to be deep and bold, and traditionally wasn’t even able to be height adjustable without taking the pickguard off. This left a slightly out-of-balance sound that many players simply don’t like. As music tastes changed towards the hotter, more distorted sounds of the 1960s, that rhythm pickup just didn’t work for the music the same way it did throughout the 1950s. However, many blues and jazz players who loved the simple ergonomics of the Telecaster shape found the rhythm pickup perfect for chord-melody playing, as well as full, round blues soloing.
Flick that Switch and Use It!
Of course, the Telecaster generally considered the go-to country guitar. Country players have learned to mine the sounds of the bridge pickup as well as the bridge and neck pickups together. But a whole host of sounds is available from the neck pickup alone. It is perfect for the rhythm part of any country tune, especially when combined with a strummed acoustic guitar. It is great for short bluesy fills that stand out from the traditional country solos, and its unique vocal-sounding tone is perfect for long, emotional bends.
Seymour Duncan has been making Tele rhythm pickups for decades, from vintage reproductions to hum-cancelling versions. Traditionally, the EQ of a Tele rhythm pickup is skewed towards the bass frequencies, but these days you can get something like the Hot Rails Tele neck pickup, which has more output and mids, or even the Zephyr Tele Neck, which has a scooped middle and expanded highs.
While it is probably safe to say the Telecaster rhythm pickup sound is under-utilized in music of the past few decades, it is a unique sound that I’d love to hear more of out there. These days, there are many choices for Tele rhythm pickups, so we don’t have to avoid that pickup anymore.
Do you ever use the Tele rhythm pickup? Who is your favorite Tele player?