Sunday, August 23, 2020

Early Telecasters A Visual History

Along with software development, my other passion is for making music. There have been a few instruments I've specialized in over the years, but my far and away favorite at the moment is electric guitar, specifically a Fender Telecaster. For the past couple of years, I've been playing a 2015 American Standard. Here are a few pictures:

One of the things that amazes me about this instrument is the classic design which has undergone very few changes since this instrument was first introduced in 1950. As one of the very first mass produced electric guitars, the Telecaster continues to influence modern music as well as the design of electric guitars. Most electric guitar makers sell a "T" style guitar in their lineup.

Lets look back at a brief visual history of the first decade of the Telecaster family of guitars.


Beginning in 1950, the Fender Electric Instrument Manufacturing Company began selling a couple of styles of electric guitar. First, the single pickup Esquire, followed shortly by the two pickup Broadcaster.


One of the surprising details to me about this guitar, is the presence of a three-way selector switch. In most electric guitars, the selector switch activates different combinations of the pickups in the guitar. Most single pickup guitars omit a selector switch (see for example, the Gibson Les Paul Junior). So what is a selector switch doing on a single pickup guitar?

In the wiring for an Esquire, the middle position matches what most would consider a normal setup for a single pickup guitar with two knobs. In this position, the volume and tone knobs control the output from the pickups. When the switch is up towards the neck of the guitar, an additional capacitor is in the output chain in place of the tone knob. This cuts out many of the high frequencies in the output and produces a somewhat muddy sound more reminiscent of a bass guitar. This video has a great demonstration of the Esquire tones. A demonstration of the tones begins around 3:27 in the video. This circuit position in particular is not typically found on a modern electric guitar, pretty unique! The final position, down towards the bridge is a circuit that bypasses the tone control entirely and is the least filtered of the circuit options. Only the volume control is changing the output, so you get the widest possible set of frequencies. There are a few guitars out there today that dispense with a tone control. One example is the Jim Root Telecaster, however it is a very different beast than the 1950 Fender Esquire.

And now for the look:

While the single pickup guitar was the first to be widely available, from the beginning, Fender had planned to produce a two pickup guitar. In fact, these early Esquire guitars reportedly had a cutout for the neck pickup ready to go but hidden away under the pickguard. And that brings us to the next guitar available in 1950: the Broadcaster.

With it's two pickups mounted on a solid ash body, this is very recognizably the first example of what is today the Telecaster. Originally named the Broadcaster, it would soon have to be renamed due to a trademark dispute. Few guitars carry the Broadcaster name.

While the Broadcaster has the recognizable two pickup configuration, two knobs, and a three way selector, the wiring is very different from what would later become what is now considered normal Telecaster wiring. In these early models, the three selector switch toggled between the following settings. (Note, more details on this original Broadcaster wiring can be found here.) Here's what the different positions in a Broadcaster switch do:

The position with the switch down towards the bridge includes the output of the bridge pickup, with no tone adjustment similar to this setting in the Esquire. However, rather than ignore the tone know, in this position, the "tone" knob is a "blend" control which adds in the output from the neck pickup. Turned one way, the neck pickup is all the way in, the other way it's all the way out. Next, the middle position includes the full output of only the neck pickup (no tone modification). The final position, up towards the neck, includes only the neck pickup with a capacitor that filters out the high frequencies. I found it fascinating that in the original Broadcaster wiring, there's no variable tone control, just pickup selection with one option being a fixed tone cut. The closest-to-bridge switch position is most similar to the middle position in modern Telecasters. Although, in a modern telecaster, there's a constant balance of output between the picksups when both are active.

A good example of the tones that come from this wiring can be found in this video. Although this isn't an original Broadcaster, it demonstrates the different behaviors of this pickup switch. Here's another example. For a video showcasing an actual 1950 Broadcaster, check out this video from Norman's Rare Guitars.


Over the course of 1951, the Broadcaster would be renamed to the Telecaster. Aside from the name change, the guitars' design was essentially unchanged.

In early 1951, Fender continued making Broadcaster guitars. However, the Gretsch company notified Fender that the Broadcaster name on their guitar conflicted with their trademarked Gretsch Broadkaster drum set. It doesn't sound like the two companies went to court over the name. I wonder how it would have gone had Fender decided not to change the name. Gretsch also produced electric guitars at the time, and continues to make and sell them today. In 1951, none of the Gretsch guitars were named Broadcaster, though they do today sell a Broadkaster Guitar.


Following the notice from Gretsch guitars, Fender began producing their formerly-known-as-Broadcaster guitars with no model name on the decal. The headstock of the guitar was labelled only with the name Fender, hence guitars produced in their period are dubbed "Nocaster" guitars. Aside from the name change on the headstock, the Nocaster is visually similar to the Broadcaster that came before it. The body is painted a translucent Butterscotch Blond with a single-ply black pickguard:

These Nocaster guitars are quite rare as they were produced for only a partial year. By year's end, these guitars bore their new and final name.


In late 1951, the guitar received the name that it is known by today: the Telecaster. Other than the new name on the headstock, these guitars were identical to those produced earlier in the year.

While these guitars now bear their modern name, the wiring of the pickups is significantly different than what they carry today. Modern style pickup wiring was introduced in the late 1952.


Fender continued to produce Esquires as well in 1951. In addition to the "Butterscotch Blond" color, the Esquire was also available in a "Blond" color which was a translucent white. The finish on these guitars tend to yellow significantly as they age, so most old guitars have a noticable yellow tint to them. Here are a few pictures:

Few other instruments have been in continuous manufacture as the humble Telecaster and it still plays a major role in modern music. Here's to the next 70 years.

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